Your Career Path to the Future
August 7, 2019
How can you advance your career with mentorship and key skills like creativity, leadership, and confidence?
Windows Insider Podcast Episode 22
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 22: Your Career Path to the Future. Today, we're talking about the importance of mentorship and the skills you need to grow your career.
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 that Microsoft has to offer. All right, onto the show.
We love that Insiders are always interested in being on the cutting edge of what's next, and it's just as important to think about that when looking at your own career, as we both know firsthand how quickly jobs can evolve because of changes in technology.
Here at Microsoft, mentorship is a big part of how we help employees grow both their technical skills and their careers as a whole.
In this episode we'll be taking a deeper look at how mentorship can help you launch, change, or grow your career, and how you can get started helping mentoring others.
We'll look at the skills of some Microsoft mentors, what they recommend, and help you prepare for an ever-changing future.
With that, let's get to it. I'm very excited to welcome our first guest for the episode, Anita Varghese. Anita, thanks for being here. Can you please introduce yourself to our listeners and share what you do here at Microsoft?
ANITA VARGHESE: Absolutely. Thanks, Jason, for the introduction. My name's Anita Varghese, and I work in the data and analytics team at Microsoft. My role is to understand consumers and their behaviors with our products, and to make our products better.
JASON HOWARD: So, you've been with Microsoft for quite a few years, and no doubt, you've seen a lot of people kind of come and go from the company over the course of time. Research shows that employees who participate in mentorship-related activities tend to make more money, they receive more promotions, and in general, they have greater satisfaction with their career and engagement overall with the company. How did you get started with mentorship, and what's it been like being mentor here at Microsoft?
ANITA VARGHESE: It started off for me being a mentee. I've been lucky, and I've had the opportunity to have multiple mentors who've been amazing, who I've gotten a lot of good advice and feedback from.
And it's absolutely true, the mentorship activities increases your bond with the company, with the team that you're on, with other colleagues around you. It makes you a better person by giving you opportunities to talk to your mentors and get ideas, get perspectives that you may otherwise may not have in your regular day-to-day job, or regular day-to-day activities.
So, it's kind of stepping outside of your regular rhythm and thinking through what you want to do in your career. What are some things that are valuable to you in a particular role, or in a particular manager, or what do you value as growing in your career?
So, from that perspective, I would say, you get ideas. You get perspectives on how you can advance your careers, and that leads to more money, of course. And then, when – with regard to satisfaction, it's how do you influence others, or how do you build strong partnerships? And that helps you get satisfaction of doing an amazing job at what you do every day.
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, being both capable and confident in what you're doing, it goes a long way in working with other people and making sure that you're actually doing a good job at whatever series of tasks or role that you're in at any given point and time.
ANITA VARGHESE: That's right.
JASON HOWARD: So, in the concept of being a mentor and kind of finding a mentee. Getting paired with a mentee, some people would say it's pretty easy. I think it probably has a lot to do with how long you've been a mentor, kind of the people that you know, right?
I'll let you fill in those gaps here in a moment, but like, really getting started obviously you meet somebody who's new to the company, or somebody that's new to your team, somebody that you know, that you may not work with directly, but you happen to get along well with them, or just somebody who's new and getting started in the role, and you're trying to help them get a foundation with whatever they're doing, or just to help them further their career, right? But other times, you might be asked to show somebody the ropes just through your own leadership.
Personally, like how have you chosen some of the mentees, that you've worked with over the course of time? Did you go through and seek them out? Did they seek you out? Like, was it just kind of circumstance of timing, being in the right place at the right time? How did that work out?
ANITA VARGHESE: I would say it's a combination of both. It's a combination of – mostly it's been somebody seeking me out, or it's other colleagues saying, "Hey, you have this expertise. I've seen you do so well at X. This person needs some advice on X. Would you be willing to help this person?"
And so far, I've never declined a mentee, or even an introduction opportunity with a mentee, because it's always the connection, and you may or may not have that connection with somebody. And my advice to finding mentors is that, have that conversation. You have it with five people. You realize that, hey, you connect with three people. And you can have these very easygoing, honest conversations that you get value out of.
One thing about being a mentor is that you have to take actions. It's not specifically a passive conversation that you can have. Your whole role as a mentor that you take up upon yourself is to help the other person be successful, help your mentee be successful. And that might mean, connect them with somebody else who knows more about certain things than you do, or it might be to give ideas. You're not necessarily giving the answers to your mentees. It's mostly helping them be better at whatever they're looking to be better at.
And sometimes, it might just be confidence. It might be stating that, "Hey, you're doing a fantastic job, and I've never seen somebody else do what you're doing and keep at it." And sometimes it might be, "Oh, you know, what you're doing right now, maybe you want to think of it in a different way, or you might want to reach out to this expert who, who likes what you're doing, who has progressed in that specific area that you're focused on." So, go talk, and then take the action to connect them and kind of further the mentee's journey in their career, or in their personal well-being, whatever is the priority that the mentee's looking for.
From a leadership role standpoint, I would say, it’s not a passive role that you play. You have to actively be and genuinely be, care for the person, for your mentee, and be able to further their ambitions or further their goals.
JASON HOWARD: It sounds like it's more than just showing up once a month for 30 minutes or an hour to have a conversation. It's actually being invested in them, regardless of what they're seeking. Whether it's direct career advice or personal advice on how to develop specific skillsets, there's all kinds of things to kind of unpack out of this. And it really depends on what the person who is the mentee, what they're really trying to get out of this conversation.
ANITA VARGHESE: That's correct. And sometimes, it's also having those conversations to get out what a mentee's looking for, because many times, like I know early on in my career, I was given advice that, yeah, mentors are important, and it's good to develop mentor/mentee relationships, but I had no idea what to go talk about.
What are some topics that would be valuable? I'm taking somebody's 30 minutes or an hour. Do I bring specific problems? Are they too small? Are they not something that the mentor would find interesting to solve for?
And what I realized is, it's going in, stating what you're thinking of doing from a skillset perspective or from an ambitions perspective, and then you, as a mentee, having that conversation with your mentor. And at that point and time, if you have a specific problem to solve, just bring it up and see how that mentor deals with that particular problem. And then, you'll figure if you have a connection. And then, the next meeting, you figure you can bring – you're comfortable enough to bring in another problem, another thing, another idea that you're thinking about that you want to further. So, you'll figure out – you'll have a gut instinct about what you want to talk to with this particular mentor, because you would potentially have multiple mentors for different things.
JASON HOWARD: Looking broadly at the tech industry, right, there's this moment. I don't know of a better way to call that, right? We're kind of having a moment in the job market where there's a lot of people that are interested in studying computer science. It seems like there's many more enrollees in STEM broadly, right? And that people who've been in unrelated industries are working to upskill and grow themselves, and learn new things that, you know, they may have been – you know, had some trepidation about studying, or putting their – getting their toe in the water, so to speak, right, previously. And that's leading to some potential career shifts for these folks.
From a critical skills perspective, do you think these people are doing the right thing in starting down the tech path right now? Like, are there certain skills they should be focusing on, not just in the context of like a mentor/mentee relationship, right? That's a good place to kind of bud some of those things, but kind of broadly, like is this the right time to be doing those type of things?
ANITA VARGHESE: The tech industry or a lot of other industries have benefitted with tech – the travel industry, the hotel industry. So, it's not just software as you’d think about 10 years ago, right? Tech has revolutionized a lot of industries. It is a good time to think about STEM. Hey, get engaged because, going forward, AI, machine learning, you hear all these buzz words, and they are becoming real.
