Five people working at a table and whiteboard with sticky notes.
Information work.
Chapter 18 Domains

Information + careers

by Amy J. Ko

I did not grow up wanting to be a professor, a researcher, or a teacher. In fact, like most youth, I didn’t even really think about careers until college. When I was ten, all I knew was that I liked jump ropes, cats, origami, Super Mario Bros., and math puzzles. When I was fifteen, I knew that I liked making simple games on my graphing calculator and reading historical fiction. And when I was twenty, even though I was a computer science major, I knew I didn’t want to be a software engineer. I thought that it involved programming alone in smelly basements (it doesn’t). My dream was to have a job where I had no boss, I could follow my curiosity and dream up new ideas with friends, and then tell people about what we’d made. As I soon learned from one of my CS professors that a tenure-track professor at a research university does roughly that, I was hooked: I wanted to be a professor.

Of course, I soon learned careers were far more complicated that I imagined. Software engineers don’t sit in smelly basements alone and don’t just code. And they don’t just work with other software engineers. They work with interaction designers, who envision  what  information systems should do. They work with product managers who ensure that what designers envision and engineers build meets a market or stakeholder need. They work with graphic designers who make visual assets. They work with database administrators who ensure that data can be quickly stored and retrieved. They work with information architects to decide how to structure data and it’s metadata. And managers work with all of these roles to ensure everyone has the resources, skills, and psychological safety to thrive in their work. And all of this work, while it centers around software, inevitably interacts with other kinds of expertise, since computing and information touch every discipline, practice, and domain in human experience. I just couldn’t see of this from the confines of school. When I co-founded a software startup, it became even more apparent, as I helped build the interdisciplinary teams that would envision and create our services.

Learning about this diversity of roles, and taking on those various roles as a founder, didn’t make me want those roles more than I wanted to be a professor. I still wanted the ultimately freedom to explore and share that only academia can provide. But it helped me understand that designing, creating, and maintaining information systems is never solitary work, and requires far more skills than any one person can possess. And because information systems are used in every aspect of society—government, science, and industry of all kinds—understanding how organizations come together to do this work is a crucial part of understanding information. In this final chapter of this book, we will define and discuss these various modern careers in information, how they leverage the ideas we’ve discussed in this book, and how they are a crucial aspect of getting people the information they need.

A top down photograph of a job fair in Portland, Oregon.
People with information skills learning about organizations they might join.

Throughout this book, we’ve shown how information systems are fundamentally about people making and moving information with the help of technology. And because systems are largely composed of people, their decisions, assumptions, beliefs, and values are the foundation of how those systems work and for whom they work. But information systems are also fundamentally created and maintained by people: people build and repair the technology that runs them, people create the information that runs through them, and quite often, people are critical parts of operating information systems, translating, transmitting, interpreting, and combining information for other people to use. Whether it is writing, printing, and distributing books, creating and maintaining web scale websites, or organizing online communities, all information systems intricately combine human effort with technology and process to make information work. And if you take away any one of these things—people, information, technology, or the processes that coordinate them—the information system stops functioning.

Industry, then, is ultimately about organizing people to keep information systems working. There are many distinct kinds of work involved in this effort, and each kind of work requires distinct skills and knowledge to be successful. For example, the most central work in envisioning information systems is  designdesign: The human activity of envisioning how to change the status quo into a more preferred one. , which, as we discussed in the  Designing Information  chapter, involves deciding what an information system will do, why, and for whom. What information will it have? Who will it serve? Where will the information come from? How should the information be structured? Which values will the system uphold? These questions are central in design.

Product managers decide how information systems should meet customer needs by working with engineers, designers, and other stakeholders.

Because this design work is so critical, there are many different roles in organizations that do it. While one might expect design work to be done by designers, in most organizations, there is actually a role with more powerful oversight over design called  product managementproduct management: Synthesizing design, engineering, marketing, and sales concerns into strategic choices about product behavior.  that ultimately answers the questions above. Product managers are in charge of finding the intersection between design opportunities and business opportunities, identifying groups of people who have some information need and envisioning some way of meeting that need through an information system. For example, consider the video above, which showcases a Yelp product manager, who talks about her work with multiple teams to make product decisions. Another example would be a Vice President of Product at a company like Netflix, who might be ultimately in charge of ensuring that people find so many movies and television shows that they want to watch so that they would never think of canceling their subscription, and that finding and watching them is so easy that they never cancel out of frustration. Netflix, of course, has many lower-level product managers, some for content, some for mobile apps, some of integrations on other platforms, all working toward the shared goals of getting great content to subscribers and keeping them subscribed. Product managers, as the ultimate decision makers about what information systems do and who they serve, have immense power, and thus are perhaps more responsible than anyone else at ensuring that products do not further reinforce systems of oppression (e.g., deprioritizing accessibility, amplifying harassment of marginalized groups). Product management has its closest affinities to academic disciplines of business.

