Shirley Wu is a true unicorn: a communicator with a passion for data, great design talent, and stellar technical development skills. Hear her talk about her process and how to develop your skills in these four areas.
and I'm phrasing that very specifically 'cause that's the term that I've heard her use. And so, Shirley, welcome, and thank you very much for joining us here today. - Thank you so much, Bill, for having me here today, and thank you so much for using that phrase. It's having very good communication skills. And it's also having the technical chops to be able to pull these things off on your own. And so, I think that you fall into that category from what I know about you and the work that I've seen you do, which is amazingly beautiful and wonderful. So I was wondering, first of all, if you could tell me whether or not you agree? Are you a unicorn, and if so, or if not, how do you feel about that term being applied to you? - (chuckles) First of all, thank you so much. I'm super flattered that you think that way. I don't really consider myself a "unicorn", in the sense that because my background is in software, I completely agree that my technical skills are quite strong. I'm pretty happy with my technical skills. But in terms of everything else, the design, the data analysis, the storytelling, those are things that I've worked really hard to kind of get better at in the last two and a half years that I've been a freelancer, just because I realized that I needed to do that to be able to help my clients tell stories with their data. And oftentimes, my clients will come to me, and only me, with their dataset, and be like, "Please do something." And so I've kind of had to teach myself the rest of the four, the three out of four, out of necessity. I'm super flattered (chuckles) about the eye for design and creativity, especially because I don't think of myself as a designer, but it's an area that I've been trying really hard to work on. And the part about the story and narrative, that's one of my favorite parts, the storytelling part. And so that part, I'm really happy that you say so also. But the statistics, the data analysis part, is the part that I'm the weakest at, and it's something that I want to work on next. So-- - Yeah. - I don't really think I'm a unicorn, but I'm just trying to work on it little by little, trying to polish my skills so that I can be kind of like that all encompassing thing for my clients. - Yeah. Yeah, I think it's a fair point. I think that, to be perfectly honest, yeah, have I ever met anybody who was like 100 out of 100 score across all four? I don't think so, and for sure. - No. - And you know, I do think that most people tend to be, maybe if they're strong around the technical, maybe that is paired more with the statistics and analytics side, and then if they're strong on the creative, maybe that's paired with storytelling. And so it's rare to have somebody to even embody three of those things. And especially, I found, it's very rare for someone to have very good design skills and then also have the technical and statistical skills, so those two sides of the coin are really hard to pair together. - Yeah, I-- - I'm not surprised to hear you say that the statistics and analytics is your weakest, which when data visualizations lack one or two or three components of that, then they're not as great, right? - Yeah, I think-- - Would you say that doing the Data Sketches project, specifically, 'cause you mentioned the Bussed Out project really helped you hone your narrative skills, did Data Sketches help you with your unicorn-ness? 'Cause you had to work on all those things, I imagine, simultaneously in some way. - Oh my god, yes. I think I can attribute Data Sketches to pretty much all of my design. I think most of my realization that I suck at design, (Bill laughs) like not graphic design, not art, but specifically data visualization design, that for the first few years when I was doing code, and I was just doing D3, and I was just trying to like, before I started freelancing, I thought data visualization equaled D3. That was like my naive outlook. Once I started freelancing, and it was really because of Data Sketches and working with Nadieh that I realized that there's a whole subset of design that's just data and data visualization specific design. And that's what made me realize that sometimes, my visualizations are horrible because I ignored some of the common things that you need to look out for for visualization. And that's why I started to pay more attention to it. I think that's the biggest thing I learned from Data Sketches. And the other thing is just because Nadieh comes from a data science background. I learned from just kind of reading about her data process of how she thinks through the data and how. (chuckles) One of the stupidest things I've done is, because I come from such a code-centric background, some of the first few times I was trying to clean data, I would do it literally in a text file that's a CSV, and I would literally just write a cell, comma, thing, comma, thing, comma, and then it would take me days. - Yeah. - And I read one of Nadieh's post about how she cleans her data in Excel, and I'm like, duh. (both laugh) So I've learned a lot from Nadieh, not only just from reading from her blog post or her post, but also just asking her questions about how she might approach a specific data problem. And the fun thing about Data Sketches is that she's oftentimes told me that she would be amazed with, like that she would read about my code process and really love what I did there. So, it's been a really amazing project that way. - Yeah. Mature collaboration, that's really great. - Yeah. - So tell us what you're working on now? What's the next thing you're going to put out there that you're excited about, that's interesting, innovative, cool? - Yeah, so I have an answer for that. (Bill laughs) So I'm still continuing with my visualizations, with my client work, but the thing that I'm really excited for this year is that, for the last few years, I've been really fascinated with physical installations, and those sort of experiences where you walk into a room and the artwork is all around you that it immerses you. And sometimes, it's interactive, and I love that because, as someone that works in software, all of the things that I build and I could spend months and months of pouring my love into it, and it becomes just something that someone sees on a screen. - Yeah. - And I'd be lucky if I have 30 seconds of their time, maybe a minute of their time. And because there's so many other things on their screen, like vying for their attention. And so for the last few years, I've been kind of obsessed with this idea of how can I bring my work into the physical world. And for this year, I've made it a goal to actually pursue that. So I still don't really know exactly how to go about it, but the end of last year, I did this 3D data visualization project called Legends. It's about the 51 female Nobel Laureates. And I did that one because I realized that for me to move into the physical world, I need to be able to think in the third dimension, and that's why I did a 3D visualization. And I'm hoping to, some time this year, start making that into a physical kind of exhibit experience. Yeah, so that's what I'm working on right now. - Very cool. - Not actively, but what I'm hoping to work on this year. - Yeah, that's great. It's very good to have goals, and that sounds like a really interesting project. I look forward to seeing where you go with it. - Thank you so much! - Yeah, no, it's very cool. So Shirley, unfortunately, we are out of time. But I just wanted to say, first of all, it's a pleasure to talk to you, and it's really interesting to hear your perspective, your humility about your unicorn-ness is very good, very refreshing, very nice. But I definitely still say you're definitely a unicorn. - Thank you. (laughs) - And I'm really glad that our audience got a chance to hear what you had to say about it and your thoughts about it and how you progressed and how you learned to develop those skills that needed developing. So thank you very, very much for being with us. - And thank you so much, Bill, for this interview and for the really awesome questions.