Betsy Aoki: Microsoft Women Worth Watching

Here's the second of my Microsoft Women Worth Watching Profiles. Today's "victim" is Betsy Aoki, a Senior Program Manager with Microsoft's Online Services Division.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

In the 25-plus years I've written about technology, I've interviewed fewer than 50 female Microsoft employees (by my rough estimate). In part, this is because there are less of them. Microsoft officials say women comprise 25 percent of the company's total workforce. It's also because many of the women who do work at Microsoft are in marketing, sales and support roles and aren't among those who are "authorized" to talk to us press/blogger types.

There are a handful of women employees dotting Microsoft's executive ranks, including two Senior Vice Presidents (Lisa Brummel,head of Human Resources, and Mich Matthews, head of the Central Marketing Group). But I wanted to meet some of the less-public techies -- the engineers, product managers and programmers who work at Microsoft to find out how and why they've managed to buck the continuing trend of women not entering math/science careers. The women I've interviewed for this series have joined Microsoft via a wide variety of paths. Some knew since they were kids they wanted to be involved in technology. Others came to the Empire via a more circuitous route (master of fine arts in poetry, anyone?). Some are Microsoft lifers. Others are recent hires.

On March 24, Ada Lovelace Day -- which is dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in science and technology -- I kicked off a new series profiling some of these Microsoft women worth watching. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be running profiles of ten of them on my blog.

Today's Microsoft Woman Worth Watching: Betsy Aoki

Title: Senior Program Manager, Online Services Division What's Your Typical Day Like? "I have an evangelist's travel schedule," Aoki, just back from SXSW and Mix 10, says. She also monitors the Bing Twitter account and handles a variety of public relations incubation projects. Her overarching goal is "to try to help marketing understand social media."

Did you always want to be involved in technology? If not, what steered you this way? When Aoki was in the eight grade, her dad brought home a DEC computer and she "messed around with Random.h generation," she recalls. But she also was really into English. "It might have been good to go for a CS (computer science) and English double major," she concedes, but instead she went the English route and ultimately earned her Master's of Fine Arts in Poetry. But her inner geek was always there, she says.

Advice for women (and/or men) considering a career in technology? Don't be lazy, she says. "Take your brain as far as you can." And remember, tech isn't all coding; there are lots of skills that can be applied, from teaching, to presenting. "Program management is all about negotiation, bribing and nagging," she says. Aoki advises folks to do job shadowing and participate in mentoring programs to figure out what they really want to do.

Favorite gadget (just one) or technology? Asus Eee PC

It isn't just urban legend. Betsy Aoki used to be "Blog queen and Web program manager at Microsoft." But she's held a lot of other things at Microsoft, too, from Program Manager on Live QnA, to a Program Manager of Xbox.

Aoki has followed what may look to some like a meandering career path. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, where she did a Washington Post internship in 1989, she worked for four years at the Palm Beach Post as a journalist. She subsequently attended the University of Washington, going for an MFA in Poetry -- while simultaneously teaching herself Unix. While she was a student, she did a part-time stint at the Seattle Times, where she helped the paper build Web sites. She also founded the Seattle chapter of Webgrrls, a women's tech networking group.

"I swore my first job when I got out of grad school would have the word 'Web' in it," Aoki says.

She made good on that commitment. Aoki joined ImproveMyBusiness.com where she was Director of Community. She ended up meeting a Microsoft employee there who helped bring her over to contract for Microsoft for a few years. She joined the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) team in 2003, where one of her first projects was launching the GotDotNet initiative (which ultimately morphed into the MSDN Code Gallery). She also helped launch the Microsoft employee blogging platform.

Aoki moved around inside the company, holding Program Manager positions in Windows Live and Xbox.

"I always tried to do the V1 most interesting thing," she says. "It wasn't about being a VP for me. It was about moving from cool thing to cool thing. And being in program management lets you see the whole landscape."

In her current job, Aoki is consumed with social media. She concedes that there's a lot of overrated social-networking technologies (and personalities) out there, but still finds new things all the time that blow her away. (One of her latest such discoveries was #edchat, a Twitter collaboration tool for educators, she says.) She says she also is fascinated by the intersection of gaming and social media.

So what's next for Aoki?

"I'm not very good at predicting what I'm going to do next," she says. "My next job isn't invented yet."

(Check out all the Microsoft Women Worth Watching profiles here.)

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