“Be creative.” With Penny Bauder & Kelly Mayes

I realize that for me, sometimes uncertainty brings out my worst traits. And at the same time, everything important to me is uncertain. I have no idea who my kids will become, how long my marriage will last, or how my career will evolve. I am hoping to become more at ease with uncertainty. I […]

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I realize that for me, sometimes uncertainty brings out my worst traits. And at the same time, everything important to me is uncertain. I have no idea who my kids will become, how long my marriage will last, or how my career will evolve. I am hoping to become more at ease with uncertainty. I am hoping to trust that I can be OK in the world as it is. My inner zen teacher says uncertainty ain’t going away.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Mayes, senior director of product at Roblox.

Kelly Mayes currently leads a product team focusing on identity and connection at Roblox, one of the top online entertainment platforms for kids and teens with 120 million monthly active users (and growing). With over a decade of experience building products at the intersection of Social, Gaming, and Media, and leading product teams at Facebook, Zynga, and Gaia, she is passionate about the discipline of product management, user-centered design and structured problem solving. Mayes holds a Bachelor of Science Degrees in Computer Science and Physics from the University of Washington and a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Ihave been into computer science since high school and always very curious about how things work, from computers to people. One day I came across an article about a woman who chose a STEM career path which seemed secure, lucrative, and also allowed for flexibility to balance work and family. This kind of lifestyle, allowing to work from anywhere and providing financial security really resonated with me, especially because I come from a community where lots of single moms really struggled to juggle their work and kids. So, I started out by majoring in computer science and working as a programmer. In the process, however, I discovered that I enjoyed solving people problems much more than technical problems, and got exposure to product management which allows you to do exactly that. As for gaming, I played World of Warcraft in the early 2000s where I went from adamantly single-player to making lots of online friends. The gaming industry has had my attention ever since because I want to be able to bring this experience to more people, and Roblox is where I am able to do that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

My work recently brought me to Slush, a major tech conference in Helsinki, Finland where I was speaking about the social aspect of games. I ran into a very close friend from college who came there from New York to speak as well, so we got a chance to hang out. First of all, what a small world! Secondly: how amazing is it when your work allows you to get new experiences, visit new places, and expand your relationships as you do that?

In addition, a fun fact: I used to sing in a college band, but since then I have only had time for singing to myself in my car. When I joined Roblox, it turned out there’s an employee-formed band where I sing now, and we play at the company’s Christmas party every year. We’ve now played real venues in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area, and have gotten up in front of several hundred of our coworkers to belt out “Get Lucky”, “Superstitious,” and “Happy.”

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Oh, so many! We are building out the next generation of digital identity and social media right now, and I believe the impact of this work on people’s lives could be quite profound. There are already millions of user-created immersive digital worlds on our platform where people connect with one another and express themselves. The ability to hang out with people in 3D, where you have a real feeling of spatial presence provides stronger connectedness than in regular social networks. But there’s a lot more to do in this space as digital and physical worlds become even more intertwined, especially for the generation of digital natives who are growing up on platforms like Roblox. We are building tools to let people — already in the very near future — express their authentic selves through their 3D avatars, deepen existing friendships, and form new friendships online in a safe and civil way.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m extremely grateful to my parents — my mom who instilled an appreciation of math in me, and my dad who helped me fall in love with technology. Craig Sherman of Meritech Capital, who is one of the early investors in Roblox and is currently on our board of directors, played a significant role in my career and life too. He really cares about people and their ideas. He saw the potential of my vision around the importance of social connections in gaming and social identity, and supported me in bringing those to Roblox. He is the person who had believed in me wholeheartedly even before I completely believed in myself.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

Being a woman in STEM is a challenge in itself. There aren’t enough role models. There are management style differences that can be misinterpreted. It’s easy to be underestimated. Being a woman in STEM with children at a high-growth company is the next level challenge. Add the global pandemic into the mix with months of working from home and simultaneously caring for the kids full time, and this turns into an extraordinary resilience test of a lifetime.

My kids are 3 and 5 years old, and they need a lot of care and attention, practically all the time. I literally had to present at a virtual All-Hands team meeting with my 3-year-old on my lap a few days ago. In addition, my husband is in the Army Reserve Medical Corps, so it’s possible he could get deployed any day. I am not yet sure what to do if this happens since he does a great amount of work right now to support our household and spends a lot of time with the kids.

Then there’s also worrying. Not just about my husband being deployed, but also about my kids and their safety. I worry about them getting anxious and tired of this situation. I also worry about my elderly parents who live in other states that have lots of COVID-19 cases with no family support nearby. Thankfully, so far, they have all remained healthy.

On the bright side, I know I’m not alone in feeling this way — we have very open conversations about our employees’ mental well-being in our All-Hands meetings where our senior executives share similar worries and challenges, and we discuss resources available to employees if they need help.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

My husband and I worked out an “on-call” schedule for kids, and now I have blocked chunks of time on my calendar as “kid time.” I still take meetings during those hours, but I let people know that my kids will be there. It’s actually fun to include kids in 1–1 meetings as it often helps build relationships with co-workers in a way I don’t usually get to do. My kids also love meeting my work friends.

My older son is in a Montessori school where they call all learning activities ‘work.’ Both of my kids love imitating my work by making their own slides, typing numbers, or spelling names of people we know.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

Scaling and leading a team at a high-growth company is hard under any circumstances, but without in-person conversations it is more so. It is a tough thing to make sure each member of my team is happy and motivated while we are all working remotely. We also continue hiring and bringing new people on board, and we need to find ways to help them feel connected and build new relationships to succeed in their work.

