Laura Butler Interview

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ThinkSTEAM had the chance to interview Laura Butler: Microsoft’s first female technical fellow…


By: Jothi Ramaswamy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Date: 3/14/16

ThinkSTEAM: Tell us about yourself and where you grew up (background, etc.).

Laura Butler: I was very fortunate to attend a great public high school in Glastonbury Connecticut.  Glastonbury is a suburb of Hartford, not a fancy wealthy extension of New York City.  The teachers were fantastic, the classes were too, and the students were smart and motivated.  The captain of the cheerleading team went to MIT!  I got to take a lot of AP-level classes and some for college credit via Yale.  It helped me get into Harvard and hold my own.  I didn’t know how fortunate I was until I moved to Seattle where public education is funded differently and has challenges.
Before that, we moved around a lot in New England and with a brief period in Superior Wisconsin.  It is freaking cold in Superior at least 4 months of the year, which made reading and studying extra attractive.  My mom put herself through college and graduate school while working and raising me.  She’s been an incredible role model and is my #1 hero.  I learned that trying and making an effort is what gives you dignity, there’s no shame in work, and if it doesn’t go the way you hoped you pick yourself up and try again.  Self-worth and respect come from giving it a go and the only failure is not to try.  I also learned how to adapt and handle myself in different new situations, which has come in handy in the fast-paced software industry.  Most of all, from the beginning, she transmitted a love of books and learning and knowledge.  That what is in your head and heart no one can take away from you and that knowledge is freedom and power.

ThinkSTEAM: How would you describe your personality and perspective of STEM?

Laura Butler: My personality is irreverent, snarky, impatient, quirky, playful, and contrarian.  I watched a lot of Bugs Bunny cartoons, Star Trek, and MacGyver growing up.  Who you are just is, not bad, not good, it just is.  The trick is to find the challenges and spaces where you play to your strengths, where being yourself is an advantage.  Innovation, discovery, problem solving, and computer science turn out to be such spaces for me.

 

Innovation is a deviation from the normal and the majority.  It requires skepticism of the status quo, looking at the world differently, not being afraid to question authority and the rules.  To bring other people along with you as collaborators or customers requires understanding and empathy for the human condition.  I don’t know that I was a natural leader when I was in school, I suspect I was just bossy. 🙂  The thing is, I don’t view science and art, math and literature, as different things.  The point of science and technology is life, to give capabilities and freedom and time and quality to peoples’ lives.  To be great and successful requires operating in both realms.  I worry that STEM sometimes attracts people for the wrong reasons, appearing as an escape from humanity and as a refuge for pure logic and theoretical exercises.  I also worry that STEM repels some people for seeming to be this weird thing separate from real life, and that is just plain wrong.

ThinkSTEAM: When did you first become interested in science and STEM?
Laura Butler: 
When I was first able to read.  Science, STEM, history, geography, fiction, poetry, painting, optics, adventure travel, inventors, theorems, philosophy, language … all interesting and inter-related.  If you don’t have words in your language for something, how can you conceive of it?  And to make something new a person has to imagine and dream of it first.  Then they have to convince others it’s a good idea.

I always loved math.  I felt like Sherlock Holmes or Veronica Mars with this special toolkit that let me figure out problems other people would bump their heads up against.  I love the purity of things like geometry but also the practicality.  You can use it to solve mysteries and win battles.  I also loved the stories of the ancient Greek mathematicians, it humanized the subject for me and made it approachable.  Math and philosophy schools were the sports teams of their time, with fans and heated debates and merchandise and even lifestyle choices.  The Pythagoreans avoided eating beans!  Check it out on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.

But computer programming came late.  My first experience with a computer was freshman year at Harvard, fall of 1987.  They had a requirement that all students should be able to login and use email.  I failed this test.  I had to take a class to meet the requirement.  I got steered towards a statistics and math for dummies course and away from a “real” programming course.  Being a contrarian I signed up for the programming course.  It was crazy hard at first, extra difficult to see the people with experience do their homework in minutes when it took me hours.

It finally clicked though.  I realized that programming is just one part mathematical problems and proofs, one part writing science fiction, one part detective work, one part arts & crafts, and one part psychology.  I understand things best by getting my hands on them and seeing real world examples.  Programming helps you explain approaches and rules and create systems.  That is what algorithms are.  It forces you to get concrete on how something should work but it also lets you analyze how something is or is not working.  I love that you can have an idea and then turn it into a thing you can show people and play with.  It doesn’t get easier than that to create.

 

ThinkSTEAM: What was your first experience with Microsoft?

Laura Butler: It was my first real job when I was in college.  I started as a summer intern after my sophomore year, Memorial Day Weekend 1989.  Schools were not teaching anything useful at the time for what the emerging software industry needed.  Microsoft and others were just looking for smart flexible unusual people who could be part of a Mission Impossible  group, people they figured they’d teach or who’d learn on the job. 

