Speaking of… Life Paths
Content Strategist Amy Gurka talks seeking growth over glamour
‘Speaking of…’ is a series that showcases the value of vulnerability. Each segment will feature conversations with members of Airbnb Design and the broader design community about topics not typically discussed in our professional lives.
Topics will range from failure and life paths, to conflict and growth. No matter the subject, the series is an opportunity to get to know us better, and hopefully learn from the life and work experiences of others.
When you were a kid, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
In the second grade, I had it all figured out. I was going to be a nurse (like my aunt) on Mondays, a marine biologist on Tuesdays, ride bareback in the circus on Wednesdays, ride my horse to visit my parents on Thursdays, and a zoologist on Fridays.
When and how did Content Strategy first fall on your radar as a possible career?
Creative careers always seemed like a good fit, but I wasn’t sure if it was possible to become a designer without an art degree or a portfolio. I studied Comparative Literature and was teaching English in Spain after college, so I looked into getting a master’s in fine art and working for a design agency there. But in 2011, the European debt crisis made it difficult for anyone to find a job.
I came back to Chicago at a time when agencies were getting requests for more digital work than they could support, and this worked out well for me. Without a portfolio I wasn’t able to compete for print jobs, but I grew up playing video games and nerding out on computers—I got digital.
A position for a “UX/Content Strategy Apprentice” popped up and, while I barely understood what that meant, it turned out I was qualified. I loved making things easier for people, and I could write. They hired me as an intern.
Fast forward to today, you’re at Airbnb. What path did you take to get here?
I took some risks by staying at the same company for five years. Looking back, it’s clear how important it was to constantly assess my individual situation, to trust my judgment, and to not be distracted by or compare myself to other people—their salaries, their job titles, or their promotions as a result of switching companies.
The advantages of working at a growing private agency aligned with my career goals. Smaller teams meant more 1:1 coaching. Fewer employees meant I had to do a lot more than content strategy—I contributed to everything from brand style guides and taxonomies, to annotated wireframes and client pitches. I liked being thrown into the fire because it meant I had to learn fast.
I’d been following Airbnb’s career posts for two years and never saw an opening on the Content Strategy team. Then in 2017, right when I was considering a move to the West Coast, a position opened up with Airbnb. It felt right because I’d be joining the design team, and I’d have the opportunity to run data-driven experiments to develop the product.
What challenges have you faced while navigating your career? Any big insights or lessons learned?
The biggest challenges I’ve faced—even since childhood—have had to do with managing uncertainty and knowing when to take risks. In my experience, it’s always been the right choice to do something I love even when I have no idea where it’ll take me.
For example, studying Latin required hours of systems thinking that I now draw from when building complex back-end taxonomies, which power better search results. I questioned whether moving to Spain for two years could set me back professionally, but now it’s easier to write for someone who’s navigating a new culture because I’ve experienced that myself.
“My greatest insights have been to follow my intuition in the face of uncertainty, to prioritize growth over glamour, and to focus on creating work that I love.”
I’ve also found great value in learning tangential skills—such as front-end development—to better my craft, and have also come to understand the importance of working on diverse teams.
Who inspired you, or helped guide and encourage you along the way?
The founder at the company I worked at before Airbnb encouraged designers to listen to ideas without assessing anyone’s level of seniority, and that really stuck with me—good ideas can come from anywhere. I’m also inspired by leaders who invite people to pursue passion projects even if they aren’t related to their day-to-day responsibilities. It’s this kind of support that helps people grow in ways that bring innovative ideas to product development.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
To focus on what you love rather than doing things you don’t love but hope will help you achieve a goal a few years from now.
What advice would you give someone who’s trying to figure out what they want to do?
Spend your time trying a lot of different activities, and keep a journal of what you like and don’t like—pick apart why. Constantly ask yourself how what you’re doing is helping you realize your potential. Ask others what they feel are your strongest skills and growth opportunities, and be honest with yourself about what makes you happy. Prioritize what’s important: location, family, money, purpose, work-life balance—this can be a guiding light for your next step.
Finally, be brave! Ask for the job. Ask people for help getting there. Ask and fight for opportunities to do work you love and, if you don’t find them, create them yourself.