If anyone showed up for Krys Blackwood’s presentation to hear about her success story, she had some very bad news for them…
“This is a story of how I royally [messed] up,” she stated bluntly, right after taking the stage at the Future, Innovation, Technology and Creativity (FITC) conference in Toronto. “But it’s okay,” she cheerily reassured the audience. “There’s a happy ending.”
Spoiler alert: the happy ending is that today, Blackwood works at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Yep, NASA. To be specific, she’s the Senior Lead User Experience (UX) Designer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), helping design everything from robots to mission control rooms.
Yet the road she took to get there was improbable and imperfect. Here’s how she did it and what she learned along the way.
Lesson #1: Not all your goals are good ones, so be careful what you wish for.
“I was a total nerd. Socially awkward. I loved science fiction,” Blackwood recalled of her childhood self.
When her family moved to Reno, Nevada, however, Blackwood lost her identity. Instead of revelling in her own nerdiness, she decided to become one of ‘the popular girls.’
“I took the opportunity to reinvent myself. It kind of worked. People wanted to hang out with me. But it was a failure because I turned away from all the things that made me unique. There were years in there where I didn’t read a single book.”
Just how far did she turn away from the true Krys? “I dropped out of high school. It’s probably the biggest mistake I ever made in my life,” she said.
“But thank goodness,” she added, “along came a good guy.”
Lesson #2: Everyone you meet changes you.
That good guy (he’ll reappear here later) was a mime who introduced her to a magician. Blackwood ended up working as the magician’s assistant, a gig that provided her earliest introduction to basic principles of design and performance.
That same good guy mime also introduced Blackwood to martial arts. This is where she learned how to defend herself, constantly assess her next move and trust others by giving them the benefit of the doubt.
“It’s just as important to work on the human being you are as it is to become a badass who can punch people,” she remembered of her time studying martial arts. “There’s just as much education (from martial arts) in how to heal yourself and others as there is in how to potentially hurt others.”
Lesson #3: Embrace the ‘fail fast’ approach to learn quickly and move on.
“Then I found myself pregnant at 19,” Blackwood recounted. “I did not want to be a single mother with no college education who really didn’t have her act together, didn’t have a career and didn’t know what she wanted to do.”
Necessity propelled her forward — in this case, the need to provide for her daughter, Kayla. “For her, I decided to get a ‘real’ job,” Blackwood said.
So she sucked it up (literally) and sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. When a buddy suggested Blackwood should seek work in the tech sector, she applied for a job doing phone-based tech support (including answering cranky customer complaints) for IBM.
Blackwood got hired. Since IBM interviewed her for the position via online chat, and she did the job over the phone, they never realized she was pregnant — and she never told them.
Starting a new job in a field she knew nothing about while also raising a brand new baby was challenging. “Seven days after my daughter was born, I went back to work because that’s what you do when you’re a single mom,” she says.
Blackwood rediscovered her nerd roots through a friend called Aaron. “He taught me HTML and that straight up changed my life,” she said. Aaron also convinced her to quit IBM and work at his website design company, which she did.
“But while I was designing websites, I realized that I wanted to make things that do stuff,” Blackwood recalled. “So I got fascinated with usability and started reading everything I could.”
“I had to create an informal education because 20 years ago, there were no UX undergrad programs. So a lot of it [entailed] being at the feet of great mentors and learning fast on my own feet.”
Lesson #4: Health and safety are more important than work.
Wanting to do more than website design, Blackwood took a tech job in Silicon Valley, where the dotcom dream was sometimes a nightmare for the single working mom.
“It was 18-hour days, seven days a week. I would literally leave work to pick up my daughter [from daycare] and set her up on a couch in the office by my desk. Eventually, she’d fall asleep there. When I was finally done working at 3 a.m., I’d take her home.”
And then the dot-com bubble burst. Laid off by her tech firm, Blackwood found herself competing for minimum wage jobs in the pricey San Francisco Bay area with thousands of other overqualified people.
“I applied for jobs at Starbucks and they were like, ‘no, we’ve got a doctor who’s applied, we’re gonna give it to him instead,’ ” she said.
Unemployment benefits weren’t enough to survive on, so Blackwood started doing massage therapy, a skill she had learned at her martial arts temple.
“I will heal people and it will be beautiful,” she thought at the time. “But in one week, three of my massage clients sexually assaulted me. And I went out to my car and cried.” For Blackwood, massage didn’t turn out to be a completely safe work situation.
Fortunately, a job came up at Cisco. Just as she was getting back on her feet there, the unthinkable happened at home…
Lesson #5: No matter what happens to you, you can recover from it.
Her daughter had a stroke, paralyzing the little girl on the left side of her body. Kayla eventually recovered physically but “did not have the same personality as before,” her mother explained. “We had to figure out how she could live in the world as a neuro-diverse kid. Kayla worked her butt off to get back from that stroke.”
That unexpected rainfall soon became a torrential downpour. Blackwood’s father was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He moved in with her so she could care for him during his final days.
“It changed me,” she said. “I decided I never wanted to work again in a way that doesn’t benefit mankind. There’s a whole world out there that needs that kind of love.”
Lesson #6: As long as you don’t give up, you’re fine.
Seeking work that suited her newfound idealism, Blackwood took a position at a web portal that provides housing and home care information for senior citizens.
The web portal’s altruism didn’t translate into profits, however, so the company changed its business model. “I [then] got asked to do things I wasn’t comfortable with,” she said.
She left that site to work in the emerging e-health sector, helping people navigate the U.S. health insurance system online. That’s where she met Guy, a co-worker who left the e-health field to work at NASA. He’s the one who told her NASA was looking for a UX designer. After one tour of NASA’s JPL and three months of interviews, Blackwood got the job.
“NASA knows I don’t have a degree!” she marvelled. “I play a game called ‘How Many PhDs Can I Meet Within One Day’. My record was 23 in a day. So of course, there’s the imposter syndrome. But there’s also me going, ‘I’m gonna work my butt off, I’m gonna make them not regret it.’”
“You’re there,” Blackwood told the audience, and we realize she’s also telling herself the same thing. “They gave you the job, so obviously they see something in you. So screw up and keep going and you’ll get somewhere. Maybe not where you intended, but you’re gonna get somewhere.”
Where exactly is the high school dropout now? She’s still at NASA but also back in school. Blackwood and her 21-year-old daughter are both studying for a psychology degree, at the same time, at the same institution.
“And every single day I go to work at NASA, I think about how this all started by meeting some random guy who was a mime in Reno, Nevada.”