Dona Sarkar



University of Michigan – Computer Science

[Welcome to I Want Her Job's second Women at Microsoft Week! We're celebrating the female force behind the company as we join the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, happening now in Phoenix. If you're going to be there be sure to tweet us @iwantherjob. Today's article is the last in a series of four that will help you find out what it's like — and how you can — land your dream job at one of the biggest companies changing the face of business.]

Yesterday you met Dona Sarkar, author, designer and principal engineering lead at Microsoft. You got to know what first introduced this incredible triple-threat to tech, why she ignored the “nerds” who told her she’d never make it and why if you fail computer science class once, you should take it again. (Dona knows because she did, and now look at her!)

Check out part two of our interview with Dona today to see how she went from intern to seasoned Microsoft professional. Hear her advice for budding women in tech, how she achieves work/life balance while juggling so many projects and why she says, “Computer science is a superpower.” Intrigued? So were we, which is why we wanted to take two days to introduce you to one of the smartest women we’ve ever met.

The things I thought would hold me back in tech — being a woman, being a nice and friendly person and dressing well — were not holding me back. These differences actually gave me opportunities.

What happened after your internship at Autodesk?

The following summer I had another internship; this time at Intel. This meant I had to move far away from home in Michigan to Portland, Ore. During my internship, Intel had a hiring freeze, which meant they wouldn’t be giving their interns, including me, any offers.

I started applying for jobs everywhere I could, except for Microsoft — it seemed too big to me. I didn’t think I was worthy of a company that created the most-used software in the world. I had offers from three companies when I graduated. One was with the NSA. I didn’t want to go to have my eyes scanned through a laser just to get into work every day, so that didn’t feel like a fit for me. I also had an offer from the Goodyear Tire Factory in Akron, Ohio, but after growing up in the Midwest I wanted a West Coast job. I wanted to be where tech was happening. I ended up taking a job as a software engineer with Siebel Systems in downtown Bellevue working on their handheld client. I didn’t know anyone in the city; I was a 21-year-old who had never lived away from home. But as soon as I started working as a developer on the sync engine between the Palm Pilot and its database backend, I loved it.

Then one day, after being at the company for about a year, something happened that changed my life. I was sitting in my cube and my manager came down the hallway. He asked if I had a passport. They needed me to travel to Budapest to work with British American Tobacco. The company’s sales team was experiencing problems with uploading data. Siebel needed to send an engineer from our team to debug this blocking customer issue.

My manager said to me, “You present yourself well, so we figure you’ll do great in front of customers.” I’m telling you this because the things I thought would hold me back in tech – being a woman, being a nice and friendly person and dressing well — were not really holding me back. These things were actually giving me opportunities. I related to people first and foremost. I was trying to figure out how to make things better for people.

Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Budapest on my first-ever business trip. I stayed in my first hotel room by myself. I took my first towncar to the office. It was amazing. I showed up at British American Tobacco with my laptop ready to go. I asked the sales team to let me follow them for a day in their life to see what was going on.

We went into a tobacco shop. The sales person introduced me as a consultant from headquarters and then wrote down the inventory the shop needed. There were two buttons on the device – ‘Save’ and ‘Commit’. ‘Save’ would be a temporary save and ‘Commit’ meant upload to the database. After a while, ‘Save’ deleted the data. I noticed that when the sales person entered his inventory, he kept hitting ‘Save’ and he never hit ‘Commit’. He didn’t know he had to. When he hit ‘Save’ he thought it meant it would save to the database. It was so stupid that as developers of this product, we never walked in the customer’s shoes.

I ran back and called my manager. “The problem is UI-based,” I said. That moment changed my life forever. It ingrained in me that it’s always about people. Technology is simple. It’s people who are complicated. I realized I wanted a job where I can see how customers are using technology.

After your ‘a-ha’ moment, how did you take that next step and find your dream job at Microsoft?

I was still scared of Microsoft. It’s the best tech company in the world. But, as scared as I was, I applied. I really wanted a job where I could interact with customers. And I got that job at Microsoft. Here, I get to talk to customers and do validation and testing based on how they use products, not just through code.

