Kirk A. Crawford ’14, information systems, M.S. ’16, human-centered computing, is a Product Manager and Research Advisor at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and is currently enrolled in our Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing program. He talks about his research interests, what his day-to-day position at the IRS looks like, and shares why pursuing his academic and professional careers at the same time is important to him.
Information Systems: You received your BS and MS from the Department of Information Systems and are currently a Ph.D. candidate in our HCC program. What was it about UMBC that encouraged you to further your studies?
Kirk A. Crawford: I decided to continue my studies at UMBC because it felt like home to me. Over the years, I’ve made many close friends and connections here. I also knew that the IS and HCC programs would be the best place for me to pursue my next degree because the academics were demanding, but the instructors and mentors provided ample support. Moreover, UMBC’s flexibility has been unmatched, allowing me to earn both my BS and MS degrees while working and building a professional career. Today, I’m pursuing a Ph.D. while working full-time, thanks to UMBC’s support. Without this support, I wouldn’t be where I am today!
Information Systems: With your BS in IS, how did you decide to transition to the Human-Centered Computing field?
Kirk A. Crawford: Transitioning from IS to HCC was an easy decision for me. I’ve always been curious about technology’s potential to make life easier, especially for individuals with disabilities. HCC enables me to focus on this interest. HCC is all about understanding how people use and interact with technology and then using that knowledge to design technology that really makes a difference in their lives. It’s very exciting to be in a field that blends technology with other disciplines to have tangible impacts on everyday life.
Information Systems: Can you talk a little more about your research interests and what you are currently working on?
Kirk A. Crawford: My research interests center around understanding accessibility in marginalized communities, particularly the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, and those at the intersection of these identities. I’m particularly interested in exploring how the use and non-use of assistive technology (AT) impact community access to resources, as well as ways to improve the design and implementation of AT to meet the needs of these communities. My research goal is to help inform new approaches to the processes, practices, and development of organizational structures that improve community centers, safe spaces, and services for LGBTQIA+ people with disabilities. I’ve also more recently started exploring opportunities to co-design 3D-printed tactile maps with individuals who are blind or have low vision.
Information Systems: You are a full-time Ph.D. student and also work full-time as a Product Manager and Research Advisor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Was it important for you to pursue your academic and professional careers at the same time?
Kirk A. Crawford: Yes, I chose to continue my education at UMBC because I wanted the flexibility to work full-time and pursue my Ph.D. at the same time. I love my job and career, and I did not want to give them up to pursue the research goals I’m passionate about. When I began the Ph.D. program, my goal was to balance my academic and professional career, and my advisor supported me throughout. Years ago, during my undergraduate internship, which I gained through the Career Center, I realized that gaining professional experience could help me succeed in academia. I also discovered that many skills, such as time management and project management, were transferable between these two distinct environments and essential for success. This still holds true today!
Information Systems: What does your day-to-day look like as a Product Manager and Research Advisor at the IRS?
Kirk A. Crawford: As a Product Manager and Research Advisor at the IRS, my days are quite dynamic. They involve a mix of steering product development and collaborating with various stakeholders across the agency to envision, design, develop, and implement digital products across the agency’s portfolio. I also work with our various research teams to establish research goals, drive research strategy, and strengthen the voice of research and UX more broadly. This helps me advocate for user needs and ensure our products solve user problems.
A typical day might start with me participating in team elaboration sessions where we discuss business rules and policy decisions. I coordinate with various teams, from IT to legal, that might impact our products. I also meet with research leads to strategize on our next research activities, coordinate with our design leads to deliver and test design prototypes, and work with our product teams to coordinate work across our portfolio to ensure we’re not working in a silo.
I also love to spend time familiarizing myself with user feedback, which helps me better understand what our users need and how we can serve them better. It’s a busy role, but seeing our work make a real difference in how people interact with the IRS is incredibly rewarding.
Information Systems: What would you say to students thinking about pursuing a Ph.D.?
Kirk A. Crawford: Great question. I think everyone goes through their own journey when deciding whether or not pursuing a Ph.D. is the right thing for them at that particular point in their lives. My personal strategy to take on any new challenge has been to start with a bit of soul-searching that considers the pros and cons of the decision but also mainly asks the question, “Why am I drawn to do this?” and “Why does this matter to me?” For me, this self-reflection and getting past some initial fear and self-doubt was a big part of my journey and decision to start a Ph.D.
In my opinion, your decision to start a Ph.D. program should never just be about getting the degree, which will be amazing and well worth it, I’m sure, but more about loving the research and work you’ll be doing. You should be prepared for challenges and those days when you’re just exhausted after a day full of meetings, errands, taking care of kids, spending time with a partner, or just a busy day – realizing that it’s all part of the process. Before you start, I think it’s important to realize that it won’t be easy and there will be many demands on your time, but you shouldn’t let that discourage you. So far, I’ve found that one important consideration to being ready for this journey is to ensure you have a solid support network – family, friends, or coworkers who’ve got your back. This support made a world of difference for me.
Information Systems: Is there something you would like to share with current students as they begin a new semester at UMBC?
Kirk A. Crawford: This semester, I plan to dedicate more time to myself, focusing on mindfulness and creating a schedule that allows me to continue to balance work, academic life, and personal growth. I encourage others to try practicing mindfulness as well, even if it’s not something they’re familiar with. I believe that taking time for oneself is important for maintaining a healthy work-life balance, especially when juggling work and academic demands.