illustration for How Shirley Wu Built A Career As A Freelance Data Visualizer

episode 67 Joel Hooks

How Shirley Wu Built A Career As A Freelance Data Visualizer

Shirley Wu is a freelance data visualization expert. Data visualization, at its core, is when you take lots of data, and it's hard for you to look in Excel. You visualize that into some graph or chart, and the most simple could be a bar chart or some graph so that you can understand trends within it easier.

In data visualization, there is an entire spectrum of approaches you can take with a dataset. You have to decide on the balance between art and the data. With clients, choosing where in that spectrum is asking yourself, "What do I want for the end-user to experience?" The difference between a purely artistic piece and a visualization is that with data visualization, there's a goal to it. You're taking data, and you're trying to communicate something, or you're trying to build a tool to help people explore that data.


Transcript

"How Shirley Wu Built A Career As A Freelance Data Visualizer" Transcript

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Shirley Wu

Joel Hooks

Transcript

Joel Hooks:
Hi Shirley.

Shirley Wu:
Hi Joel. Thank you so much for having me.

Joel Hooks:
I'm very stoked. I'm so excited to talk to you. We're going to talk about data visualization. That's kind of your thing, that's what you're known for. But I wanted to first start out and talk to you about how you work because over the last three or four years, you took the switch from being a full-time employee to being a freelancer to working for yourself.

Joel Hooks:
And I was wondering what caused you to make that decision, make that leap into this world of freelance work?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. So, I have to say that I actually never expected to freelance in the sense that I've always been extremely risk averse, like don't even want to do stocks, that's how risk averse I am, and so I always thought of freelancing as something that was way too scary not to have that regular pay check. But then when I was 24 and I was working my first year at a startup, and I was realizing that I was working nights and weekends, I wasn't having much else of a life. And that's when I started doing more and more side projects. And then two years later I was kind of trying to figure out my next step, and that kind of realization I had at 24 it kept on sticking with me, and I had a few friends in data visualization that were also freelancing at that time, and they were kind of super amazing about explaining the whole process to me, being like, "Hey, there is risk, but here's how you kind of go and set up all the legal process, and all the financial process, and accounting so that you don't have all of that risk." And I was like, "Oh, maybe this is something I can try."

Shirley Wu:
Maybe this is something I can try and figure out what it is that I really enjoyed doing, because I knew I enjoyed doing data visualization, but I didn't know what industry I'd like it to be in. So, I was like, "Oh maybe I'll go freelance for a year or two and figure out what it is that I want to do with my life." I'm like, "Go back into full-time." And I figured it out three years later I'm like, "Nope. I like it here."

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Sticking with it.

Shirley Wu:
Working for myself.

Joel Hooks:
What's the best part about being a freelancer?

Shirley Wu:
The freedom. What I did not realize about myself until I quit is how much I actually hated being told what to do.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, yeah. I feel that.

Shirley Wu:
And I mean, I did it. I was like, "Oh this is what a full-time job is." I get told what to do my managers and by bosses, and once I became my own boss I was like, "Oh I can take on whatever clients I want to, and I don't have to take on clients and projects I don't want to." I can do podcast recordings if I want, I can travel to conferences if I want.

Shirley Wu:
I can do whatever I want, and that freedom is really amazing. So, that is my favorite thing.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Recently you took months off to go do a fellowship at NYU, right?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
You're able to do that, and that's not necessarily something you can do when you're working as a salaried employee. I mean, there might be a company that accepts that, but that's unusual and something of the freedom to do.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah, you're right. A company might accept it, but only if I've worked there for three, four or five years. Prove them myself as a worthy employee.

Joel Hooks:
Like a sabbatical?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah like a sabbatical sort of thing. They will probably let me do three months or something like that. But yeah, being freelancing, being free meant that, "Okay. This is kind of something I want for the next step of my career." When I kind of really looked back at what I wanted to do next, I was like, "Oh I want to do more art kind of things next." And went to NYU, went to ITP for three months, and that was really amazing.

Shirley Wu:
Very bad financial decision, but extremely worth it for everything else.

Joel Hooks:
I think going to New York in general is just a bad financial decision for almost anybody.

Shirley Wu:
Oh yeah, and I was paying rent in Brooklyn, and a mortgage in SF.

Joel Hooks:
Oh yeah. Nice. Double duty.

Shirley Wu:
Oh yeah.

Joel Hooks:
So, what's the worst part about being a freelancer? Maybe not the worst part, but what are the drawbacks of this type of work?

Shirley Wu:
I mean, there's two things that are really hard for me. The first is just the amount of stress of worrying about money, and I think it's especially really hard being in San Francisco, and being consistently surrounded by the knowledge that I could be making more at a full-time job. And I think that part is really hard, and I find that I actually talked about this in Ken's podcast actually where he asked me what was something that I really disliked.

