053. Irene Au: Bridging Design and Technology

Irene Au is Design Partner at Khosla Ventures, where she works with early-, mid-, and late-stage startup CEOs. She is dedicated to raising the strategic value of design and user research within software companies through better methods, practices, processes, leadership, talent, and quality. Irene has unprecedented experience elevating the strategic importance of design within technology companies, having built and led the entire User Experience and Design teams at Google, Yahoo!, and Udacity. She began her career as an interaction designer at Netscape Communications, where she worked on the design of the internet’s first commercial web browser.

Irene also teaches yoga at Avalon Yoga Center in Palo Alto where she is among the teacher training program faculty and is a frequent author and speaker on mindfulness practices, design, and creativity. An adjunct lecturer at Stanford University, she teaches product design in the mechanical engineering department. Irene also serves as a trustee for the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design.

Irene authored the definitive O’Reilly book, Design in Venture Capital, and her popular essays can be found on Medium. She has been featured in WIRED magazine, Fast Company magazine, CommArts magazine, and on the cover of Mindful magazine.



In this conversation we talk about:

– Developing listening skills as an introspective child, and how feeling like an outsider helped her develop those skills.
– Her electrical engineering studies, and her transition into looking at how technology influences society and people and how we live. 
– Her time at Netscape, and tying together the products for a consistent look and feel across a suite of products that came out at the time called Netscape Communicator. 
– Her move from Netscape to Yahoo!, and what went wrong for Yahoo! as a company trying to find its way.
– Her time at Google as we look at it from all angles. What was the state of design at Google before she joined and what were the changes she tried to implement as she brought human-centered design and practices to Google?
– Hiring strategies, staff training, and how design workshops ultimately became the Design Sprint at Google.
– What is design and what is a designer?
– And the role of the designer in venture capital.

I think my greatest takeaway from this interview is this sense of hope that someone like Irene is able to walk into these very “techy” cultures and produce real change. And all it takes is really showing the value of the work and being willing to engage and promote better practices. I think Irene will be an inspiration to many non-engineers who find themselves in heavy engineering cultures and want to make a contribution. 

This conversation with Irene is one of many weekly conversations we already have lined up for you with thinkers, best-selling authors, designers, makers, scientists, impact entrepreneurs, and others who are working to change our world for the better. So please follow this podcast on your favorite podcast app, or head over to remakepod.org to subscribe.

And now, let’s jump right in with Irene Au.