User experience researchers study people’s information needs, informing product design choices.

Product managers, as the deciders, are usually not implementors. Instead, that work typically gets delegated to a range of different roles. One increasingly common design role is  user experience (UX) researchuser experience research: Investigating how technology is currently used to reveal opportunities for how technology might better serve needs. . UX researchers gather insights about the information problems that users face and how they currently solve them, helping a product manager find opportunities for products. For example, in the video above, a UX researcher at Google talks about her career path into UX research, and her work on Google Maps, which largely involves understanding how people use maps to navigate their lives, and how Google Maps might help them do that better. UX researchers at Netflix might do similar work, interviewing a broad sample of families about how they use Netflix, or conduct surveys with families that don’t yet have Netflix, to understand why they haven’t yet subscribed. UX research has its closest affinities to academic social science that involve studying culture and human behavior, including anthropology, sociology, communication, and more applied research areas like human-computer interaction.

UX designers decide how users will interact with products to get the information they need.

In contrast to UX research,  user experience (UX) designuser experience design: Using design methods to envisioning products that meet needs.  is about envisioning how an information system might meet an information need. For example, in the video above, a UX designer at the bra company True & Co talks about her work to understand where customers are getting stuck in the fitting and purchasing process, and envisioning features that might solve those problems by providing information. Her work involves analyzing insights about user experience possibly from UX researchers, and envisioning design changes to improve those experiences. Similarly, a UX designer at Netflix might lead a project to redesign the watch screen interface and it’s various controls to make it more accessible to people who are blind or low vision. Therefore, whereas product managers set the high level strategy for what system to make, and UX researchers inform that strategy by studying people’s needs, UX designers figure out how to actually meet those needs. UX design has its closest affinities to academic disciplines such as interaction design and  human-computer interaction.

Information architects determine how to organize, label, and structure information to support searching, browsing, and navigation.

Whereas UX designers typically focus on features and experience,  information architectureinformation architecture: Organzing data and metadata to faciliate searching, browsing, and discovery.  focuses on the information aspects of those features and experiences, including what information a system needs to expose, how it will be structured, what metadata needs to be maintained about it, where the information will come from, how it will be presented in an interface, and how it will be searched, browsed, and navigated. The video above gives an overview of some of the many tasks that information architects do, ranging from designing site navigation, choosing labels, and designing database schemas for a website. Continuing our Netflix example, an information architect might be responsible for defining movie genre categories, ensuring movies have consistent metadata about directors and actors, and envisioning new ways for users to search and browse content, in collaboration with UX designers. Information architecture has closest affinities to academic disciplines such as library and information sciences.

Software engineers implement designs envisioned by UX designers.

Whereas UX research involves discoveries about technology use, UX design involves envisioning new products, and information architecture involves site maps, taxonomies, labels, and database schemas,  software engineeringsoftware engineering: Writing computer programs to implement a design.  involves implementing designs with code. In the video above, an Airbnb engineer describes her work to make the Airbnb reservation process stable, fast, and reliable, and helping to prioritize features and bug fixes. Similarly, at Netflix, a software engineer might be responsible for improving streaming reliability, building the user interfaces for the numerous platforms on which Netflix runs, implement search, and maintain all of this functionality as operating systems and platforms evolve. Software engineering has its closest affinities to the academic discipline of computer science.

Graphic designers and illustrators create visual assets for information systems.

Most information systems are more than just data and code; in fact, many of the ways that we experience information are first through the visual elements of interfaces, from typographic choices like fonts, layout, and spacing, to graphical choices, like images, textures, and illustrations.  Graphic designsgraphic design: Creating visual and typographic forms of information.  involves defining these visual experiences, choosing fonts, defining layouts for screens and print, and creating graphics and other content consistent with an organization’s brand and values. For example, in the video above, an illustrator at Dropbox describes her role creating content for the Dropbox brand. Similar, at Netflix, graphic designers maintain the logo, the colors, and the various textures on the website, and ensure consistency with marketing or sales efforts. Graphic design has its closest affinities to the academic discipline of visual and communication design.

Data scientists typically gather and analyze data to answer product questions.

