The Quest for Inclusive Technology
November 6, 2019
In this episode, we’re talking about Microsoft’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion in tech. First, we’re joined by Raji Rajagopalan and some of her new engineers at the new Africa Development Center in Lagos, Nigeria to talk about Microsoft’s investment in Africa.
Then we’re joined by Jennifer Gentleman, a partner of the program who recently joined our inspirational Grace Hopper Awardees at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration. Finally, we’re getting ready to see Insiders at Microsoft Ignite 2019!
Windows Insider Podcast Ep 25: The Quest for Inclusive Technology
JASON HOWARD: Welcome to the Windows Insider Podcast where leaders from Microsoft and Windows Insiders discuss tech trends, careers, and innovation. I’m your host Jason Howard.
This is Episode 25: The Quest for Inclusive Technology.
But first, if you’re not yet a Windows Insider, head over to the Windows Insider website, insider.windows.com, and register for free. Insiders get access to upcoming Windows features before they’re released to the public, plus exclusive opportunities to experience all Microsoft has to offer. All right, onto the show.
If you’re a Microsoft fan, or if you’ve seen Satya speak, you’ve definitely heard about our ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion. Only by actively engaging different perspectives can we challenge and stretch our thinking, enrich the experiences of our employees, and empower every person and every organization on the planet to truly achieve more.
In this episode, we’re taking a look at some of the ways our teammates and Windows Insiders are coming together to help promote inclusion and opportunity across the industry.
First up, we’ll speak with Raji Rajagopalan, an engineering leader here at Microsoft, as well as a few of her counterparts that will be joining us from Microsoft’s Africa Development Center in Lagos, Nigeria. They’ll be talking about some of their work in our ongoing investment in Africa.
Then, we’ll have a familiar face to Insiders joining us. Jennifer Gentlemen is in the studio, and we’ll be talking about her experience at this year’s Grace Hopper’s Celebration, which champions women in technology and STEM. We’ll also hear about the impressive Grace Hopper awardees that joined us for the event. And last, but not least, we’ll take a sneak peek at what’s upcoming for Microsoft Ignite 2019.
Without further ado, I’m excited to welcome our first guest, Raji Rajagopalan.
Welcome to the podcast, Raji. I know a lot of Insiders will recognize you from Dona's tweets alone, but can you please introduce yourself and tell us more about what you do here at Microsoft?
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you, Jason. My name is Raji Rajagopalan. And I'm an engineering director in Microsoft Azure. Within Azure, my organization's mission is to keep all our customers productive.
To that end, we are building a brand-new web service, I'm not going to tell you the name of the service, I'm not going to tell you today what it is about. (Laughter.) It's going to be announced pretty soon, so please stay tuned.
On-on the other end, I'm also the engineering head of one of the businesses we are setting up here in Lagos in our brand new Africa Development Center, which all of us here, because there's more than me in this room, we will all want to participate in this podcast, we're all super excited about.
JASON HOWARD: And to that end, obviously, there's more folks in the room with you, would each of you mind taking a moment, introducing yourself?
DONALD OKAFOR: Okay, my name is Donald, I'm the engineering lead for Microsoft ADC, Lagos, Nigeria.
DUNNI ABIODUN: I'm Dunni. I’m a software engineer on the Mixed Reality Cloud Services team here at Microsoft in Lagos.
GAFAR LAWAL: I am Gafar Lawal. I’m the managing director for Microsoft ADC, which just means I’m the engineering head of the organization in Lagos, Nigeria.
JASON HOWARD: Awesome, well, I-I appreciate each of you making the time to be here with us today.
So, let's get started and talk a little bit about what Microsoft is doing in Africa. Can you tell us a little bit about why we're focused on infrastructure, innovation, and investment within the country?
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: At Microsoft, as you all know, our mission is to empower every single person and organization on the planet. And we really, seriously mean it when we say every single person on the planet.
And when we look at Africa specifically, I've been to Africa, to Lagos multiple times now, there's so much potential on this continent. The median age of-of the population here in Lagos is around 18 years. It's a very young population with a ton of energy and hunger to accomplish big things in the world. So, our plan is to invest in empowering this population to have a huge global impact.
DUNNI ABIODUN: The best answer that I've—we've come up with so far has been, honestly, why not, right? So, it's not so much a question of like, why is Microsoft investing in Africa? It's why wouldn't we invest in Africa, and honestly, what has taken us so long?
The opportunity here is massive, and the—and the talent profile, and the size of the market, and the level of innovation that is coming out of this market is just huge. And so, there's really no reason why we wouldn't be here, and honestly, the thing that I wonder is, why isn't anyone else?
JASON HOWARD: It sounds like it's a good thing, obviously, that Microsoft is there first. It sounds like there's a very educated, smart, and very eager population of folks who are ready to get down to business and get things done.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. You’ve got it right.
JASON HOWARD: So, obviously, you spent some time this summer, there in-in Lagos, hiring some very talented individuals, hopefully, there were a few Insiders that you got to meet along the way.
