Operator Spotlight: Google Engineer Yanbing Li

Looking for practical help and advice on an operational area that may be outside your realm? Each month we spotlight one of our talented operators, who’ll share their expertise and offer insights and ideas that may help improve your own operations. This month we spoke to Yanbing Li, Vice President of Engineering at Google.

This year has been full of disruptions. As both a leader and an immigrant, how have you been affected by the renewed focus on social justice?

YANBING: It has been immensely heart-wrenching to witness the racial injustice and violence toward the Black community, xenophobia against the Asian community, harsh immigration policies, and so much more. For me personally, it is a time of learning and reflection, of recognizing the deep systemic violence rooted in our nation’s founding and history. I have reached out to Black colleagues I’ve worked with to listen to their pain and frustration, which again reminded me just how little the Black community is represented in our organization. 

For my role as a leader, it is a time to be visible and available, and a time to prompt decisive action. We are doubling down our effort for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and I am serving as the chair of our organization’s DEI Council, where we are designing a set of programs to promote and improve the hiring, progression, and retention of underrepresented groups. 

How has your team at Google changed because of COVID-19? 

YANBING: My team and I have gone through multiple distinct phases since transitioning to working from home in early March. Our initial focus was on business continuity—we needed to quickly assess and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and, subsequently, working from home, on employees, teams, operations, and customers. 

Following this, we transitioned to our next phase, which highlighted productivity. Understanding and improving team productivity was key in both keeping engineering execution predictable and fulfilling customer commitments, especially with the knowledge that we will be working from home for the long haul. 

We then moved to managing growth. Google Cloud is a hyper-growth business equipped with a rapidly increasing customer base and revenue, an ever-expanding portfolio of products, and the ceaseless process of hiring and onboarding. While the pandemic has caused great uncertainty in the global economy, the demand for digital transformation and cloud services remains stronger than ever. Managing business growth and onboarding a large number of new employees while the world seems to come to a standstill is truly a surreal experience. It is challenging, yet also incredibly fulfilling to know we’re making a positive impact.  

Throughout these phases, our utmost priority has been focusing on people: the well being of our own community and the changing needs of our customers. We are providing flexibility and accommodations to our teams and continuously working to better understand and support how the pandemic is impacting each of their personal circumstances. 

You immigrated from China after college to focus on engineering, a profession that’s heavily male-dominated. That put you in the minority of a minority. What was your experience like and what pushed you through? 

YANBING: Growing up in a household of a mother who is a doctor and a father who is an engineer, my fascination with STEM began at a young age. I have fond memories of asking my grandfather for challenging math problems during summer breaks and declaring my dream job was to become a scientist while I was in elementary school. Engineering was a natural choice for me, and being a woman didn’t seem to create any barriers in my career until I became an executive. 

As I was working on transitioning from engineering leadership to business leadership, a breakthrough in my career, I found myself unsuccessful even after multiple attempts. I remember thinking, “This is what a glass ceiling feels like.” After making the decision to take a smaller engineering leadership role in an emerging business, I had the opportunity to grow with the team—first as the VP of engineering and later as the General Manager, all the while growing the new business to reach over $1B in annual revenue. Recognizing that the best path forward may sometimes be, counterintuitively, to take a step backward or sideways is absolutely crucial towards career progression, especially when feeling stuck. I was also fortunate enough to have the sponsorship of the senior leadership in the company all the way up to the CEO. They were willing to bet on me and gave me the opportunity to transition to general management.

What advice do you have for women looking to build a career in engineering?

YANBING: There has never been a better time for women to build a career in engineering. We’re in a time where technology is rapidly becoming omnipresent, more accessible, more diverse, and integrated into every industry and every aspect of our lives, all at an unprecedented scale and speed. 

The most common bias I have observed against women in engineering is that they “are not technical enough.” Establishing technical credibility is extremely important for women in any technical roles, or even in nontechnical roles in a tech organization. 

As women advance in their career, they may encounter yet another bias that they are “operational” and “tactical,” but not “strategic.” Demonstrating market insights, customer empathy, and connecting to the bigger business strategy at the larger organizational level are compelling ways to overcome this bias. 

What are some things engineering teams should prioritize over the next 6 months? 

YANBING: First and foremost, I would prioritize people, productivity, collaboration, and innovations. We must pay attention to the well being of our teams, not only as a group, but also as individuals, since the pandemic is impacting all of us in very different ways. We also need to better predict and measure productivity in this highly unpredictable time, as predictable execution is the trademark of a high-performing engineering team. This requires challenging ourselves to find new ways of collaborating virtually. While the world may seem like it has slowed down, standing still is never a winning strategy and we must continue to create room for innovation and risk-taking. 

What’s one amazing insight no one knows about engineering?   

YANBING: Engineering is a trade and there is no shortcut around it. Just like being an athlete or a musician, engineering requires us to continuously dedicate time and energy to hands-on learning and practice. Whether you’re a hands-on engineer, a senior architect, or a VP of Engineering who leads an organization of hundreds of people, you rely on experience and judgement rooted in having concrete practice with engineering and in keeping your knowledge up to date. 

However, this does not mean that people without a formal tech degree or background can’t get into tech. With the huge demand for diverse talent, there are many paths to become trained in tech. For example, at Google we have programs that support non-tech Googlers to transition to engineering through tech bootcamps and job rotations. 

People often talk about the skills they picked up as a bartender, working retail, or other experiences before their leadership roles. What were some of those formative jobs for you?

YANBING: This isn’t quite a “job,” per se, but running for Student Office in college was a formative experience for me. I got to recruit a campaign team, build connections with complete strangers, speak and debate in front of thousands of people, and campaign for the causes that I believed in. It allowed me to recognize my passion and confidence in a leadership position.  

What’s one unconventional thing you’re doing to keep yourself sane these days?

YANBING: With everyone at home, I find my life boils down to only two modes: working from home or working for home. Occasionally, I escape from these two modes to watch 90’s Japanese dramas, video meet with friends, or get beauty tutorials and yoga tips from my teenage daughters.

What’s the one condiment/spice you could never live without? 

YANBING: Soy sauce, hands down. Can you tell I grew up in China? When the pandemic started and grocery stores were running out of supplies, I didn’t panic, as I knew I could survive on rice and soy sauce for a long time. 

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