Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry identifies as a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in Tech? In this interview series called Women in Tech, we are talking to successful leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead successful careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Xiao-Yu Song, Worldwide Vice President, Global Head of Research & Development, Johnson & Johnson Vision.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a family of doctors, including my mom who practiced medicine, and two sisters who both practiced medicine but took on different careers later in life. Naturally, patient care, healthcare, and trends in medicine were everyday conversations in our household. From an early age, I had a predisposition to the medical field, which had a tremendous impact on my career choice.
When I was nearly five years old, there was a day we lacked childcare, so my mom took me to the outpatient clinic she worked at in China. I remember the clinic being extremely busy and I sat there watching as my mom saw patients back-to-back all day, prescribing the appropriate care for each patient’s needs. Towards the end of the day, I recall listening to a patient explain the symptoms and I suddenly blurted out a diagnosis—because after being there all day, I had absorbed what seemed the most common diagnosis made that day. Regardless of whether I was right or wrong at the time, I was utterly fascinated listening to patients, witnessing my mom’s interactions, and the treatments she was able to offer to provide help. The patient-doctor relationship struck a chord with me. There is great joy and satisfaction when you can diagnose and treat a patient. You experience the special look on their face like they see the light at the end of a tunnel when they get medical help for their specific problem, and to me, that is extremely special.
This guided my personal transition from a traditional MD role to one within the healthcare industry. I knew that I wanted to do something that could have the largest impact on more people. The sheer number of patients we can affect through the MedTech R&D industry is incomparable to that of practicing everyday medicine and extremely motivating to me.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m sure there are a few, but there was a mortifying moment—now funny in hindsight that sticks out—that revolved around effective communication. In the early days of genomics and proteomics when I was leading a biomarker research initiative at Centocor, a business in the pharmaceutical sector of J & J, I was deeply involved in clinical research. This included collecting samples under Clinical Study Protocol for analysis and identifying responders to the therapy that would ultimately lead to a deeper understanding of the mechanism of action of the therapy and why patients respond. At the time, our work was extremely innovative because we were addressing the underlying disease mechanism and not just the typical management of symptoms.
Each day was exhilarating as we uncovered better efficacy for patients with high unmet medical needs, and I was eager to share the science and technical aspects of my work. When I was asked to share results with the senior management team, I presented so deeply into the science that I lost the attention of everyone in the room, even the Chief Scientific Officer who understood my field of expertise. I was so caught up in the excitement of the results that I overlooked my audience’s receptiveness. It was a disaster and completely mortifying! Through that painful experience, I learned that effective communication, especially coming from a highly technical background, requires knowing your audience. I learned to convey and translate complex science so it could be easily understood by senior and commercial leaders and various groups not in the same technical/scientific field, which ultimately helps garner their support to fuel and advance science.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment? We’d love to hear the lead-up, what happened, and the impact it had on your life.
I’ve made several critical transitions in my career, many of which others would see as difficult or even impossible. For example, one defining phase of my career was when I made a major move within J&J from an R&D role at Janssen Pharmaceuticals to an R&D leadership role at Ethicon on the Biosurgery platform. I was leading a cross-functional tiger team that was working on a unique and complex biologics-device combination product. The process of leading the team through the development journey, overcoming daily hurdles and challenges, and leading the program to success was impactful for my career. This experience taught me to learn from not only a technical perspective but also from a leadership capacity—to think end-to-end and lead with a holistic mindset. Despite having expertise in one area, that new product development experience required leadership across numerous functional areas from different technical areas, clinical, regulatory, all the way through manufacturing. Not only did it allow me the opportunity to lead and lean on a team with different areas of expertise, but it also taught me the power of decision-making and the art and science of taking calculated risks.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
If I believe something is the right thing to do, particularly if it’s for a noble purpose, then I am the type of person who never gives up. The new product development experience I previously mentioned is a perfect example. There were times when the challenges were unimaginable, and it resulted in a serious conversation with my boss at the time. It became an uncomfortable fight-or-flight situation. It’s not in my DNA to give up, and I knew that I had to figure out a way to overcome the challenges because I did not even entertain the option to look for other job opportunities.
What is the pain point that J&J Vision is helping to address in the world?
J&J has a deep legacy of reimagining healthcare. Specifically, the J&J MedTech R&D sector has a relentless focus on innovation, accelerating breakthrough science to address the most complex health challenges. Whether it is through advanced robotics, digital health, or innovative product development, we always problem-solve first with ingenuity and perseverance.
The same can be said of the J&J Vision R&D organization which is the area I lead. The patient is at the center of everything we do. Our team has a unique capability to generate valuable insights and turn them into novel technologies that help address unmet eye health needs. Regardless of where you work within J&J, we are redefining clinical outcomes and providing innovative solutions for patients and healthcare professionals around the world.
If someone wants to lead a great company and create great products, what is the most important quality that person should have, and what habits or behaviors would you suggest for honing that particular quality?
Tech, particularly MedTech, is an exciting field—one that can be overwhelming with the steadfast evolution and constant competition to introduce the best new product or solution to the market. You need to have confidence in yourself, be willing to fail fast, yet be nimble and lean into the uncomfortable to make progress.
It’s critical to align one’s passion to career choice and it’s ok to try a few different areas before reaching the desired destination. For me, my passion has been about making an impact in healthcare and being able to help improve patients’ quality of life and, at times, saving lives. Passion coming from within is the fuel to intellectual curiosity which then drives growth and opens up possibilities as one pursues a career in medtech.
