How great leadership can help underrepresented groups succeed

March 30, 2021

This week, Chris is joined by Mary Bui-Pham, Indeed's VP of Software Engineering.

Mary will speak about her journey from academia and chemical engineering to Indeed, how she supports women in tech; her love for orchids, and what they teach you about leadership.

- Hello, everyone, I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed, and welcome to the next installment of Here to Help. This is our look at how Indeed has been navigating the global impact of COVID-19. Today is March 22nd and we are on day 384 of global work from home. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs and this is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us up at night, and March is Women's History Month, and for Here to Help, we are speaking with people who care deeply about the issues and ideas that this month represents. Before we get into today's discussion, I would like to share a brief trigger warning. There will be some references to violence and racism in this session. We are talking today on Here to Help for the first time since last week when we witnessed the latest and most horrific act of violence against the AAPI, or Asian American and Pacific Islander, community here in the U.S. Over the past year, there have been more than 3,800 reported incidents of hate targeting people of AAPI descent, and we share in the profound grief, pain, and anger over this tragedy and stand with the AAPI community against xenophobia, racism, sexism, and all other forms of hate. Now, for today's conversation, I am delighted to be joined by Mary Bui Pham, VP of Engineering for Strategy and Operations here at Indeed. Mary, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Thank you, Chris, for inviting me to participate in the conversation. I so appreciate the fact that we recognize this month as we do with all of the other months to honor the differences in our company and our society. So it's wonderful to be here, thank you.

- Well, let's start off where we always start with these discussions with an honest question of how are you doing right now?

- This is a tough one. The last 12 months have been an emotional rollercoaster. You know, outside of just the anxiety and the fear and the stress of a global pandemic, there's so much happening, some of it amazingly great, not to travel. You and I have talked about the hardship of traveling, being away from the families. Well, not having to travel and having to spend a lot of time getting to know our families, our family members, have a lot of time. That's fantastic. I think those are the good things. There's so much division and the rhetoric and all of the craziness in the world, personal losses, and all of that, and with the, there's a lot of anger, I guess. There's a lot of sadness, a lot of frustration, but also a lot of hope, a lot of goodness. The ability for us to work from home is something we've never thought we would be able to. So there's a lot of good stuff there. So it's a super long answer to your short question, and then most recently, the rise in violence and hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It's crazy, and you touch on xenophobia, but it's not us versus them, it's all of us. This is what makes this country amazing. So for me, I'm trying to still feel all of the things that I feel, you know, the anger, the sadness, the frustration, but how do we have hope? Because I'm a very positive and hopeful person and my resolve to help. So it's all a mixed bag of a lot of things, and again, very long, very long answer to your question, but it's just a crazy, emotional rollercoaster. Some days are fantastic and other days are super, super hard.

- Well, thank you for sharing that. We have, I think, a lot of great things to cover. Before we dive into your story and your background, which I'm very excited to get into, let's just talk very briefly about your role at Indeed and what you do to help people get jobs.

- I'm on the internal platforms team. We provide infrastructure, services, and products that support all of Indeed, so every team at Indeed to achieve our mission. As you said, we are here to help people get jobs. I have never worked for a company that truly lives the company mission. So it's incredible everyday. We make every decision in thinking the job seeker first. It's unique and it's just delightful. In internal platforms, one of the biggest transformation for us is customer-centricity, and we have this kind of saying, almost our motto or our internal platforms mission is we are successful only when our customers are successful. That's our obsession, to understand what is important to our instrumental customers, what they want to achieve, and help them get there to really reach the mission to help job seekers everywhere. So that's what we do, and I hope that that's my job everyday is to help internal platforms get that, do that.

- So your background is interesting. A lot of folks in tech did not start out that way. You have a PhD in chemical engineering and were in academia. So what led you from a life in academia to the path to Indeed?