But there are some skills that you need, regardless, that are outside of the programming, or the specific languages that you have to go learn as you think of technology – math or economics, or statistics, right? Some skills that never change and that you always need, regardless of any job or role that you're in, are the soft skills, or people skills, that how do you work in a group? How can you be influential? How can somebody else listen to what you're trying to say? How can you be effective in a conversation and not let somebody else take your ideas? Or, you can bring a group together towards a particular vision.
These are skills that, regardless of time, regardless of industry, regardless of tech or not tech, is going to be beneficial, right? Or confidence. These skills, I would say, are the more critical ones that you're not taught, but you get experience doing it, and then you get feedback on it and you get better with it, better over time.
And I would say invest in those and build relationships and have trusted advisors. Could be peer mentors. It could be mentors who are experienced. You have multiple kinds of mentors who could help you out to build your skills and put yourself in those opportunities to build out your skills that are critical for any role or job that you undertake in any industry.
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, you had mentioned in soft skills. I had the – the fortunate ability to go to college and get a degree, and I definitely don't recall there being any courses where you sit down and you're like, "Okay, today we're going to teach you to lead without authority." (Laughter.) Like there wasn't anything like that as part of the curriculum that I went through.
That was something that, after I got my first, what I would corporate or professional-type job, it was one of those things that I've had the fortunate pleasure of working with people who kind of, good managers who kind of teach you these things along the way. Some of them, you kind of have naturally in just how you interact with people, the way you engage with others, trying to be a good peer or partner, you know, and connecting to work on projects, or whatever you may be doing.
But there's a lot to be said for taking the time to actually focus on these things, rather than necessarily taking them for granted if they're things you're potentially good at. But if they're things you don't consciously think about, it doesn't seem like it ever hurts to actually invest and spend some time working through them to make sure that you're being a good representative both of the company, but as of yourself, because these are other people that you're going to be working with.
ANITA VARGHESE: That's correct. And, and like you said, there are no classes, necessarily, that you take. Yeah, negotiation skills. Yes, there are specific classes, but how to build teams, or coming together to solve a particular problem. You learn that in school, to some extent, where you work on a project. But at that point, you're thinking of your grade, right? (Laughter.)
JASON HOWARD: Yeah. (Laughter.)
ANITA VARGHESE: At work, you're thinking of, oh, is the end project or the goal going to be successful because the five of us who are working on it contributed equally towards it, and brought our skills to it, and are spending the time problem solving rather than things – oh, rather than pointing fingers, or blaming somebody else for not doing their share.
The best performers or the best people that you want to work with are those folks who problem solve, and who you like, have those soft skills, or who are working on building those soft skills. There are people you don't want to work with, and you still have to. And how do you still get your points across, and you work towards the final outcome.
Some of those things, comes with practice, but it also helps with – there are trainings in, that's available. But I think it's recognizing that those skills are important as you work in any industry.
JASON HOWARD: So, I want to dig in there just a little bit.
ANITA VARGHESE: Yeah.
JASON HOWARD: So, in looking at things that people perceive to be important, right, I think there's some interesting conversation to have here. Like, when you look broadly at life, whether it's career or personal, or whatnot, there are things that individuals worry about that they focus on, they think is super important, but not necessarily does it actually play out as being quite as important when it comes to the actual execution of, of something in specific, right? I realize that's a little general, but we'll talk through it here in a moment.
One of the things that I see a lot in the tech industry, and I would be remiss if I said I haven't caught myself doing this from time to time because, you know, working here at Microsoft, I am surrounded by highly intelligent people that I look up to, right, that make me feel – make me feel a little underwhelmed about myself sometimes, right, if I'm being completely honest here.
And of course, you know, I'm talking about imposter syndrome where, as an individual, it feels like maybe you're faking it, or that you're not good enough to be there, that you shouldn't have that seat at the table because you're looking around at other people who you respect, and you have a high opinion of, and you're like, "Well, how did I end up here?" right, that somehow you pale in comparison to them.
But really, collectively both as a society and, you know, in various industries, not just in tech, it seems like people are finally starting to talk about this, right? Where previously, it was just like you would get this feeling and either tuck it away or try to not acknowledge it, right? It wasn't an active discussion.
But now, it seems like people are actually engaging in this conversation, and I think it's healthy, because it helps people alleviate and realize everything that you've done up to a certain point has gotten you to be at that seat at the table, right? There's something that brought you there, right?
ANITA VARGHESE: Right. Right.
JASON HOWARD: Nobody just said, "Hey, I don't know you. Just come sit here and have a conversation with me while we develop this product." Your entire background brought you to that point. Specifically, for imposter syndrome, right, like what type of career advice would you give to somebody who potentially has that type of fear, or that feeling that, maybe they're in the wrong spot, maybe they don't belong there?
ANITA VARGHESE: That's, I think surprisingly, it's a very common one and I would say a lot of women go through imposter syndrome, and I would put myself in that category where it was, okay, should I be sitting there? Oh, back of the room is so much more comfortable. I can still make my point sitting there. Why do I need to get to the table?
And over time, my – one of my managers told me – pretty much forced me, saying, "You know, at this meeting, you should be at the table. And if you have a point to make, or not, you should be there. You should be seen, heard, and I know it's uncomfortable for you, but you should do it." And I did that once, did that the second time, and okay. And it wasn't too bad.
And it's not – a seat at the table, sometimes it feels very facetious. "Oh, I just want to go sit at the table and be seen," but it – the whole act of it is for you to be engaged. And you are at the table, and people look to you to provide a perspective. And the reason you are in that conversation, discussion is because you add value.
And many times, we are doubtful of our own value coming into conversations because there are smarter people. There are people who are more experienced, people who have – possibly know a lot more than what you do. But still, it's okay because nobody will have that unique perspective that you have.
And it does take time, and it can be hard to ask that question, though you might be thinking, hey, doesn't– maybe everybody knows the answer, and then you're surprised that, yeah, nobody really knows. Everybody thought everybody else knew, but what you had was a unique perspective or a unique question that actually brought the right outcome, or at least thinking through brought some clarity to everybody else in the room.
JASON HOWARD: It's interesting that you mention that because, frequently over the course of my career, and not just here at Microsoft, I know that has been absolutely true where you have a bunch of people sitting around the table, and nobody's asking the potentially difficult, or I'll just call it a vulnerable question, right, because everybody thinks everybody else already knows the answer. But in reality, everybody's working under that same assumption, so nobody asks the question.
ANITA VARGHESE: That's correct.
JASON HOWARD: But when somebody finally gets brave enough and steps forward, is like, "Okay, I don't know if other people know this, so I'm just going to be vulnerable for a moment. I'm going to ask the question." And then, the conversation that can spawn out of some of that, it’s, it's really about opening yourself up.
But there's nothing bad to come from the education side of it. If by chance other people do already know something, all you're doing is helping yourself catch up to speed with them to make sure you're all working from the same set of information, you're on the same page, and you're working towards the same end goal. Like, there's nothing wrong with that.
And so, kind of stepping outside of your comfort zone, I would say, as an introvert, right, people don't believe me when I say I'm an introvert. (Laughter.) I absolutely am. I just happen to talk a lot, which is why I'm doing this podcast, right? There's, there's a lot to be said for trying to step outside of your comfort zone and do something a little bit different, but it's even more important when it comes to learning, education, and trying to grow yourself personally, which is of course what this entire podcast is about today, as you know, like connecting mentors and mentees so that people can grow and learn together.
ANITA VARGHESE: To your point, that being bold becomes something that, especially as an introvert, you have to work on. And I'm an introvert, and like you said, I love talking one-on-one with people, no problem, but you put me in a room full of people, and I do get worried. And then I'm in overdrive mode.
