Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Mary Bui-Pham (Chemical Engineering, PhD '92)
|Dr. Mary Bui-Pham|
San Diego, Calif., January 13, 2016 -- When Mary Bui-Pham completed her PhD in Chemical Engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, she never dreamed she’d be the Chief-of-Staff for a division of Yahoo!, Inc.
Learn about Bui-Pham’s career path and her role at Yahoo! in this Q&A.
What is your current title?
Chief-of-Staff, Publisher Products.
What does your current role entail?
Publisher Products include Yahoo’s flagship products such as Yahoo.com, Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Sports, and also Tumblr, Flurry, and Polyvore. In fact, we just acquired Polyvore a few months back. The platform allows you to shop and style the latest fashion trends. I manage all of the day-to-day operations for Publisher Products including leading the Design and Program Management teams. My nickname is “The Fixer”. If there’s a football game on and something glitches on the Sports app, I immediately get a text from my siblings in Chicago about it. Chicagoans are always on top of that!
What does a normal day look like for you?
Every day is different, but my focus is always around people and productivity. How to attract talent? How to retain talent? Are we structured correctly? How do we ship products that delight our customers faster? How do I streamline our process and reduce/remove complexity? How do we plan better? And of course, a big part of my day is to remove obstacles for our team.
What has your career path been like?
I received my PhD in Chemical Engineering from UC San Diego in 1992, and then went on to do two postdocs. During that time, I was doing computational modeling of flames, and we had a big multi-lab/university project that was going to be part of Supercomputing ’96 – the notion of distributed computing was very new at that time.
I realized that in the labs, we have more PhDs per square foot than anywhere else, and we’re great at doing research, but not at technical project management. Nonetheless, that was the role in which I found myself, since there was a need for someone to organize and manage projects. Because of that, I took a job at NetGravity, which later merged with DoubleClick and then Google. My PhD had nothing to do with software development, but it seemed like a natural transition.
I’m very passionate about education and development. I want to be part of creating a culture of success – it’s all about people. I want to see people at their best and most productive.
Do you feel like the skill set you possess was nurtured at the Jacobs School?
Absolutely. I was trained to use data to make decisions. People talk a lot about that, but often, they don’t know what data to collect and what questions to ask. My time at the Jacobs School also taught me perseverance – months of grueling work taught me that there’s no problem that’s not solvable. That’s how my brain works now – I’m not afraid of big problems.
Aside from those things, I also met my husband here. It’s actually a funny story – I was working in Professor Seshadri’s lab, where my husband was also doing summer research. I remember one day, I was sitting with my back to him working on the computer when he blew up a pressure gauge. I heard a loud explosion and felt shards of glass hit my back, and I didn’t want to turn around, for fear that he might be in pieces! When I finally did, I saw him standing behind the pressure gauge! Now, he jokingly says, “Well if I disfigured you, I knew I had to marry you because no one else would!”
What advice would you give to recent graduates or mid-career professionals looking to make a change?
I would tell them the same thing I tell my twin daughters – aim high. If you aim high and hit mid-way, that’s probably orders of magnitude better than aiming low. The other thing I’d say is, invest in your strengths. We are trained as a society to look for ways to improve. I give out the Strength Finder book as gifts to people, and all of my teams take the survey and share out results as a team building activity. For example, if you have someone on your team who is great at brainstorming, you should use them in brainstorming sessions. So know your strengths, and find jobs that will leverage them. To college graduates, you can be a leader at any level– and I’m speaking especially to women – leadership has nothing to do with title.
The Jacobs School is all about innovation and investment – that story is more compelling now than it’s ever been. I can’t wait to see how the Dean’s Experience Engineering initiative will prepare students for the real world – the more prepared they are, the more valuable they will be, and nothing beats experience in that respect.