Born in a mostly black, working-class Detroit suburb, going to public schools where most kids qualified for the free-lunch program, Erin Teague wasn?t a clear choice to join the top ranks of big Silicon Valley tech companies.
But decades after she first heard the word ?engineer? in the manufacturing town where she grew up, Teague, 32, is leading a team of engineers at Yahoo.
She is in charge of attracting new customers to Yahoo?s services Flickr, Tumblr, Finance and Mail by improving the customer?s experience when they sign up for an account and the security of the apps. Teague joined Yahoo last year after stints at Path, a mobile messaging and image-sharing service where she was credited with that company?s rapid growth, and Twitter.
But in addition to her jobs as coder, manager and design guru, Teague has another role ? one of the few black women in a leadership position in the predominantly white and male tech world. It?s an identity, and responsibility, she?s embraced, and says she thrives on challenging the often homogeneous thinking in Silicon Valley boardrooms.
Teague sat down with the San Jose Mercury News to discuss race and gender in the tech industry, and her own often lonely travels from Michigan suburbia to Silicon Valley. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q: Did you get your inspiration to become an engineer while you were growing up outside of Detroit?
A: No one in my family was technical at all. My mom would joke that after I finished algebra in the eighth grade she couldn?t help me with my homework. But just because Detroit was a manufacturing-based economy, I was exposed to manufacturing at a very young age. I had heard the terminology ?engineer? and I knew it was a profession and a career that potentially could be fulfilling. Because I always excelled in math and science, around high school is when people started recommending that I consider it as a discipline of study.
Q: You?ve said before you were one of the few black women at your university.
A: I was the only black woman in my department. It included four majors, and I was the only black woman in my graduating class. And that was a complete change ? my high school was predominantly black. And I went to public school where the vast majority of kids had free and reduced-cost lunch and were low income, and it did not prepare me for college. So it was a shock across the board.
Q: The idea that ?I?m the only one who looks like me,? how did that prepare you for entering tech?
A: It was the best preparation I could have gotten. It helped me recognize that if this was the career that I pursued, I would have a unique voice in the room.
Q: That?s a huge responsibility and opportunity. So how have you used that?
A: I think that unique voice is tremendously beneficial. I am a fundamental believer that diverse teams make better decisions and lead to better outcomes. If a group of people are homogenous and think the same way, no one will have the courage to push back against an idea. There is no independent thinking.
Q: Some women who are leaders or trailblazers, whether they are the first woman to produce a TV show or climb a mountain, don?t like to be labeled as a pioneer in their field because they just want to do their job and not deal with the attention. Do you feel that way too?
A: I think in order to be a trailblazer you have to have accomplished something major. Hopefully, one day I will be a trailblazer but I don?t feel like I?m there yet in my career. But I definitely embrace the fact that I?ve had a unique path. No one from my high school, none of my friends from growing up have traveled along analogous paths. And I think that?s important for my family, and I think that?s important for my community. Maybe it could be important for generations behind me, and that is something I can definitely embrace.
Q: The recent disclosures from tech companies about the diversity of their workforces underscores what a lot of us assumed ? that there aren?t enough women or minorities. That?s good for news stories and conversations, but what action should be taken now that we have this information?
A: I think transparency is huge. We didn?t know what the demographic breakdown was. And I think that this has been fantastic in terms of shedding some light on what?s happening. The work that big tech companies in the valley are doing is very important ? we touch hundreds of millions, even billions, of people every single day. And having a workforce that is representative of our user base is incredibly important. And the fact is we don?t have that right now.
Q: Yahoo recently released its quarterly earnings, and while the news was mostly good, the company?s ad revenue still falls far short of your competitors?. There are a lot of demands from activist investors, and pressure on CEO Marissa Mayer, who is now two years into her role, to produce results. It?s kind of a critical moment. What is the top priority for your team to help Yahoo get over this hump?
A: What has happened over the course of the last two years is really incredible. It is really hard to turn a company around ? harder than it is to build a company from scratch, and I have an appreciation for that. Feeling a little bit of pressure to perform is a good thing. We are set up just as good as any company in the valley to do well. We have done a lot of work to make that happen, and we have a lot of work to do. Part of that is purely technical. We had a code base that was really old when I joined. We had to take a time out and rearchitect our code base to be in a position to compete. A lot of this is background work we need to do to really position us for success, and I think we?re doing that.
Hometown: Southfield, Mich.
Current residence: Mountain View, Calif.
Position: Director of product management, Yahoo
Previous jobs: Product manager, Path; product manager, Twitter
Education: University of Michigan, bachelor?s degree in computer engineering; Harvard University, MBA
5 THINGS ABOUT ERIN TEAGUE
1. Avid football fan ? roots for Detroit Lions, University of Michigan Wolverines and San Francisco 49ers.
2. Left Twitter one year before the company went public, making many employees rich.
3. She has been a mentor for three years to youths in CODE2040, a nonprofit that helps prepare underrepresented minorities to enter tech fields.
4. Although a talented athlete, her father, a former NFL player for the St. Louis Rams who suffered a career-ending injury, forbade her from playing sports in college.
5. When designing a Yahoo site, her litmus test is whether her mother and grandmother would understand and enjoy using it.
Source: MCT Information Services