Workday’s Erin Yang: An Eye on the Big Picture
To hold a critical product leadership job at a global enterprise applications company, one should possess certain attributes. Intelligence, collaboration skills, and unwavering calm under pressure are critical. Erin Yang has all of those, plus another that’s especially important to her job as senior director of technology product management at Workday: an innate ability to see the big picture.
Yang’s team is responsible for product management of the technology platform for all Workday applications, including the business process framework, in-memory architecture, integrations, reporting and analytics, and security. Workday has two major releases each year, delivered to more than 925 customer organizations within hours, and smaller enhancements—delivered weekly—that build on customers’ experiences throughout the year.
As a child she amazed her grandparents by taking apart their broken clock, sifting through dozens of small parts to find what was wrong, and putting it back together.
Yang works with product team leaders to prioritize what should go in each release and weekly update. It’s one of the toughest aspects of her job and also one of her favorites. “Workday’s application teams are my team’s customers,” Yang explains. “I love getting exposed to what each team is doing. It’s sort of a problem-solving game—how can we all work together as a larger team and build the best solutions?”
This work requires looking at Workday products as a whole—the big picture—a talent Yang has been honing her whole life. As a young girl she would draw blueprints of buildings and how they should lay out. On a childhood visit to Taiwan, she amazed her grandparents by taking apart their broken clock, sifting through dozens of small parts to find what was wrong, and putting it back together.
Outside of work, she’s the designated travel planner for adventurous vacations with friends to places like Alaska, Patagonia, Turkey, and hiking Peru’s Inca Trail. She surveys her traveling companions for input and then develops the itinerary. “At that point my friends just say, ‘We’re in,’ and then realize on the first day of the trip that we’re not only going to Argentina, we’re going to Chile, too,” Yang laughs.
Yang reports to Dan Beck, senior vice president of technology products at Workday. “Erin has very elegantly managed to corral our technology scoping process,” Beck says. “She’s exceptionally smart. She’s tough. And she has the grace to get a lot done while keeping numerous different balls in the air. With someone as talented as Erin, my management strategy is to empower her as much as possible and then to get out of her way so she can thrive. Her growth and success at Workday have been phenomenal.”
“Coming out of school, it wasn’t cool to go work in enterprise software. It seemed like all the tech talent was thinking of how to fix consumer problems, but not really the hairy problems of enterprise software . . . .”
Yang says working at a company with applications that are unified makes technology product management easier than it might be elsewhere. For example, her team developed the configurable grid, a cross-application tool that’s core to Workday composite reporting, workforce planning, talent scorecards, and more. “Since our applications share the same platform, many of the technology enhancements we do benefit multiple products,” she says. “We’re able to be effective with a smaller team than what’s typical in our industry because of our single codeline development approach. We don’t have to build something more than once.”
Raised in Silicon Valley
Yang is a Silicon Valley original. She grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., where her father worked as an electrical engineer. “My dad was a huge role model for me,” she says. “I would follow him around and we’d fix things together.”
She attended Homestead High School in Cupertino—the same high school Steve Jobs attended 30 years earlier. It’s no coincidence that the school emphasizes early exposure to computer science, and Yang cites among her most influential role models her high school computer science teacher. “Having a female teacher made computer science very approachable to me. I thought it was interesting as I could build things pretty quickly,” she says. “She was a role model for a lot of women who went on to study computer science and engineering at Stanford.”
And that’s what Yang did, earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University. After Stanford she worked several years as a consultant for Accenture Technology Labs; a great experience, she says, building tools and platforms to bring modern Web concepts to the enterprise. She then joined the startup social community Circle of Moms as a marketing and analytics engineer, gaining valuable experience and perspective from the consumer Web.
Yet in 2011 Yang was lured to Workday, joining as technology product manager focused on collaboration and user engagement. “Coming out of school, it wasn’t cool to go work in enterprise software. It seemed like all the tech talent was thinking of how to fix consumer problems, but not really the hairy problems of enterprise software, causing the industry to fall further and further behind,” she says. “The more I came to understand this the more I knew change was needed, and I wanted to be part of that change.”
She has risen quickly at Workday, promoted to director of technology product management two years ago, at age 28, and to senior director in 2015. During the technology scoping process for major releases, “I think what has benefited me well is the ability to empathize with people,” Yang says. “It allows me to understand why they’re thinking a certain way, or why they’re asking for a certain feature or enhancement from my team. Once I understand, together we can solve the problem—maybe in an even better way.”
Women in Technology
Yang is very interested in the role of women in technology. She’s attended events featuring Yahoo! President and CEO Marissa Mayer. She’s read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and found much she could relate to in it, such as the psychological phenomenon Sandberg refers to as “Imposter’s Syndrome,” when successful women have nagging doubts in their minds about whether they deserve what they’ve achieved. “What I learned from that book is to first recognize ‘Imposter’s Syndrome,’ otherwise it will build within you,” Yang says.
“It is so critical to have programs that reach out to girls in high school and junior high school that encourage them to think they can do it and they have opportunities in the field—and that it’s fun!”
“It also helps to have a great mentor,” Yang adds. “It doesn’t need to be a female mentor, but should be someone who always encourages you to achieve more, and will push you out of your comfort zone. I’ve been lucky to have that with my manager.”
Yang says that she had been interested in product management straight out of college, but found it a challenging field to break into. So in 2012 she founded the Rotational Technology Associate Product Management Program, designed for Workday employees who are technical, smart, and good problem solvers yet may not have prior product management experience. Members do rotations in different technology areas and then graduate into the team that fits the best.
“It has been the best thing we’ve done for the growth of the technology product team,” Yang says. “Many have graduated from the program to take on critical roles, and they help infuse our team with fresh ideas and energy.” She has since handed leadership of the program over to a colleague, but still participates in it as a mentor. “I get to come in and help coach people, and pass on all the knowledge that my mentors gave me.”
Yet mentoring has to start young, she says. “It is so critical to have programs that reach out to girls in high school and junior high school that encourage them to think they can do it and they have opportunities in the field—and that it’s fun!”
Indeed, Yang believes strongly that despite the Bay Area’s reputation as a hyper-competitive and workaholic culture, there must be plenty of time for fun. In January, she and a team of co-workers and friends participated in a citywide treasure hunt the same day as San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade. The team (named “Goatye: Somebody that I Ewe-sed to Know,” a nod to the Year of the Goat) placed third out of 97 teams after successfully locating all 16 clues in 7 hours and 52 minutes. It’s Yang’s fourth year of competing in the treasure hunt.
Yang is also big into gaming, but not in the digital sense: She and her husband often get together with friends for board game nights, including Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, and more recently, The Resistance.
As for another adventurous vacation, Yang is on it. “We’re looking at Croatia,” she says. “I’ll figure out how many people we have, what everyone wants to do, what their budgets are. I love dealing with all those details. The best part is, once the itinerary is done, we always have a great trip to look forward to.”
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