Betsy Speare: Sponsoring sisterhood in software engineering

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The ‘Softie in question: Betsy Speare

Title: Principal Program Manager Lead in Server & Tools

In today’s corporate world, it is unusual to spend 15 years at one company. It’s even less common in our fast-paced technology industry.

Betsy Speare, however, has been cultivating a rewarding career at Microsoft since 1996. During those years, she has witnessed change at Microsoft and across the tech industry, but she has also been the driving force behind much of that change.

Beyond her substantial work responsibilities, Speare serves as the chair of the Women’s Leadership Council (WLC), a group that gives more than 300 women in the Windows Server group a meaningful way to connect and build community.

Microspotting sat down with Betsy to talk about women in programming and 15 years of blazing her own path in the boys’ club.

Tell us about how the Women’s Leadership Council started and when you got involved?

In 2002, a Server & Tools VP saw that the male to female ratio in his group was very poor. He reached out to those women to share their stories and start some dialogue. I came onboard about 6 months later and was part of an original group of ten women who began working to share our experiences.

The consensus was that to be a female developer is very isolating. At only about 10-12% of the industry, you are often the only woman on a team or possibly even in your hallway.

As a group, we set about trying to figure out how to make the situation better for women.

Don’t numbers show that technology has diversified in terms of gender in recent years?

Yes, in certain areas of the tech industry, but when you get down to actual development and test – the epicenter of tech creation – there is still a big gender divide. This imbalance starts before industry or college and is actually set in motion at the school-age level.

And you’ve spent your whole career in a variety of core tech roles, no?

That’s one of the best things about Microsoft. I’ve done so much different stuff with so much global impact: SDET in Build, Test Lead in Exchange, PPM Lead role for Exchange and Small Business Server, Planning for Windows v.Next – and now PM Lead in Windows Server Manageability.

What happened next for the WLC?

The more that we worked as a group to change peoples’ attitudes; the more we realized how hard it is for a minority to change a majority.

We determined that it was more effective and a better use or our time to build our own community to get past that sense of isolation. In the meantime, the WLC grew from the original ten women to over 300.

What are some of the things that WLC does now as a group?

Those of us who have made it in software engineering want to give back to women who are newer to the industry. We want to encourage them to stick with it.

1Degree is our initiative to connect women throughout the company. We support women in software engineering to get together for everything from lunch to book clubs to white water rafting. We have over 1300 women involved in 1Degree and even a few men who are interested in helping to diversify the tech industry.

We are proud to now have groups in Shanghai, Israel and India too.

You’re starting a LinkedIn presence for WLC?

We just started our LinkedIn group, which is a forum for women in software engineering to connect and support each other. It’s fledgling and we are learning, but we’d love to have any and all women join our open discussion!

What are your key recommendations for women starting a career in tech?

Find a mentor. Everything is shiny and new when you start your first job, and you should enjoy that time!  But, when you are ready, you need to start thinking about where you’ll be when you’re five years into the industry. A mentor can help you to understand the big picture.

How has Microsoft responded to the WLC?

Microsoft puts its money where its mouth is and is truly interested in improving the situation for women in technology. In simple business terms, Microsoft wins when employees are at their best. We have to give women a great experience and make sure that they’re happy and not on a “burn-out” course. WLC wants to be a central support for women in our division at Microsoft.

Of the original women who started WLC, how many are still around?

Of the ten original women, nine of us are still at Microsoft and eight are still in the division. That says something about how the company has responded to us. And even beyond the original ten, it’s clear that our community has made a wider impact on retention of female engineering talent.

LINKS:

ZDNet article about Betsy:

http://www.zdnet.com/blog/microsoft/betsy-speare-microsoft-women-worth-watching/6049

Awesome video of Betsy’s TechEd  North America 2011 talk:

http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/TechEd/NorthAmerica/2011/WIT01

Channel9 video about Betsy:

http://channel9.msdn.com/shows/WM_IN/Betsy-Hjort-On-Making-Windows-Server-Singing-with-Bill-and-Being-Technical/

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