Mary Bui-Pham’s career is an unexpected one, even to her. She started out earning a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of California, San Diego. From there, Bui-Pham moved towards project and people management during the dot-com bubble, ultimately landing her current job as the VP, Operations and Chief of Staff of Publisher Products at Yahoo.
Nicknamed ‘The Fixer,’ Bui-Pham now keeps everything for her team of over 900 people running smoothly. And every step along the way, her focus remains the same: people development and productivity.
We connected with Bui-Pham to learn more on her approach to people management and mentorship, as well as how she’s navigated her career path.
You have a fascinating background, including a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering leading up to Chief of Staff of Publisher Products at Yahoo. How have you navigated that path? What have the common threads been?
My Ph.D. was in chemical engineering, specifically around combustion; I studied the computational modeling of flames. So I’m very comfortable around computers. And while I was doing one of my postdocs, we began a joint project with some other national labs and universities.
We were working in an environment where most of us were scientists and researchers. There were more Ph.Ds per square foot than I’ll ever see in one place again. Practicing management was not a skill set readily available. In order to demo our project at a big conference, I found myself starting to pull people together. I stepped into a role that eventually became project management, I just didn’t know it at the time. For me personally, my career blossomed out of that experience and for a while, I was doing technical project management without knowing what it was called. That led me to a program management role during the dot-com phase.
My career progression seems strange. But it’s been a natural progression that’s revolved around solving issues related to computer science.
What did you enjoy that kept you on that career path?
I’m a planner. The ability to put order to chaos is natural to me. It’s part of who I am and always has been. We all go through life wearing a certain lens. With anything I look at, planning it for efficiency is part of my DNA. Following that natural instinct led me on this path.
When things are broken, there are a lot of opportunities. I thought I was getting a Ph.D. to teach and do research at a University. But life happens. All of a sudden, I discovered a skill I didn’t know I had.
Have you had individuals that impacted your career, those you went to for advice or direction?
Not early on in my career. I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past months: I’m a huge proponent, and have been throughout my career, of mentoring programs because I’ve never had that luxury.
I said this recently both on a panel for International Women’s Day and at a Women In Tech conference: I’ve never had a woman who took me by the hand and said ‘Mary, you have a lot of potential. Let me help you get there.’ It drives me to be that person for others. I want to be that champion for women and the underdogs.
I got lucky to get to where I am. But I didn’t have a lot of help and I had a hard time doing it. I want to be able to provide that help in order to make the road easier for other people.
What is your approach to mentoring or advising others?
I’m an active participant in our Yahoo mentoring program. And when I worked at eBay, and we founded eBay’s Women In Tech chapter, I started the mentoring program for that initiative.
Sometimes people just need to be able to meet with somebody and talk about things. The conversations could be very broad because that person just needs a sounding board. Other times, the relationship could be very targeted. Conversations revolve around people facing a fork in the road or asking ‘How do I solve these things?’
For people I’m mentoring today, a lot of the questions that arise ask ‘How do I get to the next step in my career, wherever that may be?’ A lot of times the answer is a career switch. Often times they’re not sure what lies ahead, but their current roles are not their goals in life. As a mentor in those cases, I’m the person to help them gather information and make the best decisions. I’ll ask questions like ‘How do you know this is the new career you want?’ And I’ll also give them contacts to learn as much as possible about the direction they’re heading in. The more you learn about what others do, the sharper image you have in your mind about the path you want to take.
Overseeing projects at Yahoo that involve hundreds of people, what do you see emerging as trends in people management?
One of the biggest challenges I think a lot about is how I can help people have an authentic conversation with somebody.
I work in the tech industry. We’re generally not skilled at giving feedback and having those crucial conversations. We don’t know how to praise people or tell them they need to change something.
I see that as the biggest challenge in people management. Employees are constantly surprised when it comes time for reviews or feedback loops and I think how could you possibly be surprised? Because no one has told them.
Feedback is a ‘shiny object’ in the workplace right now. But I don’t know that we provide people with the skills to approach feedback effectively. If we fix that problem and teach others to be open and honest, to give people the gift of feedback — that would be so impactful.
