A rising tech star’s advice to her younger self
“Sometimes those smart risks become home runs”
As a graduate student in computer science, Lauren Tran was used to being one of just a few women in her class. And when she interned at a large tech company, she was the only woman in her cohort.
So she was thrilled when Dartmouth College sent her to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. She had never been to a big conference before and says she was “really excited to see thousands of women come together” to share their passion for technology.
She didn’t realize the event would also lead to what she considers to be a dream job: She’s now the lead startup technical evangelist for Microsoft Silicon Valley, a role that has enabled her to develop a wide range of skills and do what she’s long wanted to do.
“Since I was young, the Microsoft brand has always been powerful,” Tran said. “I aspired to work here for years.”
At the Microsoft booth at Grace Hopper, Tran says she found “tons of hopeful candidates vying for time with recruiters.” But she got lucky. She had the chance to interview with one of those recruiters — an interview she was sure she had failed.
“I thought I’d completely missed the questions,” she recalled. Fortunately, the recruiter thought differently; she called Tran a few weeks later and asked if she wanted to interview for a technical evangelist position. “Even though I’d never heard of that type of role,” Tran said, “I decided to give it a shot.”
She began working at Microsoft two years ago, in a job that blends two of her skills as a coder who specializes in machine learning. She’s now working with Azure Machine Learning to build machine learning models that analyze email text in an effort to detect the sender’s tone: Is it corporate-speak or conversational? Authoritative or deferential?
The project is part of her work creating lively demos she presents to inspire developers to get creative and build cool apps on Microsoft platforms.
She also talks to startup CEOs, CTOs and developers to help them define their cloud and mobile strategies.
“As an evangelist, you’d think I’m extroverted. It’s definitely not my nature; I tend to be naturally introverted,” she said. “You have to break out of your shell. It’s really fun, and it stretches me — it’s something I never thought I’d be able to do.”
When she presents her demos in front of live audiences, she doesn’t script her talks. “I have talking points,” Tran said. “It’ll come out a little different every time. It’s more natural.”
She has figured out how to present her demos so they come across well but explains that her confidence has evolved over time.
At first, as a newcomer to the tech industry, she had to strategize about how to deal with performance anxiety and give her confidence some time to catch up. “You don’t know how you stack up to others,” she said. “I wasn’t a coder my entire life, like a lot of people around me.”
Though she earned her master’s degree in computer science, her undergraduate degree was in marketing.
“I decided that instead of trying to portray myself as something that I wasn’t, I would embrace the uniqueness of my background and show them what I’m passionate about,” she said.
Now, if she could give advice to the person she was two years ago, she says she would tell herself to “be more confident and secure” in asserting herself. “I had a lot to bring to the table,” she says. “I had knowledge other people didn’t have, which was why I was valuable to the company.”
At first, Tran didn’t realize just how much her perspective would be valued and appreciated by her colleagues. Now she does.
She advises others who are just starting out: “Your manager has ideas. The people around you have ideas. But that doesn’t mean you have to say yes to them. Ask questions. Figure out the full picture. Express your opinion. Sometimes it’s better to drive your opinions home. I’ve had multiple times when I’ve said ‘No, I don’t think that’s the way we should do this — I propose we do this instead.’”
She said stating her thoughts has proved to be a winning tack, and she has been rewarded for it. She’s also been recognized for taking risks.
“I used to be very risk-averse,” she said. “I’ve learned to take one smart risk per quarter. It’s not always going to be successful, but sometimes those smart risks become home runs.”
Tran also believes in helping make others successful. “I make sure to support others,” she said. “I open myself up to one-on-one meetings with the people who were hired after me. I reach out and make sure they have all the tools they need. I help them on a technical level, I’m there to mentor them.”
Two years after her initial Microsoft interview at Grace Hopper, Tran returned to the same conference — only this time, she attended as a presenter. A packed house of nearly 300 female engineers crowded in to hear her talk about machine learning.
“She wowed the audience with her demo capabilities,” said Shaina Houston, director of Community Evangelism in the U.S. “She did a phenomenal job. She used examples that were humorous and relatable. She left them wanting more.”
Tran’s teammates cheered and high-fived her as she exited the stage.
“It was such a different feeling than coming out of the first Microsoft interview,” Tran recalled. “It was the first time I’d been in front of that many people. I felt like I really nailed it.”
Tran may have surprised herself with how adept she is at public speaking, but her mentor did not find it unusual. “When I first met Lauren, I was really impressed with her maturity level and technical capability,” Houston said. “She has a very good stage presence.”
Though Tran loves her role, she appreciates how many other opportunities the company has to dig into whatever’s most meaningful to her.
“At Microsoft, you’ll be empowered to work on things that you’re passionate about. You’ll be given autonomy. Your ideas will matter,” she says. “You’ll be given so many opportunities that you’ll have to say ‘no’ to many. There’s no shortage.”
Based on her own experience, she has advice for people who want a job at Microsoft but aren’t sure they’re qualified.
“Take a chance and go for it. Be super confident in who you are. Embrace all of your skills,” she says. “Know that there’s so much opportunity for you to shine and show how brilliant you are.”
Want to learn more about what Technical Evangelists do at Microsoft? Head on over to Microsoft careers.