Jenny Lay-Flurrie: working through challenges to achieve success and enable others

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‘Softie in question: Jenny Lay-Flurrie

Job title: Senior Director – Advertising Support and Services (AdSS)

By any standard, Jenny Lay-Flurrie has enjoyed an impressive career in the technology industry. But Jenny’s success is even more remarkable when you consider that she spent her education and much of her early career privately struggling with a hearing impairment.

For years, she was able to cope using hearing aids and lip reading, but when Jenny moved from our London office to our Redmond headquarters, she finally embraced her disability and reached out to management for support. We met up with Jenny at her office to talk about her experience and how she’s gone on to spearhead a company-wide cross disability group.

Jenny, did you always want to work in technology?

I actually wanted to be a musician. When I was a child, my mother would have me sit on speakers so that I could feel the music. I played the recorder and then flute, clarinet and piano. I studied music at university with an eye on a career as a musician or music therapist.

Did you do a special music program at school?

I didn’t take special classes or attend special schools. I was in the same programs with everyone else. I have had hearing aids since I was a small child and had some help at different points, but, for the most part, I simply did my best to get by.

In music, it’s very important to prove yourself on your own merits and I wanted to be sure that my work stood for itself.

Tell us about the transition from music to technology.

Alas, when I moved to London after university, like many others, I found it very hard to make a living in music. But I was good with computers and found work at the Daily Mirror doing tech support.

I’m what I call “deceptively deaf,” and rely mostly on lip reading, so my disability remained under the radar. However, it was still challenging to deal with the constant phone calls from anxious journalists with computer problems. I would say “thank you so much, but could you please follow up with an email” and put the phone down. That way, I was sure to get the essential information.

It’s a miracle that I didn’t get fired!

You not only kept your job, but it seems that you excelled.

Again, I made sure that my work stood for itself. I went on to manage helpdesk, technical support and ISP work for Cable and Wireless, T-Mobile and then moved over to Microsoft’s London office.

Was there a catalyst that led you to open up to HR about your disability?

I have to admit that Microsoft is no easy place to work. It was extremely challenging with all of the conference calls, dozens of acronyms and everyone talking a million miles per hour. Suddenly, I was like “whoa there, I’m in over my head, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Finally, the mentality, tactics and technology that I’d relied upon since my music education hit a wall. I decided that it was time to reach out to Microsoft Human Resources.

And how did they respond?

They really exceeded my expectations. You can be completely open about who you are here. It’s OK to be an individual and your differences are valued. HR put me in touch with all sorts of accommodations and provided support such as ASL interpreters and captioning. I am not told of the cost and my manager does not see the cost either. My challenge now isn’t if I can hear what’s going on, it’s how well I perform my job.

I love that I’m totally supported to do my best work and evaluated on my work performance alone.

Were you directed to employee groups for others with hearing disabilities at Microsoft?

I was directed to an online “huddle” for people with hearing disabilities. It was great as we could discuss everything from the best new hearing aids to how to deal with those pesky conference calls.

The value of our group got me thinking about people with other types of disabilities – some less represented at Microsoft or not represented at all. Disability affects one in five in the global population. Along with some others, we decided to create an “all up” cross-disability group – “The XD.” It’s an umbrella group for all of us at Microsoft and we’ve found amazing company support from Microsoft Global Diversity and Inclusion.

Did management get involved too?

Steven Sinofsky, President of Windows and Windows Live, became our management representation and brought a lot of passion and momentum to the table. With his support, we made a video for Microsoft Global Exchange (MGX) – an annual employee event - that was very well received. Steven has a great enthusiasm for accessibility. He, like us, really wants to enable people to be successful. But this has mostly been a grassroots effort and there are some amazing people at Microsoft that are passionate about this issue.

What’s next?

We’re going to continue to build our internal community and raise awareness with events such as Disability Day and getting events like the company meeting captioned. But we’re also looking forward to raising visibility externally, encouraging people to join and recruiting folks with a diversity of life experience that can bring different ideas and perspectives to the company.

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