And early in the conversation, a few of you mentioned ADC, which is the acronym for the Africa Development Center. And the one in Lagos is the first one that Microsoft has built on the continent. Can you tell me a little bit about the development center, like how it works, and obviously you've talked a little bit about why Africa, but what is the premise behind a development center?
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: A number of candidates mentioned Windows Insider Program, and a number of them were actually Windows Insiders. And I think that we have hired a couple of Windows Insiders as well on the team, so thank you, Insider community, for the talent that you're grooming within yourself, helping each other, that has been hugely useful for hiring talent here on the continent.
GAFAR LAWAL: When we set up Microsoft ADC, we intended it to be on the two sides of the continent. So, there is a Microsoft ADC East Africa and a Microsoft ADC West Africa. The Microsoft ADC East Africa is located in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Microsoft ADC West Africa is located in Lagos, Nigeria.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: And I think you asked a little bit, Jason, about how it works, how businesses are doing in Africa Development Center, and how they are developing in the ADC.
What happens is that each business that sets up a team here will define a clear vision and charter for the team to deliver from here. And we want the center to really grow into another hub of excellence and talent within Microsoft and globally. So, that's the plan. It's not about augmenting a team that resides in Redmond, but really be the owners of the innovation on your own, developing solutions that have a huge global impact.
JASON HOWARD: That's awesome. So, do you have local customers that come in and visit the center and connect and engage in that—in that fashion as well?
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: Yeah, there are lots of local customers we're engaging with, lots of local customers here, especially in Lagos. We are surprised at the number of customers that are coming in with really—where they're using Azure, they're using Dynamics 365, they're using Office products and Windows products. It's been really surprising, maybe because they're all at the—you know contrary to some of our beliefs, they're all really at the-the-the state-of-the-art technology here.
And so, it's-it’s been—it’s been a pleasure, and I think that having an engineering center will just mean that our engagement here will become more and more and deeper.
GAFAR LAWAL: What's happened is that since ADC has been established, that customer base has been extremely excited in getting the level of-of connection and relation to Microsoft that they didn't believe that they had before, in-in having engineering and the-the product group locally within Africa that they can interact with.
JASON HOWARD: Fantastic. It just sounds like you all have a lot going on there, I mean, to kind of boil it down to a very salient sentence. (Laughter.)
GAFAR LAWAL: Yes, we do.
JASON HOWARD: Earlier this summer, you spent some time there, as you were bringing up your team and hiring folks into the center. So when you were going through this hiring process, can you tell me a little bit about the-the type of person you were looking for, the-the different like, levels of talent that you were looking for, and what some of the interviews were like?
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: So, every hiring manager is obviously different, but for me, I think I look for the-the personality, the character, and attitude, even before the technical competence of the person, right? Do they show curiosity? Do they show perseverance to overcome challenges? Do they show an ability to learn, a growth mindset? Do they show respect for others and are they experimental in nature, et cetera, right? If you have great technical competence and you don't have the right attitude, as a hiring manager, for me, it's a no-no, because I don't want to entertain such people on my team.
On the technical side, what we are—the work we're doing on my team specifically, it involved building highly available and scalable cloud services. So, we are looking for people experienced in and passionate about Azure, cloud, .NET, coding. Technology, that particular technology knowledge is not required because I strongly believe that anyone can learn with enough effort and the right kind of mindset, anyone can learn any technology, but that is what we're looking for on our team.
DUNNI ABIODUN: I think for us, it was a really interesting challenge because as you mentioned, we hadn't done this before. And our team sort of went in really early. I think there's the very common thing, that like, you know, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Honestly, the truth is, culture eats everything for breakfast. (Laughter.)
And so, as Raji mentioned, it’s like the most important thing is sort of being able to build that culture and sort of finding the right people that-that are willing and able to go on that journey. We-we were blown away by the quality and, honestly, the quantity of talent that we found sort of at scale.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: That is so true. But when we posted the job descriptions, we were looking for a-a software development lead, and we were looking for a number of software development engineers and some PMs as well. We got 1,000 or so applications.
JASON HOWARD: Oh, my goodness.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: Within a few days, 1,000 applications or more. And we were just blown away. In fact, the recruiters were, like, "Oh, we can't keep up with the inflow of applications." That is the level of hungry talent that we're seeing here. And it's not just the quantity, like Dunni said, when we interviewed them, the quality of these candidates was pretty high as well.
GAFAR LAWAL: So-so, if I may just add to that. I call it available talent, because it just means that, for every opportunity, job opportunity that we have, the-the class and capability of the-the talent that's available to sort through is higher than almost on any other continent right now. It's not because the talents don't exist there, they're just not as available as they are in-in Africa right now.
