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Women in Business Q&A: Maria Zhang, Senior Director of Engineering, Yahoo

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Maria is a Senior Director of Engineering at Yahoo, where she currently leads the mobile content and mobile SDK team for Yahoo's Mobile and Emerging Products organization. Maria leads the direction and execution of Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Fantasy Sports, Yahoo News Digest and the Yahoo app.

Prior to her role at Yahoo, Maria founded Alike, a mobile local recommendation app which was acquired by Yahoo in February 2013. Prior to Alike, Maria was a Principal Software Development Manager at Microsoft, a Product Team Lead at Zillow.com, a Program Manager at Microsoft and a Senior Software Engineer at NetIQ Corp.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My mom is a professor, so I grew up in an academic environment where students were judged by delivering stellar results on tests and school projects. That experience taught me at an early age to focus on results and impact, and I've carried those lessons into my professional career. My mom has also always been passionate about her career. For her, teaching isn't just a job, it's a career that impacts the lives of others and makes a difference in the world. Today, my job is to inspire and lead our team of mobile engineers at Yahoo to create exceptional products that impact our users. And I do this with the same passion that my mom instilled in me.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Yahoo?

I've worked at both large companies and small startups throughout my career. While there are similarities across all of the positions, there are also many different aspects that I think have helped me develop a unique strength to combine the best of both worlds. For example, in my past experience I found a small startup teams are very agile and can iterate quickly, while the larger companies have much more resources but move a bit slower. What I've learned is that large companies don't always have a "corporate" culture. In fact, as a team leader at Yahoo, my focus is on infusing our mobile engineers with the speed and passion of a startup while fully leverage the rich resources available to us. This unique combination in culture makes all the difference as we're working to make a big impact in a short amount of time.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Yahoo?

One of the things I value the most is that we've built an awesome team with amazing people. Building great products requires building a great team, and it can be a challenge to do that at scale as high quality engineers are always in demand in such a competitive market. But I am proud of the fact that we've built a really solid mobile team, scaling from less than 100 to 500 people in a very short time. I'm also very proud that within months of joining Yahoo, we launched some really great products that our users love -- most notably the Yahoo Mail app and Yahoo News Digest app.

How is Yahoo transforming the world of mobile engineering?

When I think about Yahoo's approach to mobile products, I think it's where data meets design -- that intersection has been the vision of Adam Cahan, head of Yahoo's mobile efforts. He inspired us to combine cutting edge machine learning and other intelligent software engineering with amazing interactive and visual design to transform the way users consume information on their mobile devices. For example, Yahoo News Digest has the most intuitive and simple design with a complex backend system that crunches through massive amount of data and applies a very sophisticated set of algorithms to deliver news that is relevant, timely and distilled. There is strong collaboration, where not just software engineers, but also designers who have an eye for beautiful, clean design details are working together to elevate the overall experience of our mobile apps.

What advice can you offer women who want to become a technological engineer?

My advice for women interested in engineering is two-fold: drive results and leverage your strengths. If you challenge yourself to solve hard problems and deliver impeccable results, you will always be in high demand. Aim to solve a difficult problem or achieve a certain level measured by a specific success metric, and the rest will fall into place naturally. At the same time, it's important to leverage your strengths and be confident in what you do, rather than focusing on your weaknesses.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Work/life balance is just that -- a balancing act. What I find most effective is breaking up the work day in two sections and focus on work and personal life in each section. I typically go into the office pretty early, and take a break to exercise in the afternoon. I head home in the early evenings to have dinner with my family and I get back online to respond emails and make plans for the next day before going to sleep. I find that breaking up my days keeps me grounded and much more efficient than working very long hours straight.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I think the biggest issue for women in the workplace, engineers specifically, is there there is a false perception that women don't fit into engineering roles. I believe that negative notion has impacted this career path for many, resulting in fewer women in the engineering field. I think we need to correct this false perception by encouraging women to simply be themselves. For example, when I noticed that many women in the engineering field would dress very similar to their male peers in Silicon Valley -- jeans, t-shirts, sneakers -- while at work. But when I would see them in a social setting, they were wearing more feminine clothing like dresses and high heels. I truly feel that women just need to be themselves in the workplace. Stand out. Don't try to fit into this male-dominated mold, but rather wear a skirt to work if you like wearing skirts. Celebrate who you are as an engineer and a woman.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

For me, mentorship isn't about identifying a specific mentor, it's about learning from everyone around you, and learning different perspectives. I see mentorship everywhere, with everyone. I learn from my managers, my peers, my friends, my neighbors, and everyone on my team. I make an effort to understand the different aspects and opinions that everyone has in career and in life. This has become a "habit" for me. I've really benefited from it.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Marissa Mayer. I admire her strong engineering and academic background, as well as her thoughtful leadership. She inspires Yahoos every day to give our all and to believe in ourselves.

As I mentioned earlier, my mom is also someone I admire very much. She raised me and my sister on her own after my father passed away. She has overcome illness and many other challenges in her life, not only as a successful professional, but as a mother, a teacher, a writer, a poet and a great friend to many. She taught us to be independent, passionate, dedicated and relentlessly pursue our dreams in life. I think those life lessons have made me the person I am today.