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“Hard Work.” With Penny Bauder & Sydney Anh Mai

Kill your darlings: There’s sticking up for what you believe in, and there’s “hard to work” with. You might be thinking, “This goes against the point she just made”. No, it doesn’t — this complements it. Check the room temperature — are you making people uncomfortable? Check in with product and business directions — are […]

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Kill your darlings: There’s sticking up for what you believe in, and there’s “hard to work” with. You might be thinking, “This goes against the point she just made”. No, it doesn’t — this complements it. Check the room temperature — are you making people uncomfortable? Check in with product and business directions — are what you proposed still top priorities? This is something I picked up from years of getting my work critiqued in design reviews: kill your darlings, because you’re in service of the product, not your ego.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sydney Anh Mai.

Sydney Anh Mai is a product designer at Kickstarter. Born and raised in Hanoi, Vietnam, she spent her adolescence growing up in the United States. She graduated cum laude from New York University in 2017 with a degree in digital communication and web development. Her passion for purposeful interactions and optimized human workflows has taken her across various products, namely IBM, TD Ameritrade, and most recently, Kickstarter. In 2020, she received two Indigo Design Awards and a Dotcomm Award in user experience design.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Absolutely! I was actually much more interested in arts and humanities than natural sciences when I was younger. I went to NYU for media & communication and thought I was going to be a publicist. When someone suggested taking a web design class, little did I know that it would change the course of my career (thank you, Professor Clayton!). I hadn’t really considered myself a visually creative person before but finally found the right medium with web design. I spent my last 2 years at NYU taking computer science classes, immersing in interaction design, and graduated with a degree in communication and web development. A combination of human communication and computer science classes brought me to the field of user experience design.

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

The week I started at Kickstarter was the week New York went into quarantine. I’ve been working remotely since day 1 and would be lying if I say it wasn’t an adjustment. As a UX designer and natural observer of human behaviors, I have always enjoyed the frequent brainstorms and creative thinking exercises on whiteboards with my team. As the world mourned for human connections in April, I mourned for all the whiteboarding sessions I would have had in an in-person setting. About 2 months in, I started adopting Miro, an online collaborative platform that some of us used at Kickstarter. Despite some level of clunkiness that any software trying to emulate human interactions inherits, I have grown to really like it!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While I primarily design web applications now, I came from an editorial web design background. By “editorial”, I mean marketing pages, interactive experiences, web animations, etc. My first job was at Havas, an ad agency in New York, where I learned the secret to the “editorial look”: a combination of huge headings and negative space. I applied this neat little trick everywhere to make my design seem luxurious, even in some of my early product design work. I recently looked back at my old mockups and was embarrassed by how difficult it was to scan things because of the huge amount of white space! The first product that I’ve ever designed was a reimbursement app called Abacus, which contains lots of data tables — definitely not a candidate for dramatic spacing. It’s been a few years since and I’ve learned better to use dividers and color-coding instead of space on a data-packed UI. You live and you learn!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Although Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform, it definitely has elements of e-commerce to backers, especially in the checkout flow. If you never backed a project on Kickstarter before, you might be surprised to find that it’s not just a good-will donation. Creators usually offer different rewards for different pledge levels, which may cause you to liken the experience to a purchase. However, backing is not buying. While pledges go to support the creation of a product, a lot of things could go wrong during the process where an independent creator tries to bring a creative idea to life. For example, fulfillment and shipping. To me, the thing that gets me most excited about designing this product is this hybrid breed of transaction, which falls somewhere between a charitable donation and a purchase. These constraints push me to be both conscious and creative with the workflows I design.

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

The most recent feature I designed at Kickstarter is add-ons. Traditionally, creators have been using big graphics in their project description to offer optional rewards, which backers can choose to “add on” to their original pledge. Productizing add-ons helps creators easily manage their optional rewards and backers easily check out with them. Add-ons is one of the most highly requested features from our community. I am incredibly humbled to help to bring it to life.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Since I attended an all-girls boarding high school then majored in Communication for the first 2 years of college, I had always been surrounded by women and expected my career to be so as well. I didn’t realize how fewer women there were in STEM until I started taking computer science classes, where I was often one of the few girls in lectures. After graduation, I quickly realized that this was going to be the reality of my career in tech, being the only female developer in a male-dominated team, managed by a male boss. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t deter me from fully exploring a career in software engineering.

A major factor that leads up to the gender disparity in STEM is educational interests. Since the late 1990s, women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, but only 18% of those are in computer science (National Girls Project). Young women are traditionally guided towards careers in nursing, writing, or teaching, but not building. The rise of Girls Who Code and other women-in-STEM non-profit organizations in the past decade has been a remarkable thing to watch, but still is not enough to even out the number of female vs male engineers in larger tech companies. In order to do this, young women need to be given an equal opportunity to explore their interests in math and science through relatable educational materials. Educational institutions have to acknowledge gender disparity in the classroom and make an active effort to nourish science interests in their female students. Colleges should also hire more female faculty members for STEM majors and create career mentorship programs that cater to female students in STEM.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One of the biggest challenges comes from the sheer disproportion in the female vs male employee populations in tech alone. Would you feel comfortable walking into an interview where the entire interviewing panel looks nothing like you? Would you feel comfortable raising your voice in a male-dominated meeting knowing it’s likely going to drown out? The only way to address this is for companies to actively strive to hire more female tech workers. They should also have college recruiting programs that assist female students in STEM.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

There’s a common myth that girls can’t and shouldn’t do heavy lifting. This myth manifests itself in the interests we were exposed to and the career paths we were guided towards, where STEM and other hard sciences were considered the “heavy lifting”, and social sciences were considered more graceful and feminine. I’ve spent most of my life dispelling this myth. Women can build. As a matter of fact, we make great builders because of the amount of planning, empathizing, and edge-case thinking that goes into building a great product. Vice versa, doing heavy lifting or building something doesn’t make you any less feminine. The ability to build is expressive, creative, and sexy.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Speak up: When you’re not the predominant voice, you have to speak way louder to get noticed — you’ll have to scream. Don’t count on others to notice your voice or sentiments. Make them heard.

