POSTED ON October 08 2014

CAREER IS IN:

Introducing

Dona Sarkar

Occupation

Principal Engineering Lead, Microsoft

Education

University of Michigan – Computer Science

[Welcome to I Want Her Job's second Women at Microsoft Week! We're celebrating the female force behind the company as we join the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, happening now in Phoenix. If you're going to be there be sure to tweet us @iwantherjob. Today's article is the third in a series of four that will help you find out what it's like -- and how you can -- land your dream job at one of the biggest companies changing the face of business.]

Dona Sarkar grew up in downtown Detroit and attended a middle school that she says is now, “a crack den hole in the ground. It doesn’t exist anymore.” But Dona didn’t know of her surroundings at the time. All she knew was that she loved reading; loved it so much she’d often get in trouble for reading too much. And she had another love: a computer class that had one computer. In that class, she was learning to use a keyboard. “Now, looking back, I realize how groundbreaking that really was for that school,” Dona says.

Then, in early high school, both of her parents who were working and attending school while taking care of Dona and her sister, decided to move the family to the Detroit suburb of Novi. “I’m so different from everyone else,” Dona says. “I always have been, and I was determined to be better than that circumstance. My parents did a fantastic job given what they had. I secretly had a huge goal to one day walk into a Macy’s store and buy something without looking at the price tag. I couldn’t wait for an opportunity to grow up and not be bound by downtown Detroit.”

Dona found that opportunity in tech after falling in love with her first computer science class; one she took at a community college while she was a junior in high school. And now, as a principal engineering lead for Microsoft, Dona takes her role as female tech ambassador very seriously. Whenever she’s not working at the tech giant on projects so cool she can’t always talk about them, designing clothing (she makes her own dresses) or writing her next book (set for release next year and titled, You Had Me At Hello, World!). she’s mentoring other women via Skype and answering emails with advice on how they, too, can enter the world of tech. “I realized that tech is the greatest get rich scheme in the world,” Dona says. “You get a four-year degree and you make all this money. You don’t need a master’s or a doctorate. You just start working at a great company.”

Find out how Dona inspires other women, designs the next great thing for Microsoft products and how she didn’t let a failing grade in computer science stop her. But wait, that’s a spoiler alert! Her story is so amazing, we broke it into two parts. Catch part one today to learn how she got into tech, then come back tomorrow to learn why Dona is Microsoft’s hidden threat — and the next greatest female tech rock star.

“I failed my first programming class. It was the most devastating moment I’ve ever had. I sat there alone in shock thinking, “This can’t be right. This is what I was going to do. This is what I was going to become.”

How did you first discover tech?
I was in high school in the mid-90s when technology was becoming a big thing. I kept coming across articles about young people who were launching their own startups and were the CEO of their own company. I would tell my dad about it. He’s a total feminist, and he told me, “There’s no reason you can’t get into this and be very successful.” “But I know nothing,” I responded. “Well, then you should learn it. Do your research,” he said.

I did my research. It turns out if you’re good at math and logic, then you’re good at programming. I used to love playing Oregon Trail, and more than anything, I wanted to make a game like that. Growing up in underprivileged downtown Detroit, we were fortunate to have one computer and a very basic computer class. I went to this computer class after school and found myself in front of five guys who were in there. They said, “The French Club is down the hallway.” “I’m actually in French Club, but I’m here to program a game,” I responded. They started laughing.

After two sessions with this group of guys, they still wouldn’t talk to me or collaborate with me. I no longer wanted to be there; it wasn’t something I looked forward to. I went home and told my dad it just wasn’t going to work out.

“Is this what you want?” he asked me. “Yes, I want to give this a shot,” I said. So, together we looked at different options. We found a class offered by a community college near us. My dad said he’d come to community college and take an English composition class while I took a computer programming class. This class is where I realized tech had me at, “Hello, world!” I loved how in this class there was always a right answer. I immediately knew whether my code was working or not. Did it compile? Did it run and do what I expected? Coding isn’t mysterious at all. It’s definitive.

During that class, my project was to create a real estate website. It required a very basic user interface, but I made it by myself. It wasn’t the most fun thing in the world to make, but learning the skills and how to make this website was huge to me. So, the lesson here is that even when though those nerds shunned me from their club, I still figured it out..

Wow! It’s hard to believe you were a junior in college taking community college computer science classes. Take that, boy nerds! After you graduated high school, what were the next steps you took to pursue a career in tech?

