Mom and manager: Q&A with Yahoo Champaign site director

As site director for Yahoo Champaign, Cathy Singer works with a staff of more than 100 that's expected to move into a new, larger building in the University of Illinois Research Park this fall. She and her husband — Andy Singer, director of the University of Illinois Technology Entrepreneur Center and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UI — have two children.

In an interview with The News-Gazette last week, Cathy Singer talked about being a mother and a professional, how she balances family and work and what some of her most memorable Mother's Days were like.

Q: Tell me a little about your children — their ages, interests and personalities.

A: My youngest is Jonah. He's 10 years old, goes to Next Generation School and is really passionate about soccer, running and Lego robotics. Jonah gives the best hugs.

My daughter, Elizabeth, is 14 and goes to Uni High. She's really social, very friendly to everyone. She played on the basketball team and is involved in school theater productions and student government. They both spend time with media online and are really proud that I work at Yahoo.

Q: How far along in your career were you when you first became a mother? What changes did you have to make at that point?

A: My daughter was born one year after I moved to Champaign. I had started a job at Motorola as a software manager, with a team of about seven developers. Prior to that, I was an electrical engineer at both Lockheed Martin and IBM, each of those for about five years.

(When I became a mother,) I definitely got more efficient at both work and at home in order to spend more time with the kids. If things weren't that important — say, having a beautiful garden — then I didn't do the gardening.

Q: Have you set any rules or guidelines for yourself when it comes to meeting obligations at home and at work?

A: I wouldn't say I have any rules, but I definitely have some strategies. One thing that's helped me a lot is both my family and Yahoo are flexible. I work with co-workers in different time zones, and if I get a call, my family is understanding. They never complain.

Yahoo is really understanding too. When my son's class did a 5K race at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, I left work, watched the race and came back to work. They (Yahoo) understand the importance of being there for your family. It goes back to being efficient, prioritizing the important things of work and family and not stressing about the little stuff.

Q: Do you manage your household the same way you manage your workplace?

A: Not exactly. I definitely love both jobs — being mom and engineering director at Yahoo Champaign. It allows me to have a big impact on the world but in very different ways. I'm an influence on how my children grow up and what kind of people they become — each becoming a unique and caring individual.

At Yahoo, it's the impact of working at a company with 800 million users globally. Working at a company that benefits that many people is really satisfying. The business is evolving very quickly, and more than half of Yahoo users are now connected to mobile devices — 430 million.

Also, I get a lot of enjoyment seeing the Yahoo Champaign team grow, both individually and seeing the team grow in size. We had a groundbreaking for a new building in February, and we're going to have space to fit a lot more people. We've hired a lot of great people, and we're still looking for software development and technical product managers. If people are interested in finding out more, they can go to careers.yahoo.com. They should type in the keyword "Champaign."

Q: What did you learn about parenting from your own parents?

A: Just about everything! I particularly learned how to enjoy your kids. They stressed academics a lot, and I stress that with my kids as well. My parents (Dorothy and Anthony Suriano) are good community members, giving back to the community. I used their example.

They live in Connecticut, and every Sunday we spend time talking with each other. They always give me great advice. I go home for the holidays to see my parents every year — except for the year my son was born during the holiday week.

Q: What instances can you recall when needs at home trumped needs at work? How did you handle those situations?

A: There have been a couple times when we planned family vacations months in advance, and something critical came up at work right before vacation. I learned to trust the managers, go on vacation, give them my cellphone number, and if there was a problem, I could help them out in the morning before the kids were up. When you have a really strong group of people to work with, you can rely on each other. It works out.

Q: Do your kids have a pretty good idea of what goes on in your workplace and what your responsibilities are?

A: My kids are Yahoo users. They love Yahoo products. My daughter particularly loves Tumblr, and my son loves Yahoo Sports. My daughter uses Yahoo Mail, and they both use Yahoo Search. They have some understanding of software development because both have been involved in robotics. They don't know the complexity of being a site director.

Q: Have your kids talked about what careers they'd like to pursue?

A: My son doesn't know what he wants to be. My daughter goes back and forth between being an engineer and being a Supreme Court justice.

Q: Does your workplace have many activities that involve employees' families? What are some of those?

A: Yes, Yahoo is very family-oriented here in Champaign. We have regular movie nights, where we all come in to watch movies and eat popcorn and pizza. There are summer picnics. A favorite is Halloween, when the kids wear costumes and trick-or-treat through the office. We also have a softball team and soccer team, and spouses are welcome to join those and families are welcome to cheer them on. During the workday, we have pingpong tournaments and foosball tournaments to have some extra fun.

Q: What have been some of your most memorable Mother's Days?

A: One of the traditions the kids have is to make me breakfast in bed, and they make it all by themselves. They're now 10 and 14, and they're pretty good cooks. When they were younger and made breakfast by themselves, there was a lot of creativity — (they thought) the more candy, the better the breakfast. So I had a lot of really sweet breakfasts that were pretty memorable.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like the community to know?

A: At Yahoo Champaign, we offer really competitive benefit packages, not only salary, but life insurance, health insurance, good paternity and maternity leave, stock options and top-of-the-line laptops and mobile phones.

In the Champaign office, there's a warm family atmosphere. We serve employees lunch every day, so you don't have to think about packing breakfast or lunch. We all sit together at tables, and that helps us know each other a lot better. We have a really low attrition rate.

One of the things engineers like about working here is you get to work on cutting-edge technology. We're at the intersection of big data and digital advertising in Champaign. We have more than 100 employees, and our new building will fit more than 200. In Champaign, we have some incredibly talented women on our engineering team who joined Yahoo during our expansion.

Cathy Singer

Position: Site director for Yahoo Champaign and senior engineering director for the ads and data group in Champaign

Career path: Grew up on Long Island; received bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; joined IBM in New York in 1988; received master's degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University; married Andrew Singer and moved to Massachusetts, where she worked for Lockheed Martin while her husband was a graduate student at MIT; moved to Champaign in 1998 when Andrew took a faculty position at the University of Illinois; hired by Motorola in Champaign-Urbana.

How she joined Yahoo: When Motorola decided to close its local office, Singer was one of several who worked to persuade companies in Silicon Valley to open a facility in Champaign. "Yahoo made a decision in a couple days to open an office in Champaign and hire the bulk of people from Motorola," she said.

Sections (2):News, Business
Topics (2):People, Technology

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thinks wrote on May 16, 2014 at 6:05 am

There is no doubt that Cathy Singer is an accomplished person, and I enjoy profiles like this on successful business leaders in our community. Yet, I could not help but wonder as I read whether a male Yahoo Champaign site director would get so much ink spent on his being a father and a facilitator.

Yes, there it is a cultural cliche to cover women in business with stories that either praise their ability to have it all or sympathize with their inability to do so. The coverage of Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer's hire in July 2012 exemplified this.

However, I would like to see journalism move past this cliche, to cover male and female business leaders in the same terms. It would be refreshing to see fatherhood added to male business leader coverage, rather than having family life removed from women's. We should all be described in such humanizing, whole-life terms.