- So this is just kind of like a pattern in my life. I try to conquer my fears a little bit. You know, there are things that I do that just for my own self to build my own confidence. So I almost drowned when I was eight years old, so when I got to college I learned to swim, and then I started swimming a lot and then I used to swim like a mile everyday. You know, it's like, check, not afraid of water anymore, and then for most of my life, and this is for people who suffer from impostor syndrome, especially women, I didn't think that I had what it takes to be a scientist, and so when I was an undergraduate student, I looked up at all of the grad students and thinking, they're geniuses, you know? They're so smart, and pretty soon, I'm part of the program, and I always tell people, getting a PhD is like being on the bus, just hanging in there and then get off at your stop and then you'll get your PhD. Of course, I'm simplifying, but that's the idea, persistence and all of that. So my background, my thesis was on computational modeling. So I'm very comfortable being around computer scientists and developing software, and that's what started me. So the life in academia and then going to Indeed, it seemed like a natural transition. I was working, when I was at the Sandia National Lab, I was working on a collaboration with multiple institutions on a project that we were going to present to the secretary of the department of energy, and there were like probably more PhDs per square foot than you will ever meet in your life, but we're not great at pulling projects together, and so I just found myself in the position to step up and get not just my piece in there, but how each of the pieces coordinate together to pull into that project, and so it was, and I didn't know it at the time, but that's what project management and that's what led me to working in industry, and then a friend of mine said, oh, stop working in academia. You have to live on soft money from people who are not in academia. Soft money is you're constantly writing grant proposals. You know, you're halfway through and then you ask for more money later on, and so that's just natural for me to move over. Coming here to the U.S. as a child of not knowing a lot of English and then to be able to move from just, you know, being academia is one of the accepted. I'll talk a little bit about my Asian culture, being an accepted profession. There are only four or five. So I started out in one of the accepted professions, doctor, lawyer, engineer, professor, things like that, and then naturally moving into something that's very different and that's working for industry. So it's strange, different, but it makes sense.

- When we were getting ready for this, you talked some about the inspiration from your parents' experience and you just spoke right now about the idea of taking risks, but there are so many people who are afraid of taking risks in their careers, but you obviously have this area, this inspiration to take these leaps to overcome your fears and can you talk a little bit about your parents' experiences and that inspiration for you?

- Yeah, and I think talking about taking risks, my parents took their five children from Vietnam, we came from a fairly affluent environment, to the U.S. with nothing, literally nothing to our names, and that was a huge risk. We spoke French. There's not a lot of French here in this country. My parents picked Louisville, Kentucky. It had a French-sounding name, so they were hoping, that's how much we knew about the U.S., okay? And so we thought that, they thought that, oh, maybe it's an easier transition. My father was administrator for the Louis Pasteur Institute which is a very famous research institute in Vietnam, but he came here and none of his credentials were accepted. So he became a stock clerk in a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. My mother worked for the national bank. Never sewed in her life and got a job as a seamstress, but they took that risk, not speaking the language, coming here with the hopes of providing an education for their family. That's the one thing in our family that doesn't change and I hope will never change, which is education is not an option, you know? You just go through college and continue on. That's the job. So they took a lot of risk to bring our family over here and those are the examples I look for and form how I look at life and they're so much, there's a lot of probability of failure when you take big risks, but the rewards are also just unimaginable too. So don't be afraid.

- Well, so your fearlessness and your determination, anyone who knows you, those things come through pretty clearly. I think the other thing anyone who gets to know you is that you have this incredible passion for orchids, and would love to hear you talk a little bit about how that passion or obsession or whatever word you choose developed and why it's so important to you.

