Like many aspiring actresses, Chelsea Odell had to give up her Hollywood dream. She never abandoned her passion for art and design, however — it just took her a little time (and education) to fully embrace it.
“I was taking theatre and film [courses in school], and on the other hand I was taking math and chemistry, hoping that by the end of that first year of university I’d know what I wanted to do,” says Odell, a 2014 Graphic Communications graduate. “I got to to the end of that year, and I thought, ‘Huh, I still like everything.’”
Odell, 33, eventually followed her interest in technology to a degree in computer science, graduating from the University of Manitoba in 2006.
Soon after, Odell joined Online Business Systems, an IT and business consulting firm that specializes in custom application development and package implementations for companies such as MTS and Investors Group. As a developer, her focus was on coding applications using an ever-evolving list of programming languages — from HTML to C#.
Despite her love of coding, Odell still longed to satisfy her artistic side — a side that, in computer programming, manifests itself in graphical user interface design.
“Even though I was interested in user experience, I noticed a gap in my own knowledge — [design] tools like Photoshop, etc. — I wasn’t particularly proficient with them,” she says from Portland, the site of one of Online’s U.S. offices.
Not wanting to halt her career to pursue another degree, Odell turned to Continuing Education, and enrolled in Red River College’s Graphic Communications program. Covering everything from the fundamentals of drawing to advanced graphic design, the program gave her the necessary skills to translate her coding knowledge to the design world.
“One of the things I took away from [RRC] was that design can be subjective, but there are also rules, and there’s a language. Knowing that allows me to communicate now with designers and other user experience professionals in a way I couldn’t have prior to taking those courses.”
For Odell, getting direct experience with design software and real-world scenarios was what made all the difference.
“What I really liked about Red River College is how hands-on and practical it is. University in a lot of ways can be very theoretical. [At RRC] you’re in class, and you’re using the tools right away.”
Today, Odell refers to herself as a user experience developer, a “jack-of-all-trades title” that covers everything from coding an application to designing its mockups and user interface guidelines. It’s a complex job that comes with a simple goal — making the user experience as seamless as possible.
“A lot of what I work on is enterprise applications, so success is measured by the product being adopted by users, and in their understanding how it works without having to ask a million questions. My hope is that I’m able to make a user’s life better by providing them with interfaces that help them do their job in a way that works best for them.”
Just as Odell strives to make her work more welcoming to users, she also dispels any myths about working in the tech industry, stressing its inclusiveness for everyone — especially women.
“I think as a developer there’s this perception that you’re going to be alone in a box staring at a computer, and you’re not going to interact with people,” says Odell, who has previously spoken about her role as a woman working in the field to computer science students at the U of M. “There’s so many possible opportunities in computer science and in user experience, and all of those involve people of all types.”
According to Odell, those opportunities in technology — whether it’s advancing in the workplace or leading an innovative new application — are limited only by imagination. That principle motivates her to continue seeking out education.
“I’m a firm believer that you never stop learning. I think it can only be good for someone’s life and career to pursue more knowledge — whatever it may be.”