Ep 78: May Russell: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Ford Motor Company’s Smart Mobility and Tech Engineering Leader, May Russell.

The oldest of three girls, “I loved mathematics,” May exclaimed, recalling her childhood. “But it’s not like I had access” since she hails from Egypt but grew up in Kuwait where her parents were professional expatriates. Later her college physics professor father and civil engineer mother emigrated to the U.S. when May was a senior in college.  “It’s a beautiful country, but at the time was really limited in resources.” As an example, she said “there was one bookstore in the whole country.” A self-described “reading nerd,” May found this frustrating; “I 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 much-anticipated first computer science class when she was 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 collection of VHS tapes in inventory, and operationalize retail transactions.  “It was an amazing experience,” said May. In “overachiever” mode, May became computer science valedictorian in her high school class.

Matriculating to university, 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 by her mother to “try both,” May simultaneously began first semesters at both institutions to stimulate a “mission decision.”  Quickly though, “it became clear” that May loved computer science, so she dropped her pre-dentistry courses, and focused on technology.  She has never regretted that decision. Each subsequent year has felt like “the biggest year in tech,” to her. “Every company, every business, is a technology company, in one way or the other,” May asserted. “And the depth of the impact in our personal lives is pervasive --- an interesting twist!”  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 with a B.S. in Computer Science, 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. “You’re expected to learn (each) industry; you’re expected to contribute; you’re expected to work, night and day.”  May loved many of her projects, describing one for Consumers Energy where she had the chance to “create something out of nothing” to enable the utility, in early days of deregulation, to resell energy. Post 9/11, May reached her 5-year E&Y anniversary, and was thinking “I have learned a lot.” That combined with “fatigue from the pace” of 80-plus hour weeks, plus an increasing desire to create and foster products that she could “own” cued her to look for her next challenge.  “I wanted to work for a company where I got to ‘own’ things” she said vs. moving from one project to another. So, she applied to Ford and moved there, 16-plus years ago.

Joining Ford, May learned a valuable lesson: careers are not always linear. “My goals were not to make more money or manage a large organization.  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 travel, Monday through Thursday.”  Within the first year at Ford, however, her salary returned to the same E&Y level, and her hard work was recognized. So, her admonition was “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 (“an amazing challenge”).  “What I learned from that was how to break down something really, really complicated and break down huge teams, have them work independently, but create mechanisms of communication” to collaborate, agilely. 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 moved on to lead the transformation of Ford’s worldwide human resources systems; combining the power of disparate systems and vendors; leading different groups managed by different Ford colleagues; and “creating something from scratch.”  

May then began to work in “emerging technologies” for Ford. Recruited by Marcy Klevorn, (now Ford’s President of Mobility but then Ford’s Global CIO), she led a team to create Ford’s initial “best-in-class” consumer-facing mobile application, empowering consumers to command and control their vehicles. Even more importantly, May helped create a “software engineering company within a company” ---- helping to recruit talent, build an entrepreneurship culture, adopt the agile processes of a software development company. Starting with just a handful of developers, that organization has now grown to 500 colleagues, and four software development labs on 3 continents, “massive growth over 2-3 years.”  This was a grueling undertaking, since it required Ford to become an “employer of choice” among talented software developers, in a time when (due to the earlier recession and other factors) development talent was not easily found in the Midwest. And the products on the drawing board had to be developed in months, not years, (in an organization traditionally unused to that speed), and then deployed globally in China, Canada, the U.S and throughout Europe. May is justifiably proud that this first app, (named “Ford Pass” and “Lincoln Way”) has been the “highest rated application in every app store” through which it is sold;  won the coveted global 2017 Mobile Marketing Design Award annually bestowed by MMA;  and has been recognized as a leading application for connected cars by Gartner.  “The team that has done this is amazing,” according to May, citing their resilience, ingenuity and talent.

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.  She acknowledged that it requires significant effort to create that joyous culture and “uplift the team,” but is so worth it.

Discussing being a female, May shared that “I did feel the burden of being a woman when I had children.”  Her husband is highly supportive but “as mothers we take on more; and there are more physical demands on us.”  Nevertheless, two of her “greatest career catapults” at Ford occurred within two months after the births of her two children.  “That reaffirmed my notion that being a mother wasn’t impacting my career, at all! Having said that, though, it was really difficult.” 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.” May is currently contemplating initiatives to help women in those situations pursue education and career. 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 had lessons to share. She emphasized that “every opportunity is an opportunity to excel and shine.  It doesn’t matter how small the assignment is, it is your opportunity to do your best.” She is an advocate for taking more risks, but ensuring that the risks are measured, logical ones. “Master something” before you move on.  Additionally, “always leave something better than you found it. Anything has room for improvement.” In that vein, as part of “the virtuous cycle” May volunteers as the Chief Mission Officer for the Michigan Council of Women In Technology leading programs for girls in grades K through 8; and also serves on the Advisory Board for IT Leadership Women at Ford.  

To achieve happiness, May consistently reminds herself to be grateful and “that instantly makes me extremely happy.”  In her technical leadership role, May received great advice from a former Ford CIO: “you are the CEO of your own business.”  Under that view, 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 for whatever division, unit or initiative he or she is leading, and the future technology path. “I have to make sure that my customers are satisfied.”  Summing up, having “a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose” creates May’s personal joy.

May Russell can be personally reached at may.russell@gmail.com.

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Diva Tech Talk Team

Podcast Divas