Once an information system is available for use, most organizations need to understand how users are using it, where they are getting stuck, and what might be improved about the experience. These problems of product evaluation often fall to people in data gathering roles. This might include UX researchers, who might be charged with using interviews, surveys, observations, and other methods to try to understand customers’ experiences with a system. Another role often charged with this task is  data sciencedata science: Using data and code to answer questions. , which involves using data sets such as logs of user activity to gather data, analyze it, and use it to answer questions that a UX designer or product manager might have. For example, in the video above, a data scientist (creatively given the title “Product Scientist”) at Medium describes his work to understand reader behavior on the website to help designers improve reading experiences. Data science draws from the academic disciplines of statistics, computer science, and information science.

Customer experience teams ensure people can use information systems successfully, and offer insight into customer experience for design.

UX researchers and data scientists aren’t the only roles that gather insights about people’s experiences with information systems.  Customer experiencecustomer experience: Educating customers about an information technology’s functionality and use. —also known as  customer support —involves responding to user feedback, write technical support and documentation, and moderate online communities. Because they work so closely with users, they often have the deepest insights into what is and isn’t working about an information system. For example, in the video above, a community director describes her work to help customers, while gathering and sharing insights with people across her company to influence product design. At Netflix, such roles might respond to customer confusion about billing, organize feature requests, and monitor social media for complaints and feedback. Customer experience draws from the academic disciplines of communication and marketing.

Project managers make sure their team has what they need to collaborate and succeed.

When teams get big enough,  project managementproject management: Organizing teams of people to work more productivity to meet deadlines.  becomes necessary to keep teams productive. Note that  project  managers are different from  product  managers in that  project  managers oversee people and their needs on a project, whereas  product  managers manage the product and it’s ability to meet a need in a marketplace. Therefore, while a product manager is worrying about customers, their needs, and how information systems an organization is creating are meeting them, a project manager is worrying about the designers, researchers, and engineers they are managing. They ensure that teams are working well together, that they have the resources they need from the organization to do their job, and that they feel safe giving feedback about problems they’re seeing, and solving those problems with their teammates. Whereas product managers are trying to make the business work, project managers are trying to make people work. The video above with the head of Pinterest’s engineering team shows that much of his time is spent recruiting and hiring new engineers, making sure they’re working well together, ensuring the team sets and achieves its goals. The same role at Netflix might ensure the group of site reliability engineers can work together productively to ensure that Netflix never goes down. Project management draws from the academic disciplines of business, but also relies on content expertise. For example, teams of engineers are often best managed by engineers who’ve developed project management skills.

Importantly, all organization divide up this work in different ways, using different titles, and grant different powers and responsibilities. In some organizations, engineers might also play the role of product manager, making decisions about product strategy and features; for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is known to frequently make product decisions, even though Facebook has a Chief Product Officer in charge of such high level decisions. In some organizations, there might not be any designers of any kind, leaving graphic design, experience design, and information architecture to sales teams, marketing teams, or engineers. Some organizations might combine roles; for example, Microsoft has many software engineers who are largely responsible for project management, and sometimes product management, while also contributing to code. Selecting an information career therefore isn’t about choosing a specific title, but developing a set of skills and finding organizations that need them, however they’ve decided to organize the work and label their roles.

Researchers answer big questions about information systems, which shape what is taught in schools and universities, and what systems are created in government, industry, and community organizations.

Whereas all of the roles above are common in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, as well as government, another crucial part of shaping information systems is  researchresearch: Answering questions that have not yet been answered by humanity. . Academic researchers, not to be confused with UX researchers, aren’t focused on questions specific to products or businesses, but on questions that are relevant to all organizations and all of society. For example, the video above features Information School professor Jason Yip’s research on youth perspectives on information technology in homes. His research shapes design education, and also informs the work of product designers in industry who might be envisioning technologies for families, as well as policy makers who might be regulating information technologies that enter homes. Without research, there would be less knowledge about how to design information systems, less knowledge to teach information systems design, and fewer critical questions about what impact information technology is having on our lives. Organizations in industry therefore depend on academia to develop information system skills, to deepen our understanding of how to do those skills well, and to ask challenging moral, ethical, and philosophical questions about what systems we make and why. Books like this one would have few reliable facts, theories, or insights to share without research, and colleges and universities would have little to teach.

