“I started learning sign language at six months” : How personal experience shaped Heather Dowdy’s career
How one employee took her passion around accessibility to the next level and reached millions through her work
“Both of my parents lost their hearing as toddlers. I started learning sign language at the age of six months. It’s mainly due to my background that I’ve seen – firsthand – how technology can impact lives.”
Thus began the storied career of Microsoft program manager, Heather Dowdy. The South Side Chicago native is the oldest of her siblings and, like most firstborns, assumed a lot of responsibility at an early age. Similar to children whose parents don’t speak the predominate language, she served as a translator. “I even interpreted my parents’ mortgage closing at the age of six,” she added, showing that being the Child of a Deaf Adult (CODA) comes with a certain level of responsibility. She notes, however, that her parents are strong-willed and encouraged her to be the same.
“[When I was] growing up, my dad was an avid reader and financially savvy. My parents didn’t want me telling my teachers or friends that they were Deaf for fear that people would pity us,” said Heather. “My parents taught me to believe in myself and that has really helped me overcome many challenges in being an African-American, female engineer.”
Fluent in American Sign Language, Heather earned her electrical engineering degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I’m a lover of all things tech,” she said. For 10 years, she worked in accessibility engineering product management at a leading mobile device company in Chicago. She was responsible for setting the strategic direction of her organization, with a focus on creating, testing and launching disability access features in mobile devices and apps. “I developed and promoted strategies to increase brand engagement and customer satisfaction among users with disabilities.”
Despite a rewarding engineering career, she decided to find a more impactful role within the accessibility space. “I have a huge heart for empowering those often looked over and cast out,” she said as she sought to work with a company that brought disability access to the forefront of its initiatives. After interviewing with several key technology players, she was pleasantly surprised by Microsoft’s stance on inclusive design (i.e., design based on the needs of those with disabilities). “Microsoft was much more humble in its approach to accessibility,” she noted. “Microsoft is leading the way and encouraging partners and other companies they do business with to do the same.”
In fact, the company has taken a top-down, leadership approach to communicating the importance of the accessibility of technology. Soon after he became CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella declared, “Accessibility is not a bolt-on – it’s something that must be built into every product we make so that our products work for everyone – only then will we empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. This is the inclusive culture we aspire to create.”
Heather was further impressed that Microsoft committed to having a Chief Accessibility Officer – Jenny Lay-Flurrie – who works to ensure that those with disability access challenges (i.e., persons with hearing loss, those with speech needs, those with mobility and/or manipulation limitations, individuals with sight restraints and those with cognitive concerns) benefit from technology advances across devices, software and the web.
“There is so much that I can do to help others personally and in my role at Microsoft. There are a billion people with disabilities in the world,” Lay-Flurrie added. “We’ve got to get it right for them.”
During a series of interviews for her new role, Heather learned more about Microsoft’s approach to “Design Thinking,” a problem-solving methodology deeply rooted in empathy for users and observing them in action. She was also drawn to the company’s “growth mindset,” which she said, “encourages employees to lean into uncertainty, take risks and constantly learn from their mistakes.”
Heather and her husband agreed to move across the country so that she could take her passion around accessibility to the next level and reach millions through her work. The couple and their three young children made the trek to the Pacific Northwest in pursuit of expanding her lifelong interest. As a new program manager with the Web Accessibility (Enterprise IT) team, she is responsible for developing strategies and driving change to make the Internet accessible for everyone, starting with internal websites for Microsoft employees requiring disability access. It is key that she continues to empower “those who are overlooked or left behind.”
Now that Heather has joined the team, she says Microsoft has exceeded her already positive expectations. “I honestly didn’t pick up on it or wasn’t fully aware of it until I got here, but I could see they truly walked the walk. They truly are bringing others along for the journey through ‘inclusive design,’” she added. “We are making small steps to change the engineering culture to include the user experience of people with disabilities earlier, rather than later in development.”
Overall, she’s excited that she’s learned so much in her new role and has found a solid ground within Microsoft’s culture. “There are so many exciting things happening here, especially with the culture shift that you really have to experience to believe it,” she said. “Now that I’m a ‘Softie, I want everyone else to know what a great place this can be to grow and make an impact.”