Yahoo may be an old company in the context of internet startups, but it's always working on new tricks. Yahoo Labs is its incubator for experimentation, where they work on projects such as Yahoo Weather and its News Digest app. And heading Yahoo Labs is Yoelle Maarek.
Yoelle is a veteran of research, academia and engineering who has previously worked with IBM and Google, is trilingual, and is a mother of three. If you're wondering why a weather app requires complex experimentation, that's because the beautiful background photos are intelligently curated from thousands of public Flickr photos, a process which you can read about here.
We caught up with Yoelle to learn about her background, her office overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Haifa, and how she works.
Location: Right now I am at the Yahoo Labs office in Haifa MATAM Tech Park, Israel, sitting in our cafeteria with my laptop and enjoying a wonderful view of the Mediterranean Sea coastline. Current Gig: I am a VP of Research at Yahoo, heading Yahoo Labs in Israel. One word that best describes how you work: Passionately Current mobile device: iPhone 5, eagerly awaiting my iPhone 6 when it arrives in Israel in January. Current computer: 13-inch MacBook Air
What apps, software, or tools can't you live without?
An application that I really love is WorldMate, which monitors my frequent travels abroad. It is quite flawless and I love that it alerts me if it detects that I miss a hotel night, for instance. Another application I use even more frequently is Waze. It was invented in Israel so I was an early adopter before it was acquired by Google. Yet I am a frustrated and very critical user, as it often leads me to a wrong location. (Funny how little tolerance I have for such mistakes even if I understand how technically difficult it is to devise the perfect navigation software.)
For fun, I have been playing with both the Jawbone Up app and the Garmin Connect app on my iPhone depending on which wearable bracelet I use. In terms of pure functionality, the Up bracelet is weaker than the Garmin. As an example, you need to plug it in the audio jack of your smartphone in order to find out how many steps you took during the day, while the Garmin bracelet shows your steps in real-time on its small screen. But I discovered that I loved this daily routine of connecting my Up bracelet and trying to guess how many steps I took. The Garmin is functionally better, but I realise that emotionally it does not do it for me; the fun went away and I almost never sync it. So weirdly enough, I now prefer a weaker device because it gives me the right incentives and its iPhone app is clearly superior. It again shows how non-technical considerations are so critical in our Internet world.
What's your workspace setup like?
Regular L-shaped desk, with my MacBook Air connected to my awesome Apple Cinema screen. My desk is a mess, but there is a saying in French that says that an empty desk is the sign of an empty mind. Lame excuse, but I like my mess and know where to find stuff.
What's your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Grocery shopping online!!! Saves so much time. Even better: the entire family (my husband and our three children) maintain a shopping group in WhatsApp and when the list gets long enough, my husband places the order.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
My iPhone calendar. I cannot have a task without an associated time slot to conduct the task. My life is simply managed by my calendar.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without and why?
I cannot live without my Kindle. I am an avid novel reader (anything as long as it is fiction, from thriller to science fiction and heroic fantasy). But because I grew up in France and work in English, I still can't read Hebrew very well. (The last book I read in Hebrew was the first Harry Potter, after my eldest daughter, who was seven at the time, insisted that if she can read it, so can I.) With the Kindle I can simply buy any book online in English rather than having to wait to travel abroad to fill my suitcase. I don't need to read more slowly until I can find a new book to read — this is pure luxury for me :-) In our internet world, this erasing of physical boundaries still astonishes me.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Finding typos, font mistakes, misalignments, etc. in other people's pieces, whether they are colleagues', friends', or my kids'. Weirdly enough, I don't see them in my own written pieces.
What do you listen to while you work?
Silence... I listen to music only when I walk or run. I like music with meaningful lyrics (my latest craze is Stromae, an incredibly talented Belgian singer) and I can't do justice to the lyrics if I am working on something that requires my undivided attention.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading a novel, but not just any novel. My sister-in-law wrote her first novel, deeply inspired from her personal life. So I begged her to read it before she sends it to a publisher and volunteered to do proofreading (as I said, I am good at finding typos in others' work). The novel is in French and called "La place du passager" (i.e "the front passenger seat") and carries a wonderful feminist message for girls who grew up in traditional families where the sons were always first, and rarely "drive" their lives. Not only do I love it, but for the first time in my life I am indirectly part of a novel (I recognised my character in there) and she wonderfully put me in a driver's seat rather than a passenger seat. Very flattering.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
Extrovert in general. I like to share my thoughts and passions with friends and colleagues, but I am trying not to fall into the TMI trap. Not easy.
What's your sleep routine like?
I loooove to sleep, and I sleep probably more than many others. The only thing I hated when our kids were young was waking up in the middle of the night — could not stand it. I need a book (yes, my Kindle) to fall asleep and I usually wake up with an alarm clock or someone making noise at home.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
I'd love to see Marie Curie, one of most admirable scientists ever, answer these same questions (if I could travel back in time)
What's the best advice you've ever received?
When you say to someone they are "too nice," try to think about what you are really saying. Are they too nice to everyone (including you) or only to others? I received this advice from my husband (of 28 years!) when I told him he was too nice; did I mean too nice to the kids or to me? And of course I meant to the kids; I had zero issue with him being nice to me of course. It made me realise that there is no such thing as "too nice." If a colleague tells you "you are too nice," he does not mean that you are too nice to him or her but to other people. His implicit message is that you should keep being nice to him/her but not to others. But it does not work this way — it's a package deal. Really nice people are nice to everyone and that's why we appreciate them.
And yes, as naive as it may sound, being nice is critical in the workplace as well. Keep being nice; it feels great and it makes business sense.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers or fans?
To my lady readers (I doubt I have fans), my message is that in today's world, women can do it all. We can have a career, raise kids, and balance everything. With the right partner, simplifying tasks at home, and explaining early to children that when mum is in a conference call they really really need to be quiet for a while, everything is possible.
We've asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we'll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.