The Story of My Life as a Banker.
|Good girls, working in the banks. Bad girls, blowing up the tanks.|
-Pussy Riot "Bad Girls"
I really, really didn't want to work for a bank. I really, really love working for a bank.
It wasn't what I planned for my life. I expected to teach writing and literature, to travel, to write in the summers. The life I envisioned for myself was a lot more bohemian than my reality. But finding a full-time teaching gig at a college, even the community college level, was difficult. I spent years teaching at one school in the morning, piecing together a few freelance projects throughout the day, and teaching at another school at night - creating a patchwork career that mostly paid the bills, but didn't provide for any extra (or essentials like health insurance). Those years did provide me with enough experience that I had a pretty solid portfolio of professional writing credits and had learned enough to talk shop in an interview about writing for the web.
After a local newspaper I'd been writing for folded, I frantically searched Craigslist ads for any writing work I could find to fill in that financial gap. I saw an interesting post for a full time job for a writer, and eventually landed my first official content strategy role at Lowes.com. While I had only begun to hear the term "content strategy," I realized it was something I'd been doing intuitively for years. Understanding the audience - caring for the flow and hierarchy of information - making sure every experience told a coherent story - those were the pillars of my practice as a writer, so I grokked my new role.
I grew up working class, and while my parents provided me with everything I needed and more than a few things I wanted, there was no trust fund waiting for me when I reached adulthood. My mother would always find a way to bail me out if I was in a real bind, and my dad would slip me a $100 bill or make sure my tank was full of gas before I left from a visit - but the debt I'd acquired getting the education that qualified me to do the work I was doing was expensive. And once I had my daughters and was raising them as a single mom, I had to ensure that I had healthcare for all of us, an emergency fund, a house in a neighborhood with good schools, childcare, and all the trappings of suburban motherhood that I felt my little girls deserved.
I'd never expected to like the corporate lifestyle, but working among professional creatives was more fun than I could have imagined. I had freedom and respect I never experienced in academia or as a freelance creative - which is wild. These are the kinds of careers you pursue when you value independence, professional respect, and creative freedom, but at least in my experience, I'd felt like an underpaid lackey who cleaned up around the edges of others. Another thing I had was money and benefits. I appreciated the comfort and stability they provided, which I'd lacked for so long. I began to dig myself out of my debts, to make improvements to my home to get it ready to sell when the girls were ready for kindergarten, so I could relocate to somewhere with better schools.
After a few years, some of my colleagues at Lowe's had left to go work for banks, and I was curious about why. Finance seemed dreadfully boring at best, and potentially evil at worst. I'd already been surprised, though, by how different life in a corporate compound could be from what I'd pictured, so i tried to have an open mind about what a life in finance might be like.
Several of the smartest folks I worked with at Lowe's landed at Ally, so I did some research and focused my energies on what was going on there. After a few months of interviewing and waiting for the right role to be available, a creative director at Ally reached out to me about a role documenting the prototype for a full redesign of the online banking experience. It was quite different from anything I'd ever done before, but I was intrigued to learn something new.
In that role, I worked closely with an information architect, a content strategist, and several visual designers to document all the user experience strategy while we were creating our assets. I learned so much from working closely with these people, and I count this experience as the time when I became a UX generalist - more than just a writer or content subject matter expert. I learned everything there was to know about all the nooks and crannies of Ally's authenticated experience, and when the contract ended for the content strategist who had been hired for the redesign, it was an easy transition for me to take over her role.
One of the things that made me more comfortable working in finance was the lack of the evil sides of banking. At the highest levels of leadership, I see ethical people working to make excellent experiences that make real differences in the lives of our customers. Ally is somewhat untraditional as an online-only bank - and I'm sure someone could tell me lots of things about how the very nature of working in finance is supporting an infrastructure of oppression - but I didn't see practices that were exploitative or unethical. Doing things the right way, improving our customers' experiences, and making sure every experience was simple, clear, and elegant were the goals of the executives reviewing our work. I don't know if the money and benefits would have been too hard to walk away from had I seen unethical behavior, but I never felt like I had to compromise my values to keep doing my work.
I also love making real things that people use. The experiences I get to create are essential to helping people get through their daily lives, save for the future, and achieve their goals. It's exciting to think of ways to help people grow their money, and I like that the work we do to clarify finance and eliminate frustration makes people's lives a little easier. I like that the work we're doing is serious for people, too, and I try to handle the intimacy of finance with the respect it deserves.
And when we started building an accessibility practice within our user experience team, it opened a whole new world up of what it means to help people with their finances. Making it possible for a person who is visually impaired to manage their money without having to go to a bank opens up possibilities for those people. Making it easier to pay your bills, to save for emergencies, to create a budget or make good financial choices - those contributions really can lighten the load for someone whose world is more complicated because of a disability.
I always wanted to make a difference in the world, and I was afraid that I couldn't support my family on my own while doing it. I think, though, that in meaningful ways, I've found my niche.