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Profile: Debbie Levitt, CEO of Ptype UX & Product Design Agency

Diversity talk: “It often takes the people who have the privilege or are not oppressed to speak up”

Gabriela Motroc
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Debbie Levitt, CEO of Ptype UX & Product Design Agency.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Debbie Levitt, CEO of Ptype UX & Product Design Agency.

Debbie Levitt, CEO of Ptype UX & Product Design Agency

Debbie Levitt, CEO of Ptype UX & Product Design Agency, has been a UX strategist, designer, and trainer since the 1990s. As a “serial contractor” who lived in the Bay Area for most of this decade, Debbie has influenced interfaces at Sony, Wells Fargo, Constant Contact, Macys.com, Oracle, and a variety of Silicon Valley startups. Clients have given her the nickname, “Mary Poppins,” because she flies in, improves everything she can, sings a few songs, and flies away to her next adventure.

Debbie is a speaker and trainer who has presented at conferences including eBay’s Developer Conference, PayPal’s Developer Conference, UXPA, and WeAreDevelopers. She is an O’Reilly published author and one of few instructors on the planet recommended by Axure. Her newest training program is DevOps ICU, which teaches non-UX roles how to measurably improve DevOps results by correctly integrating UX practitioners and processes.

What got you interested in technology?

I was “that kid.” I showed interest in math and science early on and was lucky to grow up in an extended family that supported that. My parents were a math teacher and an attorney, and most of the rest of the family were attorneys who rewarded deductive reasoning and good arguments!

Early on, I had a chemistry set and I had an electrical wiring kit that taught you about circuits. I wasn’t taking toasters apart or building my own computers, but I was a math and science kid.

Things really went in a new direction in 1979, when I was in second grade (age 7). A local college, SUNY Farmingdale (New York, USA), offered a class for second graders to learn to program some BASIC. We think we’re groundbreaking now trying to get kids to learn code, but this was 1979! They put us in front of Commodore PET computers that had no hard drive but used a cassette tape machine. I had lots of tapes of screeching fax machine sounds of games we played and things we tried to build.

And that was it, I was in love with computers. Our family got our first computer, an Apple IIc, in 1985. I had Macs for many years and switched to Windows around 1996, never looking back. I’m that rare person who loves Windows and Android!

First, I should say I’ve never been an obstacle person. I am a problem solver and I never see obstacles for too long. I also don’t let things get me down for too long. My father remembers taking me to a contest when I was 12 for kids to do baseball things… how fast can you run, how fast can you pitch, how hard can you hit. He was horrified when he saw that the competition just grouped kids by age; all 12- to 14-year-old boys and girls competing against each other. The boys looked huge and I was a tiny thing. He was sure that was unfair and told me he would complain to the people running the event. He tells me that I told him not to worry, I will do the best I can for myself and don’t care how others did. My nature is low competition, find ways to get around or remove obstacles, and reframe things at the very least!

In 1995, I was out of university with a BA in Music and working in the music business in New York City. A college friend called to tell me I had to check out this thing, “the web,” and here’s a program I can get to write, “web pages.” I stayed up for a week teaching myself HTML, ended up quitting the music biz, and started a web design company. I was the concept and consulting person at my own web design company since I have very little natural art talent. I hired someone else to do art and programming.

I moved more formally into UX in 2008. Before that, I was doing UX things without knowing about formalized UX. It was wild to later learn that all these things I’m doing have names, theories, and processes behind them!

Role models

My #1 positive influence was always my Grandma Lee. She was just everything to me. Always supportive, always fun, truly a mother figure. When I quit the music business, I moved in with her, which worked for both of us since Grandpa had just passed away and she was alone (but not for long). Somewhere I have a picture of her in a hat I had embroidered for her in the 1990s… company logo on the front, “grandma/investor” on the back. :)

Grandma had been a legal secretary pretty much her whole life. She was a hard worker, fast typist, great on the phone, and tough cookie in spots. But always diplomatic. I wanted to be so much like her.

I didn’t like my other grandmother as she wasn’t a kind person. But she was an amazing businesswoman. She made more money than her husband in a time when women didn’t work. She used to tell me to always make sure I kept my own bank account so that if I wanted to buy a nice dress, I wouldn’t have to ask my husband for money.

