How to engineer a better life: Embrace the hard stuff

Vaz Rosario's childhood did not set her up for success, so she learned to see hardship as opportunity

Vaz Rosario remembers her Microsoft phone interview like it was yesterday.

The phone rang, and she had to hurry outside her house in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, to take the interview call because inside her baby was crying. As she closed the door on the noise and stepped into the yard, the native chickens began to flock to her, squawking for food. Between shooing away hungry chickens and trying to thoughtfully answer her interview questions, Vaz had little time in the moment to imagine that this call would be such a momentous turning point in her life.

School counselors had told her that there were good jobs in computers, that if she studied hard and didn’t give up she could provide a better life for herself and her young family. But up until that moment in her yard, her “better life” was hypothetical.

And she was ready for it.

‘I wanted to fix myself the way I always saw my dad fixing things’

Vaz was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, but when her parents divorced, she moved to Connecticut to live with her mother for a brief time. There, she was sexually assaulted, and after only eight months, Vaz returned to Puerto Rico to live with her father. She’d transformed from a vivacious preschooler into a withdrawn, sad child.

Young Vaz became caregiver to two younger half-siblings and a chronically depressed stepmother. She was expected to run the household and experienced abuse when she didn’t meet expectations. By the time she was 9, Vaz quietly slipped into her own deep depression.

“When I was 10, I had already tried to take my life quite a few times,” she recalls, her voice softening slightly. “I could barely survive. I wanted to fix myself [the way] I always saw my dad fixing things.”

Her father, a gentle, albeit absent, engineer who worked long hours, fixed mechanical equipment. Vaz was intrigued by how her father could take broken, useless items and somehow turn them into something that worked.

“I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could do that with my life,'” she says.

Her dad, though unware of her emotional state, noticed her interest in computers and encouraged her to study more.

Computers came naturally to her, but Vaz was a mess at school. The constant stress at home made it hard to concentrate. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Vaz drank heavily, ditched class, and got into fights with other students just to cope.

She remembers multiple conversations with school counselors who worried about her. But it wasn’t until she was 14 that what they were saying got through.

“The counselor helped me realize that if I continued on this path and dropped my studies, I’d never get out of the situation,” she says. “She helped me see that I was worth more than this.” Vaz felt like she was born again and was ready for a change.

The counselor suggested that Vaz concentrate on her interests: math and computers.

And then, 16-year-old Vaz ran head-on into another important turning point in her life: she was pregnant.

Despite daunting circumstances at home, Vaz wouldn’t let herself give up on school. “I didn’t want my child to have the same type of life I had, so I tried to apply myself,” she says. Here, Vaz celebrates her high school graduation with her mom, brother, husband, mother-in-law, and 6-month-old daughter.

Though she was going to become a teenage mother, Vaz wasn’t ready to abandon her nascent interest in technology. She had started by getting into gaming, “just to get my head cool,” she remembers. But when she realized she was pregnant, she got more serious, finding extra motivation to pursue computer engineering.

“I didn’t want my child to have the same type of life I had, so I tried to apply myself,” she says.

It was her junior year in high school. She had a baby on the way and was married to the baby’s father. (They’ve now been married for 15 years.) Living off of welfare and working multiple jobs, the couple had to pay their bills on a rotating basis to stretch the money-one month, the phone bill; the next month, the utility bill.

Despite being both a young mother and a young wife, Vaz would not let herself give up on school. Her hard work led her to early acceptance at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. (She jokes about her good SAT score, second highest in the district that year, attributing the success to having two people taking the test-herself and the baby inside her).

Six years of school and two more babies later, Vaz graduated with a degree in computer engineering.

With three kids and almost no money, it took Vaz six years to earn a college degree in computer engineering. She is pictured here at age 23 with her husband and three daughters: Vivi, Viera, and Laliz (ages 6 years, 4 years, and 16 months, respectively).

Microsoft recruiters took notice.

The first time she landed an interview with Microsoft, Vaz arrived in Seattle excited but sick with the flu. She didn’t do well. She remembers that an employee took compassion on her, as Vaz was obviously feverish, shaking, and miserable.

“The third interviewer helped get me some medicine and a nap. But it was still a disaster,” she says. “I felt like a failure.”

She didn’t get the job, but she wasn’t going to give up.

One year later, Microsoft called her again and she began another round of interviews for a different position. That interview was the call she took on the back porch surrounded by famished chickens.

She passed the interview. A few months later, in July 2008, she and her family of six (she also had custody of her little brother) moved to Redmond.

Redefining success

Nine years and several promotions later, Vaz sits in her Redmond office, a printout taped to her window that says “10 strategies for inclusion,” and her girls’ drawings decorating the walls. She recalls the moment that a mentor finally got through to her.

She explains that the mentor didn’t just help her turn her life around career-wise; he also made an impression on Vaz that she carries with her in her professional life.

“I want to have conversations at the personal level that will have an impact on the professional level,” she says.

“It’s so simple; let’s say we are on a project together and I notice you are having a hard time at home. It’s just going to show up in your performance. I’ve learned to take the time, despite being delayed on the project, to get to know where people are and what’s going on.”

Just like that mentor, Vaz tries to see beyond people’s behavior and instead see their worth. She tells an analogy of a $100 bill: “If you see a bill crumpled up and twisted with just the number 1 peeking out of it, you might not want it, thinking it’s just a dollar bill. But if you get just a little bit more curious and pick it up, you’ll find a $100 bill instead,” she says.

That mentor helped Vaz see that there was a lot more to her than her misguided behavior at the time. She applied that analogy to her own self-worth.

“I realized that the value of something or someone never changes”regardless of what other people see.”

This core belief combined with her hard-won resilience trickles down into everything she doe’s”from speaking to young girls at Ignite to her management style. She is always looking to lend a helping hand, in gratitude to those who helped her along the way.

Currently, she manages a team of service engineers who are accountable for Microsoft IT Hosting Services worldwide.

Vaz Rosario says of her successes at Microsoft, “None of this is my definition of success in life. My definition of success is to have a healthy, steady family. I could be cleaning or sweeping for a living; I wouldn’t mind as long as we have thriving, trustworthy relationships at home.”

Vaz has also been accepted to an emerging executive program for Hispanic IT leaders and has her sights set on executive roles, but she doesn’t consider upward corporate mobility her ultimate goal.

“None of this is my definition of success in life. My definition of success is to have a healthy, steady family. I could be cleaning or sweeping for a living; I wouldn’t mind as long as we have thriving, trustworthy relationships at home.”

“When I start to get upset about life, my three girls [now ages 10, 13, and 15] say, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. You’re a big shot at Microsoft.’ I tell them, ‘No, I am not! But also, I don’t care about that!'” she says.

“This! This is what I care about,” she says while pointing emphatically at a family photo of them snuggled together, dressed up for a friend’s wedding.

Though she doesn’t see herself as a big shot like her girls might, she does see herself as a conqueror.

“If a challenge comes up, I’m not scared. I had to learn early on that the challenges would just keep on coming. So I started to embrace them.”

That’s why challenges, such as a phone interview with chickens squawking and babies crying, don’t shake her confidence. During the interview, she was asked a question about databases that she didn’t immediately know how to answer; she confidently said, “I don’t have the answer, but I’ll find it.”