For example, right before this started, my team and a couple of related teams started re-aligning around a bolder long-term vision, and it has meant that people’s roles and scope of work are changing which can create uncertainty. This is a natural part of how high-growth companies scale, but not being able to have regular in-person conversations around that requires lots of adjustments and time. While I’m doubling down on my family time, I feel the need to double down on work and attention I give to my team as well.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I’m working through this by becoming more vulnerable and straightforward with people, including co-workers and my husband. Whereas before I might have had time for a series of conversations and emails, now I take some time to journal my thoughts so I have the right words to very quickly cut to the point, but in a compassionate way. While it may feel like it’s a risk in certain situations, it’s helped me become more efficient. I’m also encouraging my team to do the same and share their concerns and thoughts very directly. Including sharing openly when they need some time to take care of themselves, their families, or perhaps just to go outside and take a walk. Work in STEM can be very demanding, and it’s extremely important to prioritize health and mental wellbeing.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

I try to combine activities whenever possible. For example, I recently took a walk with my 3 y.o. during my 1–1 phone call with an engineering manager. I encouraged him to do the same. As a result, all three of us got a chance to get out of the house, enjoy fresh air and some exercise, and everyone felt closer to each other.

When my son runs up to me sometimes during conference calls, I take the time to kiss him and give him a few moments of attention if he needs me.

My kids are doing a lot of educational games — math, reading games, Spanish — combining education and fun.

I added my kids’ school video conferences into my calendar and consider them to be part of my schedule. My kids don’t seem to want to join these calls unless they are sitting on my lap.

Finally, it’s really important right now to lower the bar for yourself. We are all doing the best we can in this situation, and I am slowly getting used to the house being messier than what we like it to be. There are some things at work that I decided to just put on hold for now. That’s just our reality right at the moment.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?

I am a big fan of meditation, but I have found it impossible to sit still even for 10 or 15 minutes lately. Instead of scheduling these sessions like I used to, I’ve been taking one breath of mindfulness at a time, throughout the day. As often as I can remember! Even one or two breaths can make a difference for me. Five breaths means it is a really good day. For example, I do hand sanitizer meditation — take a mindful breath as I push down the pump on the hand sanitizer. Or putting-away-dishes meditation. Putting-pants-on-my-toddler meditation. This strategy has helped me numerous times to change a moment of frustration into a reminder of the joy of parenting and living together. Sometimes it just helps me keep my cool for one or two breaths longer.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Gladly! There are many reasons to stay optimistic, but here are my top five:

1) Creativity. One of my passionate side projects is studying Shakespeare and the history of his time. He lived in an era of the Plague. Theaters were shut down every few years, for months at a time, and Shakespeare lost his job probably more than once. He had three young kids to feed, one of whom may have been a special-needs child. And yet, for him and a whole generation of people around him, tremendous creativity got unlocked during this time. I’m hopeful that could be true for us. In fact, we are already seeing this happen within our creator community and our Roblox team coming up with incredibly creative ideas. Personally, I feel like I’m doing some of my deepest thinking around next-gen social product vision and the discipline of product management.

2) Connectedness. It has never been more apparent to me that we are in this together, as a country and as a connected world. I am hopeful that we can emerge with a new sense of that when this is over. Personally, I already feel like this is influencing how I work and parent in subtle ways. My kids were fighting over a toy they both wanted, and I said to them, “We are in this house together. What are you going to do to work it out?” They quickly figured something out.

3) Flexible work arrangements. People are merging their work and family lives more than ever before, by necessity. Parents and caretakers of all genders are living that reality, day to day. I am hopeful that once this is over, more workplaces will realize how important it is to give employees the much needed flexibility to strike their own work/family balance, and more businesses will have the right tools to do that. I am hopeful that this can lead to a more gender-balanced workforce in STEM.

4) Love. I’ve noticed that I am telling my family, my parents, and my friends “I love you” more often than usual, because I am worried that something bad might happen to any of them at any point in time. In this current context love bubbles up closer to the surface. I hope I keep expressing this love even after the fear has passed, and I hope lots of people are doing the same.

5) Embracing uncertainty. I have been reflecting on uncertainty, and my reactions to it. I realize that for me, sometimes uncertainty brings out my worst traits. And at the same time, everything important to me is uncertain. I have no idea who my kids will become, how long my marriage will last, or how my career will evolve. I am hoping to become more at ease with uncertainty. I am hoping to trust that I can be OK in the world as it is. My inner zen teacher says uncertainty ain’t going away.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Listening and reassurance that it’s ok to be anxious. I’m grateful to see our company having very open conversations about this topic. Even our CEO is sharing his personal struggles in our All-Hands meetings, and the company is offering resources to employees to support their mental well-being and encouraging people to talk about it, and reach out when they need help.

But there are also simple acts of kindness that you can do. Like getting groceries for a neighbor who’s worried about going to get groceries. Every time we go to the store we text our elderly neighbor and ask what he needs.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Get outside every day, even if it’s in your pajamas right in front of your front door.” My friend Fiona gave me that advice when I had my first baby. It was good for me then, and it’s good for me now.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on LinkedIn and always happy to support my peers in STEM whichever way I can. Don’t hesitate to reach out!

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