Diva Tech Talk interviewed Ford Motor Company’s Smart Mobility and Tech Engineering Leader, May Russell.
“I loved mathematics,” May exclaimed, “but it’s not like I had access” living in Kuwait, from which her college physics professor father and civil engineer mother emigrated to the U.S. when she was in college. “It’s beautiful but limited in resources. There was one bookstore in the whole country.” A self-described “reading nerd,” May “exhausted every single sci-fi book they had!” She recognized her first “thirst for, and love of technology” through a “very aspirational” science fiction passion. She pointed to Isaac Asimov and his Laws of Robotics, and mentioned that, today, she still refers to those, in her work. Her first computer science class at age 15, allowed May to innovate, using an Access database with a Visual Basic front-end, so that a video store owner could catalogue the entire inventory of VHS tapes. She became computer science valedictorian in her high school class.
Matriculating, she had the chance to either enter the school of dentistry at Cairo University or the computer science program at the American University in Egypt. Urged to “try both,” May simultaneously began first semesters at both institutions. Quickly though, “it became clear” that May loved computer science, so she focused on technology. She has never regretted that decision. In her senior year, her family moved to the U.S where May entered the University of Michigan - Dearborn. It is another decision May has never regretted, lauding the U.S. tradition of “respect for humanity…the value for human life and civil rights, comparatively speaking” and “the ability to effect change.”
Graduating, May had job offers from E&Y, Texas Instruments, and Ford. She accepted the E&Y offer. “My advice to anyone is accept the most challenging opportunity; do the thing that scares you the most, the thing that is riskiest to you.” E&Y gave her the chance to work in many industries with many different clients. Post 9/11, she reached her 5-year E&Y anniversary, having “learned a lot.” Combined with “fatigue from the pace” of 80-plus hour weeks, she discovered “I wanted to work for a company where I got to ‘own’ things.” So, she applied to Ford and moved there, 16-plus years ago.
May learned a valuable lesson: careers are not always linear. “My goals, staying in the technology field, were to join a large company where I had purpose and mastery and got to ‘own’ products. And I didn’t want to have to travel, Monday through Thursday.” Within the first year at Ford, however, her salary returned to the E&Y level, and her hard work was recognized. Her admonition is “do what is right for you, at the time it is right for you, as long as it aligns with your goals and values.”
May’s first Ford project overhauled the entire dealer parts order fulfillment system. Then she became the leader of a 150-person development group working to transform the intricate Ford global order system She progressed to manage all business-to-consumer and dealer ordering and communications systems development, where she led a much larger organization, with a variety of team leaders managing sub-teams inside it. “That takes a different skill-set, more strategic thinking, supplier relationship management, and deep thought on how we execute B to C” she said. She then moved on to lead the transformation of Ford’s worldwide human resources systems and then began to work in “emerging technologies.” There she led a team to create Ford’s initial “best-in-class” consumer-facing mobile application, empowering consumers to command and control their vehicles. May helped create a “software engineering company within a company” ---- recruited talent, built an entrepreneurship culture, adopted the agile processes of a software development company. Starting with just handful of developers, that organization has now grown to 500 colleagues, and four software development labs on 3 continents. Their products on the drawing board had to be developed in months vs. years, (in an organization traditionally unused to that speed) and deployed globally. May is proud that this first application (“Ford Pass” and “Lincoln Way”) has been the “highest rated application in every app store”; won the global 2017 Mobile Marketing Design Award from MMA; and has been recognized as a leading application for connected cars by Gartner.
May sees her top strengths, in addition to confidence instilled by her family, brilliance and developed leadership skills, as perseverance (“I just keep going”) and learning to “enjoy the journey.” Her philosophy is that “at the end of the day, you spend more time at work. So, if you enjoy the journey, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy” that you will achieve great things.
Discussing female leadership, May shared that “I did feel the burden of being a woman when I had children.” But two of her “greatest career catapults” at Ford occurred within two months after the births of her two children. May acknowledged that while she had educational and career advantages and has a very strong support system in her husband and parents, not every mother is that lucky. “There are women out there, who have had children too early. And childcare is too expensive if you make a decent income, and cost-prohibitive if you don’t. It becomes a vicious cycle.” While very courageous, May admits to two fears: “A primal fear that something will happen to my children; and that both my kids, and I, may not realize our potential.”
In becoming a leader, May’s lessons included:
To achieve happiness, May constantly reminds herself to be grateful and “that instantly makes me happy.” In her technical leadership role, May received great advice from a former Ford CIO: “you are the CEO of your own business.“ The technical leader is fully responsible for everything (P&L, human resources/talent, product development and delivery etc.) as well as the established technical vision and future technology path. Summing up, having “a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose” creates May’s personal joy.
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