And what I've had to do was, I've had to slow down and think about, hey, what's the problem that we’re trying to solve. And if I have a question, it's okay. Be vulnerable and ask that in your own perspective, saying, "Hey, I don't understand this. Will you help explain this to me?" And then, you spawn these questions of, all right.
And another, other times what I have found helpful is, prior to a particular discussion, having that conversation with somebody else who's also going to be in that meeting who you can kind of riff off with, and then you realize, oh, okay, this is a value add to the conversation that you want to bring up.
Imposter syndrome, it is tough and I'm – we all face it. We all go through it, and I don't think it ever goes away. I think the highest levels that you're at, I think people even face imposter syndromes because, at each level that you get to, I think the stakes just get higher, right?
JASON HOWARD: Yeah.
ANITA VARGHESE: So, I don't think it ever goes away. But then, yeah, fake it till you make it. (Laughter.) Yeah, that's a – that's a term that a lot of folks use, and I think it is trying to think of, what's the worst that can happen. It's okay. It's okay to just be there, be true to what you want to do, don't be hard on yourself, and you're there for a reason. Own that, and everything will be okay.
JASON HOWARD: So, as people grow and learn and kind of push themselves in this regard, there’s something to be said about taking the time to be a mentor, right? It can be a bit of a selfless act, right? There's definitely a two-way street, because as a mentor converses with their mentee, or mentees if they have more than one, there's the opportunity to learn and see things through the eyes of somebody else who's either walking a different path, or potentially, if like they're on the same team, someone who's seeing some of the same things, but through a very different lens depending on their background, and you know, the way they think.
It seems like there's a great opportunity do a lot of networking, obviously learning back and forth between the two people or multiple people, however the setting might be. And then, there's obviously like just the personal growth in these relationships.
Along the way, obviously you're pretty good at this. (Laughter.) In looking at this, like what would you say has been some of the meaningful things that you've personally taken out of some of these relationships that you've built with people that you've been a mentor for?
ANITA VARGHESE: For me, I've had multiple mentees from different walks of life, at different life stages, someone who's new to the company, new to the group, or somebody who's already experienced. And each of these relationships helps me personally to also build a better team, know – be able to relate to people on my team, or in the partners that I work with on a regular basis, where I get to learn different perspectives that, otherwise in my day-to-day job, that I may not have.
There are multiple mentor/mentee relationships that I've had that I found value out of, where sometimes, it could be, this mentee is a new mom, and she's going through the same experiences that I've had, and she is worried about coming back to work, or worried about career trajectory. And part of it is infusing that confidence, but also knowing that, you know, across my other group, there are a lot of other new moms. I should go say, talk to them, say hi to them and infuse some of that conversation that I've had with those folks, or try to see how some of the women groups that we run, how do we systematically, programmatically have conversations about helping new moms who come into the organization.
Or, it's new people who have joined the org and who are trying to figure out how to manage the number of emails. (Laughter.) Something as simple as that, right? And when you have these conversations, you realize, oh yeah, somebody – there were two new people who started on my team. How did they – how are they doing? What are they doing to manage? The tricks that I – that we discussed in my mentee meeting, did we, or mentee discussion, did we – do these folks know about that?
And also, like across our – my team, we said, "Okay, let's make sure that each person on the team have at least two mentees, one from a business perspective, and one from a career perspective, or one from a soft skills perspective, something that who you aspire to.
For me, I think the thing with mentee/mentor relationship that's really valuable is that I can apply that in my day-to-day role, day-to-day job, which helps my team also become a better team, or my organization to be a better organization, because it gives me the perspective that otherwise I wouldn't have gone and sought after.
And I like coaching as well, so personally, I get a lot of satisfaction that, okay, what I – it’s talking and helping somebody that has helped them further their career, or further their ambitions, further their growth in whichever way or form has been helpful. So, that's a personal satisfaction for a mentor, in addition to what they can directly apply in their day-to-day lives.
JASON HOWARD: So, you're obviously helping people grow in their careers, both here at Microsoft, and I don't know much about your background before you came to the company, but no doubt, given your personality and your, your enjoyment of coaching and speaking with others, I have a feeling there's a long history of you partnering with people to help make them successful, as well as listening along the way.
You mentioned earlier that you've had mentors before. Knowing, knowing that you've had mentors before, how did some of the advice you got previously in your career – or whether it was career-related or personal-related – how has that kind of changed some of the trajectories that you've had with your life in general, right? And have any of those turned into kind of lasting relationships where you really found that right person? You potentially became friends, or they just became kind of a like a lifelong career coach, or something of that nature.
ANITA VARGHESE: Yeah. I would say I've had mentors through different life stages, different stages of my career, and there are a couple of mentors who I turn to for advice that have that I have leaned on for a few years, and it may not be a regular one-on-one conversation that I set up every month. But it's like, oh I have – this is what I'm thinking about, and what do you think?
Couple of them that I can remember, one six to seven years ago, let's say. I was thinking about making a shift in my career, if I should stick on in the data and analytics field or shift over to another particular profession, because data and analytics wasn't that exciting then. It was mostly spreadsheets and a little bit of SQL, and some bit of analysis, but there wasn't that much data that was captured that you could analyze and make products better for consumers, or…
And then, one of the mentors, he told me, "Do you like it? Are you passionate about it? Does that give you energy?" And I nodded yes to all of those questions, but I said, "I'm not sure there's a career path here." And it wasn't an established profession. Data sciences and data analytics kind of existed, but it wasn't something that was a profession that people were hiring people for.
JASON HOWARD: It sounds like it was a bit more niche at that time.
ANITA VARGHESE: It was very much niche at that point, very new. And I took that advice that my mentor said, "If you like it, just stick with it. Your growth will happen." And that, I think, was one of the pivotal moments in my career where I stuck with data and analytics, which was niche then. And I have learned a ton, and it was new. It was trying to figure out how do we scale analytics? How do we get rigor into data? And that's – I have learned a ton. I have a lot of experience. And now, I – it is a very hard industry. It's an industry, at this point and time.
JASON HOWARD: I was going to say. (Laughter.) It's changed a bit.
ANITA VARGHESE: Yeah, it changed a bit. And I am thrilled that it happened, but I didn't know that that was going to happen. And that was a big leap of faith, and I did check in with myself every one to two years, saying, do I still like it? Do I – is it still interesting? Am I still growing? And if so, then, hey, it's fine. Stick with it. So, that was really valuable to me.
Another example that I had was about managing time. I-I started managing a group of – I went from managing a group of five people to 25 people, and that was a lot of people for me to figure out, okay, what do I – what do I need to do differently? It cannot be the same. I don't have that much time.
And I got some really good advice on how I think about where I should be very deliberate about spending time, and I need to change my thinking around how much I spend on the work that needs to get done, how much I spend on people, how much I spend on building my own leadership team who can – who I can delegate to.
And learning the art of delegation, which I had to learn, and it's something that can be hard to do if you're used to doing things by yourself, and you expect to deliver on a certain time, and then you realize you need to figure out how to scale. So, I got some really good advice on how to think about my day-to-day time that I spend on certain things. And that was super valuable, especially as you grow in your career. You start managing a lot more people. You start managing groups. And, it's helped me a ton.
So, those are a couple of examples. There are a lot more. There's a lot more about, I have two kids, and I'm very involved with them. They do a lot of activities, and I'm involved – I volunteer at their school. I'm on the school board. So, there are a lot of things that I do outside. I'm very invested in their growth, and I like to be – know what they do in school because I don't get time to do that. I like to travel. We spend time together as a family.
