Q&A: Microsoft Expands DigiGirlz Summer Camp

REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 14, 2006 – The words “girls” and “technology” don’t seem as natural a fit as they should, which is unfortunate, from Microsoft’s perspective. To help remedy that problem, the company supports initiatives and programs developed to attract and retain top female talent. One of those programs, DigiGirlz – organized as a summer camp with a focus on technology and now in its sixth year – has expanded to four states and the Redmond camp expanded from four days to five.

To learn more about DigiGirlz, as well as the current environment for women in the technology industry and Microsoft’s commitment to diversity in general, PressPass spoke with Emily McKeon, diversity consultant at Microsoft; Thanh-Truc Ngo, who will enter the University of Washington this year, and Kara Fong, who will be a senior at Ingraham High School in Seattle. The latter two attended the DigiGirlz camp in summer 2005 at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, and are both doing 10-week internships at the company this summer.

PressPass: Why is diversity important to Microsoft? And what is Microsoft’s goal when it comes to diversity?

Emily McKeon: Microsoft’s goal in terms of diversity is to create the most multicultural work force in the technology industry. Having a diverse work force helps us achieve our goal of hiring and retaining the most qualified employees. It also helps us better serve a wider range of customers and create more innovative products. There are several ways that we support the hiring and development of women and minorities through initiatives such as recruitment, training and development programs. For example, Microsoft has extensive outreach programs in place that focus solely on increasing the pipeline of women and minorities in the technology industry.

PressPass: How did the DigiGirlz program get started?

McKeon: It came about due to a number of factors. We were looking for ways to reach out specifically to girls, who are one of our target populations in our diversity efforts, and we realized we didn’t have a way to do that. So we reached out to community partners and the idea for the camp was born. The camp is run by employees, with workshops facilitated by employees and presentations given by female executives. There’s great diversity among the girls who attend, so they go home with a new perspective. They also go home with new confidence – a camp like DigiGirlz takes the fear factor away.

PressPass: What got you interested in the DigiGirlz camp?

Thanh-Trac Ngo: I learned about it through a mentor in the Academy of Information Technology, which is at my high school. I was interested because of Microsoft’s involvement and the technology part. I’ve always been interested in technology but hadn’t learned a whole lot, so it sounded interesting.

Kara Fong: My friend who was going to go to the camp found a brochure and gave it to me. She wanted me to go with her but she ended up having other plans. I went anyhow because I thought it would be cool and I was interested in technology. My dad’s always encouraging me to try out new experiences. He saw me talking online every day on IM. He told me that since I was on a computer every day I should try to figure out how it works. At first it was just something new, but then I started getting into it.

PressPass: What was your favorite part of the DigiGirlz camp?

Ngo: I was inspired because I was surrounded by girls from different countries who had traveled a long way to learn more about technology. I learned that we all have the same passion, which is to expand our horizons by learning more. The camp covered different aspects of a little of everything. It made me want to learn more about graphics. I learned that not everything is about programming at Microsoft. You can do technology but mix it with other things like business and art.

Fong: I was amazed that there were so many people there who care so much about high school students. I learned a lot about technology and learned some basic programming skills. My school offers an honors class that was developed for the children of diplomats and then made available in public schools. I signed up for it. I was the only girl in the class, but I stuck it out and got an A.

PressPass: What are you doing at Microsoft as an intern?

Ngo: I’m really interested in Web graphics, and working with professionals and seeing how they did things in 3-D was a real eye-opener. It was my first time seeing what I already know how to do but in a much different way. I’m working with the Windows Defect Prevention team on things like graphics style sheets to make things more cohesive. It’s really fun.

Fong: I am working with the Windows Vista Search team doing citizenship testing – that means making sure that all the applications are being good “citizens” within the computer. I am also running upgrades from different SKUs (stock keeping units) and learning the programming language, C#. I plan to develop a search program by the end of the summer that will basically connect to a server, search around for documents, then display back to the user.

PressPass: What are your plans for college?

Ngo: I am planning to enroll in some programming courses to explore that as an option. I’m also interested in the graphics area.

Fong: My dad is really into me planning for the future. Right now I volunteer at Harbor View Medical Center. I was really interested in the medical field, but now I’m thinking about majoring in computer science or maybe business.

PressPass: What are some of the trends you’re seeing that may have an impact on the representation of women in the IT industry?

McKeon: What we’re seeing is a large decrease in the number of women who graduate with a degree in technology. Currently, less than a quarter of graduates with technology majors are women. A higher percentage of women major in those subjects initially, but they don’t continue. This is due to a number of factors, including lack of support, frustration from being one of only a few females in the class, and lack of role models.

PressPass: In addition to the DigiGirlz camp, what is Microsoft doing to attract women to the company and to the IT industry at large?

McKeon: We’re pursuing our commitment on a number of levels. Over the past few years, Microsoft has invested more than US$160 million to help increase interest among women and minorities in scientific and technical fields. We have partnered with a number of premier national organizations, such as the Society of Women Engineers, and partnered with some of the top traditionally female schools to build relationships and work with leading faculty in curriculum development. We also offer scholarships to women each year, and support programs like Technology Access Foundation and the Boys & Girls Clubs, which provides technology training to students.

PressPass: Once women are hired at Microsoft, how do you help them succeed?

McKeon: There are several resources available to women that were developed to help them be successful. We have a formal mentoring program and a new buddy program to help them become accustomed to life at Microsoft. There are employee groups such as Women at Microsoft, which serves more than 3,000 employees and promotes a work environment that recognizes and values diversity. We also offer generous work-life balance benefits and sponsor events such as an annual conference for women.

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