JASON HOWARD: So, it sounds like there's plenty of highly educated and smart and willing folks to come and do the things that are going to drive technology forward, it's just about creating the opportunity for them to come out and shine.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and also the creativity and entrepreneurial mindset, that really helps. Specifically in Lagos, what I have found, and I think when Dona and I were part of the Insiders program—we were driving the Insiders program, that was the statistic that we learned as well is that I think it was around 89 percent of the population in Nigeria was entrepreneurial. So, it's part of the culture, and that entrepreneurial mindset really does help in driving innovation and creativity in the company.
JASON HOWARD: So, if I can ask a—kind of like a-a slightly deeper question about that entrepreneurial mindset. Here in the U.S., like, there's-there’s kind of a typical pattern of, you know, you go through grade school, go through high school. If you're interested in technology, and you want to pursue computer science, you will go to university. You'll get a degree, and then hopefully land an internship somewhere, get some, you know, some base experience, and then end up at one of, you know, any number of technology companies that exist all across the country.
So how does this differ in Africa, given that you don't have the widespread availability of all the big tech companies, since they're not all necessarily participating in the same way currently, how does that entrepreneurial like spirit, like what are—what are folks doing before they end up at a place like Microsoft?
DONALD OKAFOR: What happens typically is you get a degree, effectively, for five years, depending on what the degree is. After that, you have to do a compulsory one-year service, it's a compulsory part of your going through school. And then, of course, you're out there to go and get this job, get the job from what company or what companies are available.
Now, like Raji has said and Gafar has said, it's not just you, there are lots of young people within that age range that have gone through the same thing you have gone through, and they're looking out to get the same set of jobs you are looking out for. So, most times, there are—there are constraints, right? Most times, you can't really—the-the-the number of people that are looking for the jobs are way more.
So, you're forced to think on your feet, you're forced to come up with something, you have a laptop by yourself, you have something you do. You’re forced—that creativity is innate. It comes—it comes with you not really getting what you're looking for like in the immediate, so you have to survive. You have to make something out of yourself, so you see yourself being creative, see that innovation coming in you, and-and of course an entrepreneur is born from there.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: So well said.
JASON HOWARD: Wow. So, I don't know how long each of you have been working at Microsoft, right? So, is—if I could ask each of you to answer, I guess, two questions, right? Number one, how long have you been at Microsoft? And then number two, what made you want to work here?
GAFAR LAWAL: I spent most of my life on the east coast. So, I was recruited to be a partner architect in-in Windows Server in 2007, I believe. And from Windows Server, I was an architect of Windows Foreign Services. I left in 2013 to go back to financial services, and I left that to start my own little business doing financial software.
But, while I was at Microsoft, I was extremely excited about the-the value of Microsoft establishing engineering centers in Africa, and I need to advocate for it. So now that Microsoft has seen the-the wisdom of having engineering centers in Africa, my boss, who knows me very, very well from my previous life, reached out to me to say, well, this is something that you used to be passionate about, will you consider coming to-to do it for us?
And if—if anybody that knows me knows that there are two things that I find very passionate these days. One is doing this, and the other is being part of a startup, part of the building of a business from the ground up.
So, what we have here to me is a startup, because we are literally building an engineering organization from the ground up here. We're the first to do it. I'm pretty sure when they—when they see the level of success we achieve over a period of time, they will come running.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: I've been at Microsoft, come this November, I'll be here exactly 14 years. And 14 years is a long time, by many standards, but not so long by Microsoft standards, because my peers have more than 20 years of experience at Microsoft, so I'm still a baby here. (Laughter.)
There are really four things I think that keep me at Microsoft. Number one is the people, right? The people, and like Dunni said when he was answering the question about, you know, what we—what do we look for when we want to hire people? The culture of the company is just absolutely fantastic, right? And it's getting better and better and better with the value conversations, with the-the growth mindset. So, there's a lot of stuff happening in the company, and constantly we are striving for a better culture.
The people here are not just—you know, they embody the right culture and model the right behavior, but also, they are smart, they are-are interesting. Like Dona is super interesting, you're super interesting. Insider community is super interesting. The people that I work with, my customers, they all, you know, teach me very different things in life. And as a result, I've had very rich personal experiences, right? And I have grown professionally and personally as well. So, the people is number one.
Number two is the impact. My grandmother passed away this-this January, and I really miss her. Yeah, so when she was alive, towards the last years of her life, the only joy in her life really was speaking to me on Skype, right? Well, she could speak to me, but she could not hear me, because she was—she was half deaf, right? And she was using Windows platform, and she was using Skype, and at that time, I was running the app compat team in Windows.
And it was every single day when I came to work, I would think of her, and I would think of the fact that if Skype broke, if any of the applications that our customers depend on breaks, the impact it would have on their life and their work, that was just huge, right? So, I think the impact that I have with writing code in Microsoft, managing teams of people that write code, I think it's just huge. It's billions of-of people that use our platform or that use our products, and so the impact is quite extraordinary.
The third thing is that Microsoft believes strongly in making sure that people's careers grow, right? And while it can be different in different managers, we're always inculcating the right kind of managerial principles, and in my own career, I've found that my career has not stagnated, and you know, I'm having consistent growth, and I'm feeling good about my own career progress, right?