But I still need to get work done. I still want to get work done. I want to make sure that I grow in my career, as well. So, balancing – how to balance out and talking to mentors who have done it who do a fantastic job with juggling has been super valuable to me.
JASON HOWARD: Recently, there was a survey that was done by Lean In, which is an organization to help women grow professionally. And one of the interesting things that came out of that survey was that they found around 60 percent of men are afraid, concerned, whatever adjective you want to use in that space, to step up and be mentors to women in the current political environment.
It’s a bit concerning, right, because obviously when you come to work, we're all here to work together to accomplish great things. Some people may say those fears are unfounded. Other people may have concerns of why they think so, but I don't want to get too deep into that, really.
But on the flip side of that, getting a diverse set of people – women, minorities – into STEM is something that Microsoft, and pretty much every other major tech company, large and small, that they're focused on at this point. I mean, even Melinda Gates has spent time talking about this and discussing it publicly. And it's – it's something that a lot of people are advocating for.
I know you helped with our Women in Computing awardees while they were here visiting, so you've worked with some of these women firsthand. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of mentoring women in STEM, kind of helping them feel comfortable in this space and adjusting, and a little bit about what diversity in STEM is bringing to the table for like employers such as Microsoft, like, on the whole?
ANITA VARGHESE: I think diversity is super important, diversity of thought, diversity of experiences. For companies such as Microsoft, if you're building products to serve the market, you have to mirror the market. And having employees coming in who mirror that market, be it women, be it minorities, be it age, right – older, younger – I think all that is reflective of the final output or product that a company puts out.
Diversity is super important, and I feel men mentoring women is super important, because they get to hear firsthand what are some of the nuances that need to be considered and dealt with.
And I go back to my experience. For me, flexibility was super important. Like I mentioned earlier, I have two kids and, but I'm super accountable and reliable, so I want to get work done. But without that flexibility, being at work ‘til a 5 to 6 p.m. meeting happens, it can be pretty hard. But the fact that I can go, and then take the call while I'm away, but don't need to be in the office, specifically, but still be able to contribute and have that flexibility is important. So, each person, each individual can have different priorities that they feel will help them be successful. To some people, it might be flexibility. To some people, it might be just pure confidence.
And one of the terms that you'll hear a lot is having allies. And ally-ship is women supporting other women, yes. That's something that I think there's a lot of it happening across the industry, you want women in STEM. But you also want allies who also recognize some of the nuances of women in tech. Being the only person – woman – in the room, being talked over or having some of those conversations where your ideas may be represented by somebody else, and they are heard, and you're not heard.
But these are not only women problems, necessarily. These are other introverts, men alike. It's not just women who face those. So, having the diversity just opens up – I think of it as the plethora of things to think about to make your culture better, to get your culture to be more inclusive, to get more ideas flowing freely by people who otherwise might restrict themselves because they are worried about saying the wrong thing, or don't have the confidence to speak up, or feel that their value is diminished because somebody else takes on their idea.
Having diversity or having men mentor women, I think it opens up their perspective and be able to be a lot more empathetic to some of the asks, or some of the conversations that might ensue in the organization.
JASON HOWARD: Something interesting – I'm going to share a little personal anecdote here – is, in my specific role working with the Insider program, I have what I would call the very fortunate privilege of getting to connect and speak with people quite literally from all over the globe. We have Insiders in every country around the world, and obviously I don't get to talk to them all individually. (Laughter.) I don't think there's enough time to do that, just physically.
But in hearing everybody who's passionate about the project that we've been on for, what, four and a half, almost five years at this point, of driving Windows 10, working to make improvements, sharing these preview builds, driving the other services and products that Microsoft are putting out, and communicating that and sharing the good information, and hearing all the feedback that comes in, one of the things that I've learned along the way is that, just because we think of something here in Seattle or Redmond – you know, just like up in our little Northwest corner of the U.S. – the challenges and the usage of technology is different for somebody who lives even in, like, rural Nebraska where they don't necessarily have the same broadband connectivity that we have. It takes me five to 10 minutes to download a four gig build here. It may take them two hours, if it's even that fast.
ANITA VARGHESE: That's right.
JASON HOWARD: And then, you go somewhere around the world where broadband doesn't actually exist and they're working off of just rural cell connections, I'm not even sure I want to know how long it takes –
ANITA VARGHESE: That's right.
JASON HOWARD: To actually download a build. It's not because I don't care. I say that slightly sarcastically, right? It's, it’s kind of highlighting the differences in how people access technology and the perspectives they have. It's interesting to know how different people approach it, what they're using it for, and the things that are important to them.
And some people get into the whole back-and-forth of, oh why are you focused on specific people, characteristics, or whatnot, it's because those collective characteristics bring us all together, because we're all trying to do good things in our life, whether it's personally or at work, to be better careers, to be good stewards of our family and, you know, the values that we all hold as individuals.
It takes everybody bringing their whole selves into the entire picture. What you end up with is this rich, robust kind of just output, in the end, regardless of what it is, right? I mean, I'm speaking of kind of Windows is a little bit right here. But if you're not – you’re not listening to people who have a different thought process, or have a different set of background experiences, to try to influence something to make it better for everyone, you might make it better for somebody, but that doesn't mean everybody's going to be able to participate.
ANITA VARGHESE: That's right. Benefit from it. Yeah, exactly.
JASON HOWARD: So, I know, I'm sorry. I-I digressed a little bit here, but it's just – I say it's one of the things that's been really personal for me along the way, and some of the relationships that I've built with people, because I do – it may not be a formal work-related mentor/mentee type relationship, but there are numerous Insiders that I, you know, chat with kind of like through direct messages and on Twitter, and what not. They'll ask me career advice, or hey, help them work through some technology problems.
And I've got to say, it's actually helped me a lot because improving my ability to communicate with other people isn't just – it doesn't just help me communicate with them better. Like, it actually helps me here at work because it helps me express my own thoughts and ideas in a better and more constructive way. And it's something that I'm eternally thankful for because I cannot tell you how much better I am at doing my job because of everybody else who has helped influence the way that I do my job.
ANITA VARGHESE: That's excellent.
JASON HOWARD: So, having said all that, we've covered a lot of topics, but you know, I always do this, right, and I don't mean to put you on the spot. But I always save my favorite question for last. What's next? Usually if it's something related to a product, I try to be like, "Hey, can you tell me some secrets that aren't going to get you in trouble?" right, but we're obviously not having a direct product-focused discussion.
But for you personally, being a mentor, having been or continuing to be a mentee yourself, what's next for you in how you interact with people, the people that you're currently being a mentor to, or even what you think the future of the industry looks like and how people are going to connect with each other? What should people be preparing to face as they make their way through this journey?
ANITA VARGHESE: I would say there are some things that will never change that was always there that, today, exists in the – in organizations, regardless of which one, and will always exist in the future, as I think of how do you work and build products within teams.
How do you work within a particular – towards a particular mission? How do you influence other people? How do you pick the right priorities, or projects, or roles, or managers? Some of those things will never change, and your approach to some of these might change. But those are some things that'll continue to exist.
From a technology standpoint, yeah, AI is coming. It's there, and I'm sure our current jobs of today will be very different 10 years from now. And watch for the signs. Watch out for what's out there and adapt, adapt to what's coming and seek advice from mentors who are coming. Seek advice from millennials the way – look, look at how our millennials are approaching technology, and that'll give us a clue on how things are going to change for us in the future.
JASON HOWARD: So, as we wrap up here, any final parting advice for the listeners who are looking to grow their careers? Obviously, you've talked about like kind of what we should look at from a tech perspective, but in reaching out to find a mentor, any good nuggets to kind of get them started in the right direction?
