On October 17th, I celebrate my 17th anniversary at Microsoft. If someone told me on my first day at work that I would be here for 17 years, I wouldn’t have believed them. Besides marriage and family, there’s not a lot else that has consistently been in my life for that long. I have new hobbies, live in a different house, and drive a different car than I did 17 years ago. So how can I continue to get up each morning and go to work as enthusiastic now as I was then? It’s because I like what I do. Everyone should strive to find a job that they enjoy doing, not just go to work for the pay check.
Since my theme is 17, let’s talk about an encountered I had with some 17 year olds (or close to that age). Microsoft, like other tech companies, hosts programs and events to expose kids in middle school and high school to technology jobs. Most of these that I’ve been involved in are specifically targeted at girls because we are a minority in the tech industry. I participated in one of these events as one of a few women on a panel discussion to talk about how we got to where we are now. We discussed our high school and college lives, decisions we made that put us on this path, and why we made them. Much of my discussion was around figuring out where my strengths are and leveraging those as I picked a college major. For example, in high school you need to take the SATs. I took this test my junior year and got a great math score and a not-so-great language arts score. In order to position myself better for acceptance into college, I decided to take the test again in the hopes of improving my language arts score. When I tried the second time, I did great in actually improving my math score even more. But my language arts score stayed the same. So I obviously was not going to major in English in college (although it’s ironic that years later I am enjoying writing this blog). Throughout college, I changed my major from math, to computer science, to electrical engineering. All of these had a strong emphasis on math. And I love math so this felt right to me. I continue to use math in my job every day.
So everyone in the panel discussed their passions and why they are happy in their current roles. All of them had similar themes around finding their strengths and leveraging them in their careers. Then the last woman spoke and corrupted all the positive thinking we had going. Granted, the girls in the audience sat quietly while we discussed our passions and career paths. It was unclear if they were listening and learning or bored and uninterested. The expectation wasn’t to wow everyone, just see if a few girls could relate and become interested in engineering and technology. So this last woman started her script which you could tell was well-rehearsed and potentially already given to girls many times before. She drew pictures on the whiteboard and strutted down the aisles. Her message started with a focus on her shoes. Designer shoes that cost a lot of money. She continued to explain how she wanted lots of cool things but never got them in high school or college. And then went on to describe how companies in the tech industry throw money at really good engineers and you can get rich if you play it right. She described all the great things she now owns and how happy that makes her. The rest of the panel just sat there appalled by what we were hearing. But in the audience, the girls looked lively and interested. They asked her questions and talked amongst themselves while pointing at her shoes. She had reached them, all of them, by finding something they could all relate to and exposing the benefits of working in the tech industry based on the hardships they have now. Her approach on how to reach them was just awesome! Her message, however, sucked. I don’t want to see a bunch of kids working in the tech industry because they want to get rich. Many of us are not rich. We don’t go to work and spend time calculating how much money we are making every day. We focus on how we can innovate, what tasks we have to complete, and how we can impact others by the work we are doing. I am extremely grateful that in these economic times, I still receive a pay check. But money doesn’t get me up in the morning. Money doesn’t cause me to check emails in the evening. Money doesn’t drive me to write these blog entries. The panel of women tried to tie her message back to ours around passion and doing what you like. The audience of girls were now more engaged and asked us all more questions. It was an interesting discussion around our incentives to get into this industry. The girls saw two different approaches that got them thinking. I believe the message around liking what you do and leveraging your strengths got to them. It obviously was the message the majority of the panel was discussing. I hope for the future success of technology we are not raising kids whose only goal in life is to make money.
Along with this panel discussion, I hosted two girls who job-shadowed me for a day. I found them to be very curious and they asked good questions. My team helped create demos and workshops for them to participate in. For me, the highlight was giving them a tour of our lab. Not many women get excited about hardware, but with my electrical engineering degree, I can appreciate how difficult the hardware aspects of creating software can be. As we toured the lab and explained server hardware and lab infrastructure issues, one of the girls became very interested. When we were done, she didn’t want to leave the lab and she thanked me a lot for exposing her to something she never knew about creating software. I felt very pleased that I reached her and that her interest may now lie in hardware technologies. It was a very rewarding experience for me.
I work with a bunch of people whose desire is to make great software. We feed off each other’s enthusiasm and critical thinking. I hope as future generations move into the tech industry, the excitement around the technologies continue. I’m glad I’ve been at Microsoft for 17 years. I’ve worked on a lot of great products and technologies, and I see how they impact the world. And there’s more coming. This is a fantastic place to be in a time when innovation is critical. I couldn’t ask for more.
If you have daughters in middle school or high school, or are interested in getting more involved in programs that expose girls to technologies, check out the following sites.