And the last thing is-is the ability to learn every single day. Whether it's a new technology I'm learning, it's new leadership principles I'm learning, I'm learning from my coworkers, I'm learning from the-the ample resources that we have at our disposal for all employees at Microsoft, the learning ability here is—or potential here is huge. So, I think those are kind of the four things—the people, the impact, the learning, and the career growth. I think those have kept me at Microsoft.
DUNNI ABIODUN: I'm a baby compared to all of you. I've been—
GAFAR LAWAL: You look like it. (Laugher.)
DUNNI ABIODUN: I am. I've been at Microsoft for, actually four years now. The question often comes up of, like, "Why Microsoft?" I think as corny as it might sound, for me, it kind of starts with what's written on the back of our badge, right? And this is the company mission, and it's a mission that like, we try to live sort of day-in and day-out.
But I think for me specifically, when you have sort of a mission that is so broad and far reaching, it becomes really interesting from a personal perspective, because I get the ability to view Microsoft as not just an employer, but as a platform for sort of achieving my own personal passion. I can additionally use Microsoft as the vehicle for my impact in the world.
The opportunity to be able to do that, think about even the Insiders for Good initiative, there’s, like there’s so many things, if you think about the Xbox Adaptive Controller, there are so many products, there are so many initiatives, there are so many things that Microsoft builds that are primarily driven as a result of the passions of Microsoft employees.
And when you have such a broad-ranging mission, it becomes basically very simple to do that, because all of these things get to be very clearly mission-aligned.
DONALD OKAFOR: So, I've been at Microsoft for two weeks. (Laughter.) Maybe-maybe I should talk about more of why I chose to pursue Microsoft, right? Not really why I work here, because I've just started, right?
So, the truth is, I-I get my drive, I get my focus, my joy, from seeing people use something I came up with. If I work on something, and I ease somebody's pain somewhere or make somebody's job somewhere easier, it gives me a lot of joy.
And when I went through Microsoft's value, the mission, I saw it-it actually really aligned with what I do. This is what I think, the way I think things should be done. Yes, you're a business, but your aim, your values should be driving other people, being a platform for other people to thrive.
Now Microsoft, Microsoft doesn't just say this, they walk their talk. Typical example is what Dunni said, opening up an ADC development center in Africa just shows that Microsoft wants to live their mission. So, Microsoft is using this platform to-to empower people like me, people like us from this part of the world.
So, my major aim, why I said at the end of the day it has to be Microsoft, is because my vision, my values are aligned with Microsoft's mission.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: Love it. Love it.
JASON HOWARD: One of the things Satya has said before is, you know, bringing your entire self to work, right? It's not just, oh, I'm going to have kind of two separate personalities that are independent and distinct from one another, but in listening to the things that each of you had described and, you know, throughout the entire conversation, it’s a combination of the right people with the right passions who are intelligent and engaged and have a desire to actually have true and definite impact on the world.
And seeing all of you come together, right, and it doesn't matter if you've been at Microsoft 20 years or two weeks, right? Like, having all of this passion and energy come together, and then with Microsoft doing the investment and coming together and actually living the values that have been described, right? Of every person and every organization on the planet achieving more, right? Creating those opportunities, and then having passionate employees that hold Microsoft as a whole accountable to living those values, like I-I, I realize I'm stuttering here a little bit, but it's fascinating and exciting to see this come together, because there's going to be so much more accomplished and—you know, things that we can talk about, things that we can't talk about yet, but there's a lot to come, and it's-it’s amazing to see—
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: But yes, there's lots to come from especially the-the new work that you're doing in Africa Development Center for my team. Stay tuned, because the announcement will come very soon. That's all I can tell. (Laughter.)
JASON HOWARD: Well, I have to say, thanks for organizing and making the time to, you know, let this happen. It's-it's been a fascinating and enriching conversation. I know I've gotten a lot out of this. I've learned a few things during our—you know, our chat today. Hopefully, the Insiders who are listening in have as well.
Raji and then everybody, the entire crew, right, those of you in the room, as well as everybody else who you are representing, who are you being the voice for, I just have to say thank you, right?
No doubt we'll talk again soon. There's more to come, right, you know, with the two Africa Development Centers and whatever comes next. There's a lot that, you know, you as a group and, you know, the entire countries and continent and everybody combined, like there's a lot that's going to come, and it's going to be exciting to watch that take place.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: For sure. And thank you, thank you, Jason, for inviting us to have this conversation. I think this is super important that the entire world hear about the kind of work that's happening here, and it's-it's a valuable thing that you—we are doing for-for the community.
And thank you, Insider community, for being such passionate advocates and users of Windows. We derive a lot of value from the community, and I think that, you know, I-I love you all, that's all I can say.
JASON HOWARD: Awesome. Well—
GAFAR LAWAL: Thanks, Jason.
