Best of Systers

Kiara Lynne Says “Yes” to Microsoft

Kiara Lynne Williams

The dream of going away to college and being successful is not the reality for a vast number of children in my hometown of the South Bronx in New York City due to known economic, social, and educational inequalities. Computer Science did not exist in my world until I went to college. Since I excelled in mathematics in high school, I went into college seeking a mathematics degree. I only used computers to type papers, play solitaire, and surf the web. Learning to code allowed me to communicate with computers while creatively expressing myself as I programmed; however, I felt as though I was not able to succeed in computer science classes since my performance did not measure up to my peers. On numerous occasions my professor told the class to divide into teams and I struggled to join a group, often being left as the last student. I began to think that as an African American woman, I was not supposed to take computer science classes because I did not fit the stereotype of a computer scientist. As the minority of my groups, I had to prove to my teammates that I am a great computer science student. I did everything I could to learn more about the computer science craft and hone my skills by asking my professors technical questions, staying in their office hours, and even finding mentors to assist me. As a result, my teammates and I excelled and we often earned the best group project grades. My hard work and persistence allowed me to earn my first college A. In addition to being proud of my achievements, I proved to my peers, and myself, that I am a woman of color who is worthy and capable to excel in technology.

My journey has been a thrill ride, as I have learned so much in such a short time that I am reaping the benefits of all the bumps in the roads, detours and changes in direction.  At DePauw University, I studied Computer Science and Women’s Studies.  There were only 2 women professors in our computer science department, Dr. Khadija Stewart and Dr. Gloria Townsend. Both women gave me an abundant amount of direction and advice. Both women also encouraged me to get involved and exposure to the world of women in computing by serving as a computer science tutor, joining and leading the DePauw Association of Computing Machinery for Women (ACM-W)/Women in Computer Science (WiCS), and participating in the local regional conferences. In 2009, I received a scholarship from DePauw University to attend the Mid-West Women in Computing Conference. During this event I was able to give my first speech entitled “The Best Kept Secret of Computer Science”. After my speech, I met Kimberly McLeod, program manager with AnitaB.org (ABI) who shared a connection to my presentation. After speaking with Kimberly and learning about the session she was leading that evening, I volunteered to help pass out handouts during her workshop. Once her session was complete, I asked if I could keep in touch with her. Over the time of our relationship, I asked Kimberly if she could be my mentor and she agreed. Dr. Townsend, Dr. Stewart, and Kimberly are three mentors that really initiated my continued involvements in technology and with AnitaB.org.

During the 2010 Winter Term session at DePauw, I was tasked to help Dr. Gloria Townsend with the 2010 Indiana Celebration of Women in Computing Conference (InWIC part of Grace Hopper Regional Consortium) as the student coordinator. I was also able to earn a scholarship from DigitalKnowledge to attend the event and to give my second speech entitled “Women of Color in Computer Science”. Due to my involvements and participation in InWIC, I was able to earn a full scholarship from the National Science Foundation to attend the National Grace Hopper Conference (GHC) in Atlanta.  This was my first Grace Hopper Conference and even though I attended InWIC earlier that year, I was amazed to see so many women like me, majoring in Computer Science and deciding if we wanted to go straight into graduate school or begin working in the technology industry.

Grace Hopper Atlanta

At GHC Atlanta, I met other young black women students, industry reps and professors at the Women of Color luncheon.  From that lunch, Danielle Cummings (President of Aggie Women in Computer Science at Texas A&M), Nadine Shillingford (Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology), with the guidance of Kimberly McLeod, decided to create a new AnitaB.org community, Black Women in Computing (BWIC).  It would be a sub-community of Systers, who has the largest online community for technical women and joined Systers.  This community is where we can privately discuss challenges not only in the technical fields, but our challenges as black women.  Also while at GHC Atlanta, I attended the resume workshop and submitted my resume to GHC database.  The feeling of support from other women was overwhelming and it helped me confirm why I majored in Computer Science in the first place. Following the Grace Hopper Conference in Atlanta, I was able to earn another scholarship to the 2011 Ohio Celebration of Women in Computing Conference to present my next speech entitled “Diversity in Computer Science”. From all of the national and regional conference I was able to participate in, there were always a vast amount of opportunities for women in computing to learn, share, and connect. I found this to be the most empowering aspect of these events I was definitely able to network and meet some of the most amazing women in technology who inspired me to continue and build a career in the field.