Shirley Wu:
And I think one of the things I really dislike is I can't help but think about potential projects and potential clients as the monetary figure. Like, "If I take on this project, then because is smaller, so I have to take on another project." Or something like that. And I that, I really don't like having to think that way, and always having to think about the money, and I just wish I could be like, "Oh this client is a really great client." I just really want to work with them.

Shirley Wu:
Or I had to recently turn down a client I was extremely excited about because they just didn't have the budget. But yeah, for me the first part is kind of always being stressed about the money, and the second part I think is very related, which is because I'm a freelancer and there's an actual value to my hour and daily rate, it means that if I don't check myself, I end up just constantly working, and I don't have a good balance, and I don't give enough time with my family or friends or my husband, and I fall really easily into a rabbit hole, which is working because I'm like, "Oh if I just work another a day, that's more money."

Joel Hooks:
Because it's a service, right? You're providing a service, and that service is you, and your time, and your billing rate, right? I don't know. I would always find myself when I was freelancing applying my hourly rate to non-work things. I could be making $150 an hour right now, but instead I'm having a burrito. I don't think so.

Shirley Wu:
Or conversely I'm just a horrible person where I'm like, "Oh I can buy this thing, and it's only an X number of hours of my time."

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. That new thing costs ... That's three house of work or two hours of work, and-

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. And I'm like, "Oh it's okay then because it's not actually that much of my hourly rate."

Joel Hooks:
I think it's true. It's not much different in that regard to me than working a full-time job, right? You're still are providing the service, but it gives you a different mindset in terms of how you're viewing kind of the value of your time.

Joel Hooks:
I'm curious. Do you bill on an hourly basis or a daily basis or a weekly basis? How do you approach projects like that from a billing perspective?

Shirley Wu:
I actually haven't done a client project in a while because I had the fellowship thing, so this is now a review for me.

Joel Hooks:
Oh getting back into it?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. I need to get back into it. So, I bill daily, and this is after I tried a couple of different ways. First, I tried to bill hourly, and that was really bad because it was really stressful being like, "Okay now. I need to turn off the clock to go eat lunch, and I need to turn off the clock to go to the bathroom."

Shirley Wu:
And so, I tried by project, and that was also really bad because projects inevitably balloon and steal more in time. And so, now I just do it by daily, and then I give my clients a rough project estimate, and I say any extra days are an additional charge.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. How do you find new clients? Where is your work coming from? Like you said, you're getting back into it, so this is probably on your mind even. Where are they coming from? Is it something you seek or are they seeking you out or where are your leads coming from?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. So, for most of my freelancing I've been really lucky in that they've always found me just because what I've put out there on the internet with my projects or with the conference talks I do. I think the conference talks actually help a lot because it leads to very eventual clients. Not immediate, but people will remember, "Oh that's what she does."

Shirley Wu:
And then when they have a project, they'll think of me. So, most of my leads have been because of putting my work out there and they find me, so I've been lucky in that way. I used to be picky about the projects I take in that I always wanted it to have something that's an interesting technical challenge or an interesting topic.

Shirley Wu:
But in the past year, I've been really trying to figure out what it is that I want to be ... What kind of projects do I want to be working that are meaningful to me. And so, I found that I've become even more picky unfortunately, and so now I'm trying to figure out how to pitch potential clients that I'm really interested in working on. It's very mixed results because it's very hard to pitch someone that has never thought about data visualization and hasn't made any budget for it that they might need, what I want to do for them.

Joel Hooks:
That's interesting though because it's kind of flipping on its head because you'd find whatever the subject matter, people would find you and they would have some result. But instead, you are seeing potential projects in spaces that you are interested in, that you feel passionate about and pitching more services to them. So, it's putting you in a more sales role in some way or something.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. And that's something that I've been really struggling with, and this is something else that I realized recently, which is that I really can't do all this by myself anymore because I think when I was able to do things with clients coming in, it meant that I was spending most of my time working on the projects, and thus working on billable hours, and there's all these overhead. But it wasn't so bad. It was maybe 30% of my time to talk with potential clients or do the contracts or do the billing, and maybe that was 30, 40% of my time, which is kind of large, but it's doable.

Shirley Wu:
And now that I'm seeing projects that I want to work on, organizations I want to work with, and I have to kind of figure out a pitch for them, it's a lot of time and I don't think I can ... That's what I'm trying to figure out for the new year of really figuring out, maybe a person that I can really work with for that sales part. Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Almost like an agent or a sales person or just somebody to collaborate with to handle and take some of that burden off, so you can think about kind of the core problems that you're interested in, and let somebody that's good at that stuff handle that.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. I just want to do the creative things.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. It would be nice. I feel you there. I just want to tinker with code all day, and then you end up ... There's all this other stuff that you end up needing to do just to manage a business, and I feel freelancing, it's puts all this administrative burden on yourself now, right? If you're working for a company, they kind of handle a lot of the administration for you, and the paperwork, and this, that and the other.

