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Thomas Kohnstammwritten by
Thomas Kohnstamm
Standing out from the crowd

To say that a lot was at stake would be an understatement.

The San Francisco launch event for Office for iPad was Satya Nadella’s first appearance as the CEO of Microsoft in the Bay Area tech industry and media epicenter. And Office for iPad represents Nadella’s determination to create a mobile first, cloud first Microsoft that is committed to making cloud services like Office available on every device, no matter the platform.

As Nadella’s co-presenter, Julia White, general manager of product marketing for Office, was praised for her energetic hands-on demo – but also her sense of style.

“I think Julia White's very cool leather jacket should have its own Twitter account,” tweeted Mashable editor Lance Ulanoff at the recent Office for iPad launch event in San Francisco. Eventually everyone from tech bloggers to the New York Post weighed in on White’s sartorial triumph.

Typically, tech product launches don’t spark viral fashion discussions (at least not complimentary ones), but then, this wasn’t just any product launch.

Typically, tech product launches don’t spark viral fashion discussions, but then, this wasn’t just any product launch.

Despite the fact that White is a 13-year veteran of the company, she embraces change and fights to move both technology and business to its future state. She’s never been afraid to challenge the conventional thinking and stand out from the crowd.

“I think that a lot of it goes back to being a redhead,” White told me with an almost-straight face while seated in her airy corner office in Redmond. “I’ve always liked being different, so I embraced that mentality.” She rolled a soccer ball back and forth between her feet, picking up the pace as she talked.

Born in a potato-growing area of Idaho, White’s friends and neighbors were all farmers. White’s father was a mechanical engineer who ran the local nuclear power plant. The family later moved to the resorts and swimming pools of Orlando, where White’s father became an executive at Westinghouse and then to quaint Issaquah, Washington, where he helmed various utilities.

“At the dinner table we’d talk about board meetings.” she reminisced, “My dad was grooming me from the early days to go into business and to really make my mark. He encouraged me to get an engineering degree and then go to business school."

I’ve always liked being different, so I embraced that mentality.

White was an Olympic hopeful in synchronized swimming, a sport that she says, “most people still only know from a Saturday Night Live skit starring Martin Short.” Mainstream or not, synchronized swimming taught White a lot about discipline, team work and also navigating the complex process of subjective judging. She credits the synchronized swimming judging process with giving her a thick skin and “not taking it personally and not giving up when the odds are stacked against you in a specific situation.”

When White started as an undergrad at Stanford, she fell in love with journalism and communications, making her the black sheep within her family of engineers and scientists. “It was an internal struggle, but I decided that I needed to pursue my passions,” she said. Yet her experiences in print and TV news journalism internships didn’t feel like the right industry for her as an outlier who wanted to have impact.

Everything changed during White’s junior year in college, when a professor pulled her into a research project between Stanford and Melinda Gates. She remembered, “We were working on human-computer interaction. We had some good ideas around making computer interaction more social, but the technology simply wasn’t there yet.”

Julia speaking at Office for iPad eventJulia White on stage at the Office for iPad launch event in San Francisco on March 27, 2014.

Even though the project didn’t work out, White saw “a glimpse of how we could change the way people communicate with each other and with technology.” She had also dipped her big toe into the seemingly limitless mid-90s tech industry in Silicon Valley. White had found a path that combined her passion for communications with an industry that allowed her to flex her outsized ambition.

After graduation in 1996, White landed at software company Intuit. She said, “Quicken was big, Quick Books was fairly new and they had just bought Turbo Tax. Silicon Valley was booming.” She started working on Quicken Online Banking, which was still done via private network because the internet wasn’t considered secure enough. “We hired a bunch of people from big banks to run the financial services part of the team,” she said. “I was the youngest person on the team and one of the bankers told me, ‘NO ONE is going to bank on the internet. That is crazy.’ I responded, ‘Sorry, it’s really not.’” Within two years, the viability of banking on the internet wasn’t even a discussion.

After spending a couple of years building up Quicken, White moved to a hand-picked startup team to create a new web-based Quicken experience that would render the existing version irrelevant. “It was another excellent lesson about the pace of change in this industry,” she noted.

In 1999, before the tech bubble burst, White left Silicon Valley to attend Harvard Business School. “People thought I was nuts to leave when I did,” she laughed. “I was literally one of the only tech people at HBS at that point and in the minority as a woman. I was definitely an outlier.”

Upon completing her MBA, White had her pick of industries but headed straight back into tech. “I felt tech was the place where I could have the most impact,” she said. “I wanted to leave my footprints. If you want to make a difference, you have to go to an industry where things are still changing.”

White added, “And I chose Microsoft over returning to the Valley because I was really impressed with the people and the type of challenges they hand you. I was looking for really big impact and Microsoft had the scale and the talent to do it.”

She asked to work on “hardcore tech” and Microsoft put her in Server and Tools on the BizTalk Server team. “Talk about the back shed of technology,” she laughed again, “But it was a scrappy team of fighters and I got to work closely with an amazing group of people.“

Julia jogging with Anne Weiler

White jogs through a park near her Seattle home with friend Anne Weiler.

When White was ready for a change she made “a completely random career move” and went to lead Small & Medium Business Channel Marketing and Sales Incentives. She explained, “I didn’t know anything about it. It was one of those beautiful Microsoft moments where I called up a contact and said, ‘I want to try something new,’ and