Featured Woman in Technology: Rebecca Norlander

RebeccaNorlander Rebecca Norlander is one of my personal heroines.  Microsoft holds an annual Women's Conference, and I remember attending when I had just joined the company out of college, and being inspired by Rebecca's talk.  She is one of the most senior-level women at Microsoft. 

Rebecca currently owns strategy, planning, and high-level architecture for the Online Advertising group at Microsoft.  "Advertising can be evil and annoying, but it also connects people with the things that they want," Rebecca says.  When match.com has a membership special or Gap has a sale, there are consumers who want to know this information; the tricky part is making sure that it gets routed to them and not to people who are not interested.  Good advertising creates experiences which put people in touch with the goods and services that they want, and her vision is to mirror that in the digital space.  Rebecca enjoys this job for many reasons:

  1. Rebecca came to Microsoft because she wanted to change the world through technology, and that continues to be her driving motivation.  "I would love to change the face of advertising to make it less annoying and help people get the things that they want." 
  2. Rebecca enjoys taking risks and working in a competitive environment.  "There's always fun in competition!  Google is winning right now, and I enjoy competing and finding new paths to success in a world that is dominated by someone else." 
  3. There’s a huge technical challenge here that appeals to the systems geek in Rebecca: creating the next generation online advertising platform is basically about building a gigantic, truly distributed OS – that specializes in serving advertising content relevantly and efficiently.
  4. Rebecca is excited by the possibilities in advertising.  If done right, advertising could be a huge business for Microsoft.  Roughly $600 billion is spent worldwide on advertising.  If the online world is 10% of that, that is a $60 billion opportunity.  "It could be an amazing new business for Microsoft (the next Windows or Office), and being a pioneer to help create that business is pretty cool." 

With this demanding role, Rebecca manages to balance work and her outside life by purposefully planning activities to force her to leave work.  "I like to work and can get caught up in it and work all night.  Planning a run with other people or having dinner with friends clears your head and lets you focus on other things." 

Rebecca didn't always plan on a career with computers.  At Boston University, she started out as a biomedical engineer, wanting to manufacture heart valves and allow people to lead better lives.  (Rebecca's mother has had three heart valve replacements.)  Rebecca didn't enjoy this path; her undergraduate work was all rote memorization, and she likes learning and applying her brain.  She had taken Fortran in both high school and college and loved that class.  "You wrote code that turned into machine language that made the computer do something."  Rebecca got her first taste of programming in high school.  She had always liked math, and her favorite math teacher advertised his programming class in her math class, so she decided to take it.  Also, it was held at the local community college so she got to leave campus ("which I did frequently anyway").  :)  Rebecca loved the creativity that Computer Science offered.  During her sophomore year of college, she switched from BioMed to Computer Science and never looked back. 

Rebecca started with Microsoft immediately after college.  She began as a developer in the Excel Business Unit, which later became part of Office.  She transitioned into a program manager role with the goal of "fixing COM" (making it easier to use so more people would use it!) in Windows.  Other roles have included program managing Internet Explorer, driving Windows XP SP2 and leading security efforts, and serving as Ray Ozzie's technical strategist.  (Click on the links for various Channel 9 interviews with Rebecca on these projects.)  Her last role was particularly noteworthy: Bill Gates, and now Ray Ozzie, have always had a right-hand technical strategist (internally at Microsoft, this role is called a TA or technical assistant) to bounce ideas off of; that person has to be highly technical and visionary.  Rebecca was the first woman to hold the post of technical strategist to the Chief Software Architect at Microsoft (the role previously held by Bill Gates and now held by Ray Ozzie).  Rebecca enjoyed working closely with Ray.  "He is a great balance between being a geek and a person who knows what technology can be used for.  Our discussions centered around what software can do for people, not just technology for technology's sake." 

Rebecca's success is due in part to the fact that she's not afraid to be visible.  She participated in a big meeting for senior women in Windows, in which several male executives asked for feedback on why there were not more high-level women in Windows.  Rebecca posed a scenario: when an opportunity comes up, go through your mental Rolodex and choose some people that you think would do a good job.  The male executive went through this exercise, and realized that all of the people that he thought of were male and white.  He was not purposefully trying to exclude women or people of color; he simply had relationships with mainly white males.  Rebecca advised that the next time that they have an opportunity, cast a wider net: they were welcome to call her and leverage her network of women candidates for the position.  Soon after, that executive called Rebecca and offered her the position to lead the Windows XP SP2 initiative. 

Rebecca's advice to other women in technology: "Rock what you've got!  You have to be true to yourself.  Tech people were drawn to tech for a reason.  Even if it's not the reason that everyone else has, be true to that reason and that passion in yourself, and be the star of your own agenda."