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Shirley Wu

Shirley and I talk about her job title, how she got into data visualization, how working in industry is different than working as a freelancer, and her new book!

Shirley Wu#

Shirley and I talk about her job title, how she got into data visualization, how working in industry is different than working as a freelancer, and her new book!




So today we're talking to Shirley Wu, Shirley Wu is a freelance data viz designer.

I know you have your own special term for it that you made up. If you can give us a little background on what you do, that'd be great.


Yeah. So the title I made for myself, because I work for myself is. Independent. Oh, there's been evolution. So the latest evolution is independent data visualization designer and engineer.

Yeah. I feel like this is more just me being annoyed at people being like, what's your title? Because I don't know what my title is, but essentially what that means is I work with a variety of different clients, usually in tech and media and journalism. and I help tell visual stories with their data.


I love it. And I think it's such a new field that even if you have a shorter title, no, one's going to know what it means anyway. So I love that it's long and descriptive.


I'm just like, this is exactly what I do for you.


It's just like reading a sentence. and I know you weren't always "this" job title. So if you could give like a little bit of background, like how you got started and how you got into this field, I think that'd be really helpful.


Yeah, of course. so when I first started, my career, I actually went to a big data company as a front end engineer, and that's kind of where I came across d3. And as I started kind of using d3 in my work, and then I started kind of going to the local Bay area, d3 meetups. That's when I was like, Oh, data visualization is a thing.

and this is a thing that I actually really enjoy. And so for my second job, I went to a startup and it was an enterprise security center, a startup, and I was... my official title there. So my first official title was, I think, Front End Engineer, I think, or Software Engineer. And I think my second official title was Member of Technical Staff, which is vague, but what I did for them is they wanted, essentially a visual tool to like help their customers kind of figure out how to secure their data center.

So instead of doing it by like tables or anything, they wanted a visualization that was kind of like part of their products. And so that's what I went and helped them build for a two and a half years. I think, as essentially I was a specialized Data Visualization Engineer, I guess, is probably the title now.

and then I think after that I wanted to go and try out things on my own, mainly because I realized I really enjoy data visualization, but not as much enterprise security. So then I wanted to kind of try freelancing to see what other sorts of companies were out there. What industries were starting to be in need of data visualization.

And that's how I started freelancing. And then you knew like people always ask you for titles and I'm like, I'm a freelancer and I make data visualizations and they're like, what does that mean? And I'm like, well, I design and I code. So that's, that's the title


Love it. I'm curious

when you were working at these companies, Oftentimes your developer or your designer... were you designing the data visualizations or were you getting designs and then implementing them?


Yeah. So, that's a really great question. So I think subconsciously that's probably. Like, you know, hindsight 20/20, that's probably one of the reasons why I wanted to venture off on my own, which is, even at my startup, which was quite like hierarchically, like vertically very fluid. And there wasn't that much structure and, you know, it had that sort of everybody does it kind of vibe, but even there, I was slotted as Software Engineer. And so like, fortunately I worked with people that were very much willing to take feedback. So the designer that I worked with, he was really great and took a lot of feedback. The product manager took a lot of feedback, but even then my role was software engineer, but I was like very much interested in kind of the whole process.

I was like very much interested in like the, customer feedback and like why the PM was thinking about certain features. I was very much interested in how those features were getting translates into designs and because I feel like by the time it gets to us as software engineers, there are a lot of decisions that have already been made.

And that's kind of hard to develop for without the original context. So it was because of that that I was like, and in my personal times, I had been doing all these data visualization projects. And for all of those, I get to do the whole process, right? Of going out and collecting my own data and doing my own design and doing the code.

So, I think not being able to be involved in the whole process in my full-time job, that was probably one of the things where it really drove me to be like, "Okay, I really want to try and go off on my own and see if I can do this whole process with like different clients."


I love that.

And that really resonates with me especially with data, you can't just like. Say, Oh, these are the requirements. Let's make a design and then hand it off to engineering because once you actually implement it, it might not be at all what the designs look like. You just really have to know what the data look like before you do the design.


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