Learning from Crisis

May 11, 2020 | Alana Karen & Peipei Yu

Alana Karen and Peipei Yu discuss what they’ve learnt during this time of change as the world shifts into survival mode.

photo of women of silicon valley 2019 conference stage

Back before COVID-19 spun into our lives, the formidable Peipei Yu and I were booked to speak at the Women of Silicon Valley conference previously scheduled for May. We pictured a funny but critical conversation where we’d discuss the blessings and pitfalls of being technical leaders and working mothers. 

Then, of course, everything changed. Since March, like so many of you, we’ve been working from home under a shelter in place (SIP) order. With a combined count of five children under eleven years old, we’re discovering what really happens in our two households when we spend this much quality time with our families. 

That time, and also what’s happening in the world as we all place “normal” on pause, is certainly thought-provoking. As operational, policy, and technical leaders, Peipei and I have built multi-decade careers predicting what will happen next and leading our teams through change. The questions are rapidly piling up for us as a world, country, and individuals: What are we facing now and what has it revealed about ourselves? How do we think we’ll change as a result? 

I sat down to ask her some of these questions in virtual format since we can’t be together. Here’s our conversation as we process the ever-shifting world of a pandemic.

What was life like before March? Were you satisfied with your life? 

photo of train with blurry window as train is in motion

Peipei: My pre-SIP life was really different in one big way: I constantly felt like I didn’t spend enough time with my family, and now I’m thinking we’ve spent all the time we need together! In all seriousness, my kids are 7 and 9. Kids leave you at 18 to go to college, and I would lament to my husband that they were basically half-way through their life with us. Every minute with my children and at work felt so precious because I knew that time was limited, and I had to use my time very wisely. In my most stressful moments now, I try to remember I am blessed with family time I didn’t have before.

Alana: Yes, I felt similar with a full-time job, three kids, and writing a book. I really thought this year was going to be insane, but for different reasons like traveling on a book tour during performance review season. On March 13th I had two computers open. I was monitoring my Google job on one laptop, dealing with COVID-related pings, and monitoring school closing announcements. On the other computer, I was rapidly copying and pasting my book draft together into one document for a copy editor to start their work. My life is always like that, feeling like I need extra hands to get everything done.

When did you know everything was going to change? What was the sign for you?

Peipei: I had an unusual circumstance. Right before school shutdowns, I had knee repair surgery. When I woke up from anaesthesia, I was told that I was likely one of the last non-life threatening surgeries, as the hospital was preparing for a coronavirus surge. That was when I realized that everything was going to change, and it would change quickly. I had expected to be focused on knee rehab. But it turned out that I would spend the next month unable to walk, and my husband and I would be caring for children 24/7. My husband also sold his company that same week, and he was focused on completing critical work in that transition. So we had two severely stressed and partially incapacitated parents trying to figure out how to shelter in place. We were just trying to survive. 

Alana: The questions I was dealing with at work, along with the path of the virus globally, changed daily. I remember co-workers asking me when I was going to cancel a summit, and for a second I was jarred. Were we seriously considering that? Within a day, we’d come up with a communication series instead. I learned we were going to pivot hard, quickly and in ways we hadn’t seen previously.

What have you noticed about this time at home? In your community? In the world? 

birds eye aerial view of houses

Peipei: What I was really struck by was that people want to help. In fact, we are all surrounded by helpers.  While you may see news articles about some people price gouging PPE, I think people -- on the whole -- want to do what’s best for the community.

For instance, after surgery, my younger daughter, out of the blue, got sick. She threw up, and the next day she was coughing. I remember hearing her coughing and feeling fear and deep helplessness. My husband was taking care of her and me, and it was a really hard time. My neighbors and friends stepped in, leaving dinner and groceries at the door. Friends picked up my children’s school materials. 

More broadly, people in our town were determined to help local businesses survive the next few months. People were activated to find PPE for healthcare workers and proactively participated in the Stanford antibody test. Countries were donating supplies and offering their healthcare workers to each other for help.