My Path to Microsoft

When I submitted my resume, I seriously thought it would just be part of large pool of other qualified candidates.  But low and behold, I received a call a few weeks later that Microsoft would like to set up a phone interview which eventually turned into a face-to-face interview at their North Carolina campus.  The interview was for a Software Engineering position.  I was so glad to even been considered to work at a large and respectable company like Microsoft.  During my interview I discussed my strengths and computer programming classes at school. I mentioned some of the extracurricular projects I was working on where I had an opportunity to manage a team and a $100,000 budget for DePauw in order to produce concerts on campus for the students. As a result, I was able to work on over 6 productions with artists such as Third Eye Blind, Wale, Big Sean, Lupe Fiasco, Asher Roth, Fabolous, Mike Posner, DJ L,  Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, Gabriel and the Submarines, Kelley James, and Jacks Mannequin. I also talked about my research projects and how I was heading to Ghana, Africa the day after the interview to learn about the struggles women experience within the Ghanaian educational system.  The interview went well, at least I thought it did and I heard back from Microsoft a few weeks later while I was in Africa.  The news was far behind what I expected and to be honest, I just didn’t know how to respond.  Microsoft gave me an offer through the Microsoft Academy for College Hires Program (MACH) for a senior Program Manager position because they felt it was a better fit rather than a Software Engineer.  As I said earlier, I didn’t know how to respond and they did provide me with time to give them an answer.  I talked to one of my male friends who also studied Computer Science and he point blank told me to tell Microsoft “NO”.  He said “if they didn’t want you for the Software Engineer position, then you really shouldn’t accept it.”  Other friends were telling me the same thing that maybe Microsoft wasn’t going to be a good fit.  But why not? I really had to reflect on my experiences and what I have been capable of doing. The fact that Microsoft saw my potential made me feel confident in my skills and willingness to take on new challenges. As a result, I accepted the position with multiple relocation options. New York was the location option that caught my attention. I’m originally from the South Bronx and couldn’t help to jump at the opportunity of departing rural Greencastle, Indiana to be back with my family and friends in New York City.

Where I am today

When I told my mom that Microsoft offered me a position and I accepted the offer, my mom was in her pure element.  She said, “I knew you were something, but I didn’t know you were something else.”  The last 3 years have been a whirlwind for me and Microsoft played a large role into me getting a great start right out of college.  In my role as an Education Services Program Manager, I have never been more challenged technically and professionally. I love my career at Microsoft as it brings so many different flavors all into one. As an Education Service Program Manager, I am responsible for the end to end development, production, and management of educational technical trainings on Microsoft technologies for enterprise IT professionals within the US. In addition, I have been able to join a number of communities including Blacks at Microsoft (BAM) and SMSG Women. At Microsoft, we’re encouraged to create and grow the incredible opportunities for professional and leadership development. In turn, I have had the opportunity to serve as an event lead, presenter, panelist and committee member for a number of events including the at the 2011 & 2012 Microsoft New York Women’s Leadership Conference, 2012 Meet Microsoft: Networking for Women in Technology, Blacks at Microsoft New York Urban League Student Empowerment Days,  and the 2013 Microsoft New York International Women’s Day Conference.

In 2011, I was able to receive support from Microsoft to attend and participate in the 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration in Portland, Oregon.

