In celebration of Women's History Month, we are profiling a select
group of women at Microsoft and examining what it means to be a woman
in a technology career today. Check back each Monday in March to read
a new profile.
At 3:00 A.M. on February 14, Claire Bonilla was awakened out of
a deep slumber at her home in Redmond, Washington, by her cell phone's
ringtone. The caller, a colleague from Iceland, informed her that there
had just been a magnitude 6.7 earthquake off the southern coast of Greece,
6,000 miles away from Redmond.
Bonilla does not have any friends or relatives in Greece, but she
sprung into action nonetheless. As senior director of disaster management
at Microsoft, Bonilla is responsible for coordinating the company's
community response to naturally occurring and human-caused disasters—
including floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and epidemics—that
occur anywhere in the world.
A quick response is obviously critical in these situations—hence
the 3:00 A.M. wake-up call.
Once alerted, Bonilla works in close coordination with government
agencies, inter-governmental organizations, and local Microsoft subsidiaries
to gather as much information as she can about each crisis. Then, she
helps the local subsidiary and government decide how Microsoft can be
most helpful to the response and recovery efforts.
Until about nine months ago, Microsoft typically responded to global
disasters with donations of money, volunteers, and software. Aid was
coordinated by each local subsidiary and the company's legal department.
"But then we realized that there was a lot more benefit that Microsoft
could provide to impacted communities if we could centralize some of
the response work," said Bonilla.
The Microsoft Disaster Management initiative was created in July
2007, and Microsoft is now in the process of building a standard portfolio
of offerings to aid disaster response and recovery efforts worldwide.
"It includes things like providing emergency management software to
first responders, putting trained volunteers on the ground, posting
news feeds on MSN, and coordinating our response with Microsoft partner
companies that have hardware or applications that could be helpful,"
"The benefit of having a standard portfolio is that we can educate
governments, intergovernmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations
that are commonly involved in disaster response—in advance of an actual
crisis. We want them to know exactly what Microsoft can provide and
how to contact us," she added.
Many companies—including IBM, Exxon Mobile Corporation, Wal-Mart,
and UPS—provide assistance during global catastrophes. However, Microsoft
is now beginning to be recognized as a leader in this area by organizations
like the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO), and the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). The
United States Chamber of Commerce's Business Civic Leadership Center
asked Bonilla to serve as lead author of a national white paper on public
and private recovery partnerships, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
asked her to speak at its annual convention.
"I think that IT and communication companies have a unique opportunity
to assist in the wake of disasters because at the core of any disaster
management effort are integration, communication, and collaboration
needs—three things that IT companies specialize in," said Bonilla. "The
effectiveness of a disaster response relies heavily on the ability of
the responders to communicate with many people in many different ways
and get data from multiple sources. So IT and communication companies
can assist in a way that, say, a retail company may not be able to."
Since Bonilla started her present job last summer, she has supported
several response and recovery efforts around the world, including the
October 2007 California wildfires, and an innovative idea from a subsidiary
to create a program that provides free software licenses to small businesses
located in neighborhoods that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. "This
is the most rewarding work I've ever done," she commented.
A few months ago, Bonilla decided to plan a spring simulation of
an earthquake and flood scenario for Mexico—one of several disaster
simulations she performs. Coincidentally, shortly after her decision
to perform the simulation, the Mexican state of Tabasco experienced
its worst flooding in more than 50 years, and then in February 2008,
a magnitude 6.4 earthquake shook southern Mexico.
Those who know Bonilla would refer to her as a hardcore optimist,
but ironically, Bonilla's job requires her to be the ultimate pessimist—to
think in advance about anything and everything that can go amiss in
the world, how it is likely to affect IT systems, and how Microsoft
should respond if her worst fears occur.
Her idea of office decorations consists of charts that illustrate
tectonic fault lines around the world and maps of global bird migration
patterns (which are useful for predicting potential outbreak points
for avian influenza).
So, how does one train for such a profession? "Raising three kids
and working full time was probably one of the most practical training
regimes I've had for the disaster management field," Bonilla jokes.
"I refer to them as 'my little hurricanes,' because of the wake of destruction
they can leave, as well as the way they take my breath away."
In truth, Bonilla has more than a decade's worth of relevant credentials,
including a strong background in IT, extensive international experience,
familiarity with non-governmental agencies, and experience with leading
global cross-company initiatives.
Forging Her Path
Bonilla's career success owes as much to her gumption as to her
first-rate qualifications. "My track record was a key factor in why
I was chosen, but tenacity had a lot to do with it, too," she said.
"This was my dream job and I pulled out all the stops to get the hiring
manager to consider me—from soliciting a flood of senior-level recommendations
to camping outside his office so I could have a chance to review my
qualifications with him. The hunger strike would have been next, but
luckily, they agreed to put me in the running before it came to that,"
Bonilla has always taken control of her own career. "I've been able
to get ahead in this company by creating my own path," said Bonilla,
"and in doing so, I've been able to maintain a balance between my career
and my personal life, which is important to me. The secret is to figure
out how your goals overlap with the goals of the business. When I've
been able to create a value proposition that benefited both the business
and me personally, the company has been incredibly supportive."
For example, when Bonilla was pregnant with her second child several
years ago, she decided to pursue a job-share position. "Although I work
full-time now, I'm a strong supporter of flexible work arrangements,"
she said, "and I've had several during my nine years with Microsoft,
including telecommuting, flexible hours, and a formal job share. I believe
they increase employee loyalty and, when done properly, can increase
Asked what advice she would give to young women who are considering
a career in IT, Bonilla offered this advice: "Don't 'buy into' the traditional
stereotypes or barriers. IT is so prolific these days that there are
many ways to incorporate your personal passions into a tech career.
Look at me; I get to help conceive more efficient ways to get relief
supplies to people in need. Who would have thought I'd find that job
description on the Microsoft career site?"