JASON HOWARD: Yes, no, again, I just wanted to say to each of you, thank you so very much for making the time. Thank you for sharing your stories. Thank you for sharing your passion. And thank you for being a part of this journey that we're on together.
GROUP: Thank you.
RAJI RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you.
JASON HOWARD: Next up, we have Jennifer Gentleman joining us to talk about our big fall events this year, including her recent experience at the Grace Hopper Celebration, as well as a bit about what we're looking forward to at Ignite 2019.
Welcome to the podcast, Jen, and thank you for joining us. I know how many of our listeners will already know who you are, but for any new Insiders, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do here at Microsoft?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Okay. Well, you already introduced me. (Laughter.) And a bit about myself? I don't know, I mean, I guess I'm known for liking cats? But I work on the team that owns the Windows Shell. I have more or less always worked on that team for just over 11 years.
JASON HOWARD: Wow.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah.
JASON HOWARD: That's dedication.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah, I didn't have gray hair when we started.
JASON HOWARD: Neither did I. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah. And so-so, you may not know what the Windows Shell is. Basically, it is most of what you see when interacting with the core Windows Operating System, so File Explorer, Start menu, task bar, virtual desktops, notifications, settings, themes, wallpapers—I mean, the list can continue.
Our team owns a lot, and that's-that’s kind of why we got into feedback really, really early, because whether or not it was actually our team's responsibility to address the feedback, because we are what you see, a lot of feedback comes in for our surfaces, and then we try to route it to the right people or address it ourselves, depending on what the issue is.
So what do I do? I've done a lot of things over the years, but currently, I help wrangle the incoming feedback across all of our official channels and most of our—and many of our unofficial channels to the correct teams that own those feature areas, and like make sure we're making progress on them, help them do the investigations, and let people know when we've actually done something to make their Windows experience better.
JASON HOWARD: The whole closing a loop aspect of feedback?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JASON HOWARD: So, recently, you and one of our WIP teammates, Michelle Paison, took a group of women to this year's Grace Hopper Conference. Can you talk a little bit about what Grace Hopper is, and what actually happens at the conference?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: So, Grace Hopper is, I think the largest conference of women in tech in the world. I believe 25,000 people attended this year's conference, and it's not just for women, I mean, men and women can go, but I think, it's an important experience for anybody to attend, because a lot of times in technical fields—despite the fact that, you know, there's roughly 50 percent men, 50 percent women in the world, in the technical field, usually the ratios are nowhere near that equivalent.
JASON HOWARD: It's a bit skewed.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah. And going to that conference and seeing—I mean, especially as a woman, but seeing how many women there are out there, it's nice to know that there are other people like you and get to see them all, I guess. And talk to them and learn about their experiences, and connect, and make friends, make mentors, that kind of stuff.
JASON HOWARD: Doing some networking.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah.
JASON HOWARD: Yeah. And in case people didn't see it while it was running, can you tell our listeners about the contest we ran and how we chose the Grace Hopper awardees from the entries?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Basically, female engineering students from around the world submitted one-minute video clips, and then I believe Brandon and some of the other people on the Insider team went through and picked the ones that really represented the-the best of the best. And we wanted to give them the opportunity to go to Grace Hopper and meet all the other women there.
JASON HOWARD: So, for the Insiders who are tuning in, if you follow us on Instagram or Twitter, hopefully you've seen some of the awesome moments our group had at this event. But Jen, I'd love to hear your take on how it went. How do you think it went, and what was your defining moment at the conference?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: I mean, it was really cool to meet all the students again. As I said, I've been at Microsoft for 11 years and haven't had that much interaction with university students since then. So, (laughter) I-I learned that social media—what is it? Someone taught me a phrase. It was like, "Give me the tea." And I've never felt old until that moment, but—
JASON HOWARD: I don't—I don’t know what that means either, so—
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: It's kind of like, "Give me the dish." Like—
JASON HOWARD: What's that mean? (Laughter.)
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: But I mean, feeling old at Grace Hopper wasn’t—was not my defining moment. (Laughter.)
I mean, I don't know if you know, but with the contest winners, we had an unofficial day after the Grace Hopper event, where we spent the entire day doing mentoring sessions with them, having panels with different women and like talking about everyone's different experience at Microsoft and in tech, and our learnings, and what we would have taught our previous self. And it was just really nice to have that kind of one-on-one time really talking about issues you might face being a woman in tech and how to overcome them.
Other cool moments at Grace Hopper, I-I got to attend my very first silent disco.
JASON HOWARD: I have to ask, what in the world is a silent disco?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: So, like I'd heard about them, and I was always like, it just sounds kind of weird. So, basically—
JASON HOWARD: (Laughter.) That's where my headspace is currently.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Right. So, it's a dance hall, but everyone wears headsets and listens to their own music. Like, that's how I'd heard it described before I'd actually been to it.
And in going there, it's actually three DJs, and each DJ have a different color, so like red, green, and blue. And your headset actually will light up with the color—
JASON HOWARD: —of the music you're listening to?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: —of the music you're listening to.
