“When I got stuck on a coding problem or algorithm in my first job as a developer at Microsoft, I would ask three different people for help. That is why diversity is truly important – lots of different ways of thinking drive better business solutions.”
Years in industry? 14
Who or what inspired your career in tech?
I credit three things with inspiring my career in tech: This happy trifecta consists of my parents, Sierra computer games, and Mr. Carlson. I was fortunate to have very supportive parents who told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. My father always pushed me to do my very best. My mother always told me to “be the doctor, not the nurse”. They took me to “girls in STEM” events when I was young and provided me with a college education. To this day, they continue to be an amazing source of support to me. In the early 1990’s, I loved Sierra computer games. The King’s Quest series, The Colonel’s Bequest, The Dagger of Amon Ra, The Black Cauldron…it was ridiculously fun to be a character in a computer game, and move around in another world, and collect objects and solve puzzles to complete some sort of a mission. During this time, the idea that I could program computers and create games like this as a job was so inspiring and exciting to me. (There was something special about those Sierra games; today’s first-person shooters with their mind-blowing graphics don’t get me excited the same way.) Finally, in high school, my favorite math teacher Mr. Carlson noticed that I was pretty good at math, and encouraged me to take a programming class. At his advice, I took his “Intro to Programming” class and fell in love with it. It was beautifully logical. I enjoyed learning a programming language to communicate with the computer (that first class used Pascal), and figuring out how to do it correctly was like solving a puzzle. I was hooked.
What’s been your best hack ever?
There is a saying that of time, money, and health, you may pick two. At the beginning of your career, you are young and may not have a family yet, so you might have time and health, but probably not a lot of money yet. Then, mid-way through your career, perhaps you have a few kids and you have reached a senior level with more responsibility at work; now you may have money and health, but you have absolutely no time. Finally, later in life, you can retire from work, so you have time and money now, but your health may be starting to go. I believe in optimizing for whatever variable is scarcest at the current point in your life. I am NOT middle-aged and will fight anyone who says otherwise! But, I do relate to the middle group right now. Time is my most precious resource; there is never enough to do all that I want at work and at home. So, I optimize for time. That can mean making tradeoffs like spending more money on a stupidly overpriced premade salad in a bag, rather than buying all of the salad ingredients separately, chopping them, and assembling it myself. In this way, I sometimes trade more money to give me back time that I would have spent cooking or cleaning.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how have you handled it?
All challenges seem easier once you have conquered them, but I remember being very worried when I had my first child. I worried about having enough time to perform well at my job and take care of the baby. I worried about not being taken seriously and my career path slowing down once I had a child. The latter turned out not to be an issue; everyone at Microsoft was wonderfully supportive, and career opportunities kept coming. As for the former, I made some adjustments to my working hours (I started work earlier and stopped work earlier), and learned to manage my time more efficiently. One trick: when you are leaving in the evening, write down the most important things to get done the following day. Then the following day, do those things first thing in the morning, when you are fresh. This helps you keep your momentum and focus on the right things.
I also have been faced with several tough technical challenges during my career. When I got stuck on a coding problem or algorithm in my first job as a developer at Microsoft, I would ask three different people for help. One was an old-school hardcore developer with a Unix background (yes, he had a full beard and wore shorts in the middle of winter). The second was a guy with less formal education, but he had a ton of real-world work experience. The third was a guy close to my age at the time (just out of college) with a strong formal education from a top-tier university, but little real-world experience (he understood the theory but usually hadn’t done it himself). I would run my problem by each of these very smart guys, and every time, I would get different ideas and potential solutions from each of them. Then I could take aspects of one idea and use it to improve another idea. With all of their advice put together, I was able to build the best possible software. That is why diversity is truly important – lots of different ways of thinking drive better business solutions.
What is your biggest career success to date?
I am proud of many things: I’ve shipped code at Microsoft, earned patents, published papers in technical journals, won awards, and delivered keynotes at conferences. On the topic of success: At a Women in Tech conference that I attended many years ago, a speaker stated that “Success = hard work + being smart + luck”. As a typical Type-A, I was enraged by this. Luck was part of the equation?!?!?!? If I’m smart and work hard, I wanted success to follow…having luck in there added a random element that I couldn’t control. Unfortunately, I think that speaker was correct. There is luck in success. For example, on my current team we choose technologies in which to dive deep and become experts. If my teammate Eric chooses technology A and my teammate Joe chooses technology B to focus on, and technology A really takes off and there is worldwide demand for technical experts on technology A for speaking, writing books, etc., then Eric’s career and visibility could get a huge boost while Joe’s does not, even if they work equally hard and are equally smart. So, focus on working hard and learning, since those are the things that you can control. When you are passed over for an opportunity, remember the “luck” element – just keep working hard and learning, and it should hopefully even out over your career (sometimes you are in the right place at the right time, and sometimes you aren’t). If you are continuously having “bad luck”, make a change to improve your odds (find a different job with a more supportive manager, a different technology focus, etc.).