Former President Barack Obama calls upon the public to help educate youth about computing and information.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, are information  educators . There are really two significant places that information education appears in public education around the world. The first is through librarians, who often take on the primary role of helping youth understand computing, information, and society. Librarians are typically trained by pursuing a masters degree in library and information science aa For example, the University of Washington’s  MLIS program , which prepares people to be information educators in library contexts. , specializing in school or children’s librarianship, and then join primary schools, secondary schools, or public libraries as librarians. These teaching roles are often informal, reaching students when they come to librarians with an information need, though some librarians will teach classes. The other place that information education appears is in  computing  education, such as computer science classes, or classes in other subject areas that integrate computer science concepts or skills. Primary and secondary teachers who teach these subjects often teach skills involved in all of the careers above, but also literacy about computing and information in society. Primary and secondary CS educators are typically trained by getting an undergraduate or graduate degree in education to earn their teaching certificate bb For example, the University of Washington’s  STEP CS program , which is a partnership between the The College of Education, The Information School, and the School of Computer Science & Engineering that prepares people to teaching computing in critically conscious ways. . These roles are often formal classroom teaching, but can involve informal roles also, such as supervising after school and summer programs.

Research and teaching are particularly important parts of powering information careers. Without researchers, we wouldn’t make as much progress on solving information and computing problems. And without teachers, we won’t have a public that understands and can use information.

A photograph of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation company meeting, showing hundreds of people on three stories listening to a speaker
A Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation company meeting.

While many of the videos and roles above might sound like they all belong in for-profit contexts, that’s actually not the case. There are developers that work for for-profit companies big and small, developers that work for  not -for-profits big and small, developers that work for governments, and developers that volunteer for communities that aren’t formal organizations. There are developers that even work for themselves. All of the roles above are  orthogonal  to the kinds of organizations one might work in.

For-profit enterprises are the perhaps the most visible, since for-profit organizations often make enough profit to spend money on recruiting. The distinguishing characteristic of for-profit organizations is that they are primarily driven by  capitalismcapitalism: A system of commerce organized by government to optimize trade and profit above all other concerns. : the parts of economic and political parts of some countries that are owned privately, rather than by the government, and are centrally motivated by profit rather than other goals. While the responsibilities might be the same in a for-profit as a not-for-profit, the capitalist profit motive heavily shapes the priorities of ones work. For example, product managers in for-profit companies have the ultimate goal of making a company more money; designers and engineers need to create products and services that customers will by and subscribe to; there are even academic researchers in for-profit companies (e.g.,  Microsoft Research ) who make discoveries like the inventors in academia, but do so with the ultimate goal of informing products and services that will generate profit. The profit motive is even at play in organizations that might have a social mission; for example,  Airbnb  started as a company motivated by building community and exploration, but as a for-profit company, that mission comes second to making money.

Not-for-profit enterprises can have all of the same roles, but are primarily driven by human values rather than profit. For example, the  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation  focuses on improving health and education in Africa, China, India, as well as communities in wealthier Western nations in Europe and North America. Product managers in organizations like the Gates Foundation aren’t focused on profit, but rather making people healthier, smarter, and more secure; designers and developers create information systems that make these goals possible. User researchers at the Gates Foundation might study existing solutions and how they are or are not meeting health and education goals, whereas academic researchers in not-for-profits might conduct rigorous long term studies of the efficacy of interventions. Revenue in these organizations still matter—some not-for-profits even make profit through products and services—but revenue in these organizations is secondary to achieving other goals. For example, universities are not-for-profit, but still charge tuition and fees in order to pay their faculty and staff. The experience of information careers in not-for-profits is thus often one of fewer resources, but the ability to align one’s own values to their work.

There are also product managers, designers, developers, and researchers of all kinds in governments. After all, governments maintain many information systems with the goal of sustaining human civilization by keeping residents safer, healthier, smarter, more mobile, and more prosperous. These include systems for interfacing with the justice system, law enforcement, social services, and infrastructure like roads, bridges, internet, and more. Product managers, designers, engineers, and researchers in government ensure that these large scale, long term services are meeting ever evolving needs. As with not-for-profits, governments do not prioritize profit, but rather efficient, transparent use of public revenue through taxes. The experience of working in government is often one of scale and diversity, as governments need to serve everyone, not just a particular market or community.

Lastly, all three types of organizations above can be of different sizes. Some organizations and governments are massive, and have been around for centuries. The work in these organizations is often one of maintenance, repair, and incremental change, but often with greater scale and resources than smaller organizations. Others organizations are startups, whether for-profit startups trying to make profit, new not-for-profits trying to meet an unmet need in society, or new parts of governments (or even entirely new governments) that are creating new information systems to serve society. The work in these smaller organizations is often overwhelming but more dynamic and nimble.