ANITA VARGHESE: Invest the time. I didn't take it serious – very seriously when I had just started off my career. But think of it as, invest the time in learning more, learning more in a particular industry, in a particular area, a particular skill, and start talking to people and building those one-on-one relationships. And even if that relationship doesn't help you today, it might help you in the future. Maybe it is for a new job, or it is something that you're thinking – maybe it is something that you're thinking of studying, something new that you're thinking of doing.
But just spend the time. Block out maybe once a month, 30 minutes, talk to somebody new who you have never met before, and see where that takes you.
JASON HOWARD: At the end of it, it seems like just as much as you're asking somebody to invest in you, even if you don't realize it at first, you're helping invest back in them because they're going to take something away from it, as well.
ANITA VARGHESE: Yeah, exactly.
JASON HOWARD: Awesome. Well, Anita, I've got to say it has been fantastic talking with you. This has been, like, fascinating conversation. Hopefully our listeners have enjoyed it as well. Thank you so much for being in the studio with us today, and I'm looking forward to connecting with you again in the future.
ANITA VARGHESE: Thanks, Jason. Appreciate it.
JASON HOWARD: Next up, we've got a special guest from the Microsoft Garage, Mike Pell, to talk about skills the Windows Insider team thinks are important to your career. This includes things such as creativity, storytelling, and of course breaking the rules. That sounds like us, doesn't it?
Welcome to the show, Mike. Would you please introduce yourself to our audience and tell us a bit about the Microsoft Garage and, of course, what you do here?
MIKE PELL: Of course. Thank you. My name's Mike Pell. I'm an envisioneer. I've been at Microsoft for the last 17 years, and right now I’m working with the Microsoft Garage, leading design and the experimental outlet. The Garage is a worldwide program for any Microsoft employee or intern to get their best ideas into customers' hands in the form of an experiment.
So, people have great ideas all the time, but what they're working on during the day doesn't always align to that. So, as a program we give people an opportunity to band together, find people who have similar interests, and get their experiments out so we can test to see if it's something that should go further. It's a lot of fun.
JASON HOWARD: I was going to say, it sounds like a blast. You have your day job, but then you come over here and do this cool stuff, too.
MIKE PELL: Yeah. It turns out that this is becoming part of people's day job. So, you know, hacking, we were just talking about the hackathon before we went on air. The hackathon is a fantastic opportunity for everybody at Microsoft to take their best ideas and just – just do them, make them into a working prototype as fast as you can by working with other people you've never worked with, people on other sides of the planet. You can band together and get this project together.
And so, the Garage is – is also a huge example of people just wanting to get things done, you know, stop talking. “Doers not talkers” is our motto. And so, like we really love the hack way and just getting people to do things quickly and just make it real and go test it with real customers.
JASON HOWARD: Awesome. It’s – it sounds like the Garage is almost the way to kind of kickstart mentoring others, right? Like if you have an idea but you don't know how to get it started or you need some help or you want to collaborate with somebody, it's a way to kind of connect with other people and help each other out.
MIKE PELL: Absolutely. The Garage has a big community of people who love to share their skills, things that they've learned, and also just teach people new things.
Yeah, so in the Garages around the world, there's – there's seven Garages around the world – and we always have people coming in who want to learn how to do something new, whether it's hacking, coding, making, presenting, all kinds of different things, giving talks. And so, we do have an active community of people who share, you know, who are great coaches and mentors.
JASON HOWARD: So, it's a lot more than just coming in and working with some tools and making something. There's opportunities to learn career and life skills even, it sounds like.
MIKE PELL: Absolutely.
JASON HOWARD: Awesome. Well, as we talked with Anita earlier about, research, you know, that we've done shows that employees who receive mentorship really end up seeing the results of that in their career as they progress.
So, like from your background, how and why did you get involved in mentorship and what's it like being a mentor at Microsoft?
MIKE PELL: I'll answer that first by saying it's fantastic being a mentor at Microsoft. It's a real privilege, first of all. When I first came to Microsoft 17 years ago, I saw the opportunity to work with some of the best people in my field. At that time, I was coming in from the industry. I'd worked in 3D and 3D user interfaces for a very, very long time.
And when I got to Microsoft, I, I had heard that there was mentorship programs, and I used that opportunity to connect with one of the people who was one of the pioneers of 3D UI design who worked at Microsoft Research, George Robertson. So, I was super fortunate to not only get a mentor to help me in the field of my interest but also one of the absolute top people in the entire field in the world to be my mentor that I met with at least once a month for about six months. That was fantastic.
JASON HOWARD: Wow. That's kind of a good way to start your career off here.
MIKE PELL: It was great. And – and I'll say, you know, a lot of times people maybe think about mentoring for the wrong reason. You know, you may have along the way heard, well, you're not going to do very well in your career if you don't get a mentor. That's actually one of the things I heard from one of my early managers.
And, and the thinking behind that was everybody needs a mentor. I don't know actually that everybody needs a mentor, but I know that you can benefit from one in, in many different ways that you don't normally think about. Some of that's career advice, some of that's life advice, and some is, is actually in the field of interest that you really care about.
JASON HOWARD: So, seeing where you've come in your career so far, obviously you've experienced a lot and you've helped a lot of people along the way, what's something that's been a big, like a meaningful moment or some big lesson that you've kind of captured along the way, something, whether it was something where there was something you learned from somebody else or you helping somebody else, somebody who was a mentee of yours, something along that line?
MIKE PELL: One of the most meaningful moments I've ever had as a mentor was when I realized that it's the little things that you probably take for granted that are sometimes the most valuable to your mentee, to the person that you're trying to help.
You may not even think twice about a piece of advice or, you know, a story that you may tell, but it may mean the world to them, because it's something that they haven't thought about or an opportunity or maybe a direction that they could take that they, didn't even cross their mind before.
And so, that was my, my biggest, I guess you would say recognition, of my ability and, and my responsibility to actually help people in different ways is – is be – don't be dismissive of, of something that you may say just, you know, like off the cuff, because it could be great advice, even though you don't think much of it.
JASON HOWARD: Kind of a little tangent from that is like the importance of creativity, right? Knowing what you do here at Microsoft, you've got a highly creative role. It's very clear in the work that you do and the work that the Garage does for, you know, everybody within the company who participates there. This is a priority for you every day that you come to work, like this is the thing that you do day-in and day-out.
The Garage itself has built a great culture of innovation. What is the importance of creativity, both in your career, but in how you work with others, like those who may not have a creative background to kind of cultivate and grow that aspect of them that they may not have known about?
MIKE PELL: One of the best parts of my job in the Garage is that I need to be creative all day long, every day. It's a very fast-moving group. We're small, scrappy, do all kinds of things. You know, one day I may be designing, you know, the hackathon event. From hour to hour, I'll be working on the actual experience, you know, of the event itself, designing a sticker, having to think up, you know, designs for a t-shirt, writing some software.
So, there's all kinds of different things that I need to do that are quite different from each other, and, and all of them require creativity but in different ways. And so, creativity is something that I don't think about very often, but other people will comment on, like, wow, your job requires a lot of creativity, and like how do you do that?
And I think anybody who works in this industry will tell you, they have no idea. It just sort of comes to them. Many designers come out of school with a process, and you refine that and change that as you move from team to team, but the fact is, you know, we all sort of work in mysterious ways, like our brains are all wired differently. Things may come to me when I'm, you know, walking into the office, making a cup of coffee. Things may come to you when you're off like, you know, on a run. We all have different ways that we become inspired or sort of become creative.