- I don't think anybody would ever grow orchids, you know, obsession and orchids, they kind of go together. So you don't just grow orchids, you're obsessed by them. I've always been interested in plants and flowers, and really, I gravitate toward the weird and wonderful. The stranger they are, the more I'm attracted to them, but orchids, to me, and I link a lot of orchids to a lot of things in life, maybe just to justify my orchid obsession but I do draw a lot of parallels to them. Orchids are the largest plant family with almost 25 to 30,000 natural species and 100s and 100s of 1,000s of hybrids. It's just everywhere. So diverse, so amazing, and you don't always know what an orchid, if a flower is an orchid. That's how diverse they are. You know, a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, and I love roses too. I have a rose garden, but you look at a rose and you know it's a rose. When you look at an orchid, you're not always sure that this is an orchid or it's not an orchid, and that diversity just attracts me. I think it's different and really it just leads to, again, it's back to how it helps me grow as a person and thinking, looking at differences as great, as amazing, you know?

- So your obsession includes growing obviously for pleasure and for the beauty and the experience, but you also have become competitive and won some awards for your orchids, and we were talking about this last week and I'm fascinated by the whole competition piece because it's, I guess, sort of obvious to those of you in that world, but orchids bloom for a very brief period of time and you can't pick when they're going to bloom. So when you're going into a competition, there's just some process of which of the things you're going to bring. Can you talk a little bit about competition and this timing for the competition and a little bit about some of your prizes that you've accumulated?

- Yeah, it's a little crazy. You know, I think a lot of flowers and plants, I mean, there's competitions to everything, and for anybody who knows me, you know that I'm pretty competitive, but judging is a whole different thing together. In order to be an orchid judge, it takes a minimum of six years and some people it takes 10 years. I mean, for me, I do the quick math in my head. That's two PhDs back to back, you know? That's 10 years to really learn about orchids, and of course, it's hard and technical and all of that stuff, so naturally, I draw toward it, and you don't, just like people. You don't time. You train all of your life. You know, I think of Olympians, you train all of your life for the two-week competition, right? And so it's the same thing with orchids. You grow them, you grow them, and you give them the best so that hopefully in one of those flowerings would hit the right time for the competition and for the judging, and as judges, we are trained to judge the flower for that moment that you see the flower. You can't say, oh, I'm going to give it an award for what it's going to look like tomorrow or what it probably was yesterday, even though you know it in your head. So it's just a lot of work, a lot of preparation, a lot of care for that one moment that you hope that it would perform to its fullest potential, and so you see a lot of parallels in that, and I've grown orchids for a long time and I was just thinking about entering the judging program, but with the 10 years, like the two PhDs back to back, I already had one, I don't even want to know. It just seems very daunting to enter another one, but I took my first orchid in for judging and I received an award. It was a huge shock, and so I have this picture that I want to share with everybody. Again, it's the weird and wonderful. This is Coryanthes macrantha, and I know we have a picture there. The common name is bucket orchid. It's not everybody's cup of tea. My entire family thinks I'm nuts for liking this type of orchids. It's a little crazy. It's not all that attractive to me. It's the most beautiful thing. I'm completely obsessed with this genus, and the flowers only last three days. Three days, so can't time it. It's just the luck of the draw. So that's my first award. I took my plant in just thinking, okay, maybe I just hear what the feedback is and all of that stuff and I got an award. It was just incredible. So then almost literally that day I signed up for the program, and then I brought my second plant in and this Stanhopea tigrina, and I received the first class certificate and that is the highest award possible for orchids, and I'm kind of like, I've had this plant for 20 years. It just grows in my greenhouse and it just bloomed really well, so I brought it in. It got like the highest award ever, and all of the judges were just really jealous because some of them have 100s of awards and never got an FCC. So give it to the newbie to get that, so just kind of fun.

- Well, thank you for sharing those. So I know that this is such an important part of your life that clearly there are some lessons in there for your style and philosophy of leadership. How do you see your experience in the relationship with orchids as shaping how you are as a professional?