JASON HOWARD: Wow.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: And so, it was interesting for two reasons. Like, one of which is like you could really see the waves of interest across the group, and like you could see the colors moving as people picked one DJ over the other, and like it almost got into a competition with the DJs 'cause, like, they get visual feedback—
JASON HOWARD: On who's—how many people are listening to them, right?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: How many people are listening to them, and like if they need to change their spin or whatever.
But it was also really nice, like, so, I'm someone who I don't know, my hearing's not that great. I have like 50 percent hearing in my left ear, and I-I tend to speak the pitch of background noise. And so, large meeting groups can be kind of difficult, because I just have a lot of trouble hearing, and people have trouble hearing me.
And because the dance party was all headsets, for the overarching music, they could actually put it at a level where it was like pleasant music to listen to, but you could talk to people if you just wanted to talk to people who were there. And I thought that was like, surprisingly inclusive. That it gave you the option of, if you wanted to dance, you could dance. If you wanted to talk to people, like, it's a very welcome environment for doing that.
And as I kind of touched on before, like, to me, Grace Hopper is really about meeting other women and other people in tech and getting the opportunity to learn about their experiences. So, it was nice. Bonus, there was cheesecake.
JASON HOWARD: Well, I mean, that never hurts. (Laughter.) So, I know from the video submissions we've received from our awardees, as well as the article that we published introducing the winners, that this was truly an inspirational bunch of women. Given you had the opportunity to meet them firsthand, can you share a little bit about what your impression was?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: I mean, I would say, it was just awesome to meet these women from so many different places around the world and get to learn where we had similar struggles, where we had similar experiences, regardless of what our backgrounds were, and how excited they were to be there and meet each other as a group.
And we still—like we—throughout the entire conference, we had a chat going with all of us, and like as each of us would go to different talks, like we'd give recaps, and we'd be like, "Don't go to this one." (Laughter.) Sorry, we'd be like, this one was really awesome, and just talking about our experiences.
And we said, like one of the things I asked for them going into the conference was set a goal. Like, Grace Hopper can be really overwhelming. There's so many talks all the time, so many people. There's the career fair, and like, decide what you want to go do ahead of time and try to accomplish it.
JASON HOWARD: So, as part of this connection with these awardees coming and attending the conference, I believe each of them are paired with a Microsoft mentor, and we know that many of the past winners from 2018 have kept in touch with their mentors long-term. How is mentorship a key part of the event for the awardees? And do you think that mentorship impacts these women's journeys as they get started in their tech and STEM fields?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Well, obviously, it's only been a couple weeks since Grace Hopper happened, so I can't tell you if it has affected their journey yet, because we're only just beginning. But I would say generally, yeah.
I mean, in life, it is very, very helpful to have a mentor to bounce ideas off of. I mean, whether-whether you're just talking to them and knowing that there's somebody in your court all the time, or actually having them—I mean, if-if they're more senior in their career, like being able to say, hey, I'm facing this problem, have you had this kind of issue before? Like, how did you approach it? What was the outcome? What do you think I should do?
Like, I think that's beneficial to anybody. And the fact that these women were paired with a Microsoft mentor, I think that's—I hope that's going to be really helpful to them going forward.
JASON HOWARD: So if I can ask, which of the awardees were you paired up with?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: So, my mentee is a woman named Jessie, and it was a totally random pairing, I think, but it ended up being weirdly perfect, because we actually have a lot of likes in common. Like, we like sci-fi, we like fan fiction, and we just hit it off right from the bat.
She's currently studying to do her PhD, and I actually never did a PhD, but I have friends who did, and I know you have to have a lot of self-discipline trying to go after that. So, again, I think having—I hope having someone that's going to be there encouraging her will help.
At one of the-the dinners we did, one of the-the women from Microsoft named Christina actually talked about her whole experience being a—not just a woman at Microsoft, but like being an African-American female at Microsoft and in tech, and how like she struggled a lot with always trying to prove that she was worthy of being there, and how like it took her a lot of time to come to accept that, you know, Microsoft saw something in her.
She didn't need to pull really long hours in order to prove it, like, Microsoft already accepted that. And so, she really should do—should, too. And so, it was a really inspiring talk, and I feel like I'm not doing it justice. But she was saying how she-she learned over the years to set better boundaries and like try to maintain a better work/life balance and really cherish time with her family, along with time with her work, and know that the company accepted that about her, and allowed her to do that, and wanted her to do that—
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, of course.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: —because I think we're all healthier if we have a balanced life. (Laughter.)
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, everybody needs to have that—it doesn't have to be like a specific line in the sand at, you know, at 5:00 p.m., I will stop doing anything. I mean, if life requires that, hey, so be it. But there needs to be a healthy balance between the time you spend engaged at work and the time you spend engaged in the broader activities you have in life that kind of make you who you are.
So, after the conference was finished, there was an additional day where you had the opportunity to connect and do some of this direct mentorship?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Mhmm.
