Purdue University, Mechanical Engineering
[Welcome to I Want Her Job's Women at Microsoft Week! Today's article is the last 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.]
Sure, we know Siri, but her counterpart Cortana is quickly gaining traction. As the personal assistant on your Windows Phone, she’s confident and eager to help you succeed, with just the right dash of spirit and spunk. Susan Hendrich, principal program manager lead for the Windows Phone, often wondered, “What would Cortana say?” as she tirelessly worked to breathe life into a tech device and make it a bit more C-3PO and a lot less answering machine-like.
Interviewing the personal assistants of celebrities, Skype calls to India and even drafting a list of likes and dislikes for Cortana is all in a day’s work for Susan. With the announcement of Cortana in April, Susan’s year has been a whirlwind of celebrating the fruition — and exploring the new possibilities — the technology of Cortana can provide. But Susan’s job wasn’t always so fun. In fact, she almost wasn’t even hired by Microsoft! More on that in a moment.
If the job of your dreams says ‘no’ the first time, don’t let that stop you. Keep going for it.
How did you initially discover tech?
It’s an ironic story. When I was in high school, my mom was into database programming. She wanted to teach me more about it and I could stand listening to her talk about it for 10 minutes – maybe! I didn’t get the tech bug until later on in life.
In the late 90s, I was really excited by the dot-com boom. Suddenly, the Internet that was fledgling in the 90s was taking off and there was real potential to connect with people from all over the world. Being in the San Francisco Bay area, it was hard not to be infused with the tech bug when everyone around me was living and breathing it. My background is in engineering, where the processes and development are very old school and slow. To step into the tech world where it’s not about how many years you’ve put in, but rather who has the best new idea, is a much better fit for me.
How did you get your job at Microsoft?
It was not an easy path to get into Microsoft. When I interviewed for the first time, I wasn’t hired. It’s tough on the ego getting a “no,” but I certainly tried again. This time I was able to get a position in Microsoft’s Visual Studio for customer experience.
Through this process I learned that if you want something, you’ve got to keep working at it and not get discouraged if it doesn’t go your way at first. Sometimes you’re just not a fit. Other times it’s that you’re lacking a skill set. Looking back, it’s kind of embarrassing this happened, but it’s nice to be at the point in my career where I can say that now!
We’d love to hear more about Cortana. How did you help “develop her personality?”
I got really lucky. When we were first developing Cortana, we knew we wanted her to be unique in a couple of ways — her personality and her function as a true personal assistant.
From a personality perspective, working on Cortana seemed like a perfect combination of using my skills and personal interest. I love reading psychology books. It’s a fun combination to add something to a product not typically found in tech: feelings and emotions. It was important for us to discover how we could build an emotional connection with our end user. With Cortana, we had an idea for a personality, and we wanted to make it great, but we weren’t really sure what that meant. I thought a lot about relating Cortana to how a real-life personal assistant would behave. What attributes would make her personable? What could she offer that could really help me throughout the day? How do we make her fun?
Let me note that talking to a room full of engineers about emotion is not an easy conversation to have. I sold it to them by saying, “You have your personal assistant throughout the day, but at the end of the day you want to kick back, relax and really learn more about this person and shoot the shit.” We wanted our personal assistant, Cortana, to have playfulness and moxie. We went really deep with this thought from her voice, to the written/spoken word and in her visualization. We wrote and designed Cortana’s personality to be the kind of person who we’re all striving to be. My colleague in editorial, Deborah Harrison, and I would sit and think, “What would Cortana say?” For example, we can tell you she hates water. She’s electrical and shudders at the idea of water. Through this process, it also was key to make sure we — Susan and Deborah —didn’t come out too much.
What was it like to work on a project for so long that you could tell nobody about?
It was tough. Cortana was under wraps for two years. When you work on a project like this, you can’t even tell your family about what you’re working on. I was having so much fun I wanted to share Cortana with others, but I couldn’t.
What surprised you the most in developing Cortana?
The thing that surprised me the most is how small the team is that developed her. There were about 15 of us Program Managers on Windows Phone focusing on the Cortana experience, which is pretty small for the first launch. Of course there also was a team that we worked closely with on the Bing side working on Cortana, too.
It’s typical that when you work ridiculously long hours and are really stressed, a lot of in-fighting will erupt. What I was most surprised, and thankful for, with our team is that we all pulled together. We laughed at the dark circles under our eyes, had fun and kept going until we announced Cortana in April, which was the best feeling ever.
What is your typical day like? What responsibilities do you have?
My day is full of meetings – usually from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. solid. I even eat a lot of lunch during meetings. What I do to balance meetings with actually doing work is to block Thursday afternoon from noon to close of business. At this time, the whole team has their time blocked as “busy” and we use this opportunity to think. To do deep and creative thinking for the type of experiences our team develops, you need large blocks of time to sit back, dream and brainstorm.
As for an example, let me outline today. My team works closely with Bing. Today began with a phone call with Bing colleagues in our Bellevue, Wash., and India offices. The India office shared Cortana experiences they would like to ship to market and our team provided feedback. Throughout the day, I was involved in various conversations with different teams across the company, all relating to Cortana. In the early afternoon, one of these meetings involved functional specifications – feedback to make sure we’re building the right product. From 4 to 5 p.m., I got together with the program management team for Cortana’s personality. The four of us sat down and went through a brainstorming session we’d done earlier in the week with Cortana creator Robert Howard. (Side note: The next time you’re on your phone ask Cortana: “Cortana, can you do an impersonation?” You’ll be blown away by the result!)
What is your favorite part of working at Microsoft?
I get to work with some of the smartest people in the industry. It’s important to me that the people around me want to be there. My colleagues are extremely smart, focused and driven. Everything we do is a team effort. Often times, I’m the one featured in articles for creating Cortana’s personality, but everything we’ve done is a team effort and none of it would be possible without so many talented people putting their everything into a product. When you work on a project like Cortana, you get to work with the best of the best in terms of talent. To see a team that talented get fired up over their work is amazing and energizing.
I’m also amazed every day by our college hires. My job is to give them runway to do amazing things, not to fit them into an “old Microsoft” mold. When doing this, it’s amazing to watch them come into their own and do what they do best.
Speaking of college students, what advice do you have for them?
Just go for it. Think about what it is you bring to the table, then clearly communicate that. Reach out to Microsoft and let that passion and enthusiasm show through your resume and cover letter and then in your interview with a recruiter. As I’ve learned, if the job of your dreams says “no” the first time, don’t let that stop you. Keep going for it.
Why do you feel Microsoft is a great environment for women in tech?
I feel like Microsoft takes it very seriously to create an environment for women where we’re treated equally. Just 15 years ago, tech was different. This couldn’t be expected.
Our women’s network is extremely strong. Yesterday, for example, we had a women’s ice cream social. There are always different events. Microsoft brings in women from across the company that are successful, like our Chief Experience Officer Julie Larson-Green. (I met her through this women’s network.) Microsoft is great at training and equipping managers with the support they need.
What are your tips for getting noticed by a team like yours?
I’d recommend keeping your cover letter short, but real. Don’t get so formal with it that you overlook your personality. Be vocal and be clear in what your needs are. Say, “This is important to me because … ” Also, show and explain the experiences you’ve had with the end user.
Also, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella puts a tremendous focus on creating amazing experiences with our products that have a razor-focus on the end user. When you come into an interview, be sure to show and explain the projects you’ve worked on and the experiences you’ve had with the end user.
What would Cortana say to IWHJ readers?
With her confidence and always wanting the person she’s assisting to be successful and get what they want out of life, she would say, “Go for it. Go for your dreams, and don’t stop trying.”