Carnegie Melon University – Bachelor of Science, Computer Science + Human Computer Interaction + Minor, Gender Studies
[Welcome to I Want Her Job's second Women at Microsoft Week! We're celebrating the female force behind the company as we lead up to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, beginning Wednesday in Phoenix. If you're going to be there be sure to tweet us @iwantherjob. Today's article is the first 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.]
If you asked Rebecca to use one word to describe herself, we’re convinced she’d tell you “dabbler”. Using the word to describe her passion for technology multiple times, Rebecca Deutsch, product owner for Microsoft’s Xbox Video, truly believes the key to her success is an innate, neverending curiosity to dabble in all things. She consumes herself with the process of finding how and why others use products, tries them out herself and then focuses on creating the best user experience.
“I love problem solving,” Rebecca says. “ … Computer science has taught me how to write a problem down and say, ‘There’s an end-result I want in this function.’ This is one of the most valuable things I’ve learned in computer science. I know how to figure out my end goal, and then I work backward to take the steps to get there.”
Rebecca’s career path is proof of concept that she lives by dabbling as well. In January 2006, Rebecca co-founded Technically Learning, a Seattle-based nonprofit enabling teachers to inspire and engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (otherwise known as STEM) subjects. Just seven years later, Technically Learning merged into Code.org to combine efforts and reach more students nationwide.
Yes, she co-founded a successful startup on top of her incredible career path at Microsoft that’s taken her from the Windows to the Xbox team. How does she find the time? [Hint: Her company supports this!] Read on as we talk tech and life with Rebecca to learn how she balances both.
With only that little taste of tech, I went into computer science in college, because I saw it as the best tool for my creativity.
Did you always know you wanted to be in technology?
No, in high school I wouldn’t have imagined I’d have a job in software or that I’d end up at Microsoft for 10 years.
I consider myself a dabbler; I love a wide breadth of things and combining multiple disciplines or domains. Creativity was the root of my desire; not technology. I was in high school around the time a lot of computer-animated movies, like Toy Story, were coming out. I wanted to pursue digital arts, and I connected with the computer teacher at my high school to do an independent study in computer modeling and animation. She encouraged me to think about computer science as a career path with more promising opportunities and introduced me to programming for the first time.
With only that little taste of tech, I went into computer science in college, because I saw it as the best tool for my creativity. I discovered Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI), and that really resonated with me because it’s the intersection of computer science, psychology and design. This is where I can be the most creative.
What led you on your career path to Microsoft?
A college friend interned at Microsoft. He recommended me, so I came out to the company for a summer and fell in love with the area. I fell even harder for the role of program manager. I love breaking problems down; finding the root of the problem, then designing the solution.
The next summer, I came back for a second internship. This time I focused on the user experience of Windows, which was a really visible position. I felt so lucky to work on core, creative features that users were going to interact with. It was a good fit for me, and coming out of that internship, I received an offer for a full-time role. With each new project, the challenge changes, and I get to focus on a different aspect of a problem space. And I love it.
What are you responsible for in your role at Microsoft?
I’m responsible for the product direction; shipping the right, high-quality features to solve end user scenarios at the right time. I ground myself in starting from the problem space, determining the right problem to address, then I design solutions for the user.
Another big part of my job is bringing together people from a variety of disciplines to create the best team. I look at it like I oversee a wheel with many different spokes: I’m in the middle of the wheel, and the developers, testers, designers, marketers and business-minded colleagues around me make up each spoke of the wheel. It’s my job to bring everyone together, with all of their individual expertise, and set them in the same direction with the right product goals.
With so many competing deadlines, how do you organize your day, and what does a ‘day in the life of Rebecca’ entail?
My day is always on the move! I’ll always have more to do than I can get done. I have to strictly prioritize the most important meetings, tasks and emails to focus where I can have the most impact.
A mentor gave me a piece of advice that sticks with me. Even when I get involved with everything that’s happening on my team, it doesn’t mean I’m making the best use of my time. This mentor encouraged me to think about where I can add the most unique value — providing my team with the right opportunities to learn, shine and grow. I never want to duplicate someone else.
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 definitely gone through peaks and dips when it comes to how I feel about the balance of my life. There were points in my life where it felt like life was happening to me, instead of happening how I wanted it to. I’ve learned to work on that by recognizing my stress level. On a macro level, I focus on what I want and need; not what I ‘should’ be doing. I try to let go of the ‘shoulds’ in my mind of what others (or myself) might expect me to do. This means letting go and not being afraid to say ‘no’.
When I feel stressed, I give myself permission to take an evening or a weekend off, ignoring everything except what I want to do, what’s going to refuel me and make me happy — simple things, like walking to a farmer’s market, reading a novel or cooking with my husband.
What is the absolute greatest aspect of working for Microsoft?
I have a role here that really fits my personality. I’m always learning something new. I spent most of my career (nine years) on Windows, working on many different user experience areas. Then I moved to Xbox to try something new and now, I get to learn agile methods and shipping entertainment experiences and services.
I also love that Microsoft values giving back. Of course there are other companies that support its employees in giving back to the world around them, but Microsoft supports it more than anywhere I’ve seen, financially matching a large amount of employee donations and volunteer time.
The people at Microsoft are incredible, too. One of the things that refuels me is working with people who I enjoy. It’s good to spend downtime chatting with a teammate and getting to know them. It creates a different kind of relationship with them and I like that.
What is your favorite Microsoft product?
I personally depend on OneDrive. It’s gotten to the point where having all of my data in the cloud is something I count on without ever thinking about. I like knowing all of my data, pictures and documents are there for me in the cloud whenever I sign on, wherever I am.
What is your personal code of conduct that you live by?
My personal rules are the same for both work and life: I focus on what’s fueling my passion and energy, instead of what’s depleting it. I’m conscious and mindful and do my best to appreciate the little things day to day. I put myself on the right path toward a big goal or milestone, then I concentrate on each step in the present moment. Before I know it, I’m much further along toward my goal than when I felt daunted at the beginning.
What qualities do you feel it takes for someone to be successful in tech?
Be curious. Problem-solving is key. Use a lot of products. Ask yourself and others what you do and don’t like about each product, and most importantly, why. Break it down to determine the root problem and goal. Learn what works and what doesn’t work. You want to understand how things work to tailor solutions so that they’re technically feasible, while keeping your eye on the core goal you’re pursuing.
Communication is another major skill. You need to be able to speak with developers about problems and then turn around and speak with colleagues in marketing. Find the commonality between each group.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I feel like many others in my industry have a 5- and 10-year plan of where they want to be, but I don’t feel that’s the most useful thing for me. I’m curious. I love problem solving, dabbling and bringing ideas into reality. I’ll see where my passion leads me. As long as I’m creating something I care about and learning something new, I’ll be happy.
What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?
Take one step at a time. I was not a programmer, so when I went into computer science, I was attending classes with people who’d been programming since elementary school. But don’t let this get you down. Remember, this is just a language. It’s the language used for machines to talk to people, and vice versa. It can be very empowering to use computer programming as a tool — as a language — to make your idea real.