Insights

Getting to know FreeWheel’s new CTO, Yuling Ma

David Clark General Manager

Earlier this year, we were delighted to announce that we have appointed Yuling Ma as our new Chief Technology Officer. In this position, Yuling is leading the development and operation of FreeWheel’s technology platform and network operations and the company’s global engineering team spanning the United States, Europe and China. She also plays a vital role in accelerating the company’s strategy and vision.

Since she joined our company two years ago as Vice President of Engineering and GM overseeing our robust Beijing office, she has impressed us all with her vision and leadership. Currently based in Beijing, she will move to the U.S. in the coming months.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with Yuling to take a deep dive into the breadth of her experience, find out her advice to the next generation, and hear what she’s excited for on the horizon.

Dave:

You have dedicated your adult life to the study of computer science. Tell us a little bit about what brought you to this career?

Yuling:

When I was a kid I, I loved math and any subject related to science—that’s where my passion lies. When I applied for college, my dad asked me, “What do you want to learn?” And at that time, I wasn’t sure, I was thinking something related to math or physics. But I felt like I should look for something very practical to do in the future. My dad, who is a professor at a university, suggested either I study the electrical engineering (which is what he studied) or computer science. I decided that I needed to do something new and not follow his path, so I picked computer science, and I absolutely love it.

Dave:

So you rebelled a little bit. Was that common when you were growing up, to go into computer science?

Yuling:

No, it’s not very common. At that time computer science was something new, and it was not a choice many girls were making, they were more likely to choose other subjects at that time.

Dave:

What else influenced your early years?

Yuling:

When I was in school, in addition to math and science, I loved physical education, I like to run and to compete. Back when I was a student, my school started a hundred-meter competition—it was new, but I thought I would try it out. In my spare time I found a coach to teach me how to compete and even I was surprised at the results. I trained with him for two months before the race and ended up winning first place. I continued to win the gold medal three years in a row.

Yuling with her peers taken after a 4x100m relay competition
Yuling with her peers taken after a 4x100m relay competition.

Dave:

Do you still run today?

Yuling:

Yes, I run– that’s my exercise. For me, running is relaxing. It’s a meditation for myself even when I’m very tired. For example, if I have a headache, I go out to run and after that, I feel better and happy.

Dave:

You grew up in Beijing but have already spent some time in the New York area. Tell us about that.

Yuling:

I came to U.S. after I got my master’s degree here in China, and then I pursued my PhD degree. Then I studied and worked in the U.S. for a while. I lived in a suburb of New York for four years and also spent time in Washington, D.C.– together with my husband, as he was with Morgan Stanley at that time. New York is a very beautiful place– I have good memories about that time and am looking forward to moving back. But it will also be a little bit of a challenge for me because my husband will stay in China with my younger kids for another year. My oldest daughter is a college student in the U.S.

At the University of Maryland in 1995
At the University of Maryland in 1995.

Dave:

Beijing is 13 hours ahead of New York. I know it’s challenging to work across time zones, but you are really disciplined about how you approach it. Do you have any tips? How do you manage your time?

Yuling:

I try to organize meetings during the early morning or late at night to accommodate my U.S. colleagues. Then in the afternoon, I sometimes take a break if I need it. Around dinner time I try to find time to run – for me the exercise is really the key to keep balance.

Dave:

You have now been at FreeWheel for two years, tell us about what you were doing before you joined our team.

Yuling:

Most of my career was spent with one company called Micro Strategy; I worked with them for 17 years. I started as a software engineer to develop features and make products. When the CEO decided to create an R&D center in Beijing, they asked me to lead it. It was a little bit difficult at the beginning because it was just me and I needed to hire all the people in China—and I must say we hired a bunch of excellent engineers. We hired 250 people in five years. That helped me transition from a very technical engineering role to a people manager, and also it taught me how to manage a large group of people. That was a big turning point in my career.

After five years, our company, Micro Strategy, changed direction and they shut down the Beijing office. It was heartbreaking for me at that time because I treated that office like my baby. I recruited and interviewed all of them and along the way we built a very good culture.

This led me to my next transformative role, I joined a startup with my friends. I was the only one based in China while all my other colleagues were living in other cities around the globe. In that role I became everything: an office manager, HR, finance, and even the cleaning lady. But that’s typical in a startup—everyone just has to do anything to get the job done. It was a wonderful experience, but very hard. In that role I evolved from a manager to a person that doesn’t just think about just the technology but is also thinking about the strategy and direction, the person thinking the business opportunity.

Later I moved to jd.com, which is one of the biggest internet companies in China. There I was responsible for the business and also product delivery. Between my roles at startups and with jd.com, I learned so much and that prepared me for my next journey here at FreeWheel.

Dave:

Having a startup experience is so unique and you see this over and over again, that even people who choose to go on to more of a corporate career tend to be more successful if they’ve had a startup experience. Tell us about your decision to come to FreeWheel. I know that our former CTO, Diane Yu, called you many times to join our team. What made you say yes?

Yuling:

There were multiple reasons and the first of course is Diane, she is an amazing woman. I first met her six years ago and she tried to hire me at that time, but I was just embarking on the startup role. A few years later she tried again to get me to join FreeWheel, but the timing wasn’t right for me. But finally, the third time she presented me with an opportunity the timing was just right. I was ready to be back with a global company.

The second reason I joined FreeWheel is the culture, which was very similar to the R&D Center that I led. In fact, when we shut down that office, Diane was able to hire many people from my previous company. So in some ways, it felt like coming back home. In my view, it’s so important to have the right people, and then you can achieve anything.

Theme day at FreeWheel
We love a good theme at FreeWheel.

Dave:

If you were to have a chat with a young girl who was thinking about the future, what do you tell them about computer science and your journey? What kind of advice do you give someone who’s trying to figure out where to go with their career?

Yuling:

My daughter chose computer science as her major in college. This is because her own interests– and not because of my influence. My advice to her was to find her passion. We all need a passion if we really want to do something well. I really encourage people to pursue their career based on their real passion—not just to make a living. I think real passion is extremely, extremely important—and that goes for both men and women.

Dave:

I’ve got one more question for you: what are you most excited about when you move to New York city?

Yuling:

I lived in the suburbs of New York city for a while, but I never lived in the city. So this time I think I will live in the city. I am excited to experience convenient shopping and all different kinds of food. And also Broadway shows and concerts. I think this is a great place to be and I’m really looking forward to it.

Dave:

That’s fantastic. Well, New York always comes back strong and I’m sure it will again and be ready for your arrival. Thank you so much for spending just a few minutes today having this chat.

Yuling:

Thank you, Dave. It’s my pleasure.