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Instructional designer: What I do and how much I make

Onna Nelson, an instructional designer at MapR Technologies, creates learning materials for big data software. She transitioned from academia to tech, valuing the fast-paced industry. Despite lacking traditional qualifications, her skills and experience landed her the job. She emphasizes the importance of continuous learning in any career.

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Video transcript

My name is Onna Nelson. I am 28 years old. I'm an instructional designer and I make 90,000 dollars a year. MapR Technologies makes software to help people manage and analyze big data. So an example of that would be if you're a bank, and you want to process all the credit card transactions that are happening right now, that's thousands or millions of credit card transactions that are happening right now, so that would be an example of a big data application. An instructional designer makes material so that people can learn how to do something. In my case, I make materials so that people can learn how to use the product that my company makes. So I make lab materials so that people can practice using the technology. I make PowerPoint slides, and documentation to explain how the technology works. I write glossaries, different study guides. I also monitor the forums, and the social media so I have direct communication with our students online. So, anytime a student has a question, or they find a bug in our classes, they let me know, I address the issue. So, I'm writing emails, so whenever you sign up for an online class, like Kahn Academy, you get that email that says, oh hey, great job learning, keep going with this next thing. So, I write a lot of those emails. Instructional design is at a lot of tech companies, especially because technology is constantly changing, so you have the how to use this version of the software, and then a new version of the software gets released, and so now you have to create another new tutorial that says, well how do you use the new version, and how is it different from the old version. And so every time a new version gets released, we have to update our courses. So, a lot of tech companies do have instructional designers for that reason, but a lot of other companies have instructional designers too, so a lot of instructional designers will teach people how to do their jobs, so you have to learn a new email tool when you start at a new company, or you have to learn whatever process that other company uses. Instructional designers help with the onboarding of new employees as well. It all happened at once. In kind of ... Bizarre mesh of oh, my God, I need to change my career, I'm not happy in the career I'm in, and then I fell into this role. So, before I became an instructional designer at MapR Technologies, I was a graduate student in a PhD program at The University of California, Santa Barbara, studying linguistics and cognitive science, and I realized that ... About four years into the program I realized that academia wasn't for me, that I was on a path that wasn't right for me. I was headed towards becoming this professor and researcher and that's not what I wanted. I wanted to be more involved in teaching and fostering relationships with students and so ... I also wanted to do something that was more fast-paced, and I know that the tech industry is very fast-paced, whereas the academic world is very slow-paced, and that just was not right for me so, I took classes online in data science, and I knew that I wanted to be involved with education and data science in some way, and so now, I'm an educator at a data science company. I studied data science on Coursera, so I have a certificate in data science from Coursera through Johns Hopkins University. I think I was very lucky in this position, because my manager took a chance on me. I don't have a degree in instructional design, but I had designed courses before. I don't have a degree um ... I don't have a degree in computer science but I had built projects and put them on the web. So, I had ... I didn't have the certifications that are typical, like a degree in instructional design, or a degree in computer science, but I had a lot of the skills, and a lot of the proof that I have been able to use those skills, which I think, a lot of times, is more important. You don't necessarily need a degree in whatever in order to get a job in that thing. So, when I was hired, I was hired at 90,000 dollars a year. I'm currently making that, but I'm scheduled to get a raise, very soon, of around 4 to five percent. So every quarter we have a quarterly review, so every three months we talk about what we accomplished, and what our goals are, and we do get a bonus based on that. My last bonus was around three or four hundred dollars, and so you get that four times a year. If you're going to be an instructional designer, especially in the tech field, you have to like learning new things, because you constantly have to learn something new in order to teach it to other people. So when you're a junior instructional designer, you have a manager, or senior instructional designer helping you with you work all the time, and then, when you're an instructional designer, you have a lot of independence, but maybe not a lot of authority. When you're a senior instructional designer, you have a lot of independence, and you're just expected to be able to do the job without anyone helping you, and then you might even be expected to help others as well. Beyond senior instructional designer, would be, a management position, or possibly a move into a different role, so, maybe I don't want to be instructional design, I want to work more in curriculum development, or maybe I want to work more in interactive design, so there's a lot of lateral movement as well. I think everyone I work with has at least a college degree. Some have master's degrees, but all of us came from different backgrounds, so for example, I have a degree in linguistics, another one has a degree in physics, another has a degree in math, another has a degree in fine arts. So, it's not like you need a degree in computer science to work in the tech industry. I'm very lucky to have a very flexible job. As long as I log in during working hours, whether or not that log in is at the office, or at home, or at a coffee shop, the important thing is that we have core working hours where everybody has to log in, check in, have meetings. So you can't just do all your work in the middle of the night, and then not log in during the time everyone else is awake and doing meetings, but, I do have a very flexible working hours, and very good work-life balance. I think the most important career advice is to always want to keep learning. No matter what your career is. I think if you wanted to become an instructional designer especially, being in the education field means constantly learning so you can constantly teach. But, any field, you're education doesn't stop after high school, or after college. There's always going to be new technologies, or new, you know, whatever it is, to learn, so being open-minded, and being willing to accept new chances and try new things is really important.