The Human Side of Technology

By Tad Vezner

Sydney Hardwick (ITM ’15)

I don’t know why I want to act like I have an aversion to nerds, when I’m a nerd myself,” laughs Sydney Hardwick (ITM ’15), speaking not only of her time growing up on Chicago’s South Side, but also of her evolution as a student and her start in a career that appears to perfectly integrate her soft skills with the technical instincts she’s honed all her life.

Working as a staff program manager for design at Visa, Hardwick now empowers multidisciplinary teams of designers, researchers, and engineers to create global, future-focused products and services for the company. She was also recently honored by the Greater Austin (Texas) Black Chamber of Commerce as its 2022 Emerging Business Leader of the Year.

“Problems don’t scare me, they excite me. I can wrap my arms around them,” Hardwick says. “I love to uncover who the players are, what the landscape is, and where those problems might scare people.

“My love of technology started pretty young,” Hardwick adds. In the fifth grade, before she learned how to type, she started fiddling around with a dial-up Compaq computer. When she attended Queen of Peace High School in Burbank, Illinois, Hardwick repaired computers part-time in the school’s tech lab, in addition to working at a fast-food restaurant.

Though she liked computer engineering, Hardwick gravitated toward user experience and project management courses, and jobs that were more aligned with improving user experience. She took an internship doing web development work for a female-founded health and wellness startup in Chicago.

“With their guidance, I negotiated my (meager) pay, and learned about what it takes to build and manage a start up. …I learned so much from those women,” Hardwick says.

In her next internship, at Visa, she completed a major project developing representative personas of its employees—complete with goals, motivations, and frustrations—to help the company figure out which tools would help its employees work better.

“I really was inspired by the work. I had only taken one user experience course,” Hardwick says. “Interning at Visa helped me to apply the theoretical lessons from my coursework and put them into practice. I was incredibly intrigued, as the user experience field, while established, was still evolving.”

Hardwick distinguished herself at Illinois Tech’s former School of Applied Technology, where she was honored as the school’s Commencement speaker.

After being hired full-time by Visa after graduation, Hardwick researched human interactions with both internal employee tools and external, consumer-facing products. She worked in a lab, asking potential customers of her clients questions about why they conducted tasks the way they did, and how. She then applied her technical experience to suggest possible ways to comfortably fit those preferences into a product like a mobile app or online tool.

Hardwick found that she “got more joy from scoping out the project with the client,” and pivoted again, into program management. In her new role, she combines her well-honed instincts relating to how humans react to different products and designs with her ability to manage strategic initiatives for the global design team.

“My role over my eight-year tenure has evolved every two years,” Hardwick laughs. “Early on, I wondered whether I should stick with the roles I knew well, because I was comfortable in them. But no, I told myself, ‘You got this down, you figured out what you like about it, and the area you want to move into next.’ And that became one of my superpowers.”