Unexpected love affair with technology turns the tide for Donna Patterson

Jul 25, 2017   |  

Donna Patterson ended up being wrong in exactly the right way.

Donna knew she was going to be a chemical engineer when she joined a STEM program in the sixth grade. Originally from Philadelphia, Donna set out on a very focused mission – become the best chemical engineer possible. As the lone African-American chemical engineering graduate from hometown Drexel University, she saw striving against the odds to become a chemical engineer as a platform to show women and women of color that dreams are within reach with hard work and discipline.

The only problem is she accidentally fell in love with technology.

Through a series of happy chances, she found herself embarking on a career in technology that eventually resulted in her working at Microsoft. “Those same lessons about hard work and discipline still apply,” she quips. “You just also have to let yourself learn something new and be ready to go after that even if it’s not in your life plan.”

She spoke with Microsoft IT Showcase about her journey in technology and in life.

Fetle Hagos: Tell me about where you’re from and how you ended up working in IT.

Donna Patterson: My background is not IT, so to get here, I’ve really had to transform myself. I started my career as a chemical engineer at DuPont, where I got really interested in problem solving and troubleshooting processes. Then I went to work for Dell, where I was the quality manager of desktops. I’ve also led plant startups, large enterprise technology transitions, and logistics services worldwide.

FH: How did you get from chemicals to computers to IT?

DP: College teaches you how to think and how to look at a problem, so whether you’re making a pound of chemicals, treating a pound a waste, or assembling a pound of computers, what you’re really doing is trying to figure out what problem you’re addressing – I take my mode of work from that perspective.

To finally answer your question, I got a cold call from a recruiter who said, ‘Hey, Microsoft is hiring in IT.’ I thought it was funny because it’s like, ‘I don’t have an IT background.’ I had the typical stereotypes – IT people wear wrinkled shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops [laughs].

FH: Hilarious.

DP: It was a challenge to learn a new space, but I stuck with it. I feel good about my early experience as a Skype for Business Service Manager then Program Manager (PM), and now, as a Microsoft Teams Engineering Program Manager (EPM) in Core Services Engineering. It’s been a very rich experience personally and professionally.

FH: What are three words you would use to describe your time here at Microsoft?

DP: Challenging, creative, and pivotal. Each day I’m challenged by answering the questions: “What problem am I solving? What need am I meeting? And how am I helping someone else as well as myself?” Creative is: “How am I going to deliver a great experience while maximizing creativity?” Pivotal is: asking myself each day “How am I going to innovate in ways that help others be more successful and be more productive.”

FH: How did those three things get you to where you are now?

DP: It all starts with my spiritual base. I carry a mantra of “who am I going to touch today?” How am I going to help someone?  This keeps me grounded, reminding me that I haven’t arrived yet. I think once you find yourself at a point where you are coasting, where you’re relaxing, where you stop hunting, you stop growing.

FH: How do you compare working at Microsoft to the places you have worked before here?

DP: When I look at Dupont and Dell, and then look at Microsoft, all three have been on the cutting edge in various ways and at various times, and we still are here at Microsoft. What allowed us to be successful in the past can always inform the future, so the lesson I take from that, from my past experiences, is I need to continue to evolve and always listen to the heartbeat of my customers.

FH: What does Microsoft have to do to stay ahead of the curve?

DP: Microsoft must continue to reinvent itself, and it needs to keep delivering services, software, and experiences that keep it in sync with the pulse of the customer. One place we can do that is Microsoft Teams. For a while there, everyone was talking about a competitor, and now it’s like, “who were we talking about?” Now we’re making inroads with Teams and though we’re not there yet, we’re making strong progress

If we’re going to empower everyone, everywhere on the planet, we must make sure we continue to develop solutions, experiences, and applications that continue to drive the end user forward. That’s much more than a cliché, it’s a culture.

FH: You talked about the company driving change to stay relevant. What would you say were your growth areas in the beginning of your career and how did you turn those into strengths?

DP: Early on in my career, I had to do more active listening. Now I’m focused on continuing to grow my skills.

I try to encourage people to always add new skills to their toolkits as they go – and I embody the spirit of this too. Every two to three years, you should make sure that your skills are relevant to the industry. For example, when I started here and heard about Azure for the first time, I knew I needed to learn more about it, and subsequently, that’s what I am doing.

FH: As a woman of color, can you talk a little about what is has been like to work in a male-dominated industry?

DP: There are challenges, and I have prior lessons as an engineering manager in other jobs. Being the only female in the room, being the only minority in the room, and being the only minority across the business, that’s not foreign to me. The challenge that I had was learning some of the subtle, unwritten rules, stumbling through understanding culture and relationships where knowledge and information was power. In some of my past experiences, the more you knew, the more you became aligned with power. On the other hand, success at Microsoft is based on building strong relationships.

FH: When companies come out and say they value diversity and the goals of recruiting of women in STEM fields, what do you look for as a measure of progress in our field?

DP: I look at how are we walking the walk and talking the talk. Policies are well written, but still a piece of paper. What’s the execution plan and how are we doing it and how genuinely are we doing it? So, that’s why I say I don’t look for numbers. I look for the integration of those principles and practices with the culture. Satya [Nadella] is a great leader as we are shifting the culture, and we have made strides in this arena. We still have more work to do in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

FH: Did you see yourself as a young girl in Philadelphia making your way to Redmond, Washington and working at Microsoft?

DP: I envisioned myself being an exec, not necessarily at a specific company. I also envisioned myself not having a ceiling and I still envision myself that way today. Despite where I think I should be, I aspire to continue to grow and that is something I am passionate about. I knew Microsoft was there, but I do not go after a job or after a company. I chase experiences and skills.

FH: As you look at your work in technology and at Microsoft, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to accomplish next?

DP: Be a STEM game changer for middle school girls and minorities while ensuring our products and marketing are inclusive and accessible to all!

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