February 2, 2017

This profile initially appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Jessica Yu announced late last year that she was taking a buyout at The Wall Street Journal. Yu, 36, is leaving her position as Global Head of Visuals and headed to the West Coast to figure out what’s next.

Now in a period of introspection, Yu offered advice to her former self: “Don’t worry, you’re going to have a great time! Oh, and beware of those office candy bowls. Apparently sugar is no longer our friend.” She also mused on her career transition and lessons learned at the Journal. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about your buyout. Was that a difficult decision? What ultimately factored in your choice? Do you have advice for other journalists who might be in a similar situation?

It actually all came about at a rather opportune time for me personally. My family is in the Bay Area, and I’ve been living away from them since college. My now-husband has also been wanting to move there since before we even started dating. We knew we would do it eventually and, well, when the buyout packages came around it just really worked out timing-wise for us that we were both in a good place to take advantage of it.

I think it’s always going to be a highly personal decision. I felt like I accomplished a fair bit since I assumed the position in 2014 — the team is so strong right now and in great standing in the newsroom — so I felt OK leaving. Of course, there are some big projects I was working on that I would’ve loved to have been able to see through, but that’s life. There will always be other interesting projects career-wise down the line (or else maybe you’re in the wrong job for you) but you don’t get those years with your family back.

What’s next for you? Where are you headed, and how are you feeling?

We’re headed to the Bay Area, both free agents and excited to explore the possibilities there. It’s certainly a tad daunting but mostly exciting. The only thing I know is that I won’t be trying to recreate my job out there. Over the course of my 13-year career at WSJ, I’ve got a deck of cards’ 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.

Is there anything you’re hoping to focus on personally — such as focusing on new skills or experiences, or recharging and re-evaluating?

I’ve always kept a running list of things I’d like to look into, read, or learn, and it’s long enough to keep me busy until retirement! I’m not sure how long I will end up having off but there are a few things I’ll do for sure: do a project using A-frame (a web framework for coding VR), learn how to cook something actually delicious in our slow cooker and take a trip to Europe while we’re still living on this side of the country.

Global Head of Visuals is a big position. Can you talk about your team and responsibilities, and what you learned from the job?

I was responsible for WSJ’s visuals overall and led the team of 100+ art directors, data-visualization experts, photo editors and developers. Since the remit is so broad, this meant that no one day was like any other, and I had an incredible amount of freedom and trust placed in me by the company to determine what changes and projects we should tackle.

There are so many really interesting differences between being in middle management and senior management that maybe I should add “write a blog post” on my career break to-do list! At the heart of it, I shifted from figuring out “How do I make sure my team can create great X?” to “What is great X to this company right now and in the future? And in looking at our company culture, workflow and people, how can we get there?”

What was your favorite thing about working at the Journal? What, if anything, did you find frustrating or challenging?

My favorite thing about working at WSJ was the people. Everyone was insanely intelligent, highly motivated and really nice. This isn’t a company that tolerates jerks. News by its nature is already incredibly time-sensitive and stressful. It just doesn’t make sense to add in people who waste everyone’s time by adding stress and strain to the environment. Sure, we definitely still disagreed passionately with each other at times, but there are constructive and destructive ways to disagree.

The scope of an organization this size could be challenging at times. A job candidate once wisely compared us to a cruise ship vs. the more nimble speedboat nature of some of our smaller competitors. Sometimes we look at those zippy speedboats with envy but then we also have to appreciate that we’re basically a city on water and it takes a lot of skill to steer and run one of these things properly. (The candidate got the job.)

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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