Joel Hooks:
But now, you're responsible for it. So, not only do you deal with clients and all this stuff, you end up with dealing with state, and local, and federal taxes-

Shirley Wu:
Oh my god yeah.

Joel Hooks:
... and all that fun stuff. It's a give and take. I think the freedom is ultimately worth it for a lot of people, but at the same time it's like, "Can you take this and can you handle it?" I think three years in or four years in now almost, obviously it's setting well with you. You didn't give up your experiment?

Shirley Wu:
No, no. In fact, I'm doubling down on it.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, yeah. That's what you got to do. Well, I guess it's working out, so now I need to just go full force. That makes sense. But I want to take it back. I want to take it way back, and I want to know how you got into programming computers and technology in general. Where did this start for you?

Shirley Wu:
Oh. Oh wow. If we take it way, way back.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, all the way.

Shirley Wu:
It when I was 10, I was like, "I'm going to be a Pixar animator."

Joel Hooks:
Oh yeah.

Shirley Wu:
I guess that's the way, way back.

Joel Hooks:
I went to college for that actually.

Shirley Wu:
Really?

Joel Hooks:
That's what my degree is. I didn't make it to Pixar, but that was the goal at the time. It was right when Toy Story came out, and I wanted to be a Pixar animator, so I studied 3D graphics.

Shirley Wu:
That's so cool.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah.

Shirley Wu:
Do you still do that?

Joel Hooks:
No. I ended up doing ... I did forensic animation like death on the highway, car crash stuff for about 13 years, and then I switched to programming because the salary ceiling for that particular career is pretty low. Yeah. So, anyway you wanted to be a Pixar animator.

Shirley Wu:
Oh yes. Yeah. So, I think when I was 10, and then at that time I didn't even know what that means or what that requires. And then I went to middle school, I went to high school, it was on the back of my mind. My high school didn't offer any computer science classes, so I couldn't kind of take that.

Shirley Wu:
In high school, I actually ... I guess I can admit this now because it's a decade later or something. So, in high school I think around my freshman year, my first experience with tech was I think in middle school because we took a computer typing class that taught a little bit of basic web design, and because of that I started designing websites. And my first ever website for myself was freshman year, and I designed a whole website where I would go into IRC and download manga, and then I would upload it to my website and manage it.

Joel Hooks:
I see. You're running a pirate manga site. Is that's what was going on? Nice.

Shirley Wu:
I know. Yeah. That was my very first website, and I did the HTML and CSS, and I was too scared of the JavaScript part because nobody around me coded or anything, so I had nobody to ask for help. Google wasn't a thing, and so I just did the HTML and CSS, and yeah I helped redistribute manga from questionably acquired sources.

Joel Hooks:
You're doing a public service. You're hooking people up.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. I learned a lot.

Joel Hooks:
So, how did that lead you to being a data visualization expert? What's the leap there? How did you cross that chasm?

Shirley Wu:
Actually, that was the first time I "publicly admitted" that I used to redistribute manga. But no, it has absolutely nothing to do with each other I think. Although, I think that interest in web and web design led me to take a web design mini-class in college, and I think that's what ultimately led me to my first job just because I ... Yeah.

Shirley Wu:
So, I think that was when ... My first job was as a front end developer at a big data company, and that was my first year was when D3 was just released, and they just wanted someone to look at it, and so that's how I got into D3, and that's how I was introduced to data visualization, and I didn't even know that was a thing that existed. And that's the kind of thin connection between those two.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. I think it's great though. Just that introduction. It's like, "Oh, well, I want to put something out there. I love this stuff." And you have the fandom and the desire to share it with others, so you used the tools that you have available to get it out there. I mean, that's really great.

Shirley Wu:
Thank you.

Joel Hooks:
So, what is data visualization? How do you define it or how do you explain it to people? What's the elevator pitch for data visualization?

Shirley Wu:
Oh I don't have a good elevator pitch. It's when you take lots of data, and especially if there's thousands of rows, and it's hard for you to just look in Excel, and you visualize that into some sort of graph or chart, the most simple could be a bar chart or a ... I only condone pie charts in very specific use cases, but some sort of a graph so that you can understand trends within it easier.

Shirley Wu:
So, I think that's kind of my simplified version of explanation of data visualization.

