This month I sat down with Jessica Yu whose last name I sometimes interchange with Bourne or Wick. As a modern-day renaissance woman, once she learns to fly a helicopter, she’ll be one of my first picks for an apocalypse survival squad. Without her, ITK would have never reached lift. Her leadership, business acumen, technical chops, and emotional intelligence make her a highly sought-after advisor. Where others might use those talents for thing likes world-domination, Jessica commits herself to serving and empowering others which has become one of ITK’s core values. One of her greatest superpowers is being able to see something from a multitude of perspectives; today, I’d like to shine some light on her.
A: What’s one thing that people wouldn’t know about you from LinkedIn?
J: That I like to dance.
A: Any particular dancing?
J: Salsa and West Coast Swing. Also, I want to be a better hip hop dancer. I have also taken a handful of break dancing lessons, but not recently.
A: What’s your background and what brought you to MITRE?
J: My undergrad degree was in business management, but that was my back up major. I originally wanted to be a journalist. All the professional journalists and editors that I worked with at Union News (now The Republican) in Springfield, MA told me I shouldn’t major in Journalism. My dream of becoming an investigative reporter to uncover the truths I feel like the public need to know about, didn’t pan out because my mentors, at the time, weren’t sure what the internet was going to do to print journalism.
I stumbled into Human Resources and Talent Acquisition after college because I was interested in people. I came to MITRE to build and develop our College Recruiting and Internship and Co-op Program.
A: What do you do now?
J: I went back to graduate school and became a Human Centered Engineer. Now, instead of learning about people and matching them with a career that they will love, I study the way that people do things and interact with things or systems, figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and design new things that will make their everyday lives better.
A: How do you feel about the difference you’re able to make at MITRE?
J: Every time we interact with end-users on my projects and programs, my passion and desire to make things better for them increases. I think the struggle that I have is how long it takes to make changes that users will actually see and feel. But I know we are helping along the way even though government acquisition takes a while.
That may be one of the reasons I love facilitating ITK workshops. We help people make progress right away, in real time.
A: You’re one of the most adventurous people I know. What’s your drive there and how do you think that shows up in other places in your life?
J: I think we have a limited amount of time that we spend here – in an existential sense: in work and life. I am intentional about the way that I spend my time and energy. I am super curious about things and people and culture. And I get really excited, not just about wondering about things or doing thought experiments, but I want to go learn and do and try things. I think empathy is necessary and important but actually being in a place and doing the things and seeing things up close and in real life I think is something I find really valuable and satisfying. I think this perspective and greater understanding leads to better people connections.
A: How did you get involved in the Innovation Toolkit?
J: I think through you. The memory is a bit blurry now, but I recall thinking the concept of a toolkit made sense for MITRE and our sponsors. I think it’s something that I saw potential in… not just to add value but something that we could do. I was excited to jump in and help make something conceptual become something real. I love empowering people in a tangible way, so they can make their own impacts. That’s also one of the core principles of Team Toolkit. Individually we can’t take on everything, but together we can make a big difference.
A: What’s been your favorite part of working on ITK?
J: It’s an honor and a privilege to get to know and work alongside an amazing diverse group of individuals who knock it out of the park every day, and are also very kind and caring.
A: I know you’ve got a journalism/writing background. If you were to write a book or article (or exposé) about ITK, what would the topic be?
J: I’m really curious about how we were able to come together as well as we have. I would love to take an outsider look at how our team works. I would be amazing if I could bottle that up and give to other people. It brings me joy to work with this group of impressive individuals. I get excited to come to work and interact the team and when people go away on vacation, I miss them. I imagine that this is very different than on a lot of other teams.
A: Any books or materials you would recommend to folks?
J: I love podcasts. My top five, even though I listen to many more than this, in no particular order are:
TED Radio Hour
This American Life
A: How would you describe your style of innovation?
J: I’m guided by my curiosity. I ask a lot of questions. I consider the big picture and details at the same time and look for the connections between them. There’s also an attitude of benevolence. I always want the novelty and impact to be positive. I know that can’t always be the case, but I want to consider and weigh the negative and positive implications to try to find the better one.
A: Everyone has a favorite tool. Name yours and why?
J: I think my go-to is premortem. Just because it’s a novel enough approach that it’s helpful in a variety of venues and domains and audiences. It gets teams to be vulnerable more quickly than others, which really helps accelerate progress. Also, a lot of teams wrestle with the problem of prioritization and getting on the same page about what’s important, and this tool is great at tackling that.
A: Any advice for first-time premortems?
J: I think two points of advice,
1) Take it seriously even though it’s a hypothetical failure. Dig in, feel the feelings, identify the risks.
2) Have a plan to scoop the team back out of the disappointment and sadness that comes along with failure, even if it’s just imagined failure. The risk mitigation and updated goals area the bottom of the canvas help, but I think they need to be reinforced by team members and leadership. Someone needs to rally the group and point to how things are going to get better.
A: What are your hobbies outside of ITK and MITRE?
J: Community service and working with non-profits, traveling, cooking, baking, dancing, riding a motorcycle, learning new things (currently languages and how to play the guitar)
A: If someone was interested in using the Innovation Toolkit, how would you suggest they get started?
J: I would say get started right away, either by yourself or with a group. Without putting a lot of pressure on yourself, start using these thinking tools to attack whatever problem comes to mind. Then ask us for help if you get stuck or lost.
A: Where do you see ITK in the future?
J: I hope these approaches become the way that MITRE and others do things. I hope that the tools help to remind problem solvers that people are involved in most problems and need to be considered. I hope that the toolkit and using these types of tools becomes regular practice vs. something that’s unusual. For innovation toolkit’s faraway future, I hope the toolkit and the team continued to evolve and grow. I would love the toolkit to continue to be useful for those that need a different approach, to get unstuck, or to come up with something new.
A: Anything else you’d like to tell readers or think they should know?
J: That no one really asked us to create the Innovation Toolkit. We saw there was a need and problems that needed to be solved and we couldn’t be there to personally help out for all of them. We created this resource to get people started. I would encourage others to look around, in their own context, to see what small and simple things they can begin to do to make change. Taking initiative and inviting others to come along with you, is a great place to start leading and making the changes you want to see.