As a student at the University of Waterloo in Canada, where the engineering curriculum blends classroom learning with internships, or, in the Canadian vernacular, co-ops, Karen Leonard was presented with what she believed was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "I had the chance to go to California for the fall semester for an internship at Microsoft", she recalls. "I had to try it out."
Not long ago, Leonard, who is now an engineering manager with the Xbox console systems development team, celebrated 10 years with Microsoft - a milestone she says is not uncommon. "Seeing people celebrate 10- and 15-year anniversaries is part of our culture," she says, "and it's motivating to see good people remain here."
Her team, she says, functions as a funnel. She and her colleagues are responsible for getting the Xbox console into production, which entails ensuring that all of the components - from plastics and power supply to acoustics specs - are ready for manufacturing. The team also strives for consistency among different types of consoles. "There are many different flavors of consoles, but we want to make sure they all perform the same," she says. "If we notice unusual behavior patterns we address them."
From her days as an intern to the present, Leonard sums up her Microsoft experience with one word: enablement. As an intern, she demonstrated a board she'd worked on to Steve Ballmer. And today, she says the words "realize your potential" are not simply a tag line but a call to action. "From my experience, Microsoft cares about the growth and development of people," she says. "There are a lot of different things you can do within a group, especially over the long run."
Key to remaining at Microsoft over that long run, she says, is the focus on learning. "I am still learning all the time," she says. "Our management team even makes learning a big part of mistakes. I've made mistakes before, and the way it's been handled is very encouraging. We look at it and figure out how to fix it and how to learn from it. When I see that happen, I think, 'This is how you solve problems.'"
The commitment to learning, she says, is a big factor of the environment in which her team works. "We've kept it very forward thinking," she says. "We've cultivated this environment and we protect it because it's good."
Seeing her contributions at work is also a big part of her job satisfaction. "If you've helped set up infrastructure or put processes in place and you see them pay off in the form of easier design and smoother testing, it's gratifying," she says. "I also get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing my direct reports become experts."
As a hardware engineer, she says that one of the advantages of working at Microsoft is that if she can make a compelling justification for a resource, the company makes it available. "I needed an oscilloscope to look at signals on the motherboard," she says. "While it costs as much as a car, using it enables me to do my job better."
Finally, there's the Xbox factor. "I think it's cool that we work on a product that so many people know," she says.