Holly Hirzel: Microsoft Women Worth Watching

Holly Hirzel, who works in the Xbox Live division of Microsoft, didn't start her career in gaming. But now she's the lead producer of "1 vs. 100," one of Microsoft's premium games. She's the latest "Microsoft Woman Worth Watching" I'm profiling in my ongoing series.
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: Holly Hirzel

Title: Lead Producer for "1 vs. 100", Xbox Live

What’s Your Typical Day Like? Depending on where the game is in the pipeline, Hirzel might be doing a variety of jobs. In early stages, she may be "communicating and collaborating" about schedules, business models, feature prioritization. During the development process, she spends more time communicating with devs, designers and testers. Later, she may be wearing her PR and marketing or technical support hats.

Did you always want to be involved in technology? If not, what steered you this way? Hirzel entered Cornell University with the intention of becoming a journalist/photographer. When she graduated, she had two job offers: One to work in educational software and one to work on a small newspaper as a photographer. She went with the one that offered more money -- the software job. Her love of gaming -- dating back to playing “Indiana Jones,” a tape-drive-loaded game for the C64 -- was always there, but more as a diversion than anything else. But when her boyfriend suggested she get into gaming full-time, "a bell went off," she says.

She had been developing software, but not games, at that point, but gaming startup Player 1, "took a chance and hired me," she says. She went from developer, to producer, to one of the heads of the company before it ran out of money. ("Hey, it was better than going to business school," she jokes.) She then got a job working with external development teams at Sony and Sony Online on Everquest. She joined Microsoft's Xbox group in 2008, where her "first and only job" (so far, at least) was working on Xbox games.

Advice for women (and/or men) considering a career in technology? "Technology careers offer a great paycheck," Hirzel says. Obviously, the more computer-literate you are, the better your options will be, she says. But there's also plenty of room in tech for people who aren't good at math, which Hirzel says is her case.

Favorite gadget (just one) or technology: As you might expect, Hirzel loves her Xbox. She doesn't play games at work, so she plays at home, sometimes with her four-year-old. She does do more than game, however, she says, noting she also loves her Kindle e-reader.

Microsoft has been on a campaign for the past few year to expand the audience for gaming consoles and games beyond the traditional first-person-shooter group of guys who have been responsible for most of Xbox's sales to date. The idea is to get these guys' moms, wives, sisters and daughters to play.

As part of that quest, Microsoft is "bringing in more people like me to Xbox," says Hirzel, who spearheads the team that has built the "1 vs. 100" multiple-choice trivia game for Xbox.

Hirzel and her team "have done a lot of innovation on that title," beyond what's available as part of the TV version of the "1 vs. 100" game show, she says. The Xbox version of the game, available to Xbox Live Gold members, has live studio host and real prizes, among other features, Hirzel says. Contestants play against thousands of other Xbox Gold members.

Hirzel describes herself as having "always used computers." She recalls playing text-based adventure games with her brother, over dial-up, back in her junior-high days.

"It wasn't a deliberate thought" -- like, yes, I'm choosing to learn about computers and technology -- Hirzel says. "It was invisible and natural part of my life."

That philosophy has carried over into her job at Microsoft, she says. She looks at her mom as a prime example of the casual gaming prototype whom the Xbox team is trying to attract.

"My mom now plays games on her PC. Gaming isn't just about shooting things. There are casual games and Netflix," Hirzel notes. "My 63-year-old mom now turns on her Xbox every day," kicking off her sons and other family members so she can play more casual games.

Hirzel says she is working on some new Xbox titles that haven't been announced. For game developers, the reality is "at least half of what you work on never ends up shipping," she acknowledges. So it will be interesting to see which of Hirzel's next projects go public.

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

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