Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec: Microsoft Women Worth Watching

Today's Microsoft Woman Worth Watching, Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec, made a lot of career leaps -- and leaps of faith -- to get from the Peace Corps to heading the IIS engineering team. Here's how she did it.

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: Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec

Title: Product Unit Manager for Internet Information Services (IIS)

What’s Your Typical Day Like? She runs a team of 50 engineers who work across test, development and program management. Tomsen Bukovec's day is a mix of meetings about products and meetings about and with people. Somewhere in the day, she tries to get 30 minutes a day outside, where she can often be founding jumping rope in a hidden corner (or indoors in a parking garage when it's horrible outside) with her headphones on, she says. She finds time at the end of every day to reconnect with her husband and three young boys, she adds.

Did you always want to be involved in technology? If not, what steered you this way? Tomsen Bukovec says she didn't think a lot about computers and technology while growing up. Her family moved across a variety of U.S. embassies in the Far East and Russia, as her father was a career diplomat. She joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of California at San Diego with a degree in U.S. history and creative writing and was assigned to a forestry department post in rural Mali. There, she started thinking about how much technology could have made record-keeping and distribution better -- and the technology-interest seed was planted. "All the technological infrastructure we had in the U.S.," things like digital cameras, e-mail, etc., "could have made such a big difference" in Africa, she says.

Advice for women (and/or men) considering a career in technology? "Don't be afraid to take risks," Tomsen Bukovec says. Take a left-hand turn when the rest of your group is going forward, she suggests. Sometimes, staying within your comfort zone may seem like the right thing to do because it'll be easy to look like you know all, but the reality is "when you're uncomfortable, it can mean you're growing," she says. Making mistakes isn't equivalent to failure; instead, mistakes can help you learn to be resilient, she advises.

Favorite gadget (just one) or technology: "I'm not really a gadget person, because I lose everything that isn't attached to me in some way," Tomsen Bukovec says. But the Internet is her favorite "technology" because it is the most transformative, she says.

Tomsen Bukovec would seem like an unlikely candidate to be running an engineering team responsible for Microsoft's IIS Web Server, server extensions, Windows Cache Extension for PHP, the Windows Web Application Gallery, Web Platform Installer.

Tomsen Bukovec doesn't have a computer science or engineering background. After returning from the Peace Corps and doing a bunch of temp jobs, she taught herself C, C++ and Visual Basic from reading books while she worked at Microsoft as a contract program writer on the Communication Server software development kit in the mid-1990s. (She snared that gig because she was a good writer, she says.) From there, she became a programming writer, while taking programming classes nights at the University of Washington. She then signed on to work on the Transaction Server team on what she acknowledges is/was a "very technical product."

"All these leaps are directly attributable to the mentoring I got at that point in my career," Tomsen Bukovec says. "People on these various teams told others to hire me even without the experience because I had a lot of potential."

These days, Tomsen Bukovec is doing a similar kind of mentoring as a way to give back. She runs monitoring rings targeting women who "might not be picked up by other programs" and is helping them connect across the test/development/program management disciplines.

Tomsen Bukovec left Microsoft for a while and worked at two local Seattle starups, Qpass and diego broadband., where she learned about electronic billing and other related technologies. She rejoined Microsoft 10  years ago and has been on IIS for the past three.

"IIS used to be a system component. But in the last three years, we (Microsoft) have transformed how we look at the Internet space," she says.

Microsoft rearchitected IIS to make it more extensible and so as to be able to release "a huge amount of value out-of-band," i.e., without having to wait for a new release of Windows Server, of which IIS is technically a part. Now, the team can introduce new components, like the load balancer, URL rewriter, toolkit for SEO, a Windows Cache for PHP, and more, when they're ready, Tomsen Bukovec explains.

"I'm really passionate about the Web space and want to stay in that space," she says. "I want to continue taking risks and making big bets" to make Web applications better and more useful.

More Microsoft women profiles: