How A Traveling Troubadour Became A UX Designer


mary brooks kerrville

Performing at the the 1984 Kerrville Folk Festival under my maiden name, Mary Brooks.


If you’re a career changer looking to become a UX designer, my story should resonate with you. People come to digital design jobs from all walks of life. Even music.

I was a professional musician for 12 years before starting my web design career in 1996. Even though the modern interwebs didn’t exist yet, I believe my UX design roots originated during my traveling troubadour days in the 80’s.

A Lifetime Of Music

I started playing guitar when I was three – before I learned how to read. I remember asking my dad if the little dots on the fretboard were “buttons” I was supposed to push.

They weren’t, and thankfully my parents signed me up for guitar lessons when I was in kindergarten.

Music was and still is an integral part of my life. It’s probably where my love of patterns and puzzles began. Music helped me learn to focus and pay close attention to the tiniest details at a very young age.

I had no idea it would open the door to a wonderful career path much later in life. Think about all the things you’ve done since you were a kid. What skills did you learn? How can they serve you now?

Getting Serious About Songwriting

I started writing songs in elementary school but got serious about it in college. It was an amazing creative outlet and the only thing I wanted to do. Wherever I went, my guitar and a pen seemed surgically attached to my hands.

Sitting outside my dorm room playing my guitar was also a great way to meet people. I was relatively shy and music made it easy to break the ice.

Going Pro

In 1982 I got my first paid music gig as a freshman at Trinity University. All I had to do was play and sing my favorite songs for three hours to make $75! That was big money back then, so I practiced for weeks after classes to get ready.

Over the next two years I honed my stage act in between classes and started opening for regional bands. In 1984 I made the semi-finals of the Kerrville Folk Festival songwriting contest.

My parents were over 2000 miles away in Connecticut and had no idea this was how I spent most of my time. They thought I was busy studying journalism, marketing and advertising. I did that too, but music dominated everything.

What About Getting A Job?

I broke the news to them gently at graduation. I hadn’t even considered getting a “real” job. The economy wasn’t very good in 1986 so I didn’t think my job prospects were all that great anyway. I wanted a music career instead.

After spending the summer at home in Connecticut it was time for a change. My best friend was a year older and had a “real” job in Aspen, Colorado.

Flipping A Coin and Heading West

In late August my friend called to see if I was interested in becoming her roommate. I flipped a coin, it was heads, and off I went. I took a minimum wage job at a local ski shop to make ends meet and introduced myself to the local music scene at night.

little blue pickup

A few months before moving to Colorado in 1986.

It turned out to be a great decision. My friend’s brother was starting a home recording studio outside of Denver and wanted a new project.

I wanted to eventually go on the road and perform at colleges, but needed an album to book gigs. Lots of small independent record labels started popping up during this time, so I decided to go for it.

Designing My First Product

For 4 months I drove to Denver every weekend and recorded a number of songs I wrote in college. I had received a lot of positive feedback on them and thought other people might also enjoy them. By spring of 1987 my album was finished and ready for release.

I was about to use all the marketing skills I’d learned in college but didn’t realize it at the time.

First I had to put the final product together. This required setting up a photo shoot, make-up artist, copywriting, design and manufacturing.


My first product. Complete with cheesy title and big hair.

It was so exciting when that first box of 250 cassettes was ready for pickup (yes, cassettes). Now I had to sell them.

They were released just in time for a Spring concert back at Trinity. I needed the power of a deadline to get me to the finish line, so I booked a concert in late April with a friendly audience in San Antonio.

Talking To Customers

Next it was time to see if I could sell my show to total strangers. I created a 9×12 press kit with a glossy folder that included a bio, headshot, and set list and started calling hundreds of colleges.

This resulted in dozens of conversations with potential buyers. It was an excellent education in learning what my customers wanted. And it was way before cell phones and the internet, so my monthly phone bills were in the hundreds of dollars!

Taking My Show On The Road

For the next 7 years I performed over 150 solo concerts at colleges throughout the continental US and sold 3,000 copies of those little cassettes. It was an amazing way to see the country and meet all sorts of interesting people.

But it wasn’t always fun. At about 50,000 miles per year I eventually wore out my little blue pickup truck. I traded it in for a brand new minivan and a hefty car payment in 1988.

By 1993 I was newly engaged and tired of all the traveling. Each gig became a chore. It just wasn’t fun anymore. I knew it was time for a change.

Musician Turned Event Planner

I got married in 1994 and decided it was time to hang up my guitar strap. I fell back on my communications degree and started freelancing for a small marketing agency.

We did a lot of sales meetings and promotions for big consumer brands like GLAD bags, STP and Scoop Away. It was a lot of fun and a ton of hard work.

Discovering The World Wide Web

That experience led me to the marketing department of a large software company a few years later. I discovered the World Wide Web and was totally fascinated by it.

For some reason websites were as interesting to me as music. Maybe it was the “newness” of it all, but I think it was more about the the personal connections made possible by the web.

Music connected people in much the same way. I wanted to be part of this exciting new medium.

