My Awesome IT Job: Researcher and manager, Microsoft

Desney Tan, researcher and manager at Microsoft, says the toughest technology lesson he has learned was that for the most part, people don't care about technology--they really just want to get things done, no matter how snazzy what you've created may be. Part of an ongoing series profiling Awesome IT Jobs.

Hey, we all complain about work from time to time; we've all had lousy jobs. But before you call it a day and head off to the support group that meets at the bar, here are a few words from IT pros that love their work.

"For the most part, people couldn't care much less about technology than they do about getting things done... What they care about is getting things done."
Name: Desney Tan

Location: Microsoft Research, Redmond, Washington

Profession and specialization: Researcher and Manager, Computational User Experiences research group.

Loosely, my job description at Microsoft is to break all the rules, to think outside of the box (box, what box?), and to do generally cool stuff. Of course, it’s a huge bonus if I do things that are useful to the world in some way, so I try. My work aims to provide us with a better understanding of how computers shape our lives, with a specific focus on the integration of technology on or in the human body. I like to think I am creating cyborgs, human-technology symbionts who are vastly more effective and happy than we are now.

Hobby: I define hobby as what I like spending my time on, so my family is definitely my biggest hobby; then sports, since running around trying to hit a ball far or hard or precisely is kind'a fun; then poker, cause I do enjoy the math and statistics and even more than that, I enjoy taking my friends’ money

Last book read: “The World Without Us” by Weisman. This is a wonderful little thought experiment exploring our impact on the environment by considering what would happen if we were all to instantaneously disappear. I also tend to keep a few books on the shelf at once, so am currently in middle of “Digital People” by Perkowitz, “Beyond Human” by Benford and Malartre, as well as “More than Human” by Naam (who also happens to be here at Microsoft).

Latest accomplishment:

  • In my life: By the time this goes live, having a second kid (well, and making it through the first so far). These guys are two of the smallest things we’ve ever put our whole lives into. [Ed. note: Congratulations!]
  • In my workplace: Running a successful team of wonderfully creative and productive researchers, each working to make the world better in a different way (some samples of projects are here.
  • Pushing state-of-the-art in next generation of humans: I have been exploring brain-computer interfaces, hooking sensors up to peoples’ heads in order to makes sense of what’s going on inside, and I was recently honored as one of MIT Technology Review's 2007 TR35 (young innovators under 35) for work in this area. I also work on muscle-computer interfaces, which allow us to control computers directly through muscle sensing. I have a couple of projects with Prof. Babak Parviz and his team working on creating bionic contact lenses, as well as placing technology in the mouth, both for input and output, but also for medical sensing. Fun stuff.

Toughest technology lesson learned: For the most part, people couldn't care much less about technology than they do about getting things done. They really care about living good lives, and technologies that do not help them do this are uninteresting, no matter how snazzy they may be.

Advice to an up-and-comer: (This question makes me feel like I have to say wise things). Best pieces of advice given to me when I was an “up-and-comer” were:

  • Know thyself. Make sure you understand what drives you in life. Then go after it with a vengeance. Nothing is so effective and powerful as a person who is passionate about what they do, or who is doing what they are passionate about.
  • Don’t take yourself or the world too seriously. Life is a big playground, so we shouldn’t be afraid to play. Most of the greatest things in life come out of play(fulness). I explicitly make sure to drown myself in fun, both at work and at home. It is what makes me creative, it is what makes me productive, it is what makes me happy. Also, don’t be afraid to fall in this playground. The truly successful are not those who don’t fall, the truly successful are the ones that learn to pick themselves up quickly, dust off, and keep going.
  • A lesson both my dad and my graduate advisor Randy Pausch taught me (both are battling cancer now) is never to give up. Paraphrased from Randy’s last lecture (on achieving your childhood dreams), walls in life are there for a reason; they separate the people who really want something from those that don’t. See points (a) and (b) for getting what you want.

[Know someone who thinks their IT job is awesome? Introduce them to me at debperelman [at] gmail [dot] com.]