Who are your role models?
My role models are all over the board. I respect a number of people from Mother Theresa to Mindy Kaling. Duy-Loan Le’s immigration story and subsequent success at Texas Instruments is inspirational. I have various role models for various technical interests of mine (big data, machine learning, database optimization, performance, app development, etc.).
Let me also address mentors as well as role models. (Terminology: I consider a mentor someone that I have a relationship with and can call/email for help when I need it, and role models are people that I secretly worship from afar. Role models are a source of inspiration to me but I can’t call on them for help.) I have a lot of mentors. Many of my ex-managers are mentors to me, and I still bug them for advice occasionally. I also choose mentors based on something specific that I want to learn from them that I think they are really good at – for example, one mentor for blogging, one for work-life balance, one for public speaking, one for agile programming, etc. So you don’t have to have a single mentor for everything. My work-life balance mentor is a woman with a full-time high-level job at Microsoft and 6 kids. She isn’t a hardcore developer, but I get tips from her on how she manages not to go crazy, and tips on tech stuff from other mentors. Also, remember that women can have men as mentors too! This may sound obvious, but I’ve had many well-intentioned male managers hook me up with female mentors just so I would have a female to talk to. This can be useful in many situations (I was terrified about telling my manager that I was pregnant the first time, etc.) but at the beginning of my career, I had a non-technical female mentor and not a lot of female-specific concerns (this was before kids) so our meetings were not very useful to me. Time with a hardcore technical guy (or gal) was far more worthwhile at that point, since that is what I needed at the time. I was fresh out of college and wanted to learn everything, and most of my questions were technical, around coding or coding processes. So, figure out what you need in a mentor, find someone who is really good at that, and ask them to mentor you. Finally, I challenge you to pay it forward! Mentor others, and at some point in your career, either speak or blog. I’m giving you the choice because I understand there are some folks that are absolutely terrified of public speaking, and blogging (and other communication via the written word) may be a better fit. But both of these activities establish you as an “expert” in some topic, and enable you to be a role model to others. Once you’ve found your passion, go out and tell the world about the cool tech that you’re building (via blogging or speaking), and inspire the next generation.
If you could go back in time, what’s one tip you’d give your teenage self?
Believe in yourself! There is a phenomenon known as “impostor syndrome, ” in which high-achieving people feel like impostors or frauds that are not truly deserving of their success. They feel like they are fooling everyone else into believing they are more intelligent than they actually are, and will one day be exposed as an impostor. Impostor syndrome affects people across the board, but it is especially common in women. I can share a personal example. Many years ago, a colleague and I were scheduled to present a day-long event with many technical sessions at a large corporation, and we were dividing the session topics between us. One of the topics was Silverlight, which had just been released at the time. I didn’t really feel like I knew Silverlight that well…I had read some blog posts, seen a video or two, and downloaded some demos, but I hadn’t written any of my own code with it yet. My colleague said that he knew Silverlight pretty well, so we agreed that he would present it. Fast-forward to his talk: he presented a marketing slide deck to developers (which is never a good idea), didn’t show any demos (since Silverlight is a visual presentation-layer technology, you can’t fully appreciate it without seeing it in action), and didn’t do so well answering questions. It turns out that he had just seen the Silverlight announcement, and yet he felt confident enough that he “knew” Silverlight from that, whereas I (with more actual knowledge, in this particular instance) did not. Take risks (like agreeing to present on a topic that you don’t know that well, because you may know more than you think you do, and signing up for the challenge will force you to learn it well), and believe in yourself!
What do you do when you’re not kicking butt at work?
Currently the majority of my time outside of work is spent with my three kids (ages 7, 3, and 1) and wonderful husband. I also love reading and theatre. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I record “Big Bang Theory” and “Game of Thrones.”
Flats, heels or kicks?
Best career advice book?
I’ve picked up a lot of great career advice at conferences like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I’ve also written some career advice in the style of GLEE, where I extract advice from popular songs. I haven’t read too many career advice books, but I did enjoy Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. It’s an easy read. There are about 2 pages for each mistake: one defining the mistake and one providing coaching tips to combat that mistake.
Who are the women in tech that you most admire and why?
Roberta Williams created the Sierra computer games that ignited my passion for programming. Rebecca Norlander (formerly of Microsoft) and Barbara Liskov (of MIT) have inspired me; they are both brilliant speakers as well as great technical minds. I once chased Frances Allen (the first woman to win a Turing Award) around a conference until I got my picture taken with her. But honestly, I admire many women in tech who are not famous. I’ve met female graduate students who are doing amazing research in computer science. I’ve met women who were actively discouraged from working outside the home, and they persevered without support and were extremely successful. I’ve met women who worked fulltime jobs, completed their college education, and had children at the same time, which is worthy of sainthood. So many “ordinary” women in tech have extraordinary stories.