Julie Larson-Green: Microsoft Women Worth Watching

As today is Ada Lovelace Day -- a day dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in science and technology -- I've decided to kick 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 Woman Worth Watching is Windows Corporate VP Julie Larson-Green.
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.

As today is Ada Lovelace Day -- a day dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in science and technology -- I've decided to kick 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: Julie Larson-Green

Title: Corporate Vice President, Program Management, Windows Client

What's your typical day like? "It's all meetings and e-mail. I have lots of one-and-one meetings. I try to carve out open time to be available to people... Being in program management is all about getting people t work together to try to meet goals."

Did you always want to be involved in technology? If not, what steered you this way? Even though she obtained an undergraduate degree in business management, Larson-Green presciently wrote in her college yearbook that some day she wanted to work with computers.

Advice for women (and/or men) considering a career in technology? Focus more on the way you and your team can have a positive impact than on your job title. And always be open to learning. It's important to be well-rounded. Remember that something that looks like a lateral move to outsiders may be just what you need, in terms of furthering your own knowledge and experience.

Favorite gadget (just one) or technology? Tivo

Larson-Green is not one of Microsoft's unsung techie heroines, but she also isn't one of Microsoft's primary spokespeople for Windows. In fact, she does very few press meetings and makes relatively few public appearances.

She's come a long way from waiting tables while in college. These days, she has between 1,200 and 1,400 program managers, researchers, content managers and other members of the Windows team reporting to her.

Currently, Larson-Green is in charge of Windows planning. (Her colleagues Jon DeVaan and Grant George lead Windows development and test, respectively. This core team of three reports directly to Windows/Windows Live President Steven Sinofsky.) This is a new structure for the Windows team since Windows 7 shipped. Rather than organizing Windows Client around smaller product units, the team operates more like the Microsoft Office team does -- not too surprising, given the leaders of the Windows team all came from Office.

It's not just the structure of the Windows organization that has changed since Larson-Green joined that division. The "Windows culture" has changed, as well -- something she takes pride in having had a part.

"People (in the Windows unit) are understanding more about the decision-making process and are not just feeling like people are overruling them," she says. She makes it a point to "make sure everyone (on the team) has the same information and the same inputs."

Larson-Green applied to Microsoft right after she got her business management degree from Western Washington University, only to be told no. But she did land a job at desktop-publishing-software maker Aldus working on the product support call lines. In that role, she got to meet some of the product engineers and helped with questions on debugging TIFF files. She went back to Seattle University and got a master's in software engineering. She gradually worked her way up to dev lead on PageMaker.

Microsoft "discovered" Larson-Green after a few Softies attended a talk she gave comparing Microsoft compilers to Borland compilers and asked her to run a Visual C++ focus group for the company. In 1993, she ended up landing a job on the Visual C++ team, where focused on the integrated development environment. She moved to the Internet Explorer team (where she worked on the user experience for IE 3.0 and 4.0) and then, in 1997, to the Office team to work on FrontPage, where she got her first group program manager job. She also did a stint on the SharePoint Team Services team, back when SharePoint was known as "Office.Net."

At this point in her career, Larson-Green had a choice of three jobs in Office: Group program manager for Excel, Word or Shared UI. She decided she could have the most impact in the UI area. She opted to lead  user interface design for Office XP, Office 2003 and Office 2007.

"Steven (Sinofsky) challenged me about Office. I didn't want to do it," Larson-Green recalls. "I thought the UI was done" and there wasn't much to do to innovate there.

How wrong that perception turned out to be, Larson-Green says. She is credited with championing the Ribbon UI (officially known as "Fluent," which is becoming part of more and more Office products, as well as part of elements of Windows. She also was and is a big advocate of multi-touch technology as a UI game-changer for Windows.

Larson-Green says it's been her style of talking to her team to find out what they think and why that's made her successful at her job.

"I like the social part of software. I think a lot about the motivations and the collaboration model," she says. Up until Office 2007, Larson-Green always had a little of her own code included in every product. That's no longer the case, but she's O.K. with that, she says. "I used to build more product than team, but now I build more team than product."

Let's see what she does with Windows 8 (or Windows "vNext" as the team seems to prefer it be called). And no, Larson-Green wouldn't talk about Windows 8 in any way, shape or form, in case you're wondering if I asked...

(You can find all of the Microsoft Women Worth Watching profiles here.)

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