Your role models are closer than you think

[Writer’s Note: This is part of a series of LinkedIn articles about my personal and professional growth through my time as a content publishing intern at Microsoft, and how my experiences are influenced by my identity as a person of color. I hope that this will serve as an outlet for reflection and a reminder to bring all of myself to the table, while also providing a few helpful tidbits for anyone else doing an internship.]

When I arrived at Microsoft as a UX writer intern, I had a few goals: develop my technical writing background and leverage my journalism skills to create compelling content that will help people find what they need. Because I’m interning under the Content Experience team of Windows and Devices, I wanted to understand what writing jobs looked like at a large engineering company, and how my co-workers see their previous work or academic experiences as strengths that can inform their approach to working.

In anticipation of this summer and my internship at Microsoft, I thought about the kind of projects I wanted to work on that fulfill these goals and capitalize on the “passion for [far-reaching] social impact” section of my tagline, which has proven to be true. I knew that the visibility of my company met my criteria to do something with far-reaching impact, and working on Microsoft products reminds me that my work has the power to improve the experience for future customers. Because of this, I felt confident in the impact of my work — and I’m still trying to grasp that I work for Microsoft, the company that shows up on my Instagram and Facebook feeds and has millions of engaged users.

Finding role models who look like you:

I’ve realized that there’s much more to an internship than just the final deliverable from a project, name of the company on your resume, and the number of additional LinkedIn connections in your network. I am learning to be great, which starts with identifying role models and reaching out to them whenever possible. As a Pakistani Muslim woman, I often struggle to find people who look like me and understand my culture in this field. During this internship, I was adamant about finding empowering women of color and understand what motivates them to do this work, even if they lacked mentors who looked like them when they started. I to field their responses to questions like, what helped them keep moving forward when people doubted their abilities? Most importantly, what stories do they tell themselves to stay in the game or keep choosing this work? I wondered if women at Microsoft experienced moments of self-doubt like I did. In my mind, they were warriors and trailblazers and leaders, the kind of empowering women I wanted to learn from. So, how did they overcome moments of impostor syndrome?

Being at Microsoft is a reminder that my role models and heroes are closer than I thought — and I know this because I get to meet with them every week. In between preparing for weekly syncs, writing strings for my deliverables, and creating workback schedules for my final project, I trek around campus to meet with empowering women who are revolutionizing this industry. These people are past journalists who bring their curiosity and active listening skills to user research, program managers who create environments where their coworkers feel comfortable taking risks, and designers who try to make our products more inclusive for customers who are traditionally overlooked. When chatting with these individuals, I ask them to tell me about the road to their current role and how they create and foster a workplace culture where people feel like they can take risks.

One thing that became evident about the women at Microsoft is their self-confidence. When Dona Sarkar, head of the Windows Insider Program, presented during a speaker event for interns, she made the comment, “I could work anywhere, and so could you.”

This struck me — I had always seen my experience in journalism, higher education, and user experience as unfocused or unrelated to a future career rather than a sign of my interdisciplinary engagement, so the idea that I could be seen as valuable to a future employer was almost lost on me. When hearing Dona say these words, I sat up a little straighter and remembered that my journalism skills have enabled me to ask tough questions, establish meaningful connections rooted in curiosity about people’s motivations, and create deliverables like articles and stories that capture people’s authentic voice in an accessible way. Maybe I deserve to be here, I thought. You don’t need permission to make yourself great or successful — especially as a person of color or an underrepresented minority. I hope that I can keep this advice in mind as I move forward.

So, I encourage you to take the time to reach out to people that you want to emulate, or just pick their brains about how they got to their current role. I think that my journalism background prepared me to capitalize on my curiosity about people’s journeys and reach out to these role models because I often need to schedule an interview with busy researchers or people who are revolutionizing their fields, all while operating on tight deadlines. Now, I want to share some of my tips with you!