A photograph of a small child kneeling, playing with sand
Abilities and interests are developed, not discovered.

For anyone considering careers in information in any of the types of organizations above, it is easy to imagine the roles above as out of reach. In fact, many students come to college with beliefs that they are intrinsically bad at particular subjects (e.g., “I can’t code”). These beliefs, however, do not stem from innate inabilities. Rather, they often come from shame created by peers and teachers, or deterrence from cultural stereotypes or social stigmas 5 5

Steven J. Spencer, Christine Logel, and Paul G. Davies (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual Review of Psychology.

. The result is that many have what researchers call a  fixed theory of intelligencefixed intelligence: A false belief that one’s intelligence is fixed at birth.  and a  fixed theory of interestfixed interest: A false belief that one’s interests are discovered rather than developed. : beliefs that abilities and interests are innate from birth 1,4 1

Carol S. Dweck (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..


Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton (2018). Implicit theories of interest: Finding your passion or developing it?. Psychological Science.

. Neither beliefs are true—we are all born with the ability to learn new skills and develop new interests—but society often reinforces fixed theories of intelligence and interest by propagating myths that certain individuals or groups are better or worse at particular academic subjects. These fixed mindsets limit our desire to explore new skills and interests, creating a destructive and false belief that talents and passions must be “found”.

The reality is that talents and passions must be developed grown over time. The majority of differences in human ability come from deliberate practice, not innate talent 2 2

K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review.

, and interests come from our social and cultural experiences and opportunities, not our DNA 3 3

Suzanne Hidi, and K. Ann Renninger (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist.

. The work of developing skills and interests is not about discovering innate talents or interests, but  cultivating  them. This might entail taking classes to learn new skills, and recognizing that any difficulties encountered in that learning are more a product of the quality of instruction and your practice, rather than any innate inability. And developing interests might entail finding supportive, inclusive communities with mentors and activities that catalyze new interests that you did not have before. Growing a passion is hard, effortful, long-term work.

Because abilities and interests are not innate, there is no right answer. This is particularly important to remember in information careers, where advances in research and industry on information technology mean that the skills required to contribute are constantly changing, and organizations are constantly finding new ways to organize work. One might begin with an interest in software engineering, but later become enamored with data science or design; ten years into a career of information architecture, one might develop an entrepreneurial spirit, and decide to become a CEO. These many career pivots are a normal byproduct of learning, joining new communities, and developing new interests. There is no right role for any one person, just the roles that fit their current skills and interests. And since those skills and interests will change, so will the roles that fit.

Of course, communities can also suffocate learning and deter interests. Consider, for example, the conflict in 2020, with algorithmic bias expert Timnit Gebru. She had spent a long career studying electrical engineering, then worked at Apple on signal processing algorithms. She later earned her Ph.D. doing research on bias in image collections. This led to an interest in AI ethics, and eventually to a position at Google, where she worked as both a researcher of AI ethics, but also an advocate for justice in addressing issues of systemic bias in facial recognition, language processing, and other AI technologies. Her public advocacy, her research, her insistence on transparency, Google’s apparent resistance to publishing research critical about AI, led her to be fired, threatening her ability to pursue her carefully cultivated skills and interests. Organizational conflicts like this—as well as the many other issues of sexual harassment, abuses of power, and disagreements about organizations’ moral and ethical stances on information systems—mean that choosing information careers also means investing in ways of making organizations more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just, so that the systems we make reflect everyone’s needs.

A photograph of a Google walkout, with a sign that says “Not OK Google”
Organizations that create information systems have power, with comes with conflict and responsibility

Pursuing careers in information, as much as it is an individual choice, is also a social and communal choice. After all, choosing an organization to work for means adopting its values, missions, and tactics as well. Thus, choosing a career is fundamentally about answering central questions of power. Who decides what we make? What values shape what we make? And when the people involved in making them disagree with an organizations strategic direction, what power do they have to resist that decision? Careers in information can be impactful, lucrative, and meaningful, but because of the increasing power given to information systems and the organizations that create them, organizations can also be sites of cultural tension and moral responsibility. What information problems do you want to solve in the world. Why? Which organizations can help you do that? And if there aren’t any, are you willing to make your own?


  1. Carol S. Dweck (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..

  2. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review.

  3. Suzanne Hidi, and K. Ann Renninger (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist.

  4. Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton (2018). Implicit theories of interest: Finding your passion or developing it?. Psychological Science.

  5. Steven J. Spencer, Christine Logel, and Paul G. Davies (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual Review of Psychology.