Truthfully, I was sold when the interviewers said “can we take you out for a free dinner?”  I was broke and hungry. 🙂  They made it easy for me to get to Seattle and once I did I was blown away.  It was like getting a color television after only having had a radio.  All of the facts and information and seemingly random exercises I did in school turned into real-world projects with meaning, purpose, and more.  No more tests with a right answer and a wrong answer, rigid forms and layouts, problem sets with unclear things to be gained or learned from them.  Instead, adventure!

ThinkSTEAM: In 2000 to 2006, what was it like to travel the world while you were taking a break from working?

Laura Butler: It was great to start with.  It sounds glamorous, right?  Be a world adventurer and traveler.  Well yeah, it is glamorous and fun but only in limited doses.  It took me a while to understand that whatever you do a lot of is “work” and the other stuff is “vacation”.  Travel is dessert for me, best enjoyed in contrast to a meal and as part of a balanced diet. 

I love variety and doing the same thing a lot loses its luster.  When you get to a point where you go “whatever, another ancient temple or painting of a mother with child”, it’s too much.  Also, it is good to have hobbies and passions that are separate from your “work”.  Besides giving you broader perspective and experience, it helps with balance.  If one is annoying you or frustrating, the other can make up for it.  This is why I did not major in literature in college, I was afraid I’d get sick of reading.  And reading is my comfort blanket.

ThinkSTEAM: Describe your experience with Microsoft.  How does it feel watching Microsoft grow as someone who helped with creating Microsoft Word™ and Windows at the very beginning?

Laura Butler: Microsoft has stayed fresh and new and interesting to me, which is why I am still here.  The world-wide impact and ability to literally touch every person on the planet is as exciting as it is frightening.  I have watched this company reinvent and remodel itself several times so far, and we’re going through a transformation now.  I aspire to live my life that way too, where I never get to set in my ways I can’t change or grow. 

I would love to say that I knew this Microsoft and Windows thing was going to be a huge success and I planned it all.  But that would be baloney.  And by the way, most of the time when you read about somebody and they say everything was part of their grand plan and they knew it all along, it is total absolute baloney.  I fell into it.  I just fell in at the right time, a time of infinite possibilities.  Nobody knew where it was going and there were not any hard ideas about who belonged or how it should be done.  It was an amazing experience to realize I had more in common with my co-worker from Cambodia than with a girl in my high school who on paper would look the same as me.  I was simply smart enough to run with it once it happened.

I feel like Microsoft is my company and my country.  Sometimes I feel like barbarians are attacking it and sometimes I feel like we’re our own worst enemy.  But it is mine and the only real issue is that the other 115,000 people don’t always realize they work for me.

ThinkSTEAM: What is your opinion on the gender gap in STEM?
Laura Butler: 
I hate how we talk about tech and computer science in particular.  It sounds boring and cliquey and off-putting.  The doomsday articles in the press do not help.  I think the more we talk about the purpose of all this, dreaming and creating and making things and improving the world, the more relevant and approachable it will be to all.  Not just women, but people from all walks of life.  And the thing is, those are the people who are least well-served by tech today.  That is where the growth is, that is where the new interesting ideas will come from, and that is the vast majority of the world.  We have pretty much saturated the market for stuff aimed at 21-30 year-old techie dudes in San Francisco with cool haircuts who make video game mods for fun.  

So let’s talk about problems and solutions.  It begins with things that are annoying or missing for each of us.  We’re the best people to make those things, we understand the situation.  Here’s one idea, I kicked off my speech at WECode 2016 with this one.  Go make microphones & audio/video equipment that work great for women!  I usually get this mike I’m supposed to clip on to my clothing with a bulky power pack.  If I’m wearing a nice blouse or a loose sweater, the mike hurts the clothing, slips, or causes my bra strap to show.  The power pack doesn’t usually fit in a pocket even if I have pockets.  If it does, it tends to pull my pants down.  Attaching in the back looks weird or bulky.  Somebody should come up with a better way!  Why don’t you try?

ThinkSTEAM: What is your advice for young girls who want to pursue research in STEM?

Laura Butler: You should try everything!  How do you know what you like or don’t like if you don’t try?  I try on shoes, I try different clothing and styles, I try different restaurants and foods, I go to different movies.  To me being “old” would mean being set in my ways.  Stay “young”.

And then I’d say, find a problem space or area that is personal to you, that you have passion for.  Tech can be used to help understand, explain, improve, enable, or solve almost any problem.  Use the thing you’re passionate about as an anchor for learning and using science, language, math, visual design, programming, and history.  Basic overviews and survey classes are good foundations.  Theory is a great solid base.  But the joy, the energy, the fun … those things come from making it real.  It is the difference between reading in the newspaper that 500,000 refugees from the Middle East are expected to settle in Greece … and meeting a few people on a ferry boat with all their possessions, scared and hungry. 

Fail fast, early, and often.  Growth mindset is one of the mantras Satya Nadella has for Microsoft.  Don’t be afraid and live your life in fear, unwilling to try or do anything unless you’re sure it will be perfect.  There is no perfect.  There is only doing, learning, correcting, and getting better.  Some of the best learnings I’ve had come from attempting something that did not work or fell over in spectacular or unusual ways.  Break things and take them apart!  You appreciate them so much more when you try to put them back together.

ThinkSTEAM