What I've had to do, and maybe what other people listening can practice doing is try a few exercises to help you with your creativity. One of my favorites is, let's say on your way to work, whether you're driving, commuting, walking, you know, riding a bike, doesn't matter, look for things that are new, like look for things to really pay attention to. And, you know, it's sort of training your eye and your mind to see things in new ways. That's a great way to practice being creative, because you may think of something that you had never thought of before just because you're paying more attention. You’re using your eyes to – to really see the – the things that are not obvious. It's, it's an easy exercise.
JASON HOWARD: Sounds like it's just trying to break some of the routine, right? I know my morning drive to work, I know the route that I take, I'm used to the spots where there's going to be traffic, and all that kind of stuff. It's like I just kind of take it for granted. It's like stepping outside of what I'm expecting and, you know, that kind of routine and just trying to see things a little bit differently, even if it's something that I do frequently.
MIKE PELL: Yeah. Another part of that, just to build on what you said, think about if you had to go to work a different way, if you didn't drive, how could you get there creatively? So, like you didn't drive yourself crazy, you didn't make yourself late, but how could you enjoy doing it in a different way? What could you do when you were going that would be completely different?
I don't listen to, to audiobooks, but I've always sort of wanted to. Like could I find a way to get to work where I could listen to audiobooks instead of driving in every day and, and listening to music or, you know, talking on the phone.
There – there's easy, simple things we can all try to do to help our creativity. You don't have to be a designer. You don't have to be a creative marketing person. Every facet of the high-tech industry has creativity that people don't recognize for that. Engineers, developers – super creative problem-solvers. They may not see themselves in that way, but they do it every day, all day long, right, very, very creative.
People – you often find that as you walk around Microsoft – you often see people with guitars, you know, or musical instruments in their offices. There's something about high tech and software and hardware and music, right? There's a – there's a creativity that runs through your problem-solving and your ability to create new technologies and new things and your ability to be expressive, whether it's through music or dance or art. And so, they're very closely tied. I find that there's a lot of it here.
JASON HOWARD: That's a good way to take a break from one thing, like if somebody gets caught up in the – that coding mode, right, I don't know what to call it, right, because it's, it's kind of hard to express because I know it's a little bit different for everybody who, you know, who does that. If they hit a roadblock or something, can go kind of like digress, take their mind off of it for a minute, and kind of thinking about something else may actually get them over that hump and, oh yeah, I didn't even think about this while I was kind of caught up in the moment, and then get them right back on track.
MIKE PELL: There's another really simple exercise you can do, and, and I often talk to designers about this. If you're trying to be creative, you should try to come up with something that is quite different. And I often say, pick three different examples. You know – you know, you have a problem to solve, you have a new challenge. I call it – let's call it triangle, circle, square.
JASON HOWARD: Okay.
MIKE PELL: Come up with very different looking, feeling solutions to whatever the challenge is, on purpose. You know, don't make them incrementally different, make them wildly different. And that will sometimes unlock your thinking and your creativity.
JASON HOWARD: I'm going to have to try this, like it sounds fascinating, like it's, it's just because like, I know me as an individual, right, like there's a certain habit that I have when it comes to solving problems and things like that. And I don't always come up with the right solution or the most eloquent solution, and usually, I'll end up like relying on teammates or going and having conversations or whatnot.
But, you know, I don't think it would hurt for me to actually try to push myself a little bit and be like, okay, this is how I would think to do it first; now what's something completely different. Put a little noodling time, a little thought time into it, and try to do it completely differently than I would have originally.
MIKE PELL: Interesting that you would put it that way. So, I'll just say to end the first thought, draw a circle, a triangle, and a square on a piece of paper or on a whiteboard, just to remind yourself, they need to be quite different from each other.
But you always said, take a little time to noodle. I'm a big fan of fast design is what we call it, is not really overthinking stuff, it's just doing it quickly. So, if I ask you to solve a problem, I’m really most interested in your very first thought, not your thought after a half hour or a day or a week.
And for me I find your, your experience and your gut instinct and what you know about the world and, and your customer and everything else will sort of synthesize and answer almost immediately.
And in my own work, all the designers out there will, will cringe when they hear this, but I'm a huge fan of my first solution. I have completely explored the design space after having an idea, and I almost always come back to the first thought.
That doesn't mean that's for everyone, and as a, as a good practice we should completely explore design spaces and exhaust all the possibilities, but you'll be surprised how many times your first idea, it actually turns out to be your best one.
JASON HOWARD: Interesting. So, along those lines, you recently spoke at a conference where you talked about surfacing invisible things to drive better designs and solutions. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, the talk that you gave and some more on your process for innovating through both being like envisioning things and being a bit of a visionary, as well as storytelling?
MIKE PELL: So, I wrote a book this year called The Age of Smart Information. That book was really about the combination of artificial intelligence and spatial computing or, or mixed reality, with information.
You know, so as a – the leading productivity company in the world, Microsoft has a huge, you know, history and lots of experience being able to create tools and services for people to be their best, right, to realize their potential, as we like to say.
Along the way, though, the technology sort of led us into doing things in a very particular way. You know, Office works in a very particular way, we're always updating it. But people know, you know, how to get their job done very quickly.
With artificial intelligence and machine learning, the toolset is actually going to start helping us more than it ever has in the past. And I got very interested in, in what is that going to feel like to people? As a designer, I care a lot about the experience of things, like how do people feel, how do they think, how do they act. And our tools that we use for everyday things, whether it's writing email, creating a tweet, making a movie, like doing anything that, that you would think would be creative or productive, will be assisted by artificial intelligence, and in a lot of ways aided in the storytelling or the playback through mixed reality. And so, when you combine all that together, it, it becomes a very interesting future.
And so, at the talk I gave, Surfacing the Invisible, really touched on what mixed reality is best at, which is showing people through holograms, right, through digital artifacts that are mixed into our real world, things that we can't normally see.
So, an easy example is, we all know that Wi-Fi are waves that are being broadcast in the spaces that we're in, yet none of us can see those invisible waves. Using HoloLens or any other mixed reality type device, you could easily show someone what those waves look like. I talk a lot about magnetism, like the physical types of things we can't see. But there are lots of things locked inside of our information, locked inside of our data that are basically invisible unless you know how to find them and surface them and make them real through data viz, through being able to articulate them.
And so, there's a lot of work being done right now to help ordinary people, you know people that we used to call office workers, be able to take these things that are nonobvious and make them more real so we can talk about them, so we can present them and improve on them.
JASON HOWARD: You talked a bit about design, and I want to key in on that for a minute, because it sounds like you're always thinking about what's coming next, like coming up with good solutions, trying to work your way through various problems, and obviously how that ends up translating into the design that you go with, right, whether it's your first solution, you know, the noodling solution, you know, right, like we talked a bit about.
But can you talk a little bit about the design process that you personally follow, right? Can you like, pretend I'm like, you're mentoring me right now. Like what would be some of that design and creative process that you would use, and like how would you teach me to try to solve a problem?
MIKE PELL: Sure. So, within this methodology that we created called Fast Design there are three basic elements to it. And – and it's very simple. The first thing is, what is the essence of the thing, like what's the core of what it is you're trying to create or solve for?
You know, every problem has that, that very center, you know, the, the thing that is the most important. And it's not a functional thing. You know, as designers, we're more interested in the feel, right, you know, like what is it I'm doing for the person. And so, that's the essence. So, try to find the essence of whatever it is you're trying to do first. That could be, you know, you're making a painting, you're writing a paper, you're creating a new video for your team. Whatever that is, you have to find that, what is the most important part, the essence. That's number one.
Number two is finding the personality. And so, how are you going to express this, how's it going to come across? Is it going to be whimsical, is it going to be super serious? If you thought of whatever it is that you're doing as a person, what would the personality of that person be?
