Alumni Profile: May-Li Khoe
Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (Career Advising & Professional Development) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
- MIT, SB 6-2, 1999
- MIT, M.Eng, 2000
May-Li is an interdisciplinary, quatricultural, twice-immigrant artist-researcher-designer-inventor who combines invention with strategic cultural practices, bright colors, faces-on-things, and glitter. She has co-founded two companies, recently created a music and dance toy-game for the new Playdate game platform, and served as VP of Design at Khan Academy. While there, she co-founded the R&D team and grew the design team into establishing User Research, Writing, Marketing and Communications design, a new brand, a design system, and inclusive team processes. Before that, she invented new interfaces for emerging technologies at Apple across all of their platforms, including the first iPhone’s first web apps, the first iPad Mini, the first Find My App, the first Face Filters, the Apple Pencil, Force Touch, the Taptic Engine, and more.
May-Li has over 20 years of experience working with organizations ranging from IBM, Microsoft, and the MIT MediaLab, to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Universal Music Group, Dynamicland, and Oakland Museum of California. These days, you’ll find her working on a pixel-art based video game, dabbling in ML art, advancing her collaborative whiteboard app called Scribble Together, advising Sprout.place, consulting as an executive, mentoring, making guest appearances in classes, and writing. She also DJs, dances, plays music, and cultivates joyful ways to subvert the status quo.
What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
When I was a kid, I was lucky to have access to a Mac, and started making small games in HyperCard. I loved making things beep and boop, and that fascination with interactivity and computer-human input and interfaces has stuck with me. I had no idea that it would give me access to an eventual career at the intersection of design and engineering and prototyping new methods of human input.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Despite working on technology that a billion people use today, I what’s actually been most rewarding is the human connections I’ve made along the way, both between others and with others. Helping people who are newer in their careers find their footing and start to kick ass is beyond incredible. Building a team that looked and operated nothing like other design teams at the time, and seeing how they still show up for each other today even though we don’t work together anymore – that still has me in awe.
What motivates you to do the work you do?
I think I’ll always work at some intersection of creativity, collaboration, and learning in some way, even as I shift my focus to be more about my own creative output and artistic voice. But more than anything I’m always driven to creatively and joyfully subvert old status quo systems that I think are extractive, unsustainable, got us into this *waves hands* mess in the first place, and frankly less fun. I’m interested in entirely new ways for us as humans to exist on this planet, and I think that’s coming whether we want it or not.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career? How have you managed or overcome it?
Being a cultural and demographic outsider was really hard, especially at the beginning, when I had a lot less stability and earned status. We could have many conversations about my experience being the only woman and only non-white person in the room – even what it was like at school, sometimes being the only feminine-presenting person in rooms of 60. I feel lucky that I’m a fighter, but it would be a lie to say it wasn’t exhausting over time. Even at my age and given all the things I’ve done, I still find myself underestimated because of the body I inhabit. When I was younger I didn’t think I needed anyone to look up to. As I gained more experience I started to see how these dynamics actually played out, how I was paid less, how I was erased from history, how people would ignore my ideas until someone else repeated what I’d said. After a while, I was no longer able to just shake things off. Luckily, it seems your generation has far more conversations about this than ours did.
Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, is really challenging for people at all stages of their career. What strategies have you used to make career decisions?
I try to take leaps when the excitement of new possibilities outweighs the prospects of my current situation. That wasn’t always possible in the beginning, especially because I graduated into a severe economic downturn and was on a visa, but in later decisions, I did a lot of things that other people might have thought were strange. This is pinned at the top of my twitter feed, and I really do believe it: “make your life a personal work of art filled with whatever random things energize you. those little random seedlings will bloom into things you never would have imagined if you give them the space outside a conventional career to grow”
What career advice do you have for current MIT students, or those interested in entering your industry?
You’re entering a world that’s shifting a LOT, and you have the opportunity to push for it to be so, so much better. Truly better, not just “hey look at this shiny new tech” better, but better in a way that breaks past this current extractive, neocolonial system that we’ve inherited. You won’t be able to do it alone and change of that depth happens non-linearly, so try to shed the idea that everything happens like a typical individual’s hero’s journey. Embrace growing your intellectual range and criticality, which might, again, make you seem strange compared to many of your peers, but you will find more meaning in life and a greater largesse that will pay back in ways you never expected. Think about what the future could be beyond the same old stories that people recycle over and over again in different forms. You have more power already than you might realize – collective power especially – to make those changes come true.
Do you have any tips for networking or job searching for current students and recent graduates?
If you truly take an interest in other human beings, what makes them tick, what motivates them, why they think the way they do – you can make real, lasting connections along the way, and not network just for the sake of networking, which is transactional and extractive and can feel icky to people who have a bit more humanist sensibility. If you do this, you’ll learn the secrets behind everyone’s actions, the stuff that nobody will ever post on LinkedIn or in a slide deck. Honestly, that’s the stuff that drives society much more than I was ever told at your age.
What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?
I’ve always danced. It’s what has kept me sane throughout all of my years working. I’ve danced many forms, but currently it’s mostly pole dancing. I also DJ and play in a band, although those have been or are actually pretty serious pursuits by this point. And I read. Voraciously. And write. But that might be my work now! So I’m not sure what “outside of work” really means. That’s part of the fun of being an interdisciplinary artist.
Last updated 2022