Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For soaking up lessons learned at some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley to deliver projects that actually meet user needs

Kelly Yang has a thing for organizing. When it comes to putting together the disparate puzzle pieces of a project, she’s a natural—and she knows it. Ask her for her project management superpower and she doesn’t hesitate: "Execution! All project managers have different strengths and styles. Mine is the ability to coordinate large groups of people working on a complex project to execute to delivery."

Yang first brought those talents to BlackBerry, where she was hired as a technical program manager. Over the next eight years, she moved up the ranks, shifting from working on maintenance releases for in-market products to supporting new launches. 

From there she joined Apple as part of the tech giant’s secretive special projects group. "I can’t really talk about what I worked on," Yang says. But the experience was formative. "The level of intelligence and hard work that people brought to the table was world-class. I loved that feeling of going to the office every day and looking around and feeling like everyone around me was brilliant." Working with people at the top of their game, she adds, "forced me to keep improving and sharpening my skills."

Now a technical program manager at Google in San Francisco, Yang is hard at work on the next iteration of Wear OS, Google’s smartwatch platform. It’s a big job: The company is integrating technology into its software from Fitbit, which it acquired in 2019, as well as launching the first smartwatch built by Google inside and out, the Google Pixel Watch. 

One of the core challenges is bringing stakeholders together—which means navigating people’s personalities and (often competing) interests. 

"In this kind of role—and this is actually a tenet Apple teaches—you have to influence without authority. You can’t do things in isolation—to deliver things on time, with quality, it has to be a team effort," Yang says. "I’ve had to work with a lot of personalities. People can be passionate about their jobs, and opinionated. That’s not a bad thing! What’s helped me is that I don’t take things personally. Instead, I focus on the deliverables."

And Yang is ready for action. "What really excites me is delivering something into the world that impacts people for the better," she says. "When I choose projects now, I think about what impact it’s going to have on the end user."

Q&A: Kelly Yang on getting her first big break at Apple and the power of self-knowledge

What’s your proudest professional achievement to date?  
Getting that role at Apple was defining for me. It moved me here to Silicon Valley, which I consider to be the global center for technology development. And it connected me with like-minded people who were interested and excited about advancing technology.   

If you could offer one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?  
Enjoy the process of learning and growing over time. You don’t have to—and shouldn’t, nor will you ever—know everything. Connect with mentors and leaders with experience to share wisdom and gain perspective. 

What book are you obsessed with recommending right now?  
An author that I’m really enjoying right now is Yung Pueblo, who is a poet, meditator and speaker. His two books, Inward and Clarity & Connection, focus on the wisdom that comes when we truly try to know ourselves, which in turn relates to how we connect with one another and humanity.  

How do you see young people changing the world of projects? 
Simply by the types of projects they choose to take on. I see a lot of people in my network choosing to work on projects that impact the environment, sustainability and social justice. By choosing which projects they invest their time in, young people have the power to influence what gets built and put out into the world.