Heeding The Corporate Call

While I did a few freelance interactive projects in 1996, joining that software company in 1997 was my chance to be part of something much bigger.

I started as a temporary administrative assistant, helping to coordinate the company’s annual user conference. We created print brochures and other direct mail pieces, email campaigns, and of course a website to attract conference attendees. After six months I was hired full-time.

In 2000 the company promoted me to the web team as a project manager. We were a close-knit, high profile group and worked with every department in the company.

We developed all sorts of internal and external web applications, from an HR benefits enrollment system to a conference management application that handled content and logistics for over 250 breakout sessions and 5000 attendees.

Dot-Com Era Adventures

It was heady times right before the dot-com bubble burst. We also started using site maps and wireframes to plan out our projects.

I spent a lot of time in the field interviewing stakeholders and users to see what they wanted our systems to do for them. These activities needed to be done to ensure we built high-quality sites and apps. I didn’t know there was a whole new profession emerging around them.

Becoming A Working Mom

In 2003 we welcomed our beautiful daughter into the world. A few months later I joined the ranks of other working moms.

In late 2004 I left the software company to join a digital agency. They offered to pay for my PMP project management certification and gave me a great opportunity to work on a huge global brand.

Bigger And Better Web Projects

I helped our client teams deliver millions of dollars worth of high-profile web projects featured on Ellen, Oprah and even the Super Bowl. One of our projects also earned several OMMA awards.

Dove 2006 Super Bowl campaign

Dove’s 2006 Super Bowl campaign.

Sometimes our projects had enough budgets to bring in an information architect (UX designer), but more often that was my responsibility. I had already done it for several years and it was by far my favorite part of the job.

I loved the notion of helping to create “something out of nothing”. To me it was just like songwriting.

Starting A Consulting Firm

By 2006 the long hours were starting to wear on me and my family. My daughter was almost three and needed her mom.

I remembered working with a freelance IA earlier that year who also had young children. She said she did almost everything from home. I wondered if I could do something similar and started making plans to go out on my own.

Around the same time one of my colleagues left the company to start his own agency. I told him what I was thinking and he offered to become my first client.

He’s still one of my best clients over a decade later, and a dear friend. For seven weeks I moonlighted, working on a project for him and another for my former marketing agency client. All of this while working full time and taking care of my family. It was unsustainable.

Leaving My Full-Time Job

I finally got my courage up and left my full time job at the end of September. By then I had a good savings cushion and three months of work lined up.

I made sure to leave the agency on good terms. They were a great employer and had done so much for me while I was there.

Becoming A “Real” Freelancer

During my first two years in business I relied heavily on my professional network to get work. LinkedIn was starting to become popular and proved very useful to stay in touch.

But eventually I had to develop some other leads. It was time to put on my sales hat. I contacted recruiters, responded to Craigslist and other job boards, and told everyone I knew that I was looking for freelance work.

The hustle paid off, and soon I had a variety of clients and projects.

Caught By The Great Recession

What didn’t pay off was my lack of business skills. They just weren’t very good. I was piling almost everything I made back into the business and charging things left and right on my Amex card.

I was thrilled to be working part time from home and raising my daughter myself. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. So I turned a blind eye to my rising credit card bills.

While the Great Recession officially hit in 2008, I managed to dodge it until 2011 and stayed busy that whole time.

But then the unthinkable happened. In early 2011 I had eight potential contracts lined up and thought l had it made. All eight of them were either canceled or delayed, leaving me unable to pay my bills. By this time my credit card balance was a very unhealthy five digits. It was time to come clean.

My poor husband didn’t know about any of this. He was devastated when I told him. And then he told me to get a job. So I did.

Back To The Grind

Thankfully it didn’t take long to find a project management role at a local agency. It was a good opportunity and I liked the people.

But it didn’t last long. I didn’t have the heart for being a project manager anymore and it showed. I also couldn’t bear not being home with my daughter. And of course I missed UX design.

I stayed in that job long enough to pay off my debts and make amends with my husband. Then it was time to leave.

Re-Launching My Company

My husband and I agreed that I would only resume consulting if I was totally transparent with my finances and profitable from the start.

I’m proud to say that’s how it’s been ever since and it’s only getting better. I love my work and I love being home.

For me work and life are not mutually exclusive. They are deeply integrated and interdependent. I’m blessed with great clients and the freedom of a flexible schedule. What could be better than that?

What’s Next?

If you’ve read my story this far, perhaps you’re wondering what it takes to become a UX designer. If that sounds like you, let’s talk.

Schedule a free 15-minute call to discuss your goals and see if my UX Mentor Program might be a good fit for you. I look forward to hearing your story.

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3 Responses to How A Traveling Troubadour Became A UX Designer

  1. Gretchen CawthonNo Gravatar April 27, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    Love this! Thanks for sharing your journey. Hope we get to hang out again soon!

  2. MaryNo Gravatar April 27, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    Thanks so much, Gretchen! Would love to see you and Trina again any time 🙂


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