Joel Hooks:
And how did you get into it? You said you left college, you started as a front end developer, you're at a company that dealt with a lot of data and they wanted you to look at D3. So, what kind of work were you doing there, and how did that lead to what you're doing today?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. So, I think I came into data visualization in a rather untraditional way, but considering how new data visualization is, I think most of us come into it in an untraditional way. So, I started because I think my company just wanted to build some sort of tree, an XML tree into their products, so people could I think edit some sort of an application that they were doing, and so they needed D3 for that.

Shirley Wu:
And once I grasped D3, I was like, "Oh this is super fun." And I got really into it, and I started doing more and more things with D3, and trying to explore more of the library, and at a certain point I got involved with Bay Area D3 user group, which is the meetup group here for D3, and that's when I started meeting other people that were doing similar things because D3 at that time, and still now though. It's such a niche thing that I couldn't find anybody else at my own company to talk about with.

Shirley Wu:
So, I found this kind of community, and there was a really good support group sort of thing, and then that's where I learned that there's so much more to data visualization. First of all, what I was doing was called data visualization, and second of all, there's so much more to data visualization. And so, what I was doing was just the code part, and it was specifically coding for the web, but there is also the design part, and the data analysis, and part a whole industry of data journalism that's about storytelling.

Shirley Wu:
And it was ... Yeah. So, I think that's kind of how I really got into this whole thing of data visualization of being first introduced to such a small part, and then realizing that there's a whole world of it. And it particularly kind of stuck with me because I've always loved math in school, I always loved working with numbers. I loved to code just because I loved the feeling of creating something, and it makes so much sense to me.

Shirley Wu:
The logical part of it just makes a lot of sense to me, and I actually grew up painting for 14 years, and I gave that up in university. And so, I loved the fact that visualization had an artistic design sort of aspect to it.

Joel Hooks:
That was going to be my next question actually because I get the fundamental kind of, "Here's some data. We need to look at it." But then the quality, it's like you got to draw some sort of balance between the art, and the data, and the usefulness of what you're presenting to people.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah, yeah. And I think that balance is sometimes really hard. Well, okay. So, there's what I try to do now, which is that to balance the telling the data or telling a story that's informed by the data versus kind of the more artistic thing, I think there's always attention of how artistic do you go or how creative do you go, so that it catches people's attention versus how much do you restrain that, so that it's easy for people to get what you're trying to say right away?

Shirley Wu:
And I think there's always attention there, and I don't think it's one or the other. I think it's a spectrum, and I think it really depends on what you're trying to do with the piece. So, if you're in the New York Times and you're trying to convince ... Or not convince, but you're trying to tell a story to an audience.

Shirley Wu:
Maybe you don't want something that's super flashy, but then maybe there's ... I always love Giorgia Lupi's work, and she's a data designer in New York City, and she recently released a fashion line around data about three women. About Ada Lovelace, Amanda Jensen, and Rachel Carson, and her work is always so much more on the art side. And it's extremely beautiful, and it takes a lot of time for you to kind of go through and understand the underlying data just because she encodes so much.

Shirley Wu:
It always takes an hour for me to decode it all. But for her, especially for that fashion line, her purpose is art, her purpose is fashion. And so, that's why I think there is a spectrum in which you can slide back and forth.

Shirley Wu:
I think these days to me, how I decide where in that spectrum is always like, "What do I want for the end user to experience?" Whereas before when I was just coding and I hadn't thought about the design part years ago, I used to just be like, "I'm just going to do this for the technical fun of it."

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. I mean, I suspect sometimes you want ... If I'm doing some sort of high frequency trading stock dashboard-

Shirley Wu:
Okay. You want-

Joel Hooks:
Look, the point is I want to look at it and I want to know what's going on right now.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah, yeah.

Joel Hooks:
But with a project like you were talking about Giorgia's work where it's more artistic, the data is still there, you want people to figure it out, but you want them to spend time and almost marinate in the data, and can feel what's going on versus instant information. So, there's a huge spectrum in between that as well.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. And for her, the beauty is the number one thing. And for me, I think I lean more towards the beauty is more ... I like projects where the beauty is the main thing.

Joel Hooks:
And I think regardless, right? It needs to be aesthetically pleasing even if you are talking about a high frequency trading dashboard. People want to look at that, and if you had to stare at this thing all day, it needs to look good, right? You can't just have some sort of bootstrap looking graph.

Joel Hooks:
I guess you can. It depends on the use case. I'm not going to-

Shirley Wu:
I think people are extremely tolerant when they have to do something, and that's their only option. I think people are truly tolerant.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. They'll take what they can get?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
"That's fine. It works for now." So, what do you tell people ... I have to imagine people ask you like, "How do I get into this? How do I get into data visualization and do this on the job?" What's your advice and where do you suggest they start?

