Kara Fong





University of Washington, Information Science, concentration in Human Computer Interaction

[Welcome to I Want Her Job's Women at Microsoft Week! Today's article is the third in a series of five 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.]

Remember the days when you rushed home from school, threw your backpack on the floor, then clicked “connect” on your computer so you could get back to your friends? The beeps, tones and screeching, tinny noises of a dial-up Internet connection were truly your entry to another world.

Kara Fong knew those sounds well. Her parents suggested that because she was spending so much time on the computer, perhaps she should also spend some of that time figuring out how the computer worked.

Enter Kara’s first introduction to her current employer, Microsoft, through its DigiGirlz program. DigiGirlz, a Microsoft YouthSpark program, gives high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops. For Kara, a weeklong opportunity to attend the program during summer 2005 threw the doors of her future wide open, cementing her desire to work in tech.

Now, as a University of Washington graduate, Kara’s one of Microsoft’s first hires out of its DigiGirlz program. Kara, who remained active in the program as a high school intern, college intern and volunteer, now works as a program manager at Microsoft on its APEX (Apple Platform Experiences) team, making sure the experience Apple users have with Microsoft software on their devices is seamless and enjoyable.

Set your ego aside. Allow yourself to fail, then fail again. Realize it’s OK, because failing only makes you stronger.

Did you always know you wanted to be in technology?

By no means! Growing up, I spent a lot of time on the computer, and just like any other teenager, my main focus was connecting with my friends and playing games online.

Tell us more about DigiGirlz. What impact has it had on your life and career development?

My experience with DigiGirlz has been absolutely amazing. There was one woman in particular who I ended up following on a job shadow. She was incredibly inspirational. I noticed she was one of the only women in the room in every meeting she brought me to. She also had three sons and a stay-at-home husband, and she’d be the one to come home every evening and play Xbox with her sons. I found that interesting.

DigiGirlz is unique in that they won’t push you in only one direction and say you need to learn more only about tech. Their goal is to help girls get to know themselves.

Was there a moment that helped you discover working in technology was meant for you?

It’s hard to pinpoint one exact moment. I think what I liked the most was creating things from scratch and allowing my creativity to show through. Technology is something that’s always been very consistent and positive in my life. After immersing myself in DigiGirlz and tech, there really was no question about what I should be doing. It was very clear to me. Now, my interest is in user experience design; I feel like it’s something that drives me. I’m very passionate about it.

What, exactly, does a program manager do at Microsoft?

Right now, one of the reasons I’m so busy is because I’m taking on a dual-role. I focus on the core experience team that works on the user interface consistent across every application within APEX. For example, within the Office Suite, I work to ensure that designs and features maintain the core Office personality but is platform appropriate. It’s my job to spec and design those features.

As of late, the second part of my dual-role is in design, which I’ve taken on more of. We have a really close-knit design team, so everything I’ve worked on recently has been more about the design and consistency across Office for Apple products.

With so many competing deadlines, how do you organize your day, and what does a “day in the life of Kara” entail?

It’s kind of all over the place. The great thing about my schedule is that there’s not necessarily a set day. Being a program manager, it’s important to maintain a balance between going to meetings and being productive. You also need to be attentive and respectful to those you’re meeting with. It’s so easy to multi-task, but I try to be focused and in the moment when I meet with others.

The time I spend working with my team is the best part of my day. I love when I get to sit down and hash out really tough problems with the rest of my team.

With what we can imagine to be crazy hours, is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?

I’ve had a lot of really great mentors who’ve helped me. I’ve spoken with many older and more experienced people, who have a lot of really big responsibilities, like children (which I don’t have). One of my mentors told me to really hold onto those things that are important to me, so I make sure to enjoy my time outdoors, hitting the gym, doing yoga or hiking.

I love how in tech, folks really work hard and play hard. I see many people who are intense when they’re working, but at the end of the day, they’re the same ones who make sure they have a good work/life balance.

What is the absolute greatest aspect of working for Microsoft?

I like being exposed to a lot of really brilliant people who are also very passionate and hard-working. There’s a strong sense of family at Microsoft. People here are always kind, resourceful and up for lending a helping hand.

What is your favorite Microsoft product?

I love Office for iPad — it’s the first product that I received my Ship-It Award on! A Ship-It Award is a tiny medal given to an individual every time they ship a product. They’re typically stuck on plaques. Working on Office for iPad gave me broad exposure to the rest of the team and possibilities at Microsoft. I thoroughly enjoyed it, plus the product received great reviews and was something I was proud to ship.

What values do you live by in your career?

I’m very driven, but at the same time, I think it’s OK to step back, take a breath and look at things in retrospect. My way of clearing my mind is to take time outdoors.

One thing I struggled with when starting my full-time job was letting go of email. I felt it was my responsibility. I felt guilty letting go of my inbox and not checking it when I was on vacation. Lately, that’s something I’ve been better with. I’m not doing anyone any favors by constantly being available on email. What’s great about it now is that my colleagues back me up on this and I find that when I come from a nice, long vacation, I’m really energetic.

What qualities do you feel it takes for someone to be successful in tech?

It’s important to be extremely curious; allow yourself to drive toward the unknown. Make a plan, then follow through with it. Another important thing is to set your ego aside. Allow yourself to fail, then fail again. Realize it’s OK, because failing only makes you stronger. Open your mind and be willing to explore.

One example of this in my job is that I recently explored a more hands-on approach with design —specifically Photoshop. Because of some changes in our organization, the responsibilities fell into my lap and at first, I didn’t feel ready for it. To be honest, I was a bit panicked. But then, I stepped up to the challenge and began to immerse myself in it. The next thing I knew, I was creating mock-ups in Photoshop. I’m still learning, but it’s a good first step. I’m glad to be in an environment that’s very encouraging of me learning new things and is giving me the opportunity to do so.

What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?

It’s OK to not know something. If anything, it helps you open your mind to other possibilities. I’ve always held high expectations for myself and I felt like I needed to know everything. After working for a while, I realize now that not knowing something helps me become more creative with the options I do have.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

I’m not 100 percent sure — and that’s one of the things I love most about tech. It’s changing so fast that today, something that’s so cool might not necessarily hold true in five years. I like the idea of not knowing exactly where I’ll be years from now. I know that I want to be in tech, but I’d love to see where it takes me!

What do you have to say to women who are interested in tech?

One of the things I love about my job is that there isn’t any special recognition or treatment for being a woman in tech. I’m no different than anyone else. Yes, there’s a special sense of camaraderie among women in tech, but so far, nobody has put a handicap on me for being a woman or for being a woman in tech.

This isn’t necessarily true everywhere, though. I’ve worked with and in a lot of different cultures before, and there have been some instances where I’ve been called out for being different. But here, that doesn’t happen. Here, I’m appreciated and recognized for the work I do, rather than for my gender or race. As we’re moving toward a world more ubiquitous in computing, that’s something folks are accepting much more.