GHC 2011 Panel Kiara

During this experience I was able to serve as the youngest Profile of Success in the Building Your Brand as a Technical Leader or Expert session (Jo Miller as Moderator) among a very experienced panel which included a distinguished engineer from Cisco, a director from NetApp, and an architect from Massachusetts General Hospital. During this same conference, I was able to serve as the co-founder & panelist of the Black Women in Computing: Increasing Numbers through Networking session (Danielle Cummings as Moderator). During the Black Women in Computing event, we were able to bring a group of black women come together to share our own experiences in computing while simultaneously trying to figure out ways in which we can spark the interest of other black women to join us in the field. After the conference I was able to share my experience with the Microsoft community through a newsletter. Soon after, I was able to gain visibility with our leadership team and was highlighted as a Diversity and Inclusion Champion for my contributions and Diversity & Inclusion for efforts towards the advancement of women and diversity in technology. I have also been able to find champions, mentors, and advocates fairly quickly.  Everyone is always willing to help each other grow and be successful at Microsoft because they understand how important it is to impact, inspire and make a difference.

I always believed that learning never stops and I encourage everyone that I encounter to take full advantage of the opportunities around us to enhance our skills. I have always had an interest in business but I not been able to engage in a business course in college. As a result, I am currently enrolled in Entrepreneurship School where I am developing the Knowledge Leadership & Women NYC Conference (klwnyc). The goal of the conference is to connect women leaders and entrepreneurs in NYC so we can reflect and share our achievements while learning new strategies to enhance our core leadership and business skills. In order to hone my information technology, project management, and business skills I have enrolled into DePaul University to begin working on my Master of Science in Information Technology starting in the Fall of 2013.

Paying It Forward

What I have learned from Microsoft in such a short time is to always give back in some way.  No matter how big or small, paying it forward reaps significant and fulfilling rewards, not in monetary form, but personally.  Born and raised in the South Bronx, I am not even going to lie, there were and still are many economic, social, and educational inequalities and challenges that exist.  I participate in the Big Brother Big Sister program as a Big Sister and mentor for a young high school girl from the Bronx who faces many of the same challenges I have had to overcome.  My teenage brother tells his friends, “my sister understands” mainly because I am just a few years older than he is and through sharing my experiences with him and my little sister, it makes such a difference in their lives and what they are experiencing today as members of the youth in the South Bronx.

I graduated from DePauw University in May 2011. It was here where I grew a passion for Women in Technology, as I studied Computer Science and Women’s Studies. I told my old ACM-W advisor that I was going to be on campus in November and she asked if I could spend some time with the current chapter members and computer science students. During my visit to my alma mater, I was able to meet with undergraduate women (including a number of my mentees who are now seniors) and speak about the amazing opportunities that exists for them in the field of technology. The women in attendance had many great questions about what they should do to find summer research opportunities and when to start applying to graduate school or looking for jobs. Some women really wanted to know if they could still have fun while being a computer science student. Throughout this session we had an open and honest conversation about the vigorous work load of their computer science course, ways in which they can leverage all of their support systems for help, how they can get involved in the ACM-W DePauw Chapter, how they can still have fun and be computer science students, and how they can gain exposure to the endless opportunities for women by participating in regional and national conferences such as the Annual Grace Hopper Celebration through presenting their research posters or giving a speech. I also made sure they were aware of the career opportunities that exists for them at Microsoft through our MACH (Microsoft Academy of College Hires) Program and encouraged them to apply when they were ready.

I was invited to an AnitaB.org special event early March 2013 at the Facebook NY office to explore regional hubs and I metsome amazing women in the NY tech community.  A few NYC Systers were invited to lunch the following day with AnitaB.org Regional Hub Director, Suzanne Andrews, to really hear about our (NYC) needs and how AnitaB.org can help.  I also hope to get involved with Per Scholas who o are doing amazing things for people in low-income communities by providing access to technology education and training for job placement.

Kiara NY Event

Helping to inspire other women and men has been a true grace.  Through my family, DePauwAnitaB.org, Grace Hopper Regional, Grace Hopper CelebrationSystersBlack Women in Computing, and Microsoft, I have had a serious amount of support from a lot of great women and men along the way.  This year’s Grace Hopper theme is “Think Big. Drive Forward.” This is exactly what I’m doing.  And even though I’m growing and nurturing in my role at Microsoft with an amazing leadership team, champions and advocates, I’m humbled by the fact that I’m still “Ki” from the South Bronx.

Additional References:

2011 GHC Scholarship Spotlight http://gracehopper.org/2011/news/scholarship-spotlight-kiara-lynne-williams/