Behavior change can be hard. You have to convince someone to stick their neck out and offer constructive feedback. They’ll ask ‘Why should I do this?’ But I believe that a lot of us all want to do a great job. And when people don’t give us feedback, we just assume we’re doing a great job. If no one is directing you, you’ll just assume all is well with the world. I’ve worked with really senior leaders who just can’t do it. They’ll tell everyone else but the person.
How do you address that?
I’m like the ship’s counselor. People tell me everything. But after they tell me, they feel like they’ve told the person. No. You just told me. Keep practicing and at some point, you’re going to have to have that conversation. To me, having an authentic conversation is such a needed skill for people management of all levels — how can you build trust if your team cannot trust you to have an open conversation, whether good or bad?
How do you measure successful HR initiatives?
It depends on the initiative. Some initiatives have very concrete methods of measurement, like reviews or attrition. A success measurement that’s very interesting to me is engagement, which is always the hard thing in a workplace. Sometimes it takes a while to get there.
One of the things we talk about a lot in our org: everybody knows Yahoo is going through challenging changes and macro conditions but the fact that the team continues to be focused on releasing products is everything. It’s so easy to say ‘I’ll just wait to see what happens.’ Instead, everyone’s heads down and having lively, passionate product discussions. Our velocity is amazing.
To me, that’s an engaged and successful team. I think the most impactful measurement to think about is the productivity of the team, the rate of deliverability, and how we directly impact the business.
How do you think about your future, the future of strategic management and people?
Over time, I’ve found that my passion is around people development. It’s now very clear in my mind what my strengths are. We all want to do the things we’re really good at. Nobody wants to do something they suck at. When you know your strengths, you want to do more there. You become more creative there.
I’m in a job I love because I get to do everything: take care of all the operations of a team of hundreds of people, the size of most medium sized companies. I can work with the leadership team and I can develop the people.
That’s where my focus will be: leadership and people development. I love this job because I’m involved in everything. I’ve spent a lot of time in product strategy. I’ve spent a lot of time in process improvements. And I’ve spent a lot of time in people development. And I love all of that. If I have to choose to focus more on something, it’s always on the people.
In your UCSD spotlight you say: ”I’m very passionate about education and development.” How does that translate to how you manage and your current role?
For example, Yahoo is going through this big transaction with Verizon. It’s a time of uncertainty at Yahoo and people can feel shaky as a result.
So I was thinking ‘What can we do to get people to play with each other, and create a sense of community?’ I decided we would do a succulent terrarium planting. It seems silly. And I did wonder if we’d have to prod 200 people to participate. Instead, over 400 people showed up. The place was mobbed. Everyone thought it was the best thing ever, because they got to sit and talk with their teammates and just enjoy their community. This terrarium planting activity built that sense of community and purpose, that feeling that we’re in this together.
It was amazing to see. I was shocked by how jazzed people were. To me, the event was a little thing we could do to get people thinking outside of the work box. And it was such a huge deal! Doing small, creative things like that help. They cost very little. But they build a sense of community. That’s important for people to feel a part of.
I want to tap into that emotional place in people, where they feel they belong or that someone cares.
Any advice you would offer someone looking to end up in a role like yours?
People at Yahoo ask me this all the time! The advice I almost always give is: find a problem and fix it. Build that reputation for being a problem solver. That’s how you build credibility. That’s how you build trust. That’s how you build a reputation.
It’s very easy to sit around and complain. Everybody does that. It’s ok to complain. Get it out of your system. But then go fix it.
Start with a small problem. As you build confidence, go fix the bigger problems. And you’ll build a network where people pick up the phone for you and help you fix bigger and bigger problems.
Last question: any advice you have for people looking to build a great team?
Especially in this tech industry, a lot of people ask for this advice. They’re asking ‘How do I hire great people? How do I build a culture around a healthy team?’
I usually say that you have to know what your core values are. Then, hire people to amplify those values. That is everything.
It’s when you focus on one aspect of people, like high IQ, and don’t pay attention to others, that your culture becomes warped — especially if you’re growing fast. People often hire to fit their culture. But if you do that, you hire people like you. When you hire a lot of ‘likes’ the ‘differents’ stick out like a sore thumb.
You have to have a very clear sense of your core values. Stay steadfast in only hiring people who amplify those core values and don’t be apologetic about that. By sticking to your values you create a workplace that thrives with a shared sense of purpose.