I call my UX Agency, “Ptype,” short for prototype since we build so many UX prototypes, but its legal name is, “Brass Flowers Inc,” in the USA. This is a tribute to both of my grandmothers who had flower names (Lillian and Rose) and brass you-know-whats!

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

I had to think about this one… I would have to say that oddly enough, my mother wasn’t terribly supportive of my web design business. I remember her telling me to close my business and go get a job for $75K/yr because that would be a good salary.

I can’t think of anybody who tried to stop me from learning and advancing. Perhaps someone tried and I ignored them or wrote them off as, “Superimposing their issues onto me.”

There was one guy I saw a few times at local trade shows who always treated me like I’d never get anywhere in websites because that’s a man’s business and he’ll recommend some books I can read about glass ceilings. He never told me the titles and I never pursued books on the topic.

The last time I saw him, he said his usual crap, and after he was done, I pointed at my trade show wall of logos of some very nationally-famous clients I had picked up since I last saw him. I said, “If I’ll never get anywhere, how did I get these clients?” I never saw him again.

A day in Debbie’s life

I own and run my own UX agency. Some of my day goes to actual UX work for clients. Analysis reports, user research, information architecture, interaction design including wireframes and prototyping, user testing, etc.

Some of my day goes to being involved on LinkedIn to get my messages out, connect with people, and see what’s on people’s minds. I don’t use other social media other than some Instagram (follow my dogs at @canettiperfetti !!!).

Most of my work is freelance so it’s hard to say what a day looks like. It’s long. I’m trying to work some European and USA hours. It’s fun. I find my work very rewarding. It’s varied. I might be writing a presentation I’ll be giving at a conference. I might be having video calls with new or potential clients. I might be in the project management system trying to push things forward and keep the team and clients on track. I might be taking a break and having some dog playtime.

I always say, “Every day is the same to the self-employed.” My days are fairly fluid when I’m not freelancing or contracting for a company that requires me online at certain hours. We might go food shopping in the middle of the day but then I’ll work past dinner time. Sometimes I give myself most of a Friday off knowing I’ll be working over the weekend. I buy internet packages on cruise vacations. I kinda don’t stop but it’s more because I love it than I “have to.”

There are many levels of the pride I have in my career! First of all, I’m proud that I’ve been able to do what I’ve been doing for this long and this happily! I’m in my 24th year.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done and the juniors I’ve mentored. I’m proud of the teaching and corporate training I do to help other people level up in UX and with Axure software. My new training program is DevOps ICU, where I’m trying to train non-UX roles on how to better collaborate with UX specialists… that’s going wildly wrong at so many companies! I’m always trying to create change for as many people as possible. But I was “that kid” too.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

I believe that many people and cultures are still stuck in what their society says are traditional gender roles. Here are a few stories off the top of my head.

I recently moved to Italy and had to take a governmental “Civic Life” class. One of the lessons was about how here in Italy, women can vote, women have rights, women can work, and please make sure you send children of both genders to school. And I took that class in 2018! So even Italy knows its immigrants might be coming from places that devalue women.

One of my favorite places is Disney World in Florida. I was once in a gift shop looking at Mickey Mouse ear hats. So was a toddler with her mom and grandma. She was so young she had no language yet. Mom told her to pick any ear hat she liked. Well, she couldn’t reach that high, but she saw Buzz Lightyear (from Toy Story) and grabbed that one. Mom took it out of her hands, put it back, and told her, “That one is for boys.” They tried to give her a pink hat. The toddler reached for one that was Woody from Toy Story. They told her no, that’s for boys, how about this pink one. I said nothing at the time but regret saying nothing. Next time, I’m going to say something to a family like that.

We all replay our childhood messages in our head until we stop, and some never stop. If you grew up hearing, “You can’t do that, you’re a girl,” or, “Girls are bad at math and science,” or the like, you will hear that in your head until you do enough work on yourself to stop hearing it. These are awful messages that live on way too long.

Not everybody is going to be great at tech, science, or math, but that has nothing to do with gender. We are just starting to know now about all of the great chemists, mathematicians, scientists, inventors, and computer pioneers who were women but men took the credit for their work. Things like that have kept girls from having inspirations and role models. Plus, if I knew I was going to do a job but a man would get the credit, then maybe I should just not bother and go be a librarian. Not that everybody is motivated by awards or credit, but watching someone else get the glory is a huge demotivator.