Shirley Wu:
Oh yeah. And so, actually in the last year, it's great because I now have a very easy answer to this question, which is there is now an organization called Data Visualization Society, and it's got 10,000 members, and a very active Slack with a lot of different channels that discuss different things, and they also kind of try to collect resources for beginners to tell them where to start. And so, they've actually made my job really easy, so I just tell people to go to Data Vis Society, and I'm sure they'll be able to find their way from there.

Shirley Wu:
But what I used to say is I used to ask people like, "Okay. What is ..." Even when you say, "I want to get into data visualization." Data visualization, I think of it as multiple different parts. And so, those parts are like data analysis that feeds in, and there's the information design, there's coding on the web or coding I think with Tableau or with any of the other software that's out there, and there's also the storytelling aspect of it.

Shirley Wu:
It's a very wide range that kind of all feeds into data visualization. And so, the first question I always ask is what is your background? Are you already a developer? Are you already a designer? Are you already one of those things or are you coming in completely new?

Shirley Wu:
And the second question I ask is given that background, what is an area that you want to concentrate on first? Because it would be very hard for you to try to tackle all of it first, and so what is the area that you want to get better at first? For most people, I suggest that they try working on the design part first, the information design part first because I think that's the most important thing in making sure that a person creates visualizations that are good.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Because information design is the underlying data, right?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
Would that be correct? We need to take some raw data and create something useful, otherwise you'll never get to where you want to be. Your end result isn't going to be good.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. Kind of the whole study of if given this sort of data, what sort of graph should we apply it to feed it into? Or how do we design this thing in such that it makes the most sense to people? Or even just questioning what the purpose of the visualization is? It's kind of the whole design approach, but with a more specific kind of information visualization lens to it.

Shirley Wu:
And so, I usually suggest people to go there, and then from there either if they don't want to code, then maybe they can try out some of the software that's kind of feeds your data in and choose your graph options, or choose different options, and then they can try and cut out the code that way. Or if they do want to code, then here's the list of workshops that are out there or online resources. And if you want to do the data part, here's this list of resources.

Shirley Wu:
So, that's the longer answer to how do I get started with data visualization.

Joel Hooks:
I mean, in some levels you could open Excel and drop your data in there, and start playing ... There's charts and graphs in Excel, and at that point you are visualizing data, and it might not be the artistic expression or really have the ultimate end meeting, but we can start exploring, then we can start exploring data visualization at that level.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah, yeah. You're right. I always forget things.

Joel Hooks:
I think a lot of us do especially if you've been coding a long time, you forget that Excel exists, which is probably the number one coding environment on the planet but lots of people that aren't programmers use Excel and do these kinds of things on a daily basis than it is a programming environment.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah, you're absolutely right. I make the mistake of just trying to use code as my big hammer solution to everything, and I'm trying to get better at that.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. You and me both. I love it.

Shirley Wu:
Oh, and then I follow up and tell them once you feel like you got good fundaments, then try and figure out a small bite sized chunk project that you can do, that you can apply all those skills to, then go from there. So, that's the end part of the answer to the question.

Joel Hooks:
You see, and just related to that, when people want to learn something or they're trying something new whether it's data visualization or programming computers in general, do people try to attack projects that are maybe too big or too ambitious when we could maybe achieve something if we had a smaller scope?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah, I think so. And I think it's especially easy to do that with data visualization I think because I think if you've never worked on a data visualization project, I think it's hard to grasp all the components that might go into it maybe. Maybe somewhere you could be like ... Especially if they're trying to learn ... Maybe if they're trying to learn the code part especially, they might believe, "Oh, that bar graph looks really easy to code." Or something.

Shirley Wu:
And then five hours in D3 later, they're like, "Why? This is so complicated." And so, I think there is a tendency to get too ambitious because I think people think especially with the data vis environment now having flourished quite a bit with really beautiful examples out there, people might be like, "Oh if mine doesn't look like that, then it's not worth undertaking." So, now start small, just have that backlog of very small projects that you might never publish because you're not proud of it.

Shirley Wu:
But then that's how it gets to the projects that you do feel proud of, that are bigger that you can't publish. I have a lot of projects that I don't even want to publish again.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Do you think there's room for ... How much room in the industry is there for more data visualization specialists?

Shirley Wu:
So, I was looking into a podcast that was a year in review kind of round-up of data vis, and the podcast is called Data Stories. It's a very long running podcast in data visualization. And I think the general excitement is that the community feels like it's finally starting to get more mainstream recognition as a kind of ... That data visualization isn't just kind of a skill that's tacked on, but might actually be a whole job function.

Shirley Wu:
And so, I think it's probably getting quite exciting.