Setting up an informational interview:

Before you send a single email expressing interest in meeting, research the person to learn more about their background, prior experience, and digital identity. Find their website, LinkedIn, and samples of their work (whatever that looks like). Take notes about what you like about their work as well as potential follow up questions like “Why did you study both Psychology and Design?” or “Why did you transition from consulting to technical writing?” This will also help you identify specific talking points for your meeting and ensure that this meeting has a clear purpose for both of you.

Once you feel like you’ve identified some people of interest, start drafting an email! You’ll probably have specific points to address depending on the person, but I generally recommend the following steps:

1. Provide some context: Introduce yourself and explain your intern role (if you have one, or if you are a student, call that out) and how you found them. Chances are, they’ll be curious about your story and why you decided to contact them specifically. For example, I usually explain who referred me to them (if applicable) and explain how I’m meeting with people in UX careers because I want to explore career options where I can leverage my writing skills in tech or higher education industries while keeping my values of diversity and inclusion at the forefront of my work.

2. Know your ask: Outline the goal for the meeting. Do you want to find a mentor? Get involved in their field at some point? Be specific about what you’re looking for and how this person can help you.

3. Recognize that mentorship goes both ways: After coming to Microsoft, I’ve realized that my own experience can be helpful or interesting to the people I meet with. So, don’t be afraid to share a few pieces of yourself and the values that motivate your work — this will also help the person you’re talking to understand where you’re coming from and what you want to get out of a conversation. As Dona said, convince people that they can learn from you.

4. Propose a few questions: It might be helpful to mention what you like about their projects and what you’re hoping to learn from the conversation — it’ll also be a helpful point of reference for you to look back on if you’re meeting with a lot of people!

5. Sign off with a timeline if when you’d like to meet e.g. the following week, before the end of your internship, etc.

6. Have someone look over your email draft! Your supervisor, mentor, or colleagues can help you identify any typographical errors (this is my vice) and ensure that your content aligns with the goal.

These steps have been really helpful in setting up meetings with as many empowering women as possible. If you’re able to land some meetings, draft a list of specific questions or things to follow up on. These people are giving you some of their precious time amid their busy schedules, so you want to make sure that you don’t waste it! Lastly, don’t forget to follow-up your meeting with a thank you email — it might help to mention a key insight from the meeting so they know that you got something out of your time together because that shows your engagement and appreciation for their time!

Here are some questions I keep in mind for meetings like this, whether it’s for an informational interview or just a quick chat with someone in the field:

- What brought you to your current role?

- Who are your role models in the field?

- What’s your problem-solving process?

- How do you define success?

- What motivates you to keep doing this work?

- What kind of workplace culture are you seeking, and how do you contribute to creating it?

- What do you see yourself doing in the future?

- What’s something you wish someone had told you before you started this role (or at this company)

- Who are three people that I should meet with?

Regardless of what you ask or do, be honest and genuine — being curious about people’s work and sharing a few pieces of yourself can go a long way in fostering meaningful relationships. I keep a little blue notebook at all times where I write down my questions and some takeaways that I want to remember. For example, I recently met with Nafisa Bhojawala, who I saw at the 2017 Women in User Experience Conferenceat the University of Washington, and I wrote down the sentiments from her speech that stood out to me (most notably, the way that she reminds herself, “I am staying up in the game), and I brought up these talking points in my email request for a meeting. After hearing her keynote presentation, I wanted to learn more about how she landed in her leadership position as a principal UX manager, what motivated her to pursue tech, and how created a welcoming company culture for her team. And I guess you could say “achievement unlocked” because a few short weeks after starting my internship, I made the trek over to her study for a 1:1.

Remember, the leaders you look up to in the tech industry could be sitting at the desk across from you, so take the time to chat with them and learn about their own journey to the field. Ultimately, networking is all about being curious about people’s interests and listening with intention, so lead with that and you’re golden.

This is the third article in this series. If you’d like to see the previous articles, you can read about my journey to Microsoft and how this was influenced by my identity as a Pakistani Muslim woman, or read about my take on creating a supportive workplace culture.

Writer at Microsoft | Human Centered Design and Engineering Alumna | Lifting as I climb | www.aleenahansari.com