JASON HOWARD: How do you think it went? Did you have any good topics that, you know you were able to cover with some of these ladies? And kind of what do you—what do you personally take away from these conversations and the event as a whole?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: I mean, it started with just some initial talks introducing everyone to their mentors and like eating lunch and chatting. But then it got into—we had three women from around Microsoft that actually did a panel where they could ask, like, share their experiences over the years at Microsoft, and then the contest winners could ask them questions.
And then we also had three previous contest winners come up and share their experiences, and then we split into one-on-one sessions, like we literally all just found nooks around the place talking with our mentees, and then we came back together and we—I talked about feedback for a little while, and how that worked, and like how I got to that position.
I did find like, one of the more interesting panel questions that came up was—I think I mentioned before, like, what would you tell your previous self if you were just starting? And for me, it would definitely be, not just recognize your strengths, but like embrace your strengths and embrace, like, what makes you you and you unique.
Like, I guess—I've never really felt normal, and when I first started at Microsoft, if you can believe it, I was a very, very quiet person. And you come in—especially in Windows, like, a lot of people have been in Windows for a very long time.
JASON HOWARD: Very true.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: And even—like as a—so I've been there 11 years. There's someone on my team in the last year who celebrated 30 years in—30 years at Microsoft. So, like, you come in, you're new, and it's hard to know where your place should be, like, where you should fit in.
And the fact that I am able to notice stuff, the fact that I have a good memory for things has actually really helped me over the years. And it's something that in the beginning, like, I was shy about speaking up when I—when I noticed something wasn't quite right.
And now I think I've kind of—you know, so my boyfriend works at Microsoft as well. And it was funny ‘cause-‘cause, he said to me a few months ago now, he's like, "Jen, how is it that more people on my team know you than know me?" (Laughter.) Which is just because, like in feedback, like stuff comes up all the time, and you can't be shy about reaching out to people, like, making sure they understand, and they know where it's coming from.
Like, I feel like a lot of times, and this is kind of divulging from the feedback, but because we do a lot of communication over email, like, you don't always know somebody's style, and you can—you don't always know how to interpret what they're saying to you. And, if there's something that you read, and like maybe you take it personally, or you take it the wrong way, like I've found sharing it with someone else, like a mentor has really helped in terms of understanding, oh, hey, maybe, like they didn't mean it in the way that I thought they meant it, like, they just have a different personality than me. And that's totally fine, you just have to kind of be aware of that, and maybe even schedule time to meet them face-to-face and kind of talk about what works best for you, what works best for them, and make sure that you're on the same page.
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, I mean, getting to know somebody could definitely help foster a deeper relationship and a better working relationship with the other person.
So, in hearing what you said about Jessie, right, there's a laundry list of recognitions and accomplishments amongst the awardees that were able to attend. We have women like Jessie, and then others like Jennifer, who was a former NASA intern, Julene, who was an international hackathon winner in Switzerland and presented on the women in STEM at the U.N., and Nana, who lost her younger brother to malaria, and is working to improve the medical field in Africa with robotics.
Like, these are not small accomplishments that each of these ladies are chasing. Like, these are world-changing ideas and aspirations that each of them have, like, it is fascinating to kind of hear some of the background and the stories and like the pursuits that each of these ladies have.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah, and I feel honored and privileged, I mean, that the Insider program could help bring us all together, and I-I don't know how much like they wanted to meet Microsoft people, or like—I feel me getting to meet them was so cool.
JASON HOWARD: It's one of the interesting things that happens, like, anytime I go to a conference or go to travel and, you know, whether it's in the—whether inside the U.S. or outside to other countries internationally. There's some of that aura of, you know, Insiders be, like, oh, hey, I get to meet one of the Microsoft people that I have kind of you know built up a relationship with online, somebody that I recognize or, you know, have chatted with on Twitter or so on and so forth, something like that.
But it's just as remarkable, and it's just as great of an experience for us to actually go and meet people who are excited and engaged with our program, people who are pursuing their own passions and they're doing—you know, whether they work at a specific company, or if they're studying in university, or whatever there is they're pursuing at any point in time, they have unique stories and lives that, you know, they come and share with us. And it's awesome to be able to make those engagements.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: It's kind of funny sometimes like people meet me in the real world, and they're like, "You're Jen from Twitter! Oh, my god." And I'm, like, I don't—I don't know—I don't feel that special. I don't know. (Laughter.) I don't sleep enough. I probably work too much. But, I mean, I love what I do, so I guess that's something.
JASON HOWARD: It's really the passion that kind of brings everybody together, right? Whether—and it doesn't matter, like, at what level or whatever, you know, each of us is focused on, it's the fact that we're all working towards something bigger that kind of helps us make those connections.
So, broadly, it sounds like this was a really inspirational event for all of those who had the opportunity to attend. Were there any specific Grace Hopper Celebration wisdoms or learnings that you picked up and want to share with the audience?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: If you're literally asking for like Grace Hopper advice, I would say even if the—all the talks say that they're booked, you should probably go anyway, because people reserve, and then they don't show up. And at least in my experience, most of the totally full talks I went to still had plenty of space if you were interested in attending.
