Illumio Blog
March 13, 2015

From Investment Banking to Building Illumination: Questions for Shirley Wu

Alana Devich,

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I sat down with Shirley Wu, Member of Illumio's Technical Staff, to talk about how she came to Illumio, what she's working on, and what she's got playing through her always-on headphones.

Illumination

What are you working on?

I work on the Thor team, which is what we call the front-end team. I work specifically on Illumination, a visual tool for users to build rules and get their environment to enforcement.

How did you end up at Illumio?

When I went to college, I thought I would go into investment banking. But the summer after my junior year, I did an internship and realized it just wasn’t my thing.  When I went back to school after the summer, I decided to do a CS minor on top of my Business degree. That helped me land a position at Splunk after graduation, where I was put on a team that developed apps on top of the core product. Within that team, I was able to start concentrating on JavaScript, and because Splunk is a big data company, there was a very interesting opportunity to do data visualization.

As the months went on, I became known as the “D3 Person.” I started writing some blog posts about the things I was having trouble with and how we solved them. And I started giving talks on my experiences with D3 and Backbone, and how we were using them together to create relatively complex web applications centered around visualization. That’s how Illumio found me. 

ill_blog_inline_img_shirley

What was that like?

I got an email that said, basically, “We found you. We’re stealthy. Give me a call if you’re interested.” So I thought, “Well, okay. You’re all mysterious and that’s a little bit seductive, and slightly flattering… It’s kind of interesting. I’ll go for it.” Then I came down here and I started talking to people, and it was really interesting. They wouldn’t tell me anything about the product. So, I had no idea what Illumio did, but I loved talking to the people I was interviewing with.

Any highlights from your interviews?

In my final round, one of the engineers sat down across from me and said, “Hey, I’m a back-end guy, I have no idea what you do.” And I was like, “Cool! I’m a front-end kid. I have no idea what you do. We’re on different sides of the same boat.” 

After that, we had the best conversation I’ve had in an interview. He was telling me the problems that he was having, which for him went along the lines of, “We have so much data, what if something fails here or here? How would our customers know? And if you just have it in a grid format, like a table list, they might never get to it.” It’s a great big data problem. 

Ben, the VP of Engineering, was my next interview, and he asked me the “Why do you want to work here?” question. And I said, “Before my last conversation, I didn’t have a clear answer. Now, I can tell you it’s going to be such an interesting challenge. I want to be here working on this so that five years from now, I can say to someone, ‘Do you see that? I helped build that. It was so cool.’”

When you started, where was the company in terms of developing Illumination?

When I joined, Illumination was extremely young and very interesting. From what I could tell, the Avenger team was just putting the data together for it. Some of the initial ACs were written down, and there were some initial design mocks. They had thought through what they wanted and what they wanted to accomplish with it. It was just a matter of us going in and implementing it. 

So it was very new, and the even bigger challenge was that my teammate XianLin and I were also very new. Like, two kids just out of school new. We came in and started coding on it according to the specs, but we didn’t have any technical guidance. So we did the best we could: We would think of all of our options and go with the ones that sounded the best at the time. It was a windy road. We’d try something and it would work but not in the best way it could. So we would re-factor it, try it with another thing, and make it better than it used to be.

Then there was a bigger discussion that included refactoring the whole architecture of the UI, not just Illumination. This was really good for us, because when the original architecture was built, I don’t think they had to worry about how visualizations would sit on top of it. So Illumination felt like it was tacked on, and there were a lot of challenges from that. But when we went in to the refactor, we were really careful about thinking through the challenges of Illumination and incorporating it into the architecture. It’s still not 100 percent, but we’re really happy and proud with where it is now. 

How would you describe the engineering culture here?

Our CTO, PJ, says he wants to have many people with different backgrounds coming together, and that’s something I very strongly believe in. And the corollary to that is not only do we have people with different backgrounds, but we have people who will respect each other and what the others have to say. Because even if you have a diverse background, if you don’t listen to each other, then it’s wasted. 

People really lead by example here. In the early days of implementing Illumination, PJ would sit down with me and sift through everything. We were going through our own infrastructure and asking, “Is this what you expect, is this not what you expect?” And he was very patient with me, since my background is visualizations and not networking or security, and he made sure I understood what he was saying. So that actually provided inspiration for some of the changes we did in terms of refactoring how we showed the data in Illumination.  And it also really drove home to me how special a place I was working at.

You recently spent a few weeks in Asia. How have you been able to balance your love of travel with accomplishing what you want—and need—to do at Illumio?

We’re a startup, so it definitely can get busy. Actually, it’s always busy, because we’re a very ambitious startup. But we also have a very understanding executive team. They’re open and communicative and know that our work isn’t our whole life, and for the most part they make sure we maintain a reasonable balance.

So when I do schedule a trip, I try to make it as painless as possible. I plan my work around the PTO, and finish whatever I’ve committed to a good amount of time before I leave. Even then, it took three tries to get that vacation to Asia last October. But it only took one try to get Iceland for late May, so I think we’re getting better!

You’ve always got your headphones on. What are you listening to?

This is kind of embarrassing, because all my friends tell me I have no musical taste. These days, I just have Taylor Swift on repeat. I think she’s awesome. Sometimes the very cynical side of me wonders if it’s all a grand PR act, which it could be, but if it is, more respect to her for always pulling it off.

Topics: Data Center Operations

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