When Jessica Yu joined the Wall Street Journal in 2003 as the paper’s visual editor, it wasn’t regularly using photographs on its front page.
During her tenure as global head of visuals, she led a team of over 100 visual storytellers, designers, developers, data-visualization experts, and photo editors. Her team’s award-winning work spanned print, desktop, mobile, and app content. In 2014, she restructured the visuals team, making the WSJ a leader in storytelling across all platforms. She also introduced virtual reality into WSJ’s offerings with the VR/360° on-demand player, making them the first news company with VR capability on desktop and mobile.
But Yu had aspirations beyond media. “Over the course of my 13-year career at WSJ, I’ve got a deck of card’s worth of experiences: design, content, management, VR, product, etc. I’m excited to shuffle the cards and see what else I can make of them,” she told Poynter in February 2017 after accepting a buyout from WSJ. She moved to San Francisco to be closer to family and was quickly scooped up by Google.
Yu now channels her visual expertise into a far smaller palate with broader reach: the Google homepage. Google Doodles are a delightful, educational pleasure in modern life. As Doodle team lead, she heads up Google’s international team of doodlers, the talented illustrators and engineers who create the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes made to the Google logo on the site’s homepage. They’re regularly featured to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.
In an interview with Quartz, Yu explains how imposter syndrome is the key to her success, the challenge of simultaneously creating delight and serendipity, and why nothing is ever hopeless career-wise.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
Products and experiences are built to be dependable and consistent—but while that’s certainly a good thing, a dash of unexpectedness can really make something sing. Creating serendipity, and in turn planning for it on an organizational level, has been a lifelong obsession for me from my journalism days to today on the Doodle team. How do you give people something wonderful they didn’t even know they wanted, whether that’s learning about an inspiring historical figure to just a bit of silliness to that makes them smile? And, importantly, how do you make it “free,” as in without additional cost or effort by the user? Article layouts and Doodles do this very naturally by placing things within sight but not in a way that is disruptive to what someone is doing.
Organizationally it can sometimes be hard to argue for this delight and serendipity. Delight and other emotional responses are very hard to quantify. Exactly how much joy did running into your old friend on the subway bring you? How much do you love your mother? There are certain things we generally can’t (and probably shouldn’t!) put numbers on, so depending on the audience’s values, the Doodles can face quite a tough battle during some prioritization meetings. We have proxies, such as a fun measurement the Doodle team uses called “years of delight created” (in essence, “time spent”): For example, “This interactive created X hundreds of years of delight around the world.” But even that fails to accurately value the true impact of this type of experience: how much it resonated emotionally in the moment or if it will be remembered fondly in the future.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Imposter syndrome, if I’m being completely honest. I’ve talked to a lot of people and found imposter syndrome to be quite common among “high-achievers.” (As another symptom of imposter syndrome, we’d also all deny that we’re “successful” or “high achieving.”) A moderate dose of imposter syndrome plus a strong work ethic can actually be quite helpful, as it keeps you on your toes, constantly wanting to learn and accomplish more. And, once you do, you may find that you’re magically not an imposter anymore.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
We need our jobs and our policies to be structured to support the demands of modern life. Given how logistically difficult and expensive it is to arrange for child or elder care, a lot of career-oriented people are forced to drop out of the workforce or shift into non-promotion tracks. On a corporate level, we need to come up with more flexible notions of a “job” so people can have the option to move in and out of career-track roles seamlessly. On a social level, we need to make it easier to care for loved ones. This would help both men and women, really.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I probably could’ve spoken up more to my superiors. This sounds silly saying it, but bosses aren’t mind readers, and they don’t know that X random project is actually really interesting to you or that you’re more motivated by Y than by Z. Also, no one has all of the answers—not your parents, not your bosses, no one. Everyone is just trying their darnedest to do well for the team, so speaking up and contributing your thoughts to help solve a broader company problem without being asked can be so valuable, not to mention also raise your profile.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I’ve never let myself get to the stage of feeling despondent. Nothing is ever hopeless career-wise. Employment is a two-way street, and if the employee is unhappy then they aren’t doing their best work—and that’s not in the interest of the employer, either. You can always raise your hand for other assignments or push yourself to learn a new skill. And if, for whatever reason, it’s not possible to find fulfillment at your current company, start looking elsewhere. Sometimes it’s just square peg, round hole: There’s nothing wrong with the job nor the person, but they just may not be the right fit for each other, so move on and find what’s right for you. It’s what every company and decent person ultimately wants for everyone else.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
Gosh, I’m really not that tactical when it comes to building professional relationships. I don’t approach engaging with someone (anyone, not just coworkers) and getting to know who they are as a person with an eye toward, “This person could be useful to me professionally in the future.” But it just makes the workplace, and the world generally, run smoother if you have some base friendship when disagreement inevitably arises. Then it’s not a “me vs. you” situation, but rather a question of “how can we resolve this tricky issue together?” Also, I guess this is the journalist in me, but people are all genuinely very interesting; everyone has a story.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“There’s a reason the company pays you; if it were all fun all day, they wouldn’t have to pay you.” The former graphics director at WSJ used to have all sorts of unvarnished, on-the-nose nuggets of life wisdom for her team. And I totally agree. While it’s great to be big-picture inspired and fulfilled by your career, some days you just have to put your head down and do that assignment you’re not all that passionate about. Some days your career is just a job, but not to worry—there’s a lot more to you and your life than what you get paid to do.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Be wonderful and equal partners to their partners (of either gender) at home. Take on some of the mental load in addition to the laundry load.
At work, mentor young women in their careers. There’s sometimes a perception that mentors should be people of similar backgrounds to their mentees, but quite frankly, there just aren’t enough senior-level women around. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment: It can be as simple as the offer to practice a presentation before the big day. And be sure to explicitly offer; a lot of junior folks are too shy to ask.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that emojis are absolutely appropriate to use in work emails.
Everyone should own… a robot vacuum.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.