Disney Character or Microsoftee – Sara Ford tells her story for Ada Lovelace Day 2010 (ALD10)

Ada Lovelace Day 2010 (#ALD10) is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.  I’m looking forward to reading about the women in technology who motivate us all.  Last year I found Tim O’Reilly’s post about the women at O’Reilly was very touching.  I was motivated by how many folks wrote about their wives, like my friend and colleague Alfred Thompson who writes this year about Grace Hopper.  My husband had a nice write-up about me in his dissertation that I’ll never forget (he doesn’t blog).  Last year, I interviewed Jennifer Marsman and this year I’m interviewing Microsoft evangelist, CodePlex manager, and community leader Sara Ford. 

Did you post a woman in tech that you admire?  Leave me a link so I can read your post!

Many of you may know Sara Ford best by her Visual Studio Tips of the Day and her recent book of the same title

SaraFord Microsoft Visual Studio Tips book

She and I have been working together on a committee to create an Open Source Track for the Grace Hopper 2010 Conference.  Having known Sara only virtually, I’m intrigued by her Visual Studio Tip fame and her Building Jumping for the CodePlex Open Source Program.  I was dying to ask her some of those questions I wonder about everyone women in computer science.  Here’s my interview with Sara Ford.

How did you get started with Computers?

I was always on a computer.  My mom worked for GE and was able to bring home her computer, so I was exposed at a young age.  When I was 5, I started with a TI 994A computer with “Hunt the wumpus”.  I thought it was really cool at the time and had no idea that it was an AI game or that it was anything but fun.  When I was 10 or so, my mom brought home a machine running DOS 3.1.  I was fascinated by typing stuff into a command prompt and getting responses.  Although I was on a computer from the time I was little, my real first passion was Aviation.

You wanted to fly?

I NEVER thought I’d be doing these types of things at Microsoft.  In high school, I had many odd jobs – a clown, a soccer referee, and sailor instructor.  I also took flying lessons.  I had a big passion for aviation and was sure I’d be a naval pilot.  When I got to the Naval Academy, I discovered that you not only need 20/20 vision (and to be clear I had 20/20 vision) – but you also need to be a certain height.  (Sara is 5'1" tall and missed the requirement by 1 inch).  This basically blew my 18-year dream and I didn’t quite know what to do next - I lost my scholarships having signed them all away from every school that close to graduation.  I started working as a popcorn vendor at Disney while I did some soul-searching around my career.

You worked at Disney?

After some time in the popcorn booth, I discovered that being a Disney Character a big upgrade at Disney.  Characters got $0.15 more an hour and benefits.  I decided I’d interview and ‘upgrade’ … but … I slept through the interview.  After that I decided to move back home and head to an in-state school for better tuition.  I ended up at Mississippi State.

Mississippi – I thought you lived in New Orleans?

I am from New Orleans, I lived just across the border in a part of Mississippi that is considered New Orleans.

What lead you to study Computer Science?

I had two really strong female influences encourage me in Computer Science.  Otherwise, I might have ended up in any number of other disciplines.  While I was exploring what to do with my life, I had a female mentor at a community college who encouraged me to study in this area.  At Mississippi State, I had the best advisor, Dr. Donna Reese.  Without her influence, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be in software today.

At one of the colleges which I considered attending for Computer Science (even though I didn’t have a scholarship left), the Dean of Students told me in front of my parents that I would never cut it in a field like Computer Science, that it is too harsh and cut throat. And, that I should consider a more suitable degree, like Language arts, that would be nicer to me. It’s something I’ve never forgotten. And whenever times get tough, I remind myself that the only thing that can ever make me quit is that I choose to quit. And so, I push on. Upon graduation, I emailed the Dean and the associates at that college and told them of my career and their initial feedback of me, and concluded with how very happy I was that I didn’t go to their school. A quote I heard at the Community Leadership Summit is “never ever cut off people before they have a chance to grow.”

What path have you taken while at Microsoft?

I got an interview with the Visual Studio Team while I was in college.  At the time I was using Visual J++ to simulate physics experiments on the web.  I wasn’t even considering the job, I was just elated to talk to the VS team to provide IDE feedback.  At the time, the feedback system to Microsoft cost $250 to submit a bug.  If it was really a bug, then you got your money back.  As a poor college kid, I didn’t have $250 to waste to submit bugs to the team.  I guess they appreciated my feedback, because I got the job. 

I spent 5 years as a tester on Visual Studio.  I love to break stuff and have someone else fix it.  I had a unique experience where every 6 months I moved to a new feature.  In no time, I had worked on every feature and aspect of Visual Studio which made me a perfect match for Visual Studio Tip of the Day.

You have a blog and, now, a book.  Were you always a writer?

I’ve always enjoyed explaining complex topics in terms that people can understand.  I started out as a horrible presenter.  As I got more experience and guidance, I’ve become much better at presenting to crowds.  I’ve been blogging for about 6 years and was blogger #300 at Microsoft.  I began by blogging my work on Accessibility in  Visual Studio.  My experience on the Visual Studio Team lead to the Tip of the Day and the rest is History.

I wanted to create an scholarship opportunity in the area I grew up.  I’m using proceeds from the book to offer a local scholarship for students in the area.  I was able to donate a total 29,000 dollars to the scholarship, with Microsoft matching the donation. [Read more about Sara’s donation Book Raises Scholarship Money For MGCCC Students]


What advice do you have for students?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  I learned a lot when I realized I could ask for help and people provided great feedback.  Before my first large presentation a friend said “just breathe, you can do this”.  It helps to know you have a support network and to get feedback to improve and grow.  I learned from blogging and getting feedback on my blog.

I heard at the Microsoft Women’s Conference that “The Most successful people in life are those who received the most help.” I love this quote.

Sara had much more to say about her role in CodePlex, Microsoft Open Source Software, and Visual Studio PowerToys.  Catch some of these great articles on Sara’s Blog:

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