At Microsoft, Phoebe Ash is a senior software design engineer lead
Based at corporate HQ, she and her group of eight software testers are currently on the Outlook test team for the next gen of Microsoft Office
'I think I'm a lifer here at Microsoft," Phoebe Ash notes with a laugh. She's a senior software design engineer lead, more commonly known as a "tester," at the company's Redmond, WA corporate HQ. As part of the Outlook test team for the next generation of Microsoft Office, Ash and her group of eight test product code against specs, write tools and automate tests to create software that will roll out to millions of users. There are more than forty testers in all, and the total Outlook team, including developers and program managers, numbers more than a hundred people.
Software design engineers and testers, software development engineers and program managers all work together to develop software at Microsoft.
"Every moment of my time that I'm not in a meeting, which is not often, I'm working on the next Outlook," says Ash.
It starts and ends with email
A typical day for her begins with checking her mail. "I know that's true for a lot of people but I do it around 6 AM, even before I get to work," she discloses with a laugh. "In fact, I go to bed reading email and I wake up reading email. It's a bad, bad habit but it's my thing."
Her husband is also an engineer and a group program manager at Microsoft, "So we go through the same things," she says.
On a typical day she has lots of meetings, including an hour with each of her direct reports once a week, talking about project status and sometimes about their careers.
"My door is always open," she says. "I help my team grow their careers and grow within their disciplines. I show them what's available even outside their disciplines that will help them."
Her management style is hands-on but she's quick to add that she does not want to micromanage. "I'm basically a person who likes to clear obstacles and problems in the daily work we do."
Project planning and HR
Besides her management responsibilities, Ash plans projects and handles some HR activity for the Outlook test team. "I review resumes to see if candidates have what we're looking for," she says. "It's a pretty rigorous interview process and it's not just me; it's a band of us doing a series of one-on-one interviews.
"This isn't a nine-to-five job and it never has been," says Ash. "Throughout your career you have to figure out the right work-life balance for you. I have a husband and a son so I have to figure out how to balance my love of work with the passion for what I do with my family."
Microsoft, Ash says, has a "really cool commuting program" called the Microsoft Connector Service. This is the company's own private bus service that runs throughout the Seattle area. "It's quite amazing, the best thing ever!" she says. "I am a bit of an environmentalist myself and I really care about how I'm leaving the world for my son, so we're a one-car household and my husband and I take the bus to work a lot. The buses all have Wi-Fi service so people can work while they ride."
From South-Central LA
Ash has what she calls a "meager background," coming from South-Central Los Angeles, CA. "It's an interesting area. I wouldn't change where I came from for anything," she says. "You don't know that your neighborhood is bad until you see things outside or people say, 'Oh my God, you live there?'"
Nevertheless, she thinks she had "a really great childhood. I've worked since I could legally get a job and before that, I babysat. My parents always made sure that if there was something I needed, I had it. I went to magnet schools to get out of the neighborhood, getting up at 5 AM to be bussed something like twenty miles.
"My parents are very proud of me and I'm proud of my parents. Maybe I wouldn't be the person I am today if it were it not for the experiences and people I met along the way."
College? "You make it happen"
"I wasn't a great student until I got to college," she says. "It wasn't easy; my mom took out a loan and I took out a loan. It was pretty expensive for me to go to college that first year but you make it happen."
Ash was accepted at several universities including Howard (Washington, DC), where her great-grandfather had been a professor. She chose Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL). "It really appealed to me based on what I knew about its history, and unlike Los Angeles, there weren't a lot of distractions at Tuskegee. I thought that would be good for my academics."
Her turn to engineering was a lucky chance. "I heard Tuskegee was opening a new computer science lab and looking for work/study students. I enjoyed computers and exploring new technology but I never really thought that would be a niche for me.
"Once I got there I realized that I absolutely loved troubleshooting and solving problems. I found myself spending more and more time in the lab." Ash was later offered the job of managing the computer lab, at the same time working as the university's Web developer.
"Between my junior and senior years I did an internship in the IT department at Morgan Stanley (New York, NY) and it was after that I decided to test the waters on the IT side."
Ash interviewed with PeopleSoft, Inc (now part of Oracle, Redwood Shores, CA) in her senior year and was offered a consulting position. "I didn't know if that was what I wanted to do but the offer sounded really interesting and I didn't want to turn it down," she says.
Microsoft was the keeper
But in the spring Microsoft, "with its roots in technology," came on campus and made her an offer as well. "The recruiter flew me to Redmond for my interview and here I am."
She joined Microsoft as a software test engineer working on Microsoft Word before moving on to the beta version of One Note. She also worked on Internet Explorer 7 before joining the Outlook team.
Ash is a twelve-year member of the Blacks at Microsoft (BAM) affinity group. Among many other initiatives, BAM hosts a yearly minority student day where employees guide students through information sessions and workshops and talk with the kids about the variety of career opportunities available to them in the technology industry.
Ash is also a member of her college sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. The group is an international sisterhood of more than 200,000 predominantly black, college-educated women; Ash herself is past president of the Bellevue, WA chapter. "One of our main jobs is helping to uplift and enrich our community," she says with pride.
You always have to learn
Still excited about what she does, Ash expects to stay at Microsoft a long time. "I love what I do, I love the career growth and I love the company and the opportunities it presents for me. I see myself reaching for higher positions. I want to continue to learn and grow," she says.
"This isn't the kind of career where you can just come in and sit; you always have to learn. It's a lot of fun, and challenging too. You have to love it because you're surrounded by it all the time. If you don't love it, this isn't the right career for you."
Microsoft is good about peer mentoring and overall career development, Ash notes. "You get to work with a lot of senior people. There were Tuskegee grads here who were great at helping me get my career started and showing me how to be a good engineer. I think that was really important in my career growth."
As for being a young black woman, she has no concerns. "People are colorblind here," says Ash. "At Microsoft it's not about who you are, it's 'What do you know? What can you get done?'
"I think race really comes last. In technology it's a matter of finding your place and finding your voice."
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