Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.
The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.
The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.
Jelena was born in Yugoslavia and moved to Canada with her family when she was 4 years old. She grew up in Montreal and moved to California when she was eighteen, where she attended UC Berkeley. With a drive to understand how the mind works, she studied psychology and neurobiology, then went to graduate school in the cogsci program at UCSD.
She currently lives in Silicon Valley and works at Google. Her ideal life would balance intellectual pursuits and humanitarian activism. In her free time, Jelena enjoys traveling the world, challenging herself, making friends, and learning. She also loves to dance! Jelena has found many dance classes and dance communities around the Bay Area, and is spending about half of her evenings dancing.
What did you do in college and how did you end up at UCSD?
I did my undergrad degree at Berkeley. I was interested in studying how people work, but when I started I hadn't heard of "cog sci". I double majored in psychology and molecular & cell biology with a focus on neurobiology. I was lucky to get research jobs in a few labs that gave me a lot of responsibility and made science really, really fun. They had collaborators in cogsci at UCSD so they strongly recommended that I continue my work there, and I did!
What did you work on when you were at UCSD?
As a graduate student I had three advisors ‒ Elizabeth Bates, Marta Kutas and Virginia De Sa. My work ranged from behavioral work with aphasia patients to ERP research and psychophysical work with normal adults. I was in some ways too much of a perfectionist and wanted to have an unambiguous interpretation of my results. I started out studying high‒level questions of language processing then moved to the general question of meaning processing. I realized that studying meaning was still too fuzzy for me, so I went all the way down to working with simple stimuli like beeps and flashes.
Unfortunately, I never found the case where the data were as unambiguous as I hoped. Marta used to remind me that in science you have to hypothesize about the bigger picture of what the data mean. You can't just report your results — you have to interpret them, and that involves some guessing! That's how science makes progress. I wasn't comfortable making that jump and eventually decided my temperament and preferences didn't go well with science so I tried something different.
Where do you work now and how did you get there?
One of my favorite aspects of academia was teaching and education. When I left UCSD, I went work at Google in their internal training department called Google University. We created education programs for Google employees on everything from speaking and writing technique to leadership skills to advanced excel and powerpoint topics. I researched the educational needs of Google employees globally (I visited eight Google offices on four continents!), determined what needed to be taught and the best way to teach it, created coursework, and taught a few classes myself.
After a year and a half I found that I missed solving technical problems, so I joined the webmaster team as a technical project manager. The webmaster team creates the web pages that support Google products - marketing pages, help pages, informational pages. Google has hundreds of thousands of web pages in over a hundred languages. I help to optimize my team's process so that things get done more smoothly and effectively. I create systems to automate a lot of the steps and make sure our pages are as good as they can be in terms of design, usability, and reliability. With a team of fifty people, there's also a lot of internal organization to be done, so I help improve our work flow, and how communicate with each other and the rest of the company. My role is really to be a facilitator and a catalyst.
How did your education at UCSD train you for what you are doing today?
My current work doesn't draw directly on my UCSD research topics, but the process of doing research ended up being very helpful. In research, you're forced to be deliberate about how you ask questions and how you frame problems. This sort of thinking is relevant in any business situation because often the crux of any matter is deciding how to approach it and figuring out how to frame it. My research background taught me to think critically and analyze problems systematically, and that's incredibly relevant no matter what problem you're solving.
My experience with interdisciplinary work at UCSD has also proven really valuable. Cogsci showed me that it's helpful to collaborate with people who approach a scientific problem in different ways than you do. In the business world, the most successful people I've met actively seek out more information from others with a different perspective, and look at problems in as many different ways as they possibly can.
Can you give me an example?
Sure! When I was at Google University our biggest challenge was figuring out how to globalize our education programs rather than just serving the immediate office in Mountain View, California. I needed to do research on a representative sample that would account for people in various roles at Google offices around the world. One consideration was the variation in our employees' comfort with spoken and written English. Another finding was that some offices had people with longer tenures in business whereas others mainly employed people just out of school. There were many factors to consider, and I needed to understand the problem along a variety of different dimensions to predict what type of training people would need, rather than using a one‒size‒fits‒all solution.
What do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
As a project manager, I really love being able to help people and solve problems! In Google University I enjoyed the relation to education and I loved that it had a global scope. It was very cool to have regular video conference meetings with people from India, China, Korea, Singapore, Japan and Australia ‖ all at once! I felt like I was in a spy movie with all those faces projected on the wall! The world felt much more connected because I got to work with people from all over the place and solve problems of different cultures and languages.
My current role is really exciting in a different way because I'm working closer to Google's users. I'm personally responsible for creating things that real, live users see, which is really exciting! A few months ago we went through a redesign of all Google's product logos ‒ literally thousands of logos. I helped create the process for updating all the logos and really enjoyed collaborating with teams ranging from marketing to engineering to user experience.
What skills and abilities are important to being successful as a project manager?
I'm not sure there is a universal skill set for successful project managers, but there are certainly some skills that really help! For one, you should enjoy working on a team and interacting with a lot of different people. Another important quality is the interest and willingness to multitask. A situation that needs a project manager is one with a lot of moving pieces. Good project managers enjoy juggling dozens of questions, problems and situations at once, and they can thrive in that sort of chaos. You also have to know how to prioritize, and change priorities quickly as the situation changes. Finally, if you're rigid in your approach to a problem you will be less effective than if you're willing to try different approaches in different situations. So creative problem solving is relevant too.
What are possible career paths for project managers?
A project manager has a bit of a hybrid role, some aspect of it is people management, part of it is everyday logistics, part of it is vision. To advance, you may need to focus on one of those and jump into that promotional structure. For example, as you progress you can start to have the engineers whose projects you manage actually report to you. You could eventually support a team of 5‒20 people not just in term of their projects but managing their work and their long term vision as well.
What advice would you give to current students?
I would advise students not to think that their current world is the entire world ‒ be proactive in looking at a variety of different options. I did this fairly late! I was good at school, I liked learning, and I liked science. That made me think I belonged in academia. Now I realize I was a little unimaginative ‖ it took me a long time to consider other avenues where my skills could be relevant.
If you like science, you should absolutely become a research assistant as early as possible in your academic career. Test it out! But you should also pursue summer internships or jobs with businesses around San Diego. Even if you have a good experience, try something else the next summer. That way, by the time you graduate, you have explored a few different roles and work environments. Talk to people and ask questions to see what they like and don't like about their work and be open minded in looking for a place that you think you would fit. You definitely won't know about other opportunities until you talk to people or try them yourself.
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.