Be skilled: Skills are what keep you grounded, resourceful, and indispensable. Be highly skilled at whatever you do, teach yourself new tools, and always keep up with industry trends. Even if you’re at senior levels, pick a project from time to time and stay hands-on. Ideas alone are not going to earn you respect from the people you manage, but ideas plus execution will. Stay grounded.

Know your worth: This definitely comes with experience and seniority. However, it doesn’t mean that you should underestimate the value you provide as a junior or mid-level employee. As a matter of fact, you’re probably providing more services than anyone else. Be empowered by the level of control you have over production.

Kill your darlings: There’s sticking up for what you believe in, and there’s “hard to work” with. You might be thinking, “This goes against the point she just made”. No, it doesn’t — this complements it. Check the room temperature — are you making people uncomfortable? Check in with product and business directions — are what you proposed still top priorities? This is something I picked up from years of getting my work critiqued in design reviews: kill your darlings, because you’re in service of the product, not your ego.

Don’t settle: In May 2017, I watched Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address a few weeks before my own graduation. “Don’t settle” were the 2 single words that were immediately carved into my head. Comfort is the enemy of progress. If you want to make something out of your life, you’ll have to keep striving, looking, and most importantly and probably the hardest to do, departing from comfort.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Have specific, quantifiable metrics for professional career development. This will give your team a clear expectation of what directions they should head towards. This will also give you benchmarks to check in on their progress. Some of the best managers I’ve had have very detailed skill matrices for each level of title you earn. Take something ambiguous like “strategy and leadership” and give it real, measurable goals such as resolving priority conflicts, assess product-market fit, etc.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

If you’re managing a team where everyone does the same function, i.e., a team of all designers or a team of all engineers, hire people whose skills complement each other. I think today’s hiring landscape is clouded by buzzwords such as “full-stack”, “multidisciplinary”, “multitasking”, etc. A lot of times, the ideal product designer is painted as this tap-dancing-in-the-rainbow unicorn who can churn out brilliant UX maps, work magic on vector graphics, know how to code, and probably speak 5 languages (ok, maybe not the last one). Nobody is like that. You might be able to do a decent amount of each but you’ll always excel at some more than others. That is why a good manager needs to be perceptive and hire people who excel in different areas that benefit the team.

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?

Totally. I felt like I have told this story many times before and will keep telling it. The class that changed my life was Intro to Web Design, taught by Professor Joshua Clayton at NYU. Now, you have to understand that when you take a class in most universities’ computer science departments, it’s going to be about code — hardcore, rigid algorithm. So you can expect that even in Web Design, they’ll teach you how to code a website, as opposed to how to make it usable. Not at Professor Clayton’s class. He taught us more than just HTML & CSS. He showed us principles of typography, color, spacing, interaction, and usability. He made coding human, and that’s what sparked my interest in user experience design. That class helped me realize that I was a visually creative person by providing me with the right canvas — the web page. A lot of times, we have these preconceived “can’t do” notions and fail to realize our potential because we have not found the right medium. That’s why we have to keep experimenting until we find the right medium for our interests, our arts, our hidden potentials.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Since I graduated from college not too long ago, I tend to be most relatable to young designers who just start exploring a career in UX. I currently mentor 2–3 young designers each month, advising them on how to break into this highly competitive field. One of my goals this year is to get more involved with STEM student organizations at NYU, my alma mater, to encourage computer science students to consider alternative careers in tech such as user experience design and product management.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Are you familiar with the term “third-culture kid”? It is used to describe individuals who spent their formative years growing up in a culture that is other than their parents’ or their own original nationality. This makes them more receptive to other cultures and ideologies than their monocultural counterparts.

For most of my life, I have identified as a third-culture kid. I am passionate about introducing opposite ideas to people on polar opposite ends of the spectrum, left-brain vs right-brain, Western vs Eastern, logical vs artistic. The one thing I felt that my major at NYU never did well was accepting a different, non-dominant school of thought. Most of my media classes criticized the negative social impacts of tech products, yet never dwelled into how those impacts came about, how those products were made. On the other hand, most of my computer science classes taught me to create things, but never to consider the impacts of what we create. If I could spark a change, I’d love to encourage universities to facilitate discourses between natural sciences and social sciences. I want scholars of the arts to learn to build things, and scholars of the sciences to learn to think critically about the things they build.

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

“Don’t settle”. Steve Jobs stressed these 2 simple words in his 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford and they’ll forever stick with me. I’ve worked more jobs than most people in their mid-20s. If this were a decade ago, I assume my work history would be considered a red flag. That is no longer the case. You’ll spend more time at work than at any other place in your adult life. It will be the leading contributor to your life satisfaction and happiness. That is exactly why you have to keep looking until you find what specific thing you love to build, design, analyze, manage, etc. In addition, with every career move I made, I gained a great deal more skills, experience, and confidence. I don’t just want to design a good product; I want to design a great product. I will always be on a quest for the next product challenge, and this won’t happen if I settle.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Beyonce, for sure. I like a creative person with lots of discipline, someone who works their right brain as much as their left brain. Beyonce is a brilliant performing artist. And, had I learned one thing during my ten years of dancing, that is a great performer does more than just letting loose on stage: they also have a great deal of control. Control in their movement, control in their presence, control in their practice. In many ways, what I do now, product designer, is very similar to this. It is a creative profession with structure, logic, and a great deal of control and scope.

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