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Leader spotlight: Kathy Pham

Every March we recognize the women who have shaped history—and now, we’re taking a look forward. From driving software development in large companies to maintaining thriving open source communities, we’re…

GitHub Leadership Spotlight: Kathy Pham, Computer Scientist and Product Leader, Mozilla and Harvard

Every March we recognize the women who have shaped history—and now, we’re taking a look forward. From driving software development in large companies to maintaining thriving open source communities, we’re spending Women’s History Month with women leaders who are making history every day in the tech community. Kathy Pham is a computer scientist, product leader, and Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center, where she co-leads the Ethical Tech Working Group. She is a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, digitalHKS, where she teaches and focuses on product management in the public sector. Kathy also co-leads the Responsible Computer Science Challenge, which funds universities’ efforts to make ethics an integrated part of computer science curriculum. She previously helped build the United States Digital Service (USDS) at the White House, where she saw the team grow from 10 to over 200 people. Kathy has also worked on the Google Health, Google Search, and People Operations teams at Google.  


How would you summarize your career (so far) in a single sentence?

Purposefully, delightfully random and circuitous—with hard work and lots of luck.

What was your first job in tech like?

I built flight simulation software as an 18-year-old software engineer. I had no idea what I was doing. I am still thankful for that cooperative education program (Co-Op) opportunity. Sorry, past boss. My C# code must have been so bad, but my boss was still so supportive.

What does leadership mean to you in your current role?

Leadership means lifting up the voices of those around me, especially the voices of those who are often hidden. It means being a technical leader in my field of computer science, while also building bridges and closing gaps with other fields. It means making the hard decisions with as many facts and data points as possible, and being ready to change course if it turns out there is a better path forward.

So many! 2018-2019 has been a year that I will look back on with lots of gratitude for all its tremendous growth and opportunities. I taught my first graduate level class, Product Management and Society, at Harvard. I now co-lead the Responsible Computer Science Challenge (GitHub’s very own Lorena Mesa is one of our esteemed judges), which funds universities’ efforts to make ethics a part of computer science courses.

I also lead the Ethical Tech Working Group at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center along with the brilliant Mary Gray, and I made a Human Version 2.0. My second daughter was born in the fall. We’re still debugging Version 1.0, another baby girl we launched two years ago, so we’re hoping there are a few lessons learned we can bring to this version. All these things bring me immense joy, and I feel very fortunate at this exact point in my life to work on so many initiatives that have meaning to me.

What’s the biggest career risk you’ve ever taken? What did you learn from that experience?

I don’t really view it as a risk, but it was definitely a pivot from the normal. In 2014, I was working at Google on the Google Search Team and helping my mom through her battle with leukemia at the Stanford Cancer Center. Then I received a call to come join and help build the United States Digital Service (USDS) at the White House. The goal was to initially focus on a few healthcare initiatives. I stayed on until 2018, seeing the team grow from 10 to 200 people during two presidential administrations.

My mom worked 12 hour days in nail salons and restaurants when I was growing up, and she always told me that if I worked hard, I could land a stable office job with air conditioning. When I landed a job in tech, for her, I had made it. I was never one for stability or normal career paths. When the USDS opportunity came to build a new team and a new initiative inside the government, I knew I couldn’t say no, regardless of what was going on in my life. I ping-ponged between Washington, DC, and San Jose, CA, serving my country while also getting my mom through her cancer battle. I learned so much in those four years. A few of those lessons include:

  • If I work hard, treat people well, and let people know my passions, interesting opportunities arise.
  • We get one family. I can prioritize my family and still excel in my career. In my case, focusing on my family—specifically my mom’s cancer battle and being there for almost every chemotherapy and radiation treatment—helped me with my career. What I learned while on the ground at the Stanford Cancer Center only added depth to my job. Also, time spent with my mom was a bit of a break from the intensity of building a tech start-up in government, and in many ways made me a better leader and co-worker.
  • A skill set that is undervalued at one place may be the most valuable at another place. I was once told by another manager to grin and bear it, be patient, and don’t push back too hard on my own manager, because my manager should get to feel like they win sometimes. But in my next role, I succeeded because I always raised concerns, was direct with feedback, and spoke up if there was a problem. I learned to fine tune my filter for bad advice.

Want to know more about Kathy? Check out their past government work on GitHub or follow them on Twitter.

Want to learn more about featured leaders for Women’s History Month? Read about:

Check back in soon—we’ll be adding new interviews weekly throughout March.

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