With such an amazing job, how do you organize your day?

Every day is completely different. Across Microsoft, there are a lot of people who have jobs similar to mine. I work with our researchers and analytics people and they’re located all around campus. So, earlier in the day, I try to schedule and attend all of my meetings I have with people who aren’t on my team. That way, I can talk to my team about what I learned in those meetings later on in the day.

Every afternoon, I schedule my day around my team, then this time is spent working with them. I also find that my workday finds its way into my mind as I drive home each evening. I’ll have thoughts like, “I want to do this … and this … and we could go get a 3D printer and do this.” When I get home, the first thing I do is tell my husband. He’s used to my tendency to plot the next day’s activities on my drive home each day.

During the evening, I love to spend time researching trends and things happening in our industry. I also have a lot of mentees around the company and industry, so during the evening is when I find time to email them back and forth or have a Skype session with people not based in Seattle. Once that’s done, I take time to do something else I love, like writing or sewing. It’s never both. It’s never everything. I really can only manage to accomplish three things in a day – work, spend time with my husband and then sewing or writing.

It sounds like you’ve figured out a plan for work/life balance. How does a job in tech allow for this?

You really only have three parts in a day: morning, afternoon and evening. I’m a big believer in work/life integration. Sometimes I’m at work and there are home matters that need taken care of during the day. When I was planning a wedding this summer, I’d have to call the caterer, for example, during my workday. But in the evening, you’d find me writing the first draft of a fun project with my team. And I enjoy doing that in the evening.

A technology job is so versatile. Tech is not just the greatest get-rich quick scheme in the world, but you can work anywhere with this degree. You can work in a penthouse in Paris or the desert in Mongolia. You can work at any company with a technical degree. I tell women all the time: if you have interests and passions in other industries, you should still get a technical degree. Start with even a minor in computer science. You have no idea where that will take you. Being the tech girl at a company can take you anywhere.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

We have to get the tech industry to not be so insular; meaning composed of people who are technical and people who are not technical. That’s the divide, and it can be very intimidating to those who need to use technology in their job. But tech is not a groundbreaking thing. The very first switchboard operators were women. The first computer scientist was a woman. Computing — and technology — is totally women’s work.

Think about Mad Men for a minute. All the guy characters in the show are too busy being the boss. They have their secretaries do all their math and correspondence for them. It’s really the women who have all the power, because that’s where the power is.

We have to remove this divide that technology is this special thing that ‘some’ people get into. Technology should be just as ingrained in our lives as reading, writing and math. Everyone needs to work on a computer and most everyone has basic social media needs or even a need to build their own websites and maps. But, tech is still considered this seriously mysterious thing. It’s not. They’re just computers. There are developers out there who literally set up an app developer kit and just start building their own app. You don’t need to go to school for 12 years to do technology.

Another bonus is that the tech industry is everywhere, not just here on the West Coast. How great would it be to have a job that allows you to live anywhere you want? That’s what technology does. That’s the power of tech.

What would you say to a woman curious about a job in tech if she were sitting across the room?

It’s pretty damn cool. It’s a superpower people are impressed by. And, tech is fairly easy to get into. If you’re a woman who knows nothing about tech and you’re timid about getting into it, try an online course through Udacity. It’s free. Just sit down, pay attention and focus. Do the course once, then do it again if you didn’t quite get it the first time. Once you have a good grasp on it, get a computer science degree. You can do it either online or in person.

The barrier to entry in tech is quite low, because you can teach yourself much of it. Cities have all of these meet-up groups for people who are learning how to code. Just look up “coding meet up” for your city. I would highly recommend that you get involved. When you attend a meet up with other girls who code, it will build your confidence. When you have others around, you’ll be surrounding yourself with people who know what they’re doing. They’re there to help.

There are literally millions of people like me in the world who want women in technology. You can’t build products for half the world without half the world on your team. Women buy more technology and use social media more than men. Women are inherently social, yet we make up less than 10 percent of engineering staff. That can change — with you!