Yoga in San Diego at the IA Summit

Marshal Datkowitz / Friday, April 11, 2014

San Diego IA Summit

I am writing this blog as I fly back to Newark from the 15th annual Information Architecture Summit held in San Diego, California. As the steady hum of the engines lulls most passengers asleep, I am still thinking of the great speakers I listened to. One was the inspirational morning keynote by Irene Au, she’s worked at some of the most legendary companies of the Internet - Netscape, Yahoo! and Google. But now her journey has taken her to a career as a Yoga teacher!

Irene started us off with a short yoga session right from our chairs - I knew right away that this was no ordinary conference! I was now relaxed and ready to hear about her journey from interaction designer at Netscape to head of design at Google.  

Irene’s first job in 1996 was at Netscape as an interaction designer. She described the environment as the most amazing place filled with brilliant people.  She was challenged there by a tough engineer who complained of her work, but after collaborating with him, he soon became a close ally.  In 1998 she decided to move on to Yahoo! where she felt there was more opportunity developing content rather than developing a browser.

In 1998 Yahoo! was one of the ugliest sites around, just a collection of hyperlinks but it was poised to begin web based mail and other interactive products. Irene’s challenge was turning around a very traditional shop where product owners defined the product and graphic designers just designed the interface. They didn’t understand user centered design techniques, but by picking small projects that would have big impacts she helped gain momentum, eventually employing more UX people than any other company in Silicon Valley.         

Irene’s fight to develop a design department at the engineering centric Google was so successful that it was determined to decentralize design to each product -- which basically put her out of a job. Disillusioned with the crazy hours and feelings that she was missing out on her children growing up, she left Google and became a certified yoga teacher.

Her story epitomized the hard driving women in a predominantly male field, who along the way came to understand three important things:

  1. The importance of building bridges with people (even if they don’t like you or are very different from you).

  2. Looking beyond what you are doing today -- try to create the future.

  3. Be brave and break with the past, even if it was successful in the past it may not work now. Try to look at problems with a “beginner’s mind.”

Irene summed up her talk with what she said were the two keys to her success: adversity and listening. People along the way gave her a hard time but her ability to listen to these people, learn from them and then turn the situation around helped her achieve her goals.