Next, let’s talk about teams. What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
There are three core areas I believe were instrumental in my own journey and that I try to implement within my own team strategy and framework as we work through the product development process.
- Have clarity on the specific goals you aim to achieve so you can stay the course with focus and not get distracted along the way.
- Enlist and be open to help and support from anyone, including allies and sponsors. These can be your peers, mentors and others in your network. Make every interaction a meaningful one, whether it is about staying connected, offering or soliciting ideas to remove roadblocks or taking risks in order to build necessary diverse experiences towards your goals.
- Put the team first. In a similar vein to finding allies, by partnering with your team—there is power in numbers to reach your goals.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together, and can you recall an anecdote that illustrates the dynamic?
Strong teams share a purpose. With that, we all know the goal and we try to collaborate in a way that evokes the best from each team member so we can achieve this goal—together. This doesn’t mean that we always agree, but rather we push each other in a respectful way while having fun in the process. Over time, strong teams build a level of trust that allows for open challenges and ultimately better outcomes. The tiger team I mentioned before is an example of this and our current J&J Vision R&D team is becoming one. We have been in the trenches together for so long that at times we can finish each other’s sentences. We have celebrated work successes and life challenges together, so our relationships have evolved into lifelong friends in the same process.
If you had only one software tool in your arsenal, what would it be, why, and what other tools (software or tangible items) do you consider to be mission-critical?
This is a tough question because there are so many good and critical tools nowadays. It would have to be apps that enable a mobile office and allow me to work unconstrained by geography especially when on the road.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
I have several self-care rituals, but exercise is high on my list of go-to practices. I like strenuous physical workouts because it helps expend a lot of energy. I also enjoy reading—physical books versus e-books—across different genres as a form of recovery and re-energization. Each year I have a goal number of books to read; this year my goal is to read 5-8 books outside of work. Every once in a while, I might indulge in a Rom-Com movie.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?
- Surround yourself with strong talent. For me and the work that I do within the Research & Development (R&D) team at Johnson & Johnson Vision, we have a global team with many unique skills and deep subject matter expertise that enables true innovation potential that results in patient-centered solutions. This means collaborating with experts across clinical affairs, medical affairs, regulatory affairs, engineering, scientists, and more. Furthermore, talent must embody a diversity of experience, which will lead to better ideas and diversity of thought and approaches.
- Leverage that strong talent effectively. Once you create a strong diverse team that brings different ideas to the table, it is vital to diminish any silos and use cross-specialty expertise—together—to create more effective teams. Empower the R&D team to collaborate with cross-functional partners like marketing, supply chain, etc. We progress faster when we share information and best practices across organizations openly and eagerly.
- Be data-driven. To proactively advance innovative change, you must have data-led insights for a strong pulse of the unmet needs and the greatest opportunities to make an impact. We are constantly conducting research, gathering and analyzing data, and have an ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders—specifically in my field optometrists and ophthalmologists—all aimed at instructing actions toward innovative solutions.
- Leverage the data to create smarter, less invasive and more personalized solutions. Maximize data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence algorithms to improve research and development. For example, at Johnson & Johnson Vision, we want to connect the cataract surgery operating room equipment so that the different parts are talking with each other via the cloud. We want to leverage all the data that we have access to which will allow the surgeon to make the best decision for the patient so that they’re putting in the best intraocular lens for the cataract patient to get the best outcome. We want to improve the precision of the prescription and improve the patient outcome through that connectivity offering and data modeling capability.
- Create a “what if” candid culture. This curiosity-driven mentality allows for embracing new ideas, breakthrough solutions, and a more inclusive and engaging environment to problem-solve effectively and reach new solutions faster.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
It is important to cultivate a network and platform that enhances and improves the professional environment for women in tech. As women, we must advocate for ourselves and each other. Too often, women excel in advocating on behalf of everyone but ourselves, leaving an opportunity to practice nurturing our skills in self-advocacy. Knowing our North Star in the workplace helps. At Johnson & Johnson MedTech, for instance, I know that I’m leading our J&J Vision global R&D team to create solutions for patients’ lifetime of unmet eye health needs.
Additionally, we must encourage and strive toward an equal playing field with our male counterparts. I have benefited from and seen the force of positive influence when men took on the ownership to mentor women, advocate for the women on their teams and partner with them to work towards equality, especially when most of the power seats are occupied by men. Together, we can tackle some of the world’s more pressing problems.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
I am a champion of women leaders and there are two inspirational women who instantly come to mind. From a leadership perspective, I would have breakfast with Michelle Obama because I admire her courage and insights. I see so many crises around the globe, with the U.S. having unique challenges that she could shed light on. I would pick her brain about what’s working and not working. Regarding our smart and talented upcoming leaders, I want to hear her perspective on how I can help them get onto larger stages, make bigger impacts, and be elevated faster. I’ve read several of her books and am sure there are things that she didn’t put in print that she might tell me over a private breakfast that would be an intriguing conversation.
From a technical perspective, I would love to have an intellectual breakfast with Dr. Cheryl Pegus. She is a true pioneer in the field of medicine who has helped numerous big corporations from Walmart to now Morgan Health. Solving for access and health equity is such a critical entry point to making an impact and that is what she does. She is a leader in creating access to health equity, particularly for underserved populations, which is an area I am also passionate about. Her work is outstanding in how she makes data-informed decisions to not only make an impact but is scalable so it can reach a broader audience.
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