Martha Bird describes herself as "open hearted and pragmatic." It's really just another way to describe her position as a business anthropologist.
Martha grew up close to the land on her great-grandmother's farm and stayed into her 30s, farming vegetables and baking. "There's nothing like putting a plow into the ground and feeling the RPMs go down with the drag," Martha says. "I love the earth and soil. It keeps me grounded and helps me to see the extraordinary experiences in everyday life."
When she talked about going to grad school and getting a "real" job, her mom asked, "What's more real than being a farmer?" Her mother was a great supporter in her life.
Martha has always navigated the inherent tension within open-hearted pragmatism.
In college, she started out in business school then switched to philosophy and art history after about six months. She became interested in architecture. Then she studied contemporary art theory at the Art Institute of Chicago, but realized she did not want to work directly in art — she wanted to apply it. So, she returned to school for a PhD.
Martha was initially accepted into the sociology program at Boston University, but a mentor and her curiosity led her to anthropology. Her doctoral thesis explored how the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation created a profitable casino in Ledyard, Connecticut through building a museum about culture.
"Our stories about history, geography and culture teach us about ourselves and our world," Martha says. "Everything is connected, even if you can't see it. Trust that you will be on a path that will allow you to look back and make sense of it. Be a conscientious traveler in your own life."
After grad school, Martha's path led to eBay in Silicon Valley. Having been a research fellow for many years, she had no corporate experience. But they wanted to understand both buyers and sellers on the platform and how they made decisions and what motivated them, which intrigued her. So Martha moved to California to join a user research and strategy team as the only anthropologist. Soon, she was hanging out with collectors of dolls and magic toys to understand what mattered to them and how technology could be improved to make the site more engaging to them.
Martha realized that, in many ways, eBay was an online museum and the users were curators trying to figure out what they needed and wanted. This insight helped her imagine how tech could play a part in helping them and improving their experience.
Martha ended up moving to London for love, and opened a consulting firm called Anthropologics. She continued to do work with eBay and other consumer tech firms to help them better understand how people use digital tools and how to make tech more human-friendly.
Martha Bird with old Ford truck.
Technology Is Culture
A skiing-related knee injury brought Martha back to the United States. During her recovery from surgery, she had a lot of time to think, learn and explore new directions. She connected with Roberto Masiero, head of ADP's Innovation Labs, and they had a great conversation about the importance of people in technology. "When he said, 'human wisdom,' I was sold," Martha says.
Now, Martha is ADP's Business Anthropologist, where she helps design and create meaningful services, experiences and products. Her approach both questions and contextualizes the social and cultural dynamics of technology. Martha explains, "Technology is cultural. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is deeply embedded in broader cultural phenomena like geography, social norms, language, physical space and infrastructural capabilities."
"People are messy and the messiness is what tells us the most. We humans make the mess meaningful. And that meaning is reflected in what we do. So, data is culture. Technology is culture. Anthropologists deconstruct the mess to help illuminate patterns and new ways of thinking about old challenges."
While the technology is fascinating, it's still the people that matter most to Martha. "It's a culture that is welcoming and caring," she says. "I love how people at ADP challenge the status quo. We're not too cool to be open to new ideas and we're smart enough to realize we don't know everything."
Martha's best advice for people in work and life came from a friend. "Don't ever be shocked, but always be surprised."
Shock shuts us down, while surprise opens us up to possibility and delight. "I love it when people can see things from a slightly different perspective," Martha says. "It's magic. Stay open to the extraordinary; it's present everywhere."
Learn about the intersection of people and technology in this video featuring Martha Bird.
Subscribe to SPARK updatesSign up