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Career Advice

The Driving Factor Behind This Chief Strategy Officer’s Career

Insights From Ciena's Mary Yang

Mary Yang's list of credentials—a BA, an MS, a JD, and an MBA—is impressive. But she wasn't driven by the degrees themselves so much as her desire to understand one thing. Growth.

"When I look back and think about what led me to the programs of study I chose, as well as some of the roles that I've taken on over the years, it all comes back to my interest in growth," Mary explains. "I was drawn to areas of study that would help me understand how to frame new opportunities better."

She explains that as an undergraduate student, she saw opportunities through an economics lens. "Then I went into engineering [to answer], 'How do you model that?'" She worked across what are now the fields of data science and econometrics to figure out "how the world is going to look different going forward," she says.

This passion for understanding growth and future opportunities—and her multi-disciplinary background—prepared her for her current role as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Ciena, the networking systems, services, and software company that supports infrastructure and optical networks around the world.

We sat down with Mary to learn more about how she's pursued growth opportunities throughout her career, and the people who've supported her along the way.

Understanding and anticipating innovation

Mary's career trajectory—from strategy consultant for new technologies to director of various departments at Cisco to VP of corporate development at NIO and now to her current role at Ciena—has always kept her on the cutting edge. "The opportunities that have drawn me in have all been about growing new technology areas," she says.

An early example of growth-seeking in action was Mary's experience doing business development for a video conferencing product in the early 2000s. "Back then, video was with a giant room system. It seemed to me that it should actually be ubiquitous, shown on your laptop," she says. The technology at the time didn't support that, but with her background in engineering, she knew that it would soon.

And since Mary's interest in understanding broader business issues and legal frameworks led her to get her JD/MBA at Stanford, she was well-positioned to see not just the technical opportunity to innovate, but also the business case, as well as some of the likely policy decisions that would impact an international rollout. "It became very exciting because I could see kind of where all those different trajectories, both from a business perspective as well as from a technology perspective, could come together to support something new," she says.

When working with new technology, whether it's the early-stage videoconferencing Mary worked on years ago or the network automation Ciena is handling now, it's vital to be able to navigate different frameworks, terminology, and people, says Mary. "I can talk to our lawyers, to the other side's lawyers; to engineers; to our chief architect," she explains. "The fact that I can have both sides of that conversation is very helpful."

Growing through and alongside others

Even the most interesting of intersectional problems or the most rigorous of academic backgrounds wouldn't have prepared Mary to navigate her career alone. For that, she's leaned on the people she's met and connected with along the way.

"A huge part of how you get to a leadership role and a huge part of being a leader is actually those relationships that you build along the way," says Mary. "[Throughout my career] I've always called a bunch of folks that I've known to ask them for their best practices."

In fact, it was the quality of the people at Ciena that convinced her to leave her old job. "I was just so impressed that the teams here are, incredibly, incredibly smart and also very, very open," she says. "And the culture is just world-class. Everyone is collaborative. They enjoy having fun, coming up with ideas together. For me, you can have the smartest people in the room, but if they're not interested in having that conversation, it's very difficult to move an idea forward."

Mary acknowledges that it's still rare to see a woman of color in a senior leadership role in the tech field, and that she's gotten as far as she has thanks to the help of others. "I have personally benefited as an employee through a lot of support for women, for people of color. I really appreciated that level of sponsorship, and that's why it was important to me to be able to provide that at Ciena," she says.

The support that she experienced throughout her career led Mary to want to pay it forward. When she joined Ciena in April, she became a sponsor of Ciena's Black and African Employee Heritage Group. "As an Executive Team, we knew we wanted to have a forum for conversations about race, equity and racial justice for our internal employee community," says Mary, who explains that the group used growing social consciousness about racism to create conversations and allyship within Ciena. She explains the three goals of the group's work over the last few months: first, to create an open forum to hear about issues, share thoughts, and educate Ciena employees; two, to give non-Black employees a chance to offer their allyship and understand what that means; and three, to increase visibility of high-potential Black employees and make sure they have the sponsorship and mentorship they need to succeed.

"I appreciate all the incredible work and the thoughtful work that they've put together over the years," says Mary. "It's been a huge privilege for me to be able to be part of that."

Learn about Ciena's open roles and how they support women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups in tech.

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