Amanda Williams

Ph.D. Information and Computer Science, 2009

Why did you choose this degree?

I’ve been interested in Human Computer Interaction, and working professionally in user experience design, since I was about 19. At that time, I had no plans to go to graduate school. My first job out of college was with a group that worked to turn research projects into products or licensing opportunities, so I worked with researchers quite a bit. The open-ended questions that they were examining looked like a lot of fun to work on, and hanging around a lot of people with PhDs made the whole achievement seem a lot more accessible. I became extremely interested in tangible and social interaction, and started applying to programs that would allow me to work in that area. Some friends, noting my interest, recommended “Where the Action Is” to me, which put Paul Dourish and UCI on my radar. After a few email exchanges and one interview with Paul, UCI became my top choice.

What has been your career path since graduating with a Ph.D.?

I may have had a rather atypical career path. A lot of people apply for academic or industrial research jobs and move to where their job takes them after graduate school. I decided to move to Montréal for personal reasons, and then look for jobs here. I did a postdoc at a game design and game studies lab at Concordia University, where I built some wearable proximity-sensing game controllers and designed a game to go with it. After that, my partner (also a UCI graduate) and I started a design studio, where we did a huge variety of things: user experience design, qualitative user studies, gamey-interactive museum exhibits, and hardware prototypes. We designed, crowdfunded, and manufactured a jelly-fish shaped, Arduino-compatible, open source smart lamp with auto-detectable sensor modules, which had us living in Shenzhen, China for about a year. Now we have a startup building collaborative software to help entrepreneurs work more easily with manufacturers.

What do you enjoy most about your current position?

It’s never boring. And I don’t have a boss, at least not in the conventional sense. Of course I’m accountable to my customers and shareholders, but I’m in a position where my decisions count for something and I get to make stuff that really matters to me.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

There’s no such thing as a typical work day for me, which is one thing I really like about my job. This week I’m doing the following: wireframing the user interface for our manufacturing software, helping our intern tweak association rules for what types of electronic components get used together often, comparing quotes for a small manufacturing run of an MP3-playing circuit board, researching what our customer lifetime value is likely to be over the next year or so, helping a couple other entrepreneurs plan their crowdfunding campaigns, negotiating partnerships between our company and other electronics suppliers, designing a t-shirt, interviewing candidates for a PHP development job, and preparing for my next trip to Shenzhen.

What was the best part of your experience at UCI?

The culture of my department, and my committee and research group in particular, was super supportive. I always felt like I had the freedom to pursue projects that interested me. Anywhere you might go to graduate school will be full of smart people, that’s a given. But are they so smart they make you feel stupid every time you talk to them… or are they so smart they make you feel smarter every time you talk to them? UCI is full of the latter type of smart person.

In what way(s) did your studies prepare you for your career to date?

Transitioning from academia to startup-land requires you to unlearn some things. I had to make some changes to how I write and do presentations, use less jargon, try to be concise (but not over-simple) and catchy. But despite these cosmetic changes, the foundational skills that you learn in a graduate program in ICS – how to do research, how to do iterative prototyping, how to ask the right questions and think critically about the answers you’re getting – those skills have enabled me to run a business and build exactly the sort of things that I love building.

What would be your advice to incoming students who might want to follow a similar career path?

You should be versatile, addicted to learning new things, willing to take (calculated) risks, and not afraid to work your ass off.


“The culture of my department, and my committee and research group in particular, was super supportive.”