I went to college at the University of Michigan and enrolled in EECS 100, Introduction to Programming. When I arrived at the University of Michigan, I realized what a big deal it was, so I spent my life studying.

When I was still in high school, my favorite thing to do was calculus, even when I was too young for it. I entered college with a perfect GPA and good ACT and SAT scores. Because college was all on scholarships and student loans, my parents helped as much as they could. I wanted to take it seriously and show them this was the best investment they ever made. I was a college student who wanted to study.

What was your first college computer science class like?

I entered computer science class thinking it would make sense, based on my previous community college experience. Instead, it was all about bits and gates. I didn’t understand it at all. Then we quickly moved on to binary programming and then assembly programming. I didn’t know what was going on. I was not doing well.

At the end of the semester after finals one day, I went to my mailbox and saw my grade card. I went up to my room. I sat down. English – A. Math – A. Something else – B. Computer science – E. In my school, an ‘E’ meant I got a ‘F’. I failed my first programming class. It was the most devastating moment I’ve ever had. I sat there alone in shock thinking, “This can’t be right. This is what I was going to do. This is what I was going to become. Those nerds were right. I can’t believe those nerds were right.”

I emailed my professor, then I sat there for hours. It grew dark outside. I had to call my parents and tell them. I told my dad and he was in shock, like me, because I’d never failed at anything before. Ever. I kept thinking, “How can this be?”

To move on, I started researching other majors. I thought about applying to business school, but at the end of winter break, I still wanted to be a computer scientist. I just liked it. So, with my dad’s support, I took the computer science class again.

The class was still hard the second time, but I got it. I knew what was coming. I went to see the teacher’s assistants many times – making sure I understood each section. And I ended up getting a ‘B’ after that second class. Sure, it might have taken me longer than it took other people, but I didn’t give up because this is what I wanted to do.

For so many other kids in my classes in college, the introduction to computer science was not new to them. They’d studied it for years. I learned that in other high schools, the students had the option to take something called ‘AP Computer Science’, which was pretty much the same content I’d been surprised by first semester. My school hadn’t had it. When I understood that’s what I was up against, I realized I was doing pretty well.

How did you parlay your college experience into your first internship?

I was looking for an internship during the tech bubble, when companies started to take off and then crash. I really wanted an internship, because I knew this was the only way I was going to get a job. The word around campus was that companies were only hiring juniors — if anyone — for their internships. I was only a sophomore.

I’ve always loved fashion and I remember reading an article that said to dress for the role you want. So I thought, “I can do that. I’m going to dress like I’m going to an internship every day.” I woke up every morning, put on a suit and proceeded to the engineering library where all the interviews were taking place. This is where I would create all of my projects, write all my code and play games.

One week in November, I walked in and saw a guy who was clearly a recruiter. He was walking around looking lost. I walked up to him and asked if I could help. He said, “I’m from Autodesk and I was wondering if you know where the interview rooms are. I assume you’re headed there.” He gestured to what I was wearing.  We walked there together and talked. He asked me how busy I was with interviewing season and what I was working on. I told him I just made a game and was looking into operating systems. He asked if I was interviewing at Autodesk. I told him no, because I didn’t think our schedules aligned.

When we reached the interview room he told me about an opening in his schedule. He was originally going to call into a meeting, but he said because I was so helpful, he’d rather interview me. I couldn’t believe it. My moment arrived. I ran back to my workstation and immediately started preparing for my first-ever technical interview. I did nothing for hours but take deep breaths and study.

A few hours later, I went in for my Autodesk interview. This is the company that makes AutoCAD, which is a really big deal. My parents both worked for car companies, so I had learned about this program. As we were talking, I drew on that experience and told him that I understood the AutoCAD customer, because they were people like my parents. Then, as in all technical interviews, I did some coding. The interview ended, I sent him a thank you email and some pointers for places to grab lunch because I realized he missed his lunch by interviewing me. Then, I resumed my actual work. I had quizzes coming up, after all!

Two weeks later, Autodesk offered me an internship.

That’s the power of presenting yourself as you want to be perceived. People want to work with people they like. That guy thought I was helpful. He thought, “I want someone like you at my company.” Now that I hire lots of people, I know that the ability to communicate, learn, deal with ambiguity and radiate ambition is key. The person who checks those boxes is the person I want on my team, because they can figure things out. Be this person. You’ll be amazed how many doors it can open for you.