Women in Tech: Deborah Harrison, Microsoft Cortana

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Today, while the field of artificial intelligence is still in its adolescence, the industry stands in a brilliant position to shape not only technological innovation but also the culture of conversation between humans and machines.

Deborah Harrison, Editorial Writer at Microsoft, believes that if we approach human-computer interaction and virtual assistants with intention, then people can come to expect civility, connection, humor, transparency and kindness from their interactions with AI, just as surely as they expect the ability to update a calendar or dictate a text.

As one of the original architects of the personality for Microsoft's virtual assistant, Cortana, Deborah crafted the core principles that define Cortana's approach to communication and now helps shepherd those principles as the AI becomes available for other devices, operating systems and countries.

After her interesting talk and fireside chat with Nathan Benaich at the 2016 RE•WORK Virtual Assistant Summit - which received global media interest from CNNPCWorld, Vice Motherboard and more - I spoke to Deborah to learn more about her role, and how we can encourage diversity and equality in the field.

What inspired you to begin your work in technology?
I landed in tech because it gave me a way to make money doing my first true love, which is writing. I became a technical writer almost entirely by accident—a friend who knew that I write suggested I try it, so I found an internship, and one thing led to another, and here I am, 17 years later doing work that’s more fun that I could have ever predicted for any job, let alone for a job with such a… well, unexciting name. I’m a writer, and I work with technical concepts and complex ideas, but I’ve never been a gear-head or a coder or even someone who tinkers, particularly, with how things work. I’m a reader and a writer with an insatiable curiosity and a deep deep desire to try and make things better, and there are so many ways to do that in the technical field.

What are you working on at the moment?
I write for a feature called Cortana. It’s the digital personal assistant for Microsoft. She can help you on your phone or PC or Microsoft Band to do all kinds of things, and the idea is that you can talk to her the way you’d talk to a real person who was helping you out along your day. My job, along with 7 other people in the US (along with lots more around the world) is to write the things she says when you talk to her. So that includes everything from “Hey, Cortana, text Alex that I’m running late” to “Hey, Cortana, are you a ninja?” It’s also my job to design her personality. So imagine you’re trying to describe a friend of yours—not what she looks like, but what she is like. What she cares about, what she enjoys doing, how she feels about politics, what she does in her free time. And then imagine how that friend would respond to certain questions. You can imagine there are things she’d never say in a million years, right? That’s what we do with Cortana. We think really carefully about what she’s like so we know what she would and wouldn’t say to certain things, and so that we can have conversations that include warmth, politeness, thoughtfulness, respect, and, we hope, some of the funny.

What can we do to ensure equality in the STEM fields?
There are so so many things we can do. Some of it involves just continuing to fight the good fight in society, where those of us who can continue to demonstrate over and over again that the voice of women and minorities is powerful and valuable, not just culturally but economically. Another is continuing to resist the moments where it seems easier to give up because the hill seems so steep or people are so discouraging (sometimes without even realizing it). Some of it is making sure to advocate for ourselves the best way we can. I’ve seen extraordinary progress on all of these things just in my lifetime, and I’m really confident that the momentum is on our side, but it’s an effort, no question. I personally believe that organizations that encourage these conversations are truly helping to move the dial. Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know, you know?

The more of us that find our way through the gauntlet, the more it’ll become a completely normal, or, dare I say, boring part of the daily expectations for how things should work. Of course women should be a part of any conversation. Duh, amirite? I’m so looking forward to when we get there.

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in science or tech?
This advice isn’t really specific to science and tech, but a huge thing that you can do as you begin your journey is find a way to go in with support. There are so many things that seem intuitive once you’ve been working for a long time that are just utterly opaque when you’re first starting out, and I think that burden tends to be heavier for girls and women because we have fewer people we can talk to who’ve shared our particular experiences. Finding out how things work—how to ask for raises, how to advocate for your level or job title, how to get the hang of the culture of the workplace you’re in—those things are valuable for anyone to do, but that might be a bit more challenging to just figure out on your own if the workplace is already filled with guys or with mostly white folks who may not have perspective on the particular flavors of marginalization that women and minorities often experience. If there’s no one in your circle who can help, the interwebs offer a kajillion ways to connect with people (like me!) who’ve been there and who are itching to help share our experiences and help ease the way.

Another thing to know is that so much of what you need to know to do the technical part of any job can be taught, so it’s always a profound pleasure to find someone who has not just technical skill but also curiosity, creativity, a willingness to listen, and a sense of humor. Talent is great, it really is, but often you won’t know what part of your talent is even valuable until you get your hands dirty with whatever project you’re working on. And experience is always lovely, but we get that you can’t get experience without working. So don’t get too hung up on that part of your resume.

Finally, and I see this a lot more with women than with men, don’t apologize on your resume. Don’t downplay your accomplishments. Don’t say something was “only” an internship, or that you were “just” a helper. Stating your experience is not bragging or grandstanding or stealing credit. It is the truth of what you have done. I want to hear about it! I know it’s tempting to feel that you need to demonstrate humility, but that will emerge from conversations with you. There are going to be plenty of situations you’ll face where someone else may detract from your accomplishments. Do not beat them to the punch. Be as awesome as you are.

Our next event focusing on conversational AI will be the Chatbots Track at the Deep Learning Summit in London, taking place on 23 September. Discounted tickets end on Friday 29 July! Register now at an Early Bird price using the event website here.

Register for the Virtual Assistant Summit 2017 on visiting the event website here. Are you working in chatbots, virtual assistants or conversational agents & have an interesting topic for discussion, or know of someone who does? Let us know! Suggest a speaker using our form here

See the full events list here for events focused on AI, Deep Learning and Machine Intelligence taking place in London, Amsterdam, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

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