Even in the scariest times, people look out for each other. This pandemic reminded me that we are all inter-connected and that we cannot overcome this plight unless we work together. We are seeing the power of collaboration and community.  

Alana: Exactly! In crisis it’s so easy to see how we’re all connected. In good times I think we can pretend it’s all about individualism, our talents, and our successes. When push comes to shove though, we’re nothing without each other. I hope the technical community invests long-term in the criticality of core survival services like the food supply chain, doctors and hospitals, teachers, and education, and we invest more in community-based use cases than luxury ones.

I’m starting to see more articles about how we should learn from this time and change the world. What are your thoughts? 

Peipei: Initially, there were some memes about using this time wisely by learning a new skill or even inventing something groundbreaking like Sir Isaac Newton, who laid the foundation for calculus when he had to ”shelter in place” during the Great Plague of London. I mean we can all be Sir Isaac Newtons, if we’d just stop watching “Tiger King,” right?

Very quickly, we realized that “shelter in place” means different things to different people. For many, this isn’t a time for the luxury of hobbies or new skills. For example, many of us in tech can work from home and still get paid. We are comforted in knowing we have healthcare should we get sick. However, for many people, this pandemic is tremendously frightening--and frightening in a very existential way. Many people have or will lose their jobs and their healthcare and will have no safety net to fall back on. Many small businesses, which the SBA indicates is over 99% of U.S. employers, will shut down. Many children will likely fall behind--and I would guess particularly children with special needs or children from lower socio-economic households. For our most vulnerable populations, this pandemic will set them back in ways that may be irrecoverable or perhaps recoverable but over a very long time frame and only with our collective support. The pandemic will widen the inequality gap and expose how the social systems we’ve created are failing the very people they’re supposed to serve. The first step to changing the world is to see the inequality problems and to acknowledge them as important for us to solve together. 

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Well said! How could we each contribute either now or later?
Many of us are in survival mode in our own life right now.

Peipei: Here are some ways parents in survival mode can contribute right now!

  • Be a helper: Talk to your children about how your community and the world is being impacted (in age-appropriate terms) and show them how you can be helpers. For example, if you’re working from home, continue to be paid and can afford it, continue to pay your after-school childcare provider. Or, drop off groceries for a neighbor in need. Be a family that helps other people weather the next few months. It’s important to spend the time to look beyond ourselves and know we all have the power to do something.
  • Be empathetic and kind: This is a stressful time for everyone. You can contribute to the world simply by being empathetic and kind. For instance, if you’re frustrated with online learning, don’t take it out on the teachers. They had to shift to a new learning format in a short amount of time while taking care of their own families. Show your kids what partnership with them looks like. Your grocery delivery will come with the wrong items in it. Work with the customer rep with patience, knowing they’re likely working under a lot of pressure and fear of exposure. Contribute to the world by not putting more stress into it.
  • Use tech for good: Think about how we can build our tech products in ways that help with the inequality gap or other problems the pandemic is exposing. This could be designing with increased accessibility, helping small businesses make financial transactions online with ease, or modeling useful COVID data for people to use. Invest in reliability, performance, and security for mission-critical enterprise services that essential service institutions are relying on. For people managers, lead with empathy. Remember, people’s experiences of SIP vary, and ultimately I believe we can run the business while also taking care of our people. 

The pandemic is requiring that we all change the way we live and work, and with that change comes the opportunity to do things better. In the longer term, we need to remember the lessons we’ve learned during this time and stay engaged to make longer-term, systemic changes.

Alana: Yes, we have to really focus and continue this passion if we want to see real change. It's up to us to convert what we’re feeling to an enduring sense of togetherness that doesn’t expire when the current crisis does. We’ll need to sustain our energy as citizens long past this current crisis whether that’s voting in November to support our democracy or broader ways we can support our society’s critical needs whether they are food, housing, education, medical, or so on. I hope we rarely receive this kind of wake-up call, and that we take advantage when we do.


Featuring:

Alana Karen

Director, Search Platforms @ Google

Alana Karen headshot

Peipei Yu

Senior Director, Engineering Business Strategy and Operations @ Box

Peipei Yu headshot


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