My true self, my way

Principal Service Engineering Manager Telmo Sampaio learned the strength of embracing differences early in life. Today, they’re empowering engineers to bring their diverse backgrounds, cultural values, and ideas into the workplace.

Photo of Telmo Sampaio

Growing up in Rio, Brazil, my family had our struggles. We were a family of seven—my five brothers and sister, our mom, and me—in a small two-bedroom apartment owned by the railroad where my mom worked. We lost our mom when I was 4 years old, and since my biological father wasn’t in the picture, I ended up being raised by my older brother. He’s 16 years older than I am, so it’s an interesting dynamic that has impacted my entire life. 

Our meals sometimes consisted of just bread and sugar, instilling in me the drive to earn money from a young age. At 6 years old, I ran errands for neighbors, charging 25 cents to bring their milk and bread in the morning. At 12, I was selling toys to my friends. At 13, I learned how to do henna tattoos and started charging for it. I knew I wanted to own my own house, have a family, be able to provide, and not always have to think about where our food was coming from. It was a hard childhood, but it was also a happy childhood.  

We lived across the street from a favela where houses were often made from cardboard and wood. It was completely normal for me to go across the street and play soccer. I never felt like “they’re different”; they were just my friends. I think this experience laid the foundation for me in terms of just respecting people no matter their race, gender, age, or socioeconomic background.  

My brother who raised me made it out of Rio and became the first person in our family to get a college degree. He later took a job as an economist at the Gillette headquarters in Boston. I joined him in the US when I was 16 and entered a high school in Wellesley, MA, where I was one of the only non-white students. I actually had to endure what was called the “brown bag test,” where some of the other students held up a brown bag next to your skin to determine where you fit based on whether you’re darker or lighter than the bag. The fact that I was still learning English made it even harder to make friends. So, I felt really isolated. In Brazil, I’d grown up with kids from all races and backgrounds, and I never saw segregation and discrimination until we moved here. 

College or a career? 

After I finished high school, I got into Northeastern University, but I ended up leaving school to work for IBM. College just wasn’t for me—and I didn’t want to end up in debt, so I worked, and I found other ways to keep learning. Outside of work, I started taking Microsoft certification courses, and one day I came across a job posting for Microsoft in Brazil. At the time, I was running my own consulting training company, but the 16-hour days didn’t leave much room for work-life balance. Adding to the mix, I was newly married and had just become a father of twins. I knew I needed a career that gave me more flexibility and time with my family. I reached out to some people I knew at Microsoft through my training background and ended up taking a role in relationship management, where I got to work directly with customers. But after about a year, I realized I needed a more technical role, and at the time, there weren’t many technical roles open in the Brazil office.  

After leaving Microsoft Brazil, I helped build the training company Ka Solution, now Latin America’s largest Microsoft training center. I moved to the US in 2004, working with various training and consulting companies, while being a vendor for Microsoft building courseware and certification exams. I rejoined Microsoft in 2014, relocating to Redmond, WA. Then in 2021, I left Microsoft for nine months to work at a company where a new cloud was being built. But I was missing Microsoft. I missed the culture. I missed the people. And I missed being me. At other companies, I’d worked in offices that were very male-oriented. I’d frequently get asked why my finger nails were painted or what was up with my hair today. I just wanted to be myself again. So when a position opened at Microsoft for a principal service engineering manager within FastTrack for Azure, I jumped at the opportunity.     

Connecting through—and beyond—language 

A year ago, I joined HOLA, Microsoft’s Hispanic and Latinx Employee Resource Group. Initially, I felt like the word “Hispanic” excluded me because I don’t speak Spanish. If you go to Brazil and you ask someone if they’re Hispanic or Latino, they will likely respond, “no.” But the more I thought about it, I realized that there’s more commonality between us than the nomenclature suggests. Through my mentoring within Microsoft, I’ve spoken to Hispanic and Latinx employees who believe they don’t have an advantage because of their accent or where they’re from. I always tell them, “You’re brilliant. You speak two languages. Let’s start there.” It’s important for me to communicate that it’s OK to embrace your cultural identity here. You don’t have to hide.  

Recently I was working with an engineer from Mexico whose native language is Spanish. He was struggling with writing instructional documents for customers in English, so I spoke with the documentation team. I asked, “We have customers all over the world who read in Spanish. Why don’t we write our documents in Spanish and have them translated to English?” After all, when we write documents in English, they get translated to Spanish. The documentation team lead looked at me for a minute, and said, “Yeah, why not?” It wasn’t like there was a block. It’s just that no one had done it. So we did it. 

I remember when that engineer published the document, he called me on Teams right away and said, “Hey, it’s published. It’s live!” I was on cloud nine because I could feel how happy he was about it. You know, it’s the first document from Azure that was released in Spanish, and then it was translated to English. Now we have engineers who speak Portuguese, Spanish, French, and many other languages who now feel empowered to write in their native language.  

 ‘Heard, valued, and treated like everyone else’  

Making sure people with diverse backgrounds and identities are heard, valued, and treated like everyone else is very personal for me. My wife is British, and I’m Brazilian, and when we moved to Redmond, Washington, and my youngest started school, there weren’t many kids that looked like her. I also have twin college-aged daughters now who are transgender women. They are going through their transition at this moment. Seeing my kids embrace who they are, witnessing their courage, has actually helped me feel more comfortable with being my authentic self every day.  

I’ve had a very different path. I didn’t finish college, but I feel like I’ve spent more time reading and learning than many people who have a PhD. When one of my twins became a physics major, I bought books on simple relativity so that I could have conversations with her. That’s one of the reasons Microsoft’s vision of empowering everyone, everywhere to achieve their best resonates with me. Different cultures, different backgrounds, different languages make for richer ideas. We embrace that here. And that gives me energy.