On being a female program manager at Microsoft
This is a story about being a woman in tech. It’s also a story about working at a big company, and how bad managers can stall your career.
I earned a PhD in programming languages from Carnegie Mellon, then I did a 2-year postdoc on the Scala team in their university research lab. I decided that I wanted to do something more practical and move to industry instead. So, six years ago, I joined Microsoft as a program manager. I was excited about my product and excited to join the team.
It turned out that the team was dysfunctional, through no fault of their own. They had been without a full-time PM for over a year, and it showed. They also lost their test lead (this is back when there was a separate test team), and 2 months after I joined, the dev lead also left. They couldn’t replace his position, because the org was over its allotted headcount. The team morale was terrible. They had just had their year-end career reviews, and the stack ranking system had not been kind.
So here I was, new to Microsoft and new to program management, with a dysfunctional team on my hands. Then I learned the organization had its own problems: shortly after I joined, the director of PM and the director of dev left the company. It turned out they left because they had mismanaged multiple projects and got a vote of “no confidence” from the VP.
Amid all this chaos, I tried to be a good PM. I fought for my product — sometimes hard — and faced constant pushback from other teams. The division’s main project was at risk and everyone was scrambling.
I had no dev lead or test lead, so I took more of a leadership role. I used team standup meetings to keep the devs on track and improve the team culture. Over time, things got better. We shipped on time with good quality. We built a great community that is still very active today. But, it was not easy. I was under constant stress. I felt trapped. I felt as though the entire project was on my shoulders.
I thought that my manager would understand that I was in a difficult situation and that it was hard to accomplish the same amount as my peers. Unfortunately, while she recognized that my team was not ideal, she thought I should have done more to improve matters. She compared my results to those of my teammates, ignoring the fact that they had been PMs at Microsoft for years and worked on products that were important to the org. When I talked to her about my team’s problems, she was unsympathetic and responded as though I was just complaining.
In my yearly review, I got a lot of feedback about the way I did my job. I was too aggressive, too difficult, too pushy.
In my yearly review, I got a lot of feedback about the way I did my job. The “how” was very important, I was told. I was too aggressive, too difficult, too pushy. Perhaps that was true. But I was holding everything together myself, with essentially no support from anyone in a leadership position. The stress probably did make me worse at my job, and more aggressive than I would have otherwise been. But I doubt a male would have gotten the same feedback.
When I was in academia, I got feedback on my work, not my personality. Academia was less competitive: people didn’t see it as a zero sum game.
I was surprised to see this in my review. When I was in academia, I got feedback on my work, not my personality. Despite the fact that everyone was quite brilliant, academia was less competitive: people didn’t see it as a zero sum game.
Finally, I decided to leave the team for another in Microsoft. At first, it seemed promising. Then I learned that my product was failing. In fact, it had never done well. My manager expected that my feature would improve the product’s success. This wasn’t actually reasonable, but that was the metric he cared about. It was the metric that defined how well I did on my review and whether I would get a promotion (I didn’t).
Despite my asking for bigger opportunities, I saw project after project handed to my peers instead of me.
I wouldn’t call any of these managers “sexist,” but I can’t help feeling that a man would have been treated differently. Perhaps there was unconscious bias at play; perhaps I didn’t act the way women should, and this bothered people. Despite my asking for bigger opportunities, I saw project after project handed to my peers instead of me. Without opportunities to do important work, my career stalled.
To be clear, I don’t think the situation was sexist per se. Many other women do fine at Microsoft, but I think that those who are “too assertive” have problems. My first manager, for instance, has a more indirect style, and she has excelled in her career.
In retrospect, I should have defended myself more, especially to my first manager. I should have left these teams 6–12 months before I did. I stuck it out because I believed things would get better, and I didn’t realize just how miserable I was.
Eventually, I found a great team with a great manager, and I like my job. I no longer panic when a reorg is announced. My career is going well. But, I have realized that a job you don’t love is not worth it, not when you’re in tech. And, unconscious bias is everywhere; I’m guilty of it myself. I’ve learned to be less aggressive (which is probably better anyway), but I still stand up for myself. I proudly list my accomplishments at the end of the year, and I make sure everyone knows what I’ve done.
What I’ve learned
People rarely go out of their way to recognize the work of others. Everyone needs to promote themselves more. Women are especially bad at this, because we think it’s “bragging.” Screw that. “Brag” away. No one knows what you’ve done at your desk and how important it was, unless you tell them. Not only is it good for your career, it’s often useful information. Your coworkers will learn of your strengths and will know they can come to you for help.
Make sure you recognize those around you, especially those who are more quiet. This isn’t just women; I’ve seen plenty of quiet men at Microsoft who have had their careers stall. Make sure to praise others publicly. If you’re on a good team, your coworkers are probably as awesome as you are. I know mine are.
I didn’t realize how miserable I was at work until I found a job I loved.
Finally, ask yourself every week: is my job fun? Do I enjoy being here? If the answer is “no” week after week, perhaps you should consider a change. I didn’t realize how miserable I was at work until I found a job I loved. You deserve a job you love too.