Women in UX: Meet Elaine Chao, Product Manager at Adobe XD

As part of our coverage on International Women’s Day, we’d like to introduce you to Elaine Chao. In her multifaceted role as a product manager for Adobe XD, she feels she is honoring her most authentic self. We talked to her about what it takes to discover and own who you really are.

Elaine Chao is living her most authentic life. At this stage in her career, she is an engineer-turned-product manager at Adobe XD, a published science fiction author of two novellas with a third on the way, a fourth degree black belt practitioner and mentor in martial arts, and a professional musician.

Her list of accomplishments runs long, but there is no single one that she feels defines her. Instead, for years, she has been working and playing in multiple areas as she tried to figure out who she was and what she represented. It wasn’t until she got a little older that she realized the sum of her unique interests is what makes her feel whole.

“That’s actually what I’m most proud of, arriving at that point where I finally feel like I know, this is who I am,” Chao said.

With International Women’s Day taking place on March 8, let Chao’s story give you permission to seek and own who you really are. Let her experience inspire you to pursue the things that light a fire in your belly. Allow your passions to take you in new creative directions and see what awaits you on the other side of those unexplored areas. Don’t feel discouraged if this sounds impossible for you. Chao has been there, too.

“For a huge part of my 20’s, I felt like I wasn’t living my authentic self, like I was grasping for something. I feel very privileged right now in being able to reach the point of what I’m calling ‘unification’, the concept of feeling like everything is coming together in one place,” she said.

“I haven’t always been in that location. I’ve been in situations where my life has been rather compartmentalized, where my writing is over here, and my career is over here, martial arts is over here, and music is over here. You don’t necessarily have to professionally do what your outside passions are because sometimes it’s just not pragmatic. I definitely enjoy being an engineer, but it wasn’t necessarily what drove me.”

Instead, what drove her professionally was what she describes as her passion for the customer.

“That passion for the customer doesn’t relate to music, it doesn’t relate to martial arts, it doesn’t relate to the writing, except for the audience perspective. The advice that I would give to people is to spend time in reflection and to spend time on a regular basis to ask, who do I want to be and where do I want to be aspirationally?”

Elaine Chao is a fourth degree black belt training for her fifth degree while mentoring other students of martial art.

Meeting Your Authentic Self as a Creative

To get here, Chao has spent more than 10 years at Adobe in a variety of roles while also remaining dedicated to her outside interests. She has won awards for her achievements, including the Founders’ Award at Adobe, while also performing as a professional beat-boxer, once appearing on the television show Showtime at the Apollo, which filmed at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem to a notoriously tough crowd.

She’s on the path to achieving her fifth degree black belt. As part of her practice, she teaches and mentors students in martial arts as part of the UC Martial Arts Program at UC Berkeley.

“It is a big part of my life. It started out as a general interest, and it’s really turned into a lifestyle,” she said. “I’ve been training for about 16 and a half years now. It’ll be 17 years in May.”

The practice has taught her discipline and leadership skills that she has then fused into her role at Adobe.

“The lessons I’ve learned as a black belt, both as someone who trains for a black belt and someone who now mentors, directly apply to my role as a product manager and specifically in doing things like handling organizational change and mentoring younger people. There’s a whole group of ideas that I’m trying to develop now into a book,” she said.

Elaine Chao’s black belt is a testament to her commitment to her passions.

What Does A Product Manager do at Adobe XD?

Chao was the first woman to join the XD team early on in its development. While we usually profile UX designers in this series, Chao is an exception. She may not be a UX designer herself, but she works with UX designers every day, and the product she manages is Adobe’s signature experience design software.

“Some people describe product management as a ‘hub,’ as being the center of everything, and that definitely is true. It’s the hub of customers and their needs, desires and engineering, and executing all that,” Chao said.

“Basically, I take what customers tell us and I’ll go over business needs and evaluate what the shape of the product is going to be. A part of it is visionary like, ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ and a part of it is helping to translate that into what engineering creates, and then interfacing with a whole bunch of different departments to make sure that our entire ecosystem is grown.”

Knitting it All Together

“I think that this role is really well suited for me and the longer I’m in this role, the more I realize it engages more of my authentic self,” Chao said.

“While I’ve been here, I have engaged pretty much [all of my passions]. I’ve created a beat, I’ve done voice overs, video animation and video editing; I have done editing to the point of grammar, but also conceptual editing. I’ve authored a number of pieces on behalf of Adobe XD.”

She’s created two interesting pieces for Adobe’s Internal Tech Summit, a biennial technical conference for Adobe engineers.

The first was a seven-foot-long scarf she knitted comprised of all the Adobe logos to represent how people use Creative Cloud software to create things that aren’t necessarily digital. She used the digital tools to mock up and eventually create a material item that was taller than her.

Elaine Chao shows off the seven-foot long scarf she knitted of some of Adobe’s logos.

Last year, she entered the summit’s annual video contest. The video, Beatboxer Meets Creative Cloud, involved another re-imagining of the CC logos, this time turning the logos into sounds that she then beat-boxed. She wrote an entire song and the video was such a hit it won an award. It was an accumulation of many of the things she loves and it provided her with an opportunity to stitch them all together.

“It was a fun experience, and I think it was really fun for me to hear people’s emotional engagement with something that I had made on such a large scale,” she said.

You can watch the video below:

Multitasking is the Death of Creativity

Don’t let Chao’s numerous hobbies and passions fool you, however, as she’s not a multitasker. She doesn’t even believe in multitasking.

“A lot of people ask me, how do I do so many things and my quick response is always well, one thing at time,” she said.

The secret to fitting in time for everything you love, she says, is to:

“I basically try to only focus on one thing during the day. I’ll focus on my writing for a day, then the next day I’ll focus my time on my music. The following day, I’ll go back and write a blog post, then the following day I’ll do my social media stuff for the week,” she said.

“It becomes a total concept of changing your idea of what multitasking looks like. I think that there’s an unrealistic expectation in the world today that because our phones can multitask, we can multitask. I think there’s definitely a cost when it comes to switching from one thing to another frequently that people just don’t think about.”

Chao’s message is that things take time, and whether you dedicate that time to becoming an expert in one thing over a shorter period of time or an expert in many things over a longer period of time, like she has, you must be deliberate in what you choose to accomplish and what is worth your time.

“I have the same amount of time as everyone else, which is 24 hours in a day, and I sleep eight to nine hours a night, so it’s not like I’m skipping out on sleep to make this happen,” she said.

“It’s much more that when you’re focused and you’re intentional and you choose carefully what you do (and that list of things that I choose includes the maintenance of relationships), it takes time to develop everything.”

Go back to Chao’s early questions and ask yourself who you want to be and where you want to be in your life. Then open your calendar and pencil something in.

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