You know, so like let's say that we're creating this podcast. What would the personality of this podcast be? Would it be super serious, would it be like, wow, like Mike's like giving all these crazy answers, like this, this is like a pretty fun podcast?
JASON HOWARD: (Laughter.) Yeah.
MIKE PELL: So, you have to find the personality second.
And third is you have to find a way to go as fast as possible from A to B, and so that's the speed part. And this is where you have to sometimes throw out your process, right? So, we all have a process that – like you said, you know, you have a process for solving problems. I had a design process I learned in school. We all have done things in our careers that have led us to work in certain ways. But in Fast Design, we tend to try to throw all that out and just figure out from, you know, fresh, how do you get from A to B the fastest way possible.
And I always like to tell people, go for the optimal, right? Always try to design for the best case, don't take the constraints into consideration too early, all things are possible. Figure out – and, and you'll know that there's a leap you have to make to get to optimal, but that's okay. Identify that and then figure out how to solve it.
So, for me, you said like, what's my process for designing? It's not overthinking things. It's, it's getting to work. It's trying stuff out. That doesn't work, try it again, you know, try it again. But don't overthink it, don't over – over-talk it, don't analyze it so much that you just don't get anything done.
JASON HOWARD: It's funny that you mentioned like throwing stuff out and just kind of getting to work and doing things, right? It sounds like one of the hallmark characteristics of somebody who's a disruptor.
So, anybody, you know, that's listening to this podcast knows that, you know, my boss, Dona, who's kind of the head of the Insider program, one of her biggest things that she's talking about all the time is get out there, be creative, disrupt, do things differently, and don't go to jail, right? We always have fun with that last bit. It's just a little bit of humor she likes to throw in, but it's, it's kind of funny, right? It's, it's a little bit of kind of defining, you know, that mantra of disruption, right, see how far you can push it but, you know, don't take it too far.
Like when looking at this industry, right, and some of the rules that have been established around tech as a whole, why is it important to be disruptive? Like why – why is it – I get the feeling this is going to lead somewhere into creativity and things like that, right? How should people be disruptive either in their daily work or in their careers, with some of their routines? All of this seems to kind of tie back together. And I don't think it really matters what field they’re in, like it always seems like there's something that somebody could change and try to shake it up a little bit.
MIKE PELL: Disruption is an interesting word. So, I – I'm very much, as you said, a disruptor. But the way that I think about disruption is – is different. I like to disrupt things that I think are antiquated, not being done well, could be so much better.
And, you know, we just talked about my, my fast design process. I'm always trying to think about the optimal. And sometimes there's no way to get to the optimal without disrupting something, right, without being able to make that giant leap to, to plan on a breakthrough, to make the breakthrough happen.
Disruption can be very bad for a society, for people, for teams, you know, for technologies. So, disruption is not something to do on purpose just to disrupt, right? And I'm sure that you find this in your work.
JASON HOWARD: Sure.
MIKE PELL: Disruption is something to be done to make a giant leap forward, right, or to bring about a change that really needs to be done in – in your opinion, right, for whatever reason.
For me, I do look for opportunities, not all the time, but I do look for opportunities where we can leap ahead and be so much better than we are now. And that does require, call it disruption, call it breakthrough, call it completely, you know, turning something over. Those are the things that you sort of live for as a designer, right, being able to really go fast and go further than you thought you could ever go.
JASON HOWARD: It almost sounds like creating the difference between, what's the best way to call it, like constructive disruption versus just chaos.
MIKE PELL: Exactly. Yeah, one of the great examples that came out of Silicon Valley over the last, you know, five to ten years is the disruption of services, right? So, there are many traditional services and industries that are being “disrupted,” right, in air quotes, all the time by entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley venture capital firms. And it's putting people out of work, which is fine. You know, I mean, we have to move on as a society, right? We know that artificial intelligence will eliminate a lot of jobs. There will be disruption because of AI and machine learning. It doesn't mean we're going to slow down, because we believe the net effect is positive on society, positive for people.
But the fact is, there are many people who are looking for ways to disrupt and displace. We used to call it disintermediation, right, like being able to really break something apart and bring a new service that completely replaced the job functions that existed before. That can be very negative. And so, we need to be careful. And certainly, companies like Microsoft should be aware of that, because we are, you know, the people that are bringing about large change.
JASON HOWARD: So, as new folks come into this industry, right, one of the things that's important here as Microsoft is bringing in interns, kind of showing them the ropes of how we act as a company, how we get things done, and of course hopefully having some of the best and brightest people there are come here and work and contribute to the big grandiose goals that we have of what we're going to do in the future.
And of course, part of this is the Garage, and of course the Garage has interns, and these interns create things, right? They're not just hanging in the breakroom grabbing a coffee, you know, chitchatting all day. I mean, that sounds like a fun job but, you know, that's not what people get paid for. (Laughter.) So, the interns that were recently here, they took a project to build back in May, is that right?
MIKE PELL: Yeah.
JASON HOWARD: So, from the interns that have been here, right, what you've seen them do over the course of time, whether, the most recent batch or, you know, folks that have been here in the past, what are some of the cool things you've seen them create and how do interns and students or even just new employees, harness these opportunities to come in and do something fantastic that helps like change the directory of their career?
MIKE PELL: Internships are so fantastic to be around. The interns are, are so energetic. It's just so fun to be around them. They bring a new energy, a new way of thinking, different perspectives. So, I would encourage any Microsoft employer or anyone listening to this to try to get involved with internships, whether as a coach, you know, or someone who's helping in, you know, specific areas that the interns are working in.
But the Garage interns get to go from ideas, so, you know, they get pitched ideas, they sort of self-select in some cases the ideas that they want to be working on, and they work in very small teams to go from this idea or initial pitch to working prototype, and sometimes shipping something, all within 12 to 16 weeks.
JASON HOWARD: That's a really short timeframe.
MIKE PELL: It's very short. And they're – they haven't done this kind of thing before often. This may be the first internship where they've ever experienced anything like this. Some of them come in and they're entrepreneurs already. You know, they're very active at school with different programs. Others, you know, are just interested, they're self-starters, they're willing to do whatever it takes to learn, you know, dig in and be able to help like ship something, you know, put it together and put it in customers' hands.
So, we love the projects they worked on. They've worked on some of our most interesting like Seeing AI, you know, apps that are helping people that have low vision or are blind be able to navigate, you know, by using the – we've tried different experiments, we tried it from a voice perspective, you know, audio. We've done it having all kinds of cues.
And so, there are lots of projects that involve accessibility, universal design, and trying to really give back to the community in ways that we have put things into open source, you know, just to open up the result of their work.
So, a lot of the, the projects are related to, you know, Azure or cloud or Office, but there are many that are also more on the universal design side, and those are really satisfying to see.
JASON HOWARD: Yeah, I mean, part of what you talked about there was group problem-solving, whether it's, it sounds like the interns, they get together in kind of smaller groups but, you know, as a company like we don't limit the size of groups people can get together in, right? It may be one or two people in a conference room, it may be 80 people in a larger team or group working together on something.
But one of the things that's really come to light in the recent past, I mean, probably say past year and a half, two years, if not even a little bit longer than that, is really that Microsoft actually values creating some of this open environment, letting people get together and work through things that are potentially challenging or difficult.
Like within the Insider program, you know, we have bug bashes where, you know, we work together as engineering teams, and we work externally with the Insiders to kind of drive through and solve some issues that are outstanding, maybe some bugs that weren't getting enough attention, something like that.
And then internally, such as what you currently work on, like things like hackathons to go and drive like these creative solutions and give people a chance to take some ideas that they've had just kind of hanging around or needed a little assistance with and actually try to bring those things to life.