- You know, I think when we do things a lot and if we pay attention, we can draw lessons from everything. People have hobbies and different hobbies, different things that they spend a lot of time doing, and it's just natural. Certainly for me, that's how my brain works is I draw a lot of lessons because orchids are living plants. So they teach me a lot. Just like I am a parent, so parenting teach me a lot how to be a good human being and a good leader, and I spend a lot of time with orchids, so over the years, I draw a lot of lessons from them and I talked about how diverse they are. It's just that diversity requires you to really understand each plant that you bring into your collection and what it needs and all of that stuff, and so just apply that to our team members, our people, how each person brings their own life experience and that makes them who they are, you know? And so if you get to know them just like you would get to know where the orchids' origin is and you create that environment where they can thrive and blossom and just amaze you, and so I see that a lot, but it takes understanding. It takes not just acceptance but the welcoming, you know? And so for me, there's no different. It takes the same skills and the same understanding, the same kind of thinking to be a good orchid grower to help people develop. It's just natural, and maybe that's just how weird my brain works, but for me, it's just like, of course it's the same thing.

- Yeah, no, and I also think that one of the key things just from hearing you talk about the bucket orchid, there's something about seeing beauty in weirdness that I think is really helpful when you're working with a diverse group of people, some of whom to the outside, maybe because of how they dress or their hair or other things might seem weird, but there's beauty in that and being able to recognize that puts you in a position to be a different kind of leader.

- Yeah, I mean, it's just the weirder, the better. The more different, difference is fantastic, it's great, you know?

- So you talked about one of the things that drew you to Indeed is the mission and that on your team, you have a very clear mission of customer-centricity and how you're supporting teams within Indeed. How do you foster that sense of purpose within your teams?

- I think what I always try to focus on is where are we going? And so really helping the team understand the goal and what we're trying to achieve, and that's the most important thing, you know? And not to micromanage that, but our job is to paint the picture and that's what I always say. Just paint the picture for people, and then let them go do their thing, help them, give them the skills, and I believe in purpose, autonomy, mastery. You just tell them what you're trying to do and then give them the skillsets and just let them show you how to get there, and I think that that is really the key there because for me, there's no way I'm going to be smarter than the expert in the area, right? But you can help share with them that vision, that inspiration, and then just let them show you how to do that and I think that that's why we focus on not just, and for people who know me, they've heard me say this a lot of times, don't focus on just today's problem, focus on tomorrow's problem. Focus on where we want to go, and then help us get there, and that's really the true purpose. The ultimate purpose for Indeed is to help people get jobs. The ultimate goal for internal platforms is how do you set up all of the teams to get there? You know, what are the things that we're doing to help our customers achieve their goals today and also two, three years from now? They don't even know what they need, but we should, and that's really what we're trying to help the teams understand, like where do we want to go?

- So we've talked quite a bit before about over the past year how the pandemic has exposed deep divisions that have existed in our society for centuries. I know that you care deeply about underrepresented communities and their thriving at work as a root to connections in the broader community. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

- Well, the pandemic certainly has exposed the deep division in our society, and I think the privileged people, I am one of those people, we're able to work from home, we're able to function, we're able to continue to thrive and learn and grow in this environment, but there's a whole big part of society who are hurting and suffering. So it just sharpened everything for me, and my chosen profession is technical engineering. As a woman in tech, my journey has been kind of lonely. There are not a lot of us in engineering. So it's normal for me to be the only one or the only woman in the room or one of maybe two if I'm lucky, and again, it's a lonely journey. I've never had a woman who took me by the hand and said, you know, Mary, you have a lot of potential, let me help you get there. Never happened. Everything that I have gathered, and it's just trying to connect the dots from hearing and learning from people around me and what I read, and so I felt like my journey was hard. I'm not complaining that it's hard. It's what makes me who I am. You know, it gives me a lot of endurance, a lot of resilience, and a lot of grit and just like I'm not fearful of hard work. That's just, you know, hard work is whatever, but that journey doesn't have to be hard for everybody. There's no brownie points in making things hard, right? And having a hard journey. So my own experience just drives me to be that champion to help other women and underrepresented minorities because I've stood on shoulders of the people who have gone before me who have suffered, who broke through and all of that stuff, and so it's a responsibility and I take it very seriously. I don't feel that, it's a privilege and it's a responsibility, and sometimes I say, if you're a woman and you intentionally not help another woman, a virtual kitten dies somewhere. I don't know if I'm supposed to say that. That's kind of morbid, but it's true, it's true, and who doesn't love virtual kittens? So it's a responsibility. It's a heavy responsibility, yeah.

