STEM Career Advice from a Women in Tech Hall of Famer
Yanbing Li cannot believe she became a Women in Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame inductee this week. With a long list of academic accreditation, including a Ph.D. from Princeton University, and a pivotal leadership position at the helm of VMware’s fastest growing technology business, Yanbing remains as a humble and inspiring as ever.
I had the great opportunity of sitting down with Yanbing to talk about her experiences as part of the women in tech movement, her success in a male-dominated engineering field, her leadership perspectives and advice for us all about nurturing a purpose-driven career.
Blakely: Congratulations on your induction into the WITI Hall of Fame!
Yanbing: I’m extremely honored and humbled with this recognition. A fundamental realization I’ve had about being inducted is that this is truly a reflection of the organization and people around me. This recognition reflects the collective success of my team and company. I’m truly honored.
Blakely: In today’s businesses, especially technology, there’s such a need for diversity and the inclusion of more women in tech fields, especially leadership positions. What drew you to such a prolific career, academically and professionally, in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?
Yanbing: When I was a kid in China, my mother was a doctor and my father a researcher/engineer, so I had good exposure to STEM in my early life. I had so much support and encouragement, I like to think STEM runs in my blood. I have a strong natural curiosity around everything STEM and it was no joke that one of my favorite activities was to solve math problems posed by grandfather.
I also had a turning point when I turned 40, well into my professional life. In China, we like to say, “When one turns 40, she is no longer confused.” I had this aha moment when I realized I wanted to do more. I wanted to be much more purposeful about the direction and impact I would like to have.
Blakely: What changed your perspective on your career as a woman in tech? What does it mean to be more purposeful?
Yanbing: In my early life, I spent too much time on autopilot, including building a long educational background—Ph.D. in engineering and becoming a researcher and engineer. Early in my career, I felt by building more technologies, one could change the world. As I gain more experience and think of my career, there’s certainly more purpose in life beyond the technology. I want to have a positive impact on people and the organization. I want to build something that truly impacts our customers and brings success to them. I want to leave a long-lasting impact on the people and organizations I work with, whether people or customers.
Blakely: What challenges or opportunities do you face most often?
Yanbing: Lately, I’ve been solving challenges around building a hyper-growth business. As an engineering leader turned business leader, it is a phenomenal experience to scale a business where we need to deal with product, business, organizational and customer challenges. I enjoy being part of it and feel that I can positively impact the outcome. Customer success is an integral part of our business success. I especially love the experience of turning sometimes unsatisfied customers into the biggest advocates of our products by making them successful.
Blakely: Looking out at the technology landscape today, what new technology challenges you or intrigues you the most? And what advice do you have for others tackling those same challenges?
Yanbing: I still find myself challenged all the time! It’s the accelerating pace of technology and our industry. Keeping abreast of all this change remains a constant challenge. I did find through many years of training that engineering and business principles remain similar, but tools, languages, applications and user experience change quickly. This acceleration is a challenge and an opportunity, and the key to success is constantly educating yourself and exploring new technologies.
Blakely: What advice do you have for young professionals going into STEM fields today?
Yanbing: Experiment in different types of work, domains and experiences. As a mentor or leader today, it is very important that we encourage people to be much more purposeful as they start out. Have a clear north star in mind. Trying different things and have clear goals seems contradicting, but both are important for building a long-term successful career. I missed out on both when I was young.
Like my education and career, we often do things because it is what our parents expect us to or it is natural or convenient. Experiment and think about the possibilities purposefully, so you can be more deliberate as you move forward.
For women specifically, one of the challenges we face most often in STEM fields is the misconception that we do not have significant, technical credibility. While technical credibility is important to both genders, it is especially applicable to women. My advice to young professionals is to build that solid technical foundation and credibility early on.
What advice do you have for women interested in starting careers in STEM? Have questions for Yanbing on your career journey? Share your comments and unique perspectives below.