Early Career Corner: Meet Ana Cuza

Welcome to this installment of Early Career Corner, a space to learn from each other’s dataviz journeys and amplify the work of early career practitioners.

The practice of creativity has been on my mind more than usual lately (perhaps because of Alli Torban’s excellent creative mini-series). How do dataviz makers foster creative energy while maintaining a sustainable relationship with their work?  For early career people especially, does our professional practice of dataviz affect our personal style and default ways of thinking? Hoping to dig more into creativity, I decided to consult Ana Cuza, a friend I made through the DVS Early Career Committee. Ana is from Romania and works as a data visualization analyst at Northwestern Mutual. Like our previous conversations over chai in Brooklyn, this conversation left me in a swirl of thoughts and with even more questions (in the best way).

An excerpt from this interview appeared in Nightingale Magazine Issue 2.

Simran: How did you find your way into data visualization?

Ana: Like many people in this field, I was interested in multiple things: architecture, design, math, and so on. In college, I decided to study computer science and did research in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The more projects I did, the more I became interested in AI fairness, bias, and the way current data science practices affect our society. On the other hand, I loved visual arts and creative writing. I was drawn to the field because of how new it is and the opportunity to forge my own career path.

Simran: What are your favorite sources of inspiration?

Ana: I love books! I always enjoy getting new ones. I’ve also been trying to find inspiration outside of the dataviz world. Before, I used to read The Pudding a lot and followed a lot of dataviz people on Twitter. Now, I started going to a design group in New York and attending design lectures. I try to find inspiration from daily life. I think we sometimes end up in a bubble as a field, throwing around the same ideas.

Simran: Are there any particular books that you’d recommend to other dataviz practitioners or books that have stuck with you?

Ana: Data Sketches by Shirley Wu and Nadieh Bremer. I don’t make a many maps, but I feel inspired by the work in Atlas of the Invisible. A book that I read initially and still re-read is The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo. As someone working in the business world, I have been reading Everyday Business Storytelling. Otherwise, I love going into bookstores and flipping through the books in the design section.

Simran: How do you define creativity, given your role in the business world? We often think that creativity and business aren’t compatible, but how do you think about it and practice it? 

Ana: I try to think of myself as a full person who is not defined by my job. It can be hard to let go of the tunnel-vision thinking of, “These are the things that will make me successful in the future.” That’s really limiting for who you are as a human being and your career. I think of creativity as this side of my brain that is messy and not coherent yet, a playground. I do work where there are a lot of opportunities for growth and learning. At the same time, I also constantly challenge myself to get out of the bubble of my work and figure out other things that fulfill me with the hope that I’ll move towards work that feels more fulfilling… What is fulfillment? I guess, work that brings some value to the world and brings me joy in my everyday life.

Simran: How do you find the time and creative energy for your personal projects?

Ana: Honestly, it’s only when I have less going on with work that I have the energy to work on my own projects. I tried to collaborate with a group to work on a couple of projects and write about dataviz, but we ended up taking a step back from that. I also tried working with a friend to start our own project, but I got overwhelmed and put a pause on it. I try to be nice to myself and not get tired of this cycle of starting and stopping things. At the end of the day, it’s about doing work that makes you feel good.

Simran: After graduating amidst a pandemic, what are some of the things that have surprised you since starting a full-time role in dataviz? Has that changed your relationship with this craft?

Ana: I used to go into projects that sounded interesting and give everything to them, thinking that I’d eventually find my field, my thing. I realized it’s more helpful to focus on what makes me happy on a day-to-day basis. I always loved the idea of design, yet right now I’m working on more data science-related work and enjoying it, challenging the idea I had of myself. The discussions I’ve had with others in dataviz make me realize how new the field is and how there aren’t well-established career paths. The responsibility of making sure you are growing in this field, that you are getting paid enough, that you are finding exciting and meaningful work falls on you. When you advocate for yourself, you end up advocating for those coming into this field by building more opportunities for them.  

Simran: Could you expand more on what it means to advocate for yourself, especially in this field?

Ana: I’m someone who has difficulty trusting my own performance and external validation. I’ve been lucky in the past two years to have a stream of people coming into my life supporting my interest in dataviz, personal life, and work. They support me even when I’m failing or doing things outside the traditional definitions of success. The community you build around yourself is really important for both your career growth and how you think of yourself and your potential.

Also, always negotiate your salary! Even when we read that advice over and over again, it can feel difficult to actually negotiate due to the context and thinking the organization did their best, but please just do it!

Simran: Do you have any advice for those who are trying to land their first opportunity in this field?

Ana: Listen to yourself first! Make note of what originally brought you to this field. It can be easy to get distracted by communal notions of success, so going back to those original ideas can help you do new things that you find personally fulfilling, even if they look messy to the outside world. Embrace messy; it’s fun.

Simran: You mentioned uncertainty in yourself… How does that uncertainty affect how you develop your taste, style, and voice? For instance, when you are trying to decide where to put an annotation and each option looks equally good to your brain, what do you do? 

Ana: While I ask my coworkers for input on work and personal projects, what has been helping me the most is embracing imperfection. In a year, I’ll be looking at work I did and cringing, wondering what I was doing. I think a lot of us get stuck in that place of thinking we can do better and spend time trying to get to a state that matches the vision in our mind. The place you actually find your style is in your own imperfections and most cringeworthy work because you go back to it and reflect on what drew you to a particular element.

Simran: I know that you helped build your organization’s dataviz style guide. What has the experience been like creating an organization’s style guide and being on such a young team? Have you ever felt imposter syndrome about working on this task?

Ana: Yes. I just read certain books a year ago and now I’m making these decisions, constantly learning new things. My coworker and I come from theoretical backgrounds. We also have people within the organization who have this great intuition for building and communicating dataviz without necessarily having a background in data visualization. It’s interesting how much we have inspired each other. Thus, the style guide is a reflection of both the culture of presenting dataviz within the organization and the expertise we bring. Our style guide is a living document. For example, when building the color palette, we used online tools to make sure the colors were accessible and that everyone could use these colors. Six months later, someone told us that they were having trouble with the colors, so we went back and updated everything. It’s a reminder that even when you think you have the theory down, it’s always important to root the guide in people’s actual experience.

Simran: Is there anything we haven’t talked about today that you think is important to discuss with early career folx in our field?

Ana: I’ve been thinking about how, as a generation, we live in a world where sad things happen a lot, things that can be difficult to process. How do you grow yourself as a person and focus on your passions and career and be connected to what’s happening in the world without compartmentalization? I think it’s so important for us to build up the world the way we want to see it, even if that means being rebellious and ignoring past ideas of success–there is nothing clear about our future. How do we do that? I think it comes back, as always, to community.

Thanks for tuning in to our Early Career Corner series! Be sure to check out this page for more ways to get involved with the early career community at DVS!

Simran Parwani is the Early Career Director at the Data Visualization Society. She is a recent graduate of New York University Abu Dhabi where she studied interactive media and computer science. When not making or looking at data visualizations, she can be found practicing yoga, listening to podcasts, and exploring wineries in her home state of Ohio.