Like for those who are listening our last episode, when we talked to Gabi Michel, she was talking to us about the Xbox Adaptive Controller and how it was the result of, you know, two separate hackathon events and kind of what it had evolved to over the course of time, and how interns had been involved in that.
And you stop and look at something like that and it's been a huge success for Xbox and Microsoft combined, as well as some of the larger industry that it's influenced and how it's helping people.
Here at Microsoft recently, we just ran the Insiders to Campus contest, and we had some winners selected, and they'll actually be coming to participate in the OneWeek hackathon, which, you know, you obviously have a big hand in coordinating and running.
What's the value of having a group creative problem-solving scenario like this, both for individuals, as well as like, Microsoft as a whole? Like how does this help us with customer feedback and, of course, in building the tech that we're famous for?
MIKE PELL: The Garage team has data going back five years for all the hackathons that we help put on here at Microsoft, showing that diverse teams have done much better in the hackathon than teams that have been a single person or a bunch of people that all came from the same background or group. So, it's diverse teams, people from all over the world working together in some cases.
We've had hackathon winners of some of our executive challenges who never met each other in person until they came to Redmond to talk to the SLT members as part of their prize. It's pretty amazing to think about that. They got together for 48 hours, worked on a project, had never met each other, and then they all like end up, you know, winning the prize and coming to Redmond and sharing, you know, their idea, and in some cases are, are being asked to continue on with their projects.
But it's the diverse perspective, right? It's not diversity in gender, it's not diversity in – in your race or, or culture, it's diversity in thinking, right? We all have so many different experiences, and when you go look for people who have come up, you know, in a different way than you, have different viewpoints, have completely different backgrounds, that's when the magic happens, and that's what we really value and the data shows it.
Another example that's happened to all of us is being in a meeting, whether it's in-person or remote, and having people with such different opinions. You know, someone has a completely different take on something that you're trying to represent or get an answer to.
It turns out that that tension of having different viewpoints is good, right? It makes you think. It makes them think. As long as people are being respectful and openminded and sort of embracing – you know, like embracing the, the growth mindset – that’s when really amazing things happen, because you do have to grow a bit to be able to work in that way. You can't just be the same person. You can't just be the same thoughts all the time. You know, you have to sort of open up your mind. And that's what we're seeing all the way, you know, across Microsoft in every aspect of our business.
JASON HOWARD: It's nice having a change of opinion sometimes, because you'll end up with somebody who tends to speak up a lot and likes to voice their opinion. Doesn't necessarily mean their insights are bad or poor or something, but giving somebody an opportunity who doesn't necessarily speak up or isn't as forthcoming with some of the ideas they may have, making it a welcoming environment for them to kind of speak up and feel comfortable to share, without, you know, feeling like they're going to get ridiculed because, hey, I'm not really comfortable or I'm not necessarily confident in my response, right? And that was a little bit what we talked to Anita about is being confident in some of the things you know and understand, and, you know, how having a mentor and mentee type relationship can help you built some of those confidence skills.
All this seems to just kind of roll up together and, I don't know, like it's the execution that comes out of it, right, and the things that you learn in doing your day job and connecting with other people and working with different groups, being a part of a mentor/mentee relationship. It all just bundles together and it's, it's almost like a chicken and the egg scenario. It's like which piece of this came first. It's almost like a floodgate, it all happens at the same time, whether you realize it's transpiring or not.
MIKE PELL: One of the biggest parts of creativity and mentoring, you know, coaching, whether you're a mentor or mentee, is being able to really be empathetic. You know, so as a – as a designer – that's part of our job. We have to be able to put ourselves in other people's shoes. We, we have to know what it feels like or else we can't do our job properly.
In a mentor/mentee relationship it's the same thing, right? You know, as a mentor you have to understand whether this person might be in their career, what they're trying to get out of the relationship, the kinds of challenges and – and wonderful things they're doing. You know, as a mentee you sort of have to understand that mentors mean well. They may get a little too busy sometimes. We know we, we try to be respectful, keep our appointments. But things happen, you know, like Microsoft and every other high-tech company is, you know, going as fast as we can right now.
And so, having empathy is really a huge part of being a designer, huge part of being a creative person. But I think empathy is always a big part of the mentoring process, too.
JASON HOWARD: So, as we wrap up here, I'm going to ask you my favorite question. And I ask everybody this question, because I love it so much. It's something I always spend a lot of time thinking about, both with my individual career, the people that I mentor myself, and of course any guest that I have on the podcast or the webcast we do. I love getting to ask this, right? What's next? Both for you personally, for the Garage. What do you think's coming next for Microsoft? What's next in tech? It's kind of an open-ended question, but like what, what do you see the landscape to hold as we move into the future?
MIKE PELL: In general, it's what I wrote about in my last book, The Age of Smart Information. Artificial intelligence is all around us, right? It's baked into our phones. It's baked into many of the services that we use every day. That is going to become a bigger part of our lives. We're not going to recognize it always as artificial intelligence, machine learning, reinforcement learning, and all the different aspects of that, but it is going to be a huge part of all the tools that we use, a huge part of all the experiences that we have, whether it's, you know, out and about or at our jobs. And it's really going to make a big difference in the way that we approach what we do.
And so, as far as like what's next, it's already here, right? It's called AI. Mixed reality has a huge part to play in that, because it's on the presentation and communication side. And so, I would say if you want to know more about that, go find my book, The Age of Smart Information, and read all about it.
JASON HOWARD: Awesome. Well, I would ask you if you have any parting advice, but, I mean, it sounds like you just gave it, like pay attention to what's coming, be attentive, seek out relationships, read your book. I mean, obviously that's got some good advice in there. Anything else you want to tack on?
MIKE PELL: I would just say, look for opportunities to try to contribute. You know, even a little bit of time. You'd be amazed at how much it means to somebody for you to spend – to really pay attention to them and spend some time trying to help them fix their problems. So, don't always be thinking about your own work and your own things that you have to get done, just ask people every day, ask – go find somebody new and say, what can I do to help you?
JASON HOWARD: Awesome. Mike, I got to say, it's been a huge pleasure having you here. Thank you so much for making the time to be in the studio today.
MIKE PELL: Thank you.
JASON HOWARD: As we opened today's episode, we discussed the importance of mentorship and helping your career and personal growth tracks alike.
As we come to a close, you might be asking yourself, I heard a lot about how to be a good mentor, but what about receiving mentorship? How do I do that?
Throughout this episode as you were listening along, there have been numerous tidbits, everything from career focal points, to industry trends, to connecting and helping others. I bet you picked up on this, but it was us being sneaky and trying to actually kickstart your mentorship. By sharing thoughts and ideas, we hope you've taken something with you to think about as you go out and form the mentor/mentee relationships that will help you along.
There's no one size fits all formula to share for finding a mentor. Some companies focus on this effort and then actively promote it, whereas others will leave it to each employee to seek out opportunities to connect and grow. And whether you find your future mentor at work, through an acquaintance, or across your social media connections, just know that there are folks out there willing to help provide guidance, teach, and help push you to your next level of success.
And with that, Windows Insiders, this episode is a wrap. We hope you've enjoyed this inside peek at mentorship, career advancement, and creative innovating.
Thanks again to Mike and Anita for joining us, and we hope this episode helps you start planning for what's next in your career.
As always, thank you for tuning into the Windows Insider podcast. Join us for a new episode each month and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite app. Until next time.
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.
Support for the Windows Insider Podcast comes from Microsoft, empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.
Join us next month for another fascinating inside look into Microsoft, tech innovations, careers, and the evolution of Windows 10.