- I know one thing that you're very proud of is you've recently created a scholarship at your alma mater, the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, specifically for underrepresented minorities. Can you talk a little bit about the reasons behind that?

- It's a lifelong dream. I have been, my entire family, we came here with nothing, you know? And that's why, just touch on the xenophobia, it's us. There's no us versus them, it's all us, you know? I was a them and now I'm an us, all right? And so when I think about that and I think about how in our family, education is, it's just the thing you do and that's how we got here. That's how I am where I am because of my education. I truly believe that education is a great equalizer, and similar to industry, we see that underrepresented minorities drop out of school in their second or third year. It's a very similar statistic, and so as all of the hardship that I saw in 2020, I wanted to do something that would lift me up, you know? So selfishly, I wanted to lift myself up out of the madness of the division that I saw and the sadness of 2020, and my husband and I have been talking about doing this forever, and so we created this scholarship for underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students and there are different ways that you can support. The way that we chose to support is to help a student all the way through their career, and it's not just the scholarship, it's not just the funding, but it's I'll get to know them and we'll have a relationship and I say this, I've said this to you, you can't be what you can't see. I want them to see me and what they, and maybe be inspired by what they see, that they too can get there, they too can be greater than what I would ever hope to be, and that was the purpose, and our first student will be selected this fall in 2021. I can't tell you how much it means to me. I'm sure it means something to the student, but I get so much joy out of it. I'm so looking forward to getting to know them all. One life at a time, one life at a time.

- That's wonderful. Well, our time is coming to a close, and to wrap it up, I'd like to just very briefly have you look ahead and in particular in the context of the experience of the last year, how has this changed your perspective forever moving forward?

- I think for all of us, I think we see possibilities when we didn't see before how video conferencing actually opens up the whole world for us because people don't have to travel. We can interact with each other. We can get to know people through video conferencing, but it makes me realize that I miss human interactions, you know? I can't wait for that in-person, I don't know when I'd be able to hug somebody again, but I'd just like to be in a room with people, will now be a cherished experience. I think what it tells me and with all of 2020 with personal losses and whatnot, life is precious. So do what gives you joy, surround with people who give you joy, and giving my permission to just be joyful and focus on that. Yeah, one of the things that I also started a couple years ago, I sent out the MVP, you know, that's my initials, Friday smiles and I started out with a couple of silly orchids, and again, my goal is to get everybody addicted to orchids, and then I usually include a couple of bullets of things that happened that week that make people smile going into the weekends. My last one was a couple months ago because I just haven't had a lot to smile about, and especially recently with all of the violence and everything against us, against me as Asian American and Pacific Islanders, it's sad, you know? And I couldn't get myself up to do that, but then I participated in the safe space that Vivienne Wynn and Clara Wuderis organized last Friday for all of the people to talk about all of the violence and everything, and it gave me a lot of hope. It gave me a lot of hope that people are taking this space, so many allies on the call, make space for their teammates, brothers, and sisters to talk about things, to call out the violence, to share their feelings. As Asians, we don't do this a lot, you know? We keep our head down, we try to stay out of trouble, and so just having that space and see how many people were willing to be vulnerable and share their feelings and speak out and support gave me a lot of hope. So maybe I'll do it this Friday and hoping that will make people smile.

- Well, Mary, thank you so much for sharing your experience and strength and hope and thank you for joining me for the conversation today and thank you for everything that you do for Indeed and to help people all over the world get jobs.

- Thank you, Chris.