Lessons learned from my time as a Microsoft intern

Lessons learned from my time as a Microsoft intern

On June 11, I was sitting in my 9 x 9 bedroom in the University District. I had opened every window of our little house to resist the impending heatwave, and I moved all of my completed assignments into neat little files in my Dropbox. The reality that junior year, the one was characterized by switching majors and long-term trajectories, was finally coming to the end, But I wasn’t done with change yet because my time Microsoft as a content developer intern was slated to start the next day.

Aleena, the incoming Microsoft intern. Those are words I never thought would be in the same sentence. I didn’t even know what to expect, since the shiny world of tech and technical writing was so new to me. I started processing all of this in the only way I knew how: I opened a blank Word document, saved it as “Microsoft reflections” and typed the following:

“What’s going to happen in the next 12 weeks? Who will I be? An interdisciplinary communicator with a passion for social impact, but now through the lens of a larger corporation and content experience? I hope that in this process, I stay grounded and remember what really matters to me: telling meaningful stories, ensuring that inclusion and vulnerability are central values in my work, and making connections with people and following up about what matters to them.”

When I received my internship offer a few months prior, I was ecstatic about it. I was curious to see if Microsoft, the company that everyone talked about for its top-notch software developers and reputation as part of the “big four,” was a good fit for me. In addition to developing a specific skill set related to technical writing and understanding the business case for Content Experience, I had to spend time walking the halls, trying out the espresso machine in the kitchen, and journaling in the lobby. In the process, I asked myself, "are these places that I could work at for a long time? And am I proud to buy a sweatshirt with this company’s name, or talk about it in everyday conversation?"

12 weeks later, I’m happy to report that I really do love working here. My team has been incredibly supportive of my growth and has allowed me to split my time among project deliverables, personal writing, and meetings with people who inspired me - I hope that everyone has a workplace as supportive and empowering as mine. During my time as an intern, I attended quite a few panel discussions, intern events (the signature event certainly confirmed my love of the Chainsmokers), and coffee 1:1s that had me running across campus to building cafes, only to politely decline an offer for a caffeinated beverage. I'm still in the process of figuring out what industry I want to dive into next, but I try to remember that I'm 20 years old and have 2 more years of undergrad - so I think I've got some time.

Specifics of my long-term career aside, I have learned so much from my 1:1s with people across the company, and I wanted to share some of my top insights. These are things that I hope to take “to go” and keep in mind as I return to school in the fall:
  • You can learn from everybody - yes, everybody. Journalism taught me this lesson a long time ago, but it's important to remember that everyone has a story to tell - you just have to take the time to listen. Get in the room with your role models and co-workers, and don’t be afraid to ask things like telling me more about what gets you out of bed in the morning, who your role models are, what motivates you, and how people can be a cheerleader for others.
  • Don't be afraid to ask - most of the time people say yes. I've met with my role models in the hopes that I can learn from them and teach them. I’ve learned about disciplines that I initially never dreamed of entering like software engineering and creative directing and worked at a company that created the software I'm using to write this story. I've realized that it's important to be honest about where you want to do or what you want to do and fight for it. If you know your ask, you might find yourself inching closer to a dream career. And if someone says no, ask them why.
  • Follow your interests with intensity, and search for moments when you feel like you're in the right line of work. If someone’s work piques your interests (bonus points if you find yourself thinking, “wow, I can do that as a full-time job?”), ask them about it! Get in the room, schedule a meeting, and engage with your field in whatever ways you can. Someone on my team is a content writer who dreams of being a creative director who can hire really talented people to contribute to her projects, so she finds ways to engage with people who are currently in this role.
  • The road to a career is seldom linear - and that's OK: While at Microsoft, I’ve talked to people who came here from a wealth of backgrounds - from teaching English in South Korea to a B.A. in criminal justice and internships at the state department. This is especially comforting for me to know that I don't have to know exactly where I'm headed in a year, let alone 5 or 10 years down the road. Given how fast technology changes, I'm not sure I'll know what jobs will exist in a few years, but I will focus on looking for supportive workplaces and roles that value storytelling, inclusion, and education.
  • The hardest thing to learn is enabling other people to be great: This is something that I'm still learning how to do, but I'd like to think that my mentors have done this for me. It’s the way that our mentors give me the tools that I need to succeed, but also ask my questions about how my projects are going so they can help me troubleshoot.
  • Offer a fresh pair of eyes to familiar problems - as an intern, I was able to do this because I new to the company and still learning how things work. Don't be afraid to leverage your unique disciplinary background when solving new problems.
  • Be bold, especially as tech continues to change. We could have never imagined the influence of the iPhone, Snapchat, and virtual reality just 10 years ago, so we're all preparing for innovations that might not exist yet. We all contribute to creating engaging customer experiences, but we have to be willing to enter new problem spaces, and maybe even set the precedence.
  • We need to have underrepresented minorities in the room when we're trying to solve complex problems: In order to achieve innovation, need people of color, women and women-identifying people, and the LGBTQ+ population to be present and encouraged to participate in the conversation. By demonstrating a commitment to diversity, we can start to create products that will work in places far removed from our office spaces.
  • Writing will always be a strength: Whether you're evangelizing your feature area or convincing executives that your project is valuable to the company’s business goal, communicating is half the battle. Writing, like design, is a user-centered process because you have to recognize the perspective of your target audience to anticipate their needs and respond in a relevant manner.
  • Mentorship is a two-way street: Whether I'm meeting with an entry-level content developer or the chief storyteller at Microsoft, I always try to make the conversation valuable for both of us. When seeking mentorship, have clear goals for yourself and what you want to get out of it, but remember that your insight or perspective might be a teaching moment for the other person as well.
  • Make room for new memories and opportunities to grow, so don't settle for a place that doesn't honor your skills. Like my friends often remind me, never come this far only to come this far.
  • Tech is an amazing industry to be in right now: Perhaps this is a simple notion, but everyone is really aware that we're lucky to be working on digital technology at a time when what we do shapes every part of life and the economy, worldwide. How cool is it that our jobs involve building products and features that will (hopefully) be used by people around the world every single day?

At the of the day, it's about the people and the ways that we enable each other to achieve out goals. It's important to look for relationships with people who want you to be better. Build different relationship circles, and surround yourself with people who think differently than you (or be the person that brings a different perspective to the table).

Maybe the most important thing I've personally learned is that I'm worthy of things like an amazing internship at Microsoft, fulfillment in my work and life, and co-workers who empower me - I want all of it to be set to really good music and full of fun stickers. We need to keep sharing stories of love and learning because these things teach us the most about each other and our journeys to become who we want to be.
 
The other day, a Microsoft program manager ended our conversation with, “I’m excited to see what you create.” And I’m excited too. A long-form journalism story, slide deck on the progress of a feature, or a couple of strings for a UI feature? I’m open to all of it.

Having a company name like Microsoft on my resume is no small thing - there's power and history behind this organization. I’m privileged that I had this opportunity and I don't take any of this for granted. I hope I never do.

As for what's next, I'll be going into my fourth year of college at the University of Washington where I can dive into some core coursework in UX design, digital storytelling, and a little of coding, all while making time to be a writing tutor and teaching assistant for a Human-Centered Design and Engineering course. I hope to keep swimming and find my own way. Ultimately, I'm a lifelong learner, writer, and educator, and Microsoft has given me a wealth of lessons that I hope to pass on in every conversation I have.

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