After completing a degree in classical piano, Jeanne Parson toured with pop bands called Fairchild, DARE and The Shapes for much of the 1980s.
“We were on the road a lot, and I gravitated toward being in charge of the PA system, how we recorded tapes and how we mixed multi-track projects,” says Jeanne, now Audio Design Manager at the Bing Experiences Group in Microsoft Silicon Valley. “When synthesizers came into play, I studied them and learned every aspect of them. Suddenly, people in other bands were coming to me and asking how to program patches for their synthesizers or how to create a certain sound.”
This atypical start to a career in technology helped Jeanne to bring a unique perspective to the design of digital assistant Cortana’s voice – noted for its human-like personality.
Back when life as a touring musician started to take its toll, Jeanne, decided to do a Master’s Degree in electronic music at Mills College in Oakland. She says, “It was a fun, early stage of electronic music. I got to do some coding, I built a signal processor and we did concerts of pretty ‘out there’ interactive music.”
Jeanne was a music professor for a few years and was then headhunted to become a composer and sound designer for Atari. She says, “At that point, a lot of the music you wrote was actually in code and you had to learn to work with designers, software engineers and even some hardware designers.” After years in gaming and at toys companies like Leapfrog, Jeanne came to Microsoft in 2010 and got involved in text-to-speech initiatives.
In the run up to the Cortana launch, Jeanne worked on spoken dialogue design. She says, “I think that my background in music gives me a creative approach to speech-output design and a focus on the audience, too.” She continues, “We work with the dialogue designers who put words in Cortana’s mouth and design the ‘how she says it’ part, in collaboration with our awesome TTS Dev team over in Beijing. The fact that Cortana uses common verbiage, not necessarily correct grammar, is on purpose. Jeanne notes, “Cortana says things like, ‘Who do you wanna call?’ - she never says ‘whom.’”
Now that Jeanne’s team has created the spoken-voice design and the US voice for Cortana, they are looking to scale and localize for different world regions. “I’ve been working on the British voice, and the China team is already moving forward with the Chinese voice,” she says. “And the next up are what we call the F.I.G.S. languages (French, Italian, German and Spanish).”
Beyond all of the great technology, it’s her co-workers at Microsoft Silicon Valley who continue to inspire Jeanne. She says, “All of the audio people are kind of quirky. Everyone on my team is really interesting and has done videogame work or film design stuff too, so we’re always bringing in new and different ideas.”
She smiles, “A lot of us have been creative freelancers at different points, so we love having an interesting career with the strength and security of Microsoft behind us.”