Elena Shabanova, Senior Product Designer at PolyAI: Women in Tech Interview

18 Apr 2024

HackerNoon editorial team has launched this interview series with women in tech to celebrate their achievements and share their struggles. We need more women in technology, and by sharing stories, we can encourage many girls to follow their dreams. Share your story today!

Tell us about yourself!

I’m a Senior Product Designer at PolyAI, focusing on building a conversational AI platform to help callers solve their issues without wasting time waiting for an available agent.

Within the last nine years, I made a transition from Graphic design to UI/UX design at a design agency and then to Product design and had the pleasure of working with various great tech-led companies such as SberTech, Gett, and SpatialChat.

Before the design field, I studied accounting and developed a passion for data and analytics that help me work closer with a business right now.

Why did you choose this field in the first place?

I had quite a rough and eventful path with the wrong career decision before I entered this field. At the time, when I should’ve selected the course at the university, I didn’t think that I could select something else apart from accounting because it was pretty straightforward, and I gave up on following my dream to become a designer.

A few years later, when I wrote my work for a master’s degree and had a few years of working experience as an accountant, I understood that I didn’t love what I was doing and the only thing I loved to do was design that I learned as a hobby.

It took half a year to get my first job as a Graphic designer, and then I dived into UI/UX design out of curiosity.

During my first few years as a UI/UX designer at an agency, I was extremely interested in helping businesses reach their goals via interfaces but working in an agency as an outsource designer didn’t allow me to dive into business problems that deep. I made one more tiny transition from UI/UX design into Product design that enabled my full potential.

I always had a passion for the design field, and by being a Product designer, I’m not just a person who designs interfaces but also helps users with their needs and assists a business in reaching goals with any technical constraints. For the last six years of work as a Product designer, I’m still extremely excited about my work and love this rapidly evolving field.

What tech are you most excited/passionate about right now and why?

I'm totally excited about AI and machine learning. The way these technologies are transforming everyday life and bringing simpler and smarter solutions to companies is fascinating.

As a part of the AI startup, I witnessed how this technology saves companies money and helps callers faster than a human. Also, I use a lot of AI tools that already improved my working process and helped me to save time for more crucial parts of my work. This is an exciting time to live in, and I can’t wait to see what else this field can bring us in the future.

What tech are you most worried about right now and why?

The same as excitement, I’m most worried about AI and the ethical implications, as well as potential fraud via this powerful technology. This technology is very advanced and accessible without severe legal restrictions and regulations right now. There have already been a few cases of fraud that involved AI technology.

Since there aren't many tools that can detect and prevent that kind of misuse of AI, this field could bring risks to individual privacy and data security.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of tech?

I’m an absolute video game fan. I love how video games create the ambiance via sounds, stories, visuals, and actions. Besides exploring new worlds, checking my reflexes, and just having fun, I use this activity as a source of inspiration for my work on interfaces. I’m in love with this field and have the same passion as I am with product design. I even tried CG art, so I have massive respect and admiration for everyone involved in game development.

Let's talk about breaking the glass ceiling. What were the biggest challenges you faced as a woman in tech, and how did you deal with them?

The biggest challenges I've faced as a woman in tech are fighting my impostor syndrome and biases, which led me to a lower salary rate, lack of confidence, and stagnation in my career growth. All of that caused situations where I've often found myself silent or ignored by colleagues when other people confidently shared potentially risky ideas.

Regarding the impostor syndrome, it pushed me to spend many hours learning the design basis, psychology, and everything else that is directly connected to my work to prove that I’m not an impostor and have enough knowledge. It boosted my career and confidence a lot when other designers started asking for advice, a few lessons, or mentorship.

All this hard work and recognition from other designers made me confident, so I started taking the initiative in conversations, pitching my ideas, and exceeding expectations when someone underestimated my skills for certain reasons.

Any questionable misogynistic story/situation you faced/handled and you want to share with the HackerNoon Fam?

Unfortunately, I faced many stories worth sharing, but I’ll skip the most common ones when the ideas I pitched were ignored, and when a male colleague shared the same idea a few moments later, it was a “breakthrough idea.”

One situation happened in one of the latest companies I worked for; a Product manager I worked with constantly allowed abusive and respectless comments about the work of female colleagues with attempts to cut off reasonable ideas. As you can guess, the dialogues with male colleagues were full of respect and trust in their professionalism without any doubts in pitched ideas. The climax of this situation for me was when this Product manager, in a very rude form with an accent in my gender, declined my design solution without any arguments on a group call.

After that call, I initiated a dialog with this product manager where I questioned the situation, and the only answer I received was a joking response that I had misunderstood. Unfortunately, the actions I made didn't help the situation, nor did chats with my direct lead and HR department.

This situation taught me to stop silently ignoring such respectless behavior and ask a person a reason for that behavior or elaborate on the decision even when they commented on someone else.

Eventually, it helped, and other colleagues started noticing the change, but it took a few months. This story is not an attempt to show the negatives but to highlight the way out of it.

What was the biggest setback/failure that you faced, and how did you manage it?

My biggest setback was spending years studying accounting and even getting a master’s degree. This decision delayed my career and made me work twice as hard to become a designer. Also, this episode of my life shows me what I’m really capable of and that I definitely should pursue my passion.

What's your biggest achievement that you're really proud of?

My biggest achievement is the skills I've developed during this fight with my impostor syndrome and pivot in my career. All the doubts in myself I had in the past transformed into solid knowledge and experience that I’m more than happy to share with other designers or people who would like to change their careers.

As a result of all this, I have received recognition and respect from other designers I was lucky to work with, and I was given the opportunity to guide my design vision in multiple projects.

In your opinion, why do we see this huge gender gap in the tech industry, and how can we reduce it?

In my opinion, the gender gap in the tech industry is the consequence of many stereotypes and expectations regarding social roles for women that were set a long time ago. All these stereotypes and expectations follow women in every sphere, especially at work in the tech industry.

Unfortunately, I witnessed situations when highly intelligent women with an interest in tech gave up or didn’t try to enter the industry just because they couldn’t find enough support but heard a lot of stereotypes that tech is not for women. It is especially frustrating when there are not that many women who share their stories to inspire others.

To reduce this gender gap, we should continue fighting the stereotypes and misogyny and encourage women to pursue their interests in the tech industry. Also, I strongly believe that having various communities such as “Women in Tech” that provide support, share success stories, and show role models in these fields is extremely important at any stage of a career.

Apart from these steps, there must be work done in the educational field to encourage young girls to explore other options because there is still a perception that technology, programming, engineering, and physics are for men.

Who is your tech idol? Why?

I couldn’t say that I have an idol in the tech industry, but I have a person who has inspired me a lot on my career path. I’m talking about amazingly intelligent and skilled Sasha Ermolenko, who is currently the Director of the Product Design Department at VK, which is one the biggest social networks in Russia. Each time, she offers unique insights about the design sphere, shares her strong leadership skills and expresses her thoughts about the gender gap in the design sphere.

Do you have any advice for aspiring girls who want to join the field?**

Yes, your career path could be tough for you in this field, but don’t give up and be afraid to follow your dreams. All your current skills, unique perspectives, interests, and strengths are already your greatest assets in this dynamic industry.

Text me if you need support!