Already seeing results

In my lifetime, women burned their bras and got jobs other than librarian, teacher, and nurse. They became heads of countries. They’re getting the Nobel Prize. They’re founding companies, inventing amazing tech, and getting more and more positive attention. They’re just starting to show up in CEO roles at international companies.

It starts by speaking up. And it often takes the people who have the privilege or are not oppressed to speak up. It took American men to vote for women to have the right to vote. Groups that struggle with equality or having their voices heard need allies who are fighting for them.

When I apply to speak at conferences, many forms now have a field asking if I am from an “under represented group.” I’ve been answering, “If women are under represented at your event, then yes. If not, then no.” But that wasn’t on forms a couple of years ago. Having more than male and female options for gender wasn’t on forms a couple of years ago. I believe we’re evolving!

The newer conversation is that diversity is about so much more than men vs women. It’s about ethnicity, political beliefs, religions, genders, LGBTQ, socio-economic background, and the differently-abled. In more than half the America states, you can legally be fired if your boss finds out you’re gay. I think we’re coming farther with women’s issues, but still behind in many places on those, and way behind in most of the world with LGBTQ and employing/not underestimating the differently-abled.

We are seeing more companies hire Diversity Officers, though I hope we are headed for a future where diversity is naturally happening at companies rather than needing someone to message and shepherd it.

I’m also pushing for diversity of geographic location. The more companies can unchain themselves from thinking everybody must come into the office, the more they will hire the best talent no matter where those people live. That can open jobs up to people who are in rural areas or can’t/won’t move for the job they really want.

How long will it take to see results? I believe that depends on who rises to power in countries, especially in a world where we are increasingly aware that elections are being hacked, swayed, and the propaganda machines are more active than possibly ever in history. If we have leaders and administrations who lack empathy and want to impose roles, religions, and definitions on people, it’ll be harder for diversity to gain momentum.

Women in STEM

I see it this way. When you give people the jobs that fit them best, that sing from their hearts, that play to their strengths, you have happier people. Happier people doing a better job. The women who can go out and follow their career dreams are influencing so many people around them. A woman who knows in her heart she’s a scientist shouldn’t be stuck in a society that limits what she can do with her life or in her job.

When I grew up, my mother told me that when she was growing up (she graduated high school in 1964) she felt like she had limited career options: nurse, librarian, secretary, or teacher. She became a teacher. She didn’t want that for me. She wanted me to believe I could be anything.

The rural Italian village where I’m living is watching its first generations of people leave the village. You wouldn’t have done that much in the past. You stayed here, you took over whatever job or business your family did. Dad was the baker, you are the baker. Now the younger people are learning English and dreaming of big cities and big jobs.

They say these beautiful rural villages are in danger of dying out. That’s part of why I hope that the tide will turn towards more remote tech work. I can work anywhere there is electricity and a decent flow of internet. Hopefully, more people will choose a simple, rural life surrounded by family, community, and tradition, but be able to do a tech job that may be headquartered elsewhere.

Obstacles for women in tech

The women facing those challenges are more qualified than I am to name them. For whatever magical reason, I have faced few challenges. That’s a privilege. I’m definitely privileged to have had the experiences I’ve had.

But I also feel like it’s my personality. The times when people did try to put me down, I blew it off. I didn’t make it part of my fabric. I didn’t make it a reason to not believe in myself.

Tips & tricks

There should be nothing stopping you. And most importantly, don’t believe that you can only get somewhere in tech if you buy this book about empowered women or attend this conference about finding your power. I sometimes can’t help but wonder if girls and women are accidentally reinforcing the, “You are being held back,” message with all of these things that say, “You are being held back.”

I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies. Yes, some people are born in and living in areas that will not support them or their intelligence because of their gender. But for those who have disconnected from those locations, there is less and less (or nothing) holding you back.

Your power is inside of you. People may have stepped on it or tried to block it, but try seeing that as temporary and mostly if not wholly in the past. I go through life believing my power is mine and nobody can diminish it. My experiences tend to match that belief. You might find power in solitude and you might find it by joining groups.

Pick what works for you and reclaim your power without spending money on someone’s book, conference, retreat, etc. If those things work for you, OK spend your money, but I believe that you can increase or regain your sense of personal power just by reframing things around you and staying confident. You know what you can do.

Learn the power of, “No.” No, I don’t accept a salary that low. No, I don’t do that kind of work. No, I don’t make the coffee here. No, my name goes on that project. No, you’re not the right client for our company and approach.

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Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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