Sparking interest in Microsoft

IGNITE’s field trip to Microsoft campus works to increase interest in technology for girls

Renee Sailus, Staff Reporter
Originally published March 14, 2014

IGNITE club and several other girls in attendance on the Microsoft campus during their annual field trip.

IGNITE club and several other girls in attendance on the Microsoft campus during their annual field trip.

As somewhere around 40 to 50 girls file into the East Microsoft Campus main building, the buzz is one of excitement about a day away from school with friends, and about what they’re going to see. They’re all here for similar reasons. Some, like senior Raven Two Feathers, were excited to visit for a second time around.

“I didn’t go to the envisioning center and went to the Xbox One development to talk to its game developers,” Two Feathers said as she disembarked from the bus towards the building where the tour would begin. “And I need material for a new documentary. Overcoming the [male-biased] odds in the tech industry.”

This is the Microsoft field trip IGNITE (Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution) holds every year for their club and any girls that wants to sign up. IGNITE arranges these field trips in partnership with the software titan, a gracious host that rolls out the red carpet in the form of bright female guides, all employees of or under the wing of Microsoft. Padma Vaithiyam, a former Interlake High School graduate and student at the University of Washington, is one of the guides, and works at Microsoft under the MACH (Microsoft Academy for College Hire) program.

“Every six months you go into new work with a new team,” she explains. “They’re so diverse in terms of structure. After two years, you choose a team you want to work with [long-term].” Vaithiyam adds a piece of wisdom to the girls listening to her; “Take your time. Explore. You can take risks when you’re young.”

The first and only exhibit on the agenda is a walk-through of the Microsoft Envisioning Center. Here, the office, shopping space, and home of the future reside in streamlined, minimalist designs. The office of the future boasts a huge computer screen with which to video conference, with 3D modeling and augmented reality capabilities. In another room, dubbed the “executive huddle space,” there’s an electronic blackboard complete with virtual post-its.

Within the office there’s an odd white cube room with minimalist seating to face a screen that takes up much of the wall, on which timelines and costs of projects can be inspected, video tours and manufacturers can be found, and it all edits and adjusts itself in real time.

The host, Anne, who works with the envisioning team, explains “The envisioning Center is like a concept car – everything we’re interacting with based on research Microsoft is doing. You can’t buy it in the store.”

The next portion of the tour makes this obvious, as the group is led to a mock outdoor space with a kiosk selling toy cars. By setting a car on something like a tablet-topped table, which identified the car with a quick scan, offers a price, and checks the buyer out.

The last section the host can fit in is a visit to the home of the future; a large open space divided into a hobby space (with a 3D printer), a kitchen with a huge monitor set into a wall that can identify ingredients— automatically making edits for food allergies programmed in—  and shows an interactive chef that will correct mispronunciation of culinary terms, and give the chef step-by-step instructions.

The living room is host to a gigantic television that demonstrates a video conference capability between a grandmother and her hypothetical children. Flaunting its comprehensive entertainment system, a story is read by the grandmother, which requires participation by the children via a Kinect, which is capable of identifying a favored stuffed animal to integrate it into the story. Around the room, digital picture frames act as portals into the scenery of the story, and the lights adjust according to the setting.

When the tour ends, the girls cross the campus into another building for lunch with another middle school’s IGNITE club, and a panel of four women, one of whom was a host, to talk about their high school and university educations, and their careers and their experiences working with technology.

But what catches everyone’s attention are their backgrounds and motivations to join the tech industry.

Lindi Chatterton, a senior solutions manager, begins her story of technology education to an audience of good listeners, but gets their attention almost instantly with a powerful example of the sexism that existed— and still exists— in and about the technology industry. “When I was in high school, I really liked math, so I asked my counselor ‘what can i do with this?’ and he said ‘you can be a math teacher.’” Chatterton looks around the room, which is in rapt silence. “I didn’t want to be a teacher.” She goes on to describe her education, her job, and her day-to-day goings-on at Microsoft. Nobody interrupts except for questions. Everyone in the room is completely entranced.

It’s the same for the next woman, Vazjier Rosario, a service engineer, who was a teenage mother and wanted a better life for herself and children, the pursuit of which led her to join one of the best-paying and fastest-growing industries in Puerto Rico: technology. ”My advice [is that] if you want something, then you go for it.” Rosario said.

Cathi Rodgveller, the found of IGNITE, stands up from the sidelines and contributes a rousing reminder to the girls sitting, enthused and inspired, in the room.

“The greatest obstacle for women, often times, is confidence.” Rodgveller said.

“Don’t take that as a dig at your self esteem,” Autumn Aubury, an analysis and reporting manager quickly interjects. “We [women] think we didn’t do as much as we should have or could have, and we’re so hard on ourselves.”

A few girls unconsciously nod at this, making soft sounds of agreement. It strikes a chord for everyone; no one is left unaffected by the time the doors open and the IGNITE group climbs back on the bus. There is excitement thrumming in the air as the bus takes the girls back, and as it comes closer to Ballard, amazement at the envisioning center has not faded, nor has interest in what the women of the panel said. The IGNITE field trip will be remembered, and well-attended again next year.

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