Joel Hooks:
So, expanding versus contracting, there's going to be more opportunities? It's viable. It's a viable, viable career becoming more valuable.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. But I think I'm probably bias and they're bias because we're in the community, and we probably hope that's ... But I think that there's a lot of factors clinging to the fact that it's probably more expanding and will.

Joel Hooks:
I think something you said with the data vis society, right? There's this whole group that's come out to help people learn and grow, and to me that's a very positive indicator in terms of a specialty. You see communities sprouting up around a certain topic, then there's more insurance there to me anyway-

Shirley Wu:
Oh yeah.

Joel Hooks:
... that there's probably more opportunities, right?

Shirley Wu:
And it's grown to 10,000 members in less than a year. So, I think there is really a need and want for it.

Joel Hooks:
How does data visualization relate to generative art? And are they related? And is generative art an interesting path into data visualization?

Shirley Wu:
So, I think it's very similar, and I don't do generative art, so I don't want to be like-

Joel Hooks:
I don't know. I'd argue. I seem some of your stuff. It looks pretty artistic and generative. It's not random. I think that's the difference, right? You're taking data sets versus this idea that we're just going to go random.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. So, that is the number one difference in my head is that ... Well, I actually think of it as three separate things. There's data visualization, data art, and then generative art. So, data visualization is there's a goal to it. You're taking data and you're trying to communicate something or you're trying to build a tool to help people explore that data.

Shirley Wu:
So, there is a goal, and I think the community usually is much more strict about it. They might be like, "You shouldn't be here seeing this thing here." But then data art is when you take a data set and you're just creating something aesthetically pleasing that you just are trying to enjoy, and I like that one just because I feel like there just isn't as much of an expectation there.

Shirley Wu:
And then generative art is, in my head when it's randomly generated. It doesn't have any data set to it.

Joel Hooks:
And more purely aesthetic maybe?

Shirley Wu:
And very beautiful. Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Well, I mean some of it is, but you know. So, what are you currently working on? What's your tech stack, and what do you like working with?

Shirley Wu:
Well, let me answer what am I currently working with. With this turn of the new year, I'm in this weird place of ... I have to confess, I've always kind of felt really weird being put in a box of being like, "Oh you do data visualization." Of being like, "Oh Shirley equals data visualization."

Joel Hooks:
Like a label, right?

Shirley Wu:
Like a label.

Joel Hooks:
Like a strict label, "This is what I do. I'm a data visualization professional."

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. And I understand that it helps people kind of put the world into order, but it really makes me kind of-

Joel Hooks:
It's limiting.

Shirley Wu:
Unhappy. Yeah. And so, I think what I want to go do more in the future is it involves data, it involves code, it involves visualizing data, but I want to ... It involves I think I want to do more art, but I want to ... What I did at NYU was physical data installation, and one of the things I'm most obsessed with right now is trying to figure out how I can take the visualizations that I do in a browser, and bring it out into the real world, and kind of expand it into the real world all around us, and have it be able to immerse us so that we can feel more of a connection to that data set, and more of a connection to that story.

Shirley Wu:
I've just been kind of frustrated with how little retention there might be if you're just scrolling through a story, even if it's beautifully done, even if the data set is amazing inspirational, the story is great. I think the impact it could have is not as good as, like in a screen, as if you could walk through it, and interact with it with your whole body, and that's the thing I'm really excited about right now. I don't know if that's data visualization, but it's-

Joel Hooks:
It could be. I see that, and there's the physical. We have five senses, right? And when we're looking at the screen, we're really engaging our eyes, and our scroll finger, and even something as engaging ... I love the pudding, right? I love those stories, and I go through them, and then you're doing that.

Joel Hooks:
But what if I can be immersed in that, and I've seen a lot of these. I've seen a lot of these interactive kind of creative spaces whether they're in museums or in projects popping up, and more of that. I think there's augmented reality, and virtual reality, and then the actual physically being there to touch this and interact with it I think is powerful.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
And it has a lot of potential. Are you working on something right now or how far into that space have you explored?

Shirley Wu:
I'm taking baby steps in. I just finished something at ITP for my fellowship, and we're kind of doing the write up for that right now, and we're trying to kind of plan the launch of that right now, and it's very interesting. Before "launching" a project for me would just be posting the link, and it's just a website, and people can go to it.

Shirley Wu:
But now it's like you have to edit all the footage, and-

Joel Hooks:
It's a whole thing.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. But it was showcased at the ITP winter show, and it was extremely well received. And so, we want to kind of start pitching it to festivals or kind of like the creative coding festivals or pitching it to some of the art and technology organizations, and seeing if there would be people interested in sponsoring it for kind of like a more refined version too. Some, that's where I'm at, and I still want to create data visualizations, but I want to expand also into this world of trying to tell stories that are meaningful to me and hopefully meaningful to a lot of others in kind of an immersive space. So, that's my goal for the next few years.

