Irene Au

"We define ourselves by the challenges we take on"
- Irene Au

Irene Au is an Operating Partner at Khosla Ventures, where she works with portfolio companies to make their design great. She has also been one of the most successful Design Leaders that I’ve known in Silicon Valley.

Note: Transcript is available here. The newsletter version is available here.

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Note: Larry Cornett owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Invincible Career podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.

In this podcast episode, you’ll hear about how she created her own program of study in human-computer interaction (HCI) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Then, she got her start in the working world as an interaction designer at Netscape Communications.

She joined Yahoo! in 1998 as their first interaction designer and later decided to move into management and became their VP of User Experience. She established Yahoo’s user experience design practice and led the team for eight years.

In 2006, she joined Google and became their global head of User Experience, leading the team there for six years. Following Google and before joining Khosla Ventures, Irene ran product design at Udacity.

She shares some of her advice for folks that are just starting in their careers. We also discuss that challenging question, “Do I move into management and leadership, or do I stay on the individual contributor path?” Irene also shares more advice towards the end of this episode that I think everyone will find useful.

Key points from our conversation

I want to call out a few points from my conversation with Irene to help you as you are seeking to create your own invincible career.

Challenge yourself

As you listen to her story, you’ll notice a theme of curiosity and deliberately seeking challenges. Curious people are always seeking, learning, and growing.

She pursued companies and experiences where she could learn something new, be challenged, and grow. A career is more fulfilling when you're excited to go to work every day, see your coworkers, and solve hard problems with them.

When she decided to join Yahoo, it was because of the culture and the energy of the people there. They had a feeling of joy and passion, and they wanted to have fun.

When she decided to join Google, she knew that it would challenge her to learn and grow in ways she hadn’t before.

Build relationships

Nurturing relationships is so important. Intelligent networking matters.

And, now, we have to be more intentional about that than ever before. I love remote work, but you don’t bump into people like you used to.

The longer I live, the more I realize how tightly your success is tied to your relationships. I’ve mentioned this before. Every single one of my tech jobs came about because of relationships.

Someone vouched for me or brought me into the company. When that happens, the entire hiring process is much easier, and decisions are made more quickly.

Now, imagine what it’s like when the CEO of a company wants you to join?

Irene mentioned her serendipitous encounter with the co-founder and CEO of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun, when she bumped into him at lunch one day. That conversation led to her joining the company as their VP of Product and Design.

Create your path

Note that Irene defined her own program of study in graduate school. She also defined her most recent role and proactively pitched firms she thought would need it. That's how she ended up at Khosla Ventures.

All too often, we accept what exists. We settle for what is offered.

When we start in our careers, it’s pretty normal to apply to jobs that are posted. We interview for and get hired into roles that already exist.

However, as you become more experienced and in demand, you don’t have to settle for that. You might be surprised by how often talented people define the role they want and pitch it to the companies that want to hire them.

One of the most invincible careers that you can have is the one that you define and control.

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