I'd also say, like going to—even though I wasn't looking for a job, like, getting to spend time around the career fair actually talking to people at different companies was really, really interesting. I, of course, used—I spotted people's PCs at the different booths, and I was like, "Why are you still-still using RS2?" And they were, like, "What is RS2?" (Laughter.)
JASON HOWARD: Oh, my goodness, that's funny.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: It was a good conversation starter. I even like pimped PowerToys a little bit, but—(Laughter.) I was, like, "Oh, my god, look how many windows you have on that monitor, you could use FancyZones."
JASON HOWARD: Oh, my goodness. (Laughter.) I mean, it definitely sounds like a good way to kick off a conversation.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: But, yeah, I mean, I would just say like, it's a conference full of amazing people. Like take the opportunity to actually talk to people, because there's a lot of stuff you can do online these days where, like, if you're just looking to learn, you can probably get that information in other places, but you don't get to see people face to face that often, and making those connections can be really valuable.
JASON HOWARD: So, shifting gears just a little bit. I want to take a moment and talk about the event that we'll actually be at by the time this podcast airs, which is Microsoft Ignite 2019. So, this won't be your first one. How many—this is going to be which number for you?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Three or four, something like that.
JASON HOWARD: I think it’s—I think it’s—I think this is going to be my third one. I'm having to think back now. Anyway— (Laughter.)
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: We've been doing this for too long.
JASON HOWARD: I know, right? It's like, wait, how many years, and how many conferences have I been to at this point? So, you know, talking about Ignite, what's your favorite part of Ignite?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: I mean, for the last two years—for however any Ignites I've been to, (laughter) most of the time, I've spent it at the booths talking with all the different people. And I think it's probably going to be the same for this Ignite as well. So, inherently, one of my favorite parts is getting to talk to people from all sorts of different companies, and how—and learning about how Windows is working for them and thinking about scenarios that maybe we hadn't already considered.
I do like—I mean, I love the fact that at Ignite, all the talks are recorded, right? So, you can watch them after the fact, and like I remember—shoot, was it, there was a talk about Edge, or there was a talk about Fluent. Like, there have been a lot of good talks over the years.
JASON HOWARD: So for any of the Insiders who are listening to this, and who will actually be attending Ignite, we will have multiple sessions that we'll be giving throughout the week, some theater sessions as well as some, you know, more standard, hour-long type sessions. So, if you'll be around, feel free to join us in person or if you are not attending Ignite, you can always catch them on demand to see what's coming next for the Insider program.
And, of course, we'll be at the booth, so stop by to say hi to Jen, myself, Brandon, anybody else on the Insider crew, and we'll also have other engineers who will join us at Ignite for the first time. So, it's going to be a whole lot of new faces and some familiar ones as well.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Don't you usually do a webcast?
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, I actually do. And so, that's one of the other things that I wanted to mention while we're having our chat. I'll be doing another webcast live from the show floor. So for the listeners out there who are actually tuning into the podcast, make sure and check the Mixer page, check Twitter, and I'll probably post it up on the Answers Forum as well, that will have the date and time information on when to tune in. And if by chance, you know, you're not able to listen to it live while we're actually broadcasting, there's always the video on demand you can catch after the fact.
So, Jen, this has been a super fun conversation, right? I know we usually cut up and goof around a little bit when we do webcasts together. It's nice to have a little change of pace and get some actual direct conversation with you here in the studio. Kind of as we wrap up here, do you have any parting advice, words of wisdom, career tidbits, you know, life anecdotes you want to share with the Insiders out there?
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: I mean, if I was going to go for parting advice, I'd probably just say like, if something's not working out for you, I mean, and you're probably going to be, like, Windows. (Laughter.) But—no, I mean, because like I help with feedback for Windows, but I just say like in life, like, if something's not working out for you, it's really important to give feedback, because I can't read your mind. And understanding where you're coming from just really helps in order for all of us to have a better experience.
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, we're all in this together.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Yeah.
JASON HOWARD: Well Jen, as we wrap up here, I've got to say, thanks again so much for joining us today, talking about these events, and I'm looking forward to catching up with you again at Ignite.
JENNIFER GENTLEMAN: Thanks. I look forward to seeing you at Ignite, too, and hopefully sooner. If not at Ignite, then somewhere else.
JASON HOWARD: And with that, Windows Insiders, this episode is a wrap. Thank you to Raji and her team for giving us a look at our ongoing development work in Africa, and to Jen and our Grace Hopper Awardees for representing women in technology at this year’s Grace Hopper Conference 2019.
Microsoft’s commitment to a more diverse and inclusive future is something we personally work towards with Insiders each and every day.
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NARRATION: The Windows Insider Podcast is hosted by Jason Howard and produced by Microsoft Production Studios and the Windows Insider team, which includes Allison Shields, that's me, and Michelle Paison.
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