Rebecca Norlander: Microsoft Women Worth Watching

The final profile in my Microsoft Women Worth Watching series is of someone who is between jobs at the company. Regardless of her (temporarily) jobless status, Rebecca Norlander is definitely worth keeping tabs on. Here's why.
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.

This profile is number 10 -- the last in this series (for those of you keeping count). But keep those suggestions and nominations coming; I'm hoping to find other ways to get more Microsoft women featured on my blog in the coming months.

Today’s Microsoft Woman Worth Watching: Rebecca Norlander

Title: Partner Engineering Manager

What’s Your Typical Day Like? Currently, Norlander is between jobs at Microsoft and is considering what she wants to do next -- at Microsoft (at least that's the indication I'm getting). She also continues to work with Human Resources and others at the company on helping steer women at Microsoft into the key positions. Did you always want to be involved in technology? If not, what steered you this way? Norlander originally was thinking about being a biomedical engineer when she entered Boston University. (Her dad was an engineer and she loved logic, puzzles and math.) But computer science (CS) was the only class she liked. She ended up switching her major to CS. In 1991, when she graduated, the tech sector in Boston was in a recession. At an MIT job fair, Norlander met a Microsoft recruiter. Although she had never been to the West Coast, she got a "fly back" for an interview and ended up taking a job there.

(Norlander didn't mention this during our conversation, but her husband Chief Experience Officer J Allard -- whose whereabouts I wondered about earlier this week -- also was recruited by Microsoft around the same time, and the pair ended up joining Microsoft together.)

Advice for women (and/or men) considering a career in technology? "Do what you love and don't try to force it," Norlander says. Computer science is a nice baseline with which individuals can combine lots of other interests -- psychology, biology, hard sciences, soft sciences. "There are lots of ways to get into technology," however, she says. "You can get in with no CS degree or no degree at all." What's most important is "an interest and an ability to solve problems and break them down," Norlander says. You just need a desire to make things cleaner, greener, faster and better.

Favorite gadget (just one) or technology? She says she can't choose just one -- it's a toss-up between her phone, her bicycle, her car and her computer

Rebecca Norlander, just back from a sabbatical, is trying to figure out what she wants to do next.

She is talking to the Entertainment and Devices unit, among others divisions at Microsoft. At the highest level, she is interested in "how to bring technology and people together," and says she is intrigued about the possibilities and opportunities in devices and gaming. But she's also having conversations with the SQL Server and Windows teams, as well.

"I've spent a lot of time working on existing technology. But now I'm interested in ways that technology can be more services-savvy and more consumer-oriented," Norlander says. "I like thinking about the scenario rather than about the technology first and how to use it later."

In spite of her (temporarily) jobless status, Norlander is still a Microsoft woman worth watching. She's had a wide-ranging 19-year career at the company, where she started out as a Software Design Engineer on the Excel/Office team. She stayed six years in that unit, then moved to Windows to become a Technical Product Manager.

"My goal was fixing COM (the Component Object Model). I wanted to make it easier to use," she recalls.

She ended up spending 11 years in Windows, working on Windows client, Internet Explorer, the Internet Platform and other groups/projects. Around the time Microsoft began working on Windows XP Service Pack 2, Norlander was pulled out to run that effort.

"Microsoft offered me lots of variety. I liked that I could do so many radically different things," Norlander said.

In 2006, Norlander somewhat unexpectedly became Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie's Technical Assistant (a year after Ozzie joined Microsoft).

When Lisa Brummel, the head of Human Resources, was checking on senior women at the company, she told me "I really had to meet this Ray Ozzie guy," Norlander says. After three hour-plus conversations, Ozzie and Norlander realized they had similar ideas about what technology could do. She had some good insights "on how to navigate the company," she says -- something Ozzie needed. When Ozzie asked her to become his TA, she says she was surprised and flattered.

In 2009, Norlander switched roles again and became a Partner Engineering Manager, which is like being general manager of a set of engineers, with Microsoft's Online Advertising Platform, adCenter.

"I enjoy being a manager of an engineering team," Norlander says, "but there's still a thrill in managing a small team or not managing at all. Management is much more difficult than technology because in technology, you can prove something is non-solvable."

Norlander credits the many mentors, both formal and informal, she has had along the way as helping her move so fluidly between units and teams. Sponsorship has been even more valuable, she says. Sponsorship is about getting those at the executive level to talk with and about you for positions where your name might be omitted normally, she says.

"Your mental Rolodexes tend to be people who are like you," Norlander explains. When looking for someone to take on a new role at the company, managers need to make a concerted effort to focus on "not just the usual suspects -- to cast a wider net."

Whatever Norlander ends up doing next, it sounds like she's thinking big.

"If you want to change the world for better through technology, it's easier for now to do that within a big company -- at least for me," she says.

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

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