Joel Hooks:
I look forward to seeing that-

Shirley Wu:
Thanks so much.

Joel Hooks:
... and seeing what you can come up with. That will be exciting. And I love that. I love the idea of being more interactive, and being more immersed, and I feel you're right on the money in terms of what sticks with you, right? If we engaged with all five of our sense, what can we come away with versus something that we just see and scroll through, and maybe click away or whatever. I think that's interesting.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. And I really liked what you were saying about ... Yeah. There's a lot of things happening now in museums and stuff that you can experience with your whole being, but I feel like with a lot of those, I think the opportunity for me personally is that for a lot of those, it's not yet data driven. The story might not be as clear. Maybe it's for the aesthetic of it or a lot of places are it's for the Instagram.

Shirley Wu:
But I really want to put in that kind of meaningful data set. I don't know. Yeah. That's my-

Joel Hooks:
Did you happen check out Zero Space when you were in New York?

Shirley Wu:
No.

Joel Hooks:
Have you kind of seen Zero Space? They built it as an immersive art playground, and they kind of took over a whole old building. Joshua Davis had a lot to do with it, but it's more of a psychedelic, kind of an artistic expression versus a data expression. And to me, if you combine something like that with knowledge and, I don't know, the actual data and teaching along with the kind of entertainment value of the art, and kind of the immersive experience, I think there's a lot of room in that particular space.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. That's the hope, and the other thing I want to figure out this year is trying to figure out how to expand beyond just myself, and working with more people for these bigger production sort of things.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, that's interesting too, and it's funny because it goes back to freelance, right? Where you are kind of this lone gun, and you're out there, and you have to do everything versus having a team. And that's one of the things that for me, it gets lonely sometimes for me to be a freelancer, and you're working for people with people, but you don't have this consistent team where you have the same vision for multiple years.

Joel Hooks:
And we've built that over the last few years. At egghead, it's been really nice to have this consistent group of people, and you do things, and you expand on what you know, and kind of have a shared vision and outcome, and that's been really good too. But then it brings all sorts of ... You have a bunch of people's interest, and there's all sorts of given and take there too I feel like.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
So, are you using Vue? Is that what you use these days?

Shirley Wu:
Yes. My technical stack is D3 is the one that's consistent. I'm now using Vue for kind of my framework, the entire web framework. I'm using GreenSock for animation.

Joel Hooks:
That's awesome.

Shirley Wu:
And I use GreenSock when I have to do those ... We call it scrollytelling when the visualization changes based on your scroll. And so, for that I use GreenSock and this website called Scrollama, which is by Russell from The Pudding. Scrolllama.js. And so, I use those two together.

Shirley Wu:
And so, my tech stack usually is all front end or for the front end part of it is you Vue, D3, GreenSock, Scrollama if I need it, and Lodash.

Joel Hooks:
Are you big explorer of technologies, like when a new framework drops, do you have to get in there and try it out as quickly as possible?

Shirley Wu:
Oh no, no, no. I'm a very late adopter to things. It took me half-a-year of people telling me like, "Hey Shirley, you should really, really check out Vue." I think maybe a year for me to be like, "Okay. I'll check out Vue."

Shirley Wu:
No. I like to kind of get to know something, to take something and then really get to know it, and get very deep with it just because I think I'm actually a very slow learner. And so, for me to learn something new I have to really put in and invest that time. But because of that, I tend to then understand something quite deeply, and so I don't explore new things very often, although when I do see things it would be really helpful for what I do, I do try and go learn it.

Shirley Wu:
So, I went and learned Three.js and WebGL, so that I can think in 3D space, so that I can start thinking about how to think in the physical world, then at NYU I audited physical computations. So, that was like Arduinos, and sensors, and whatever I need for my goal is what I go learn. But I'm too slow to be able to be like, "Every new thing that comes out I'm going to go try."

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. So, what do you love about Vue? What hooked you and caused you to make that choice? If you're making these reasoned responsible decisions, and I totally approve of that. I really think that's ... Become an expert. You have your general career figured out, like specialization and using the tools that you know is really quite a good thing. But I'm curious about what it is you love about Vue, and what keeps you sticking with that tool.

Shirley Wu:
Because we first met at React Rally, huh?

Joel Hooks:
We did.

Shirley Wu:
I still really loved that community.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, yeah. Me too.

Shirley Wu:
The thing that got me to switch from React to Vue was really two main reasons, and those two reasons are both because I think it plays much more nicely with D3, and what I need to do with data visualization. And so, the first reason is because of their reactivity system. I haven't looked at React since ... I mean March of 2018, so I'm sure React changes all the time, so maybe they already have this.

Shirley Wu:
But Vue's reactivity system when I first looked at it, it just made a lot of sense to me because it meant that every time a user manipulated the data, the underlying data or edited it, I don't need to go and write anything to hook that up, and I can just listen for those changes in the templates. If I just tell it like, "I want this SVG element to use this data." I don't have to then be like, "Okay. When this data changes, update it." It would just automatically update it for me.

Shirley Wu:
So, from that perspective it saves me a lot of, a lot of lines of code just because having a system that helps me manage those data updates and makes it as easy as possible for me is a huge thing for when I'm doing data visualization. And the second reason is because Vue unlike React at the time, Vue treats animations as a first class citizen. I don't know if that's because Sarah is on the core team, but it has such good GreenSock support.

Shirley Wu:
And even without GreenSock, it's very much built in. And so, again with data visualization, animation is huge.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Shirley Wu:
And so, having that support in Vue just made things so much easier whereas before with React, I really had to fight React for any of my visualizations to do any sort of animations.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. So, Vue, it's just friendlier for data visualization, and your work flow is that you're doing in D3 and the entire stack of tools that you're using right now to do what you do. It just makes it easier.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah.

Joel Hooks:
That makes sense. Why is D3, why does it have this reputation as being so challenging? What's the deal and why are people scared of D3, and should they be? Not scared of it, it doesn't literally cause fear, but you know what I mean.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. I get what you mean, and I've had brilliant programmers tell me that they're scared of D3, and I think for me I got into D3 before I knew any other JavaScript libraries. So, I was like, "Oh I guess this must be how things work."

Joel Hooks:
I think they call it Stockholm Syndrome. I don't know. No.

Shirley Wu:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I didn't know that's how things worked, but I think that's precisely where the challenge of it is, is that it's structured. The way that you have to think about D3 is so different from a lot of the other JavaScript libraries out there that people have already become so familiar with, and I really think it's that kind of mental shift that you have to do. I think that's the challenging part.

Shirley Wu:
But other than that, I think once you ... I would say there's a learning curve at the very beginning where have to get over the mental kind of gymnastics that is the core enter update exit pattern, and then after that a lot of things. Basically, they're I think selection and data binding. That core kind of part, and then after that everything else in the library, most of them make a lot of sense.

Shirley Wu:
But I've also been teaching D3 as a ... If you're already a front end developer, if you're already familiar with React or Vue, the way D3's enter update exit pattern works is essentially how Vue and React ... Not in implementation, but conceptually how it's working underneath the hood. So, if you replace that part where I think a lot of programmers find a little bit challenging in D3, the selection, data binding, enter update exit, if you replace that with Vue or React, D3 actually gets very easy to work with because D3 is very largely modular.

Shirley Wu:
And so, you can then think of D3 as your tool to help you kind of calculate when you take data, and you want to calculate that into a tree layout or a force diagram or something. You can just pick and choose parts of the D3 library and just use that.

Joel Hooks:
So, you're using it like an engine, and you're feeding it data and getting some sort of transformed data back that you can use with Vue or React or whatever to present that data. So, it's not necessarily can be, but it's not necessarily the presentation layer? Is that fair?

Shirley Wu:
Yeah. Yes.

Joel Hooks:
Is this true that maybe people also have used D3 in the past and having used it like what I'll say modern D3, right? Because it's improved over the years, right? Like version four felt like it was a huge improvement over three, API-wise in terms of learning and the community is grown over the years?

Shirley Wu:
Oh yeah. I think there was definitely a bit more ... I think the core concepts have remained the same over version three, four. Three to four was a really big step, but even then I think the core parts of it have remained the same or have remained similar. There was big change there, but I think now it's probably much friendlier to get into.

Joel Hooks:
It felt friendlier. That was the world that I had in my head actually was that it just feels friendlier, and I don't know if that's ... The community reaching a tipping point, critical mass, documentation, tutorials, courses, there's all these books, there's all this stuff that's come out of it over the years.

Joel Hooks:
So, now if you came into it earlier years ago, and they're like, "Oh no. That's not for me." Maybe now is the time to come back and give it another try. I'm going to plug your courses because you have some very excellent courses on front end masters, and I think-

Shirley Wu:
Thank you so much.

Joel Hooks:
... you did mention that when I asked where should people go to learn data visualization, your courses are actually a really good spot to do that no doubt.

Shirley Wu:
Thank you so much.

Joel Hooks:
Masters are set for them. Totally worth your time to watch that if you're interested in these topics and want to learn more directly from Shirley. Shirley, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day-

Shirley Wu:
Thank you.

Joel Hooks:
... to have this conversation, and I look forward to taking to you soon.

Shirley Wu:
Definitely. Thank you so much Joel.

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