Ep 81: Patricia Howard: Putting the Pieces Together, Into Something Beautiful

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Patricia Howard, veteran instructional designer/developer, whose employers and clients have included giants like General Motors Corporation,  AAA Life Insurance,  the Auto Club Group and MSX International.

Patty came to the technology field by happenstance. “When I was a little girl, technology did not exist as it does, today,” she said. “I didn’t touch a computer until my senior year of college!”   Being highly creative, she pursued a fine arts bachelor’s degree with a minor in business at The University of Southern Colorado, which has since “morphed” into an extension of Colorado State University at Pueblo. “I had to write a paper for a finance class,” Patty said. “The system was DOS, back then!”

After college, she moved to Michigan, and her first roles were at a national historic landmark and nonprofit, Pewabic Pottery, (“a treasure, with the kilns and artisans making tiles and vessels”). There, Patty was a tile presser, a potter working on a pottery wheel, and then became a mold-maker and technical design reviewer, checking and validating specifications.  “The Internet was still new,” she said, and her voracious appetite for reading led her to explore technology, on the side. A friend made a gift of his older 486 computer to Patty, and “I was off and running.”

Exploring her options, Patty left Pewabic Pottery and landed a spot at a temporary agency, accepting short-term administrative assignments as she explored various industries. “I worked in 12 different places and got to see quite a variety of businesses and perspectives, different managing styles….it was an eye-opener.”  After this investigatory period, she exclaimed “I feel like I got the ‘Willy Wonka Golden Ticket’ because I landed a job as an entry-level Web Designer, with no experience!”

Patty’s first Web development position was at MSX International, supplier to the automotive industry.  “I was hired in-house to make Websites for internal customers.” The hiring manager “saw my potential, and level of maturity” as well as Patty’s fine arts background, which differentiated her from programmers, who “didn’t have the people skills” that she exhibited. “They were looking for someone with an artistic eye.  They saw my potential and spent about $4000 on my training.” Patty is forever grateful for her MSXI tenure of 6 years. The software skill-set she developed included HTML, Illustrator, ImageReady, Flash, and Photoshop; and the “soft skills” included conflict resolution training and more. Patty was blessed with an excellent manager (experienced programming leader, and mentor, Walter Schirmacher) who told her to “design it the way you think it should be, and I’ll make it work!”   Patty lasted through many growth spurts and consolidations, that MSXI endured during that time, with her team rapidly growing but then “the economy unfortunately contracted.”  Patty was among the last of her team to be let go, in the depths of the recession/depression, as the company dramatically downsized.

Her MSXI experience awakened Patty’s realization that she had an affinity for organizational development.  She went to work at The Creative Group, a division of Robert Half International, as a temporary contract employee, deploying her organizational skills.  Eventually she landed at Gradepoint, an online training company, where she handled much of their graphics development and support, and worked closely with instructional designers. “I’m not a programmer,” Patty said. “So, I made a decision to go back to school.”  She matriculated into Wayne State University, for a masters’ degree in instructional design with a focus on both interactive technology, and human performance improvement.  “I learned to ‘ditch the ego’ and ask for help. I ended up with 51 credits in 36-credit program,” she chuckled. Post-recession, “when I emerged with my degree, the economy was on the upswing.”

Patty took an internship at Auto Club Group in Dearborn, and then accepted a full-time position at AAA Life Insurance, where she spent the next 5 years as a courseware designer. “I did more courseware development and I was also the LMS (learning management system) administrator.”  Leaving there at the end of 5 years, she began working as a contractor, through TTI Global, at General Motors.  “At GM, it was one big team of Instructional Designers which was much different from past positions where she was accustomed to being the only one, or part of a small team,” she said. The November, 2018, announcements of GM consolidations and plant closures resulted in most contractors ending projects at the automotive behemoth.  In the aftermath, Patty is actively looking for her next challenge.

Patty’s advice for creating an interesting career included: “Find out what you don’t know.  Ask more questions.” She noted that, when younger, she didn’t explore all her options as thoroughly as she would recommend others do, now.  She characterized her own interests and skill-sets as having:

  • A propensity for gleaning information, and making logical sense of its patterns (“I’m an information hoarder”);

  • A passion for making data useful (“Making it clear and clean” adorned with relevant graphics, too);

  • A thirst to build something comprehensive and comprehensible from scratch.

She wants to “put all the pieces together into this beautiful, inherent piece of training that is going to make someone’s life easier!”

Patty also has a clear view of her own three greatest strengths which include organizational ability, married to creativity, and a high degree of empathy. “Trying to see what the learner is going through to understand what they need” is key in doing a great job in instructional design. “In one sense, my career has been like a pinball machine: bouncing around,” Patty said. “But if you look at the big picture, it has been a smooth transition, building and building.  I feel like I have great skills to make a difference, now.”

Commenting on being female, Patty said “I think I have had to work harder on being taken seriously, at times. And I don’t believe the pay has been equal.”  But “I am always looking forward to situations ahead” to make sure she has solutions ready for any challenge. Patty has found her greatest happiness lies in staying productive, and mentoring “those coming along” in her field, and in fine arts.

With all the changes through which she transitioned, Patty said “I don’t have any ‘pit of the stomach’ fears, any longer.” One of her lessons for other girls and women is “fear can be a motivator or a show-stopper. New technologies can be intimidating.  Don’t let that stop you. Let that motivate you!” She recommended several online learning sites and exhorted: “ask for help!”

Another life lesson Patty shared is how much she has learned from, and been supported by, her volunteer work, noting that being a volunteer often gives a person the chance to “do something they would like to do,” thereby increasing knowledge. Some of the organizations for which she volunteered were “like a testing ground” allowing her to practice and perfect skills. One of her favorite nonprofits, in her field, is the Association for Talent Development, where she was the VP of Programs and Events. In addition to creating new programs for the members, she developed membership welcome programs and mentoring programs.  She also recommended that practitioners consider membership in the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for ongoing professional development. For regional women leaders, she also recommended Inforum Detroit which incubates women’s potential, at all ages and stages. In all volunteer work Patty said “I try and give without resenting it” to avoid crossing the line into life imbalance.   

“The glass isn’t half empty; it isn’t half full.  It is twice as large as it needs to be, because no one did a proper needs analysis!” was Patty’s last (performance improvement) bit of humor as we ended our interview.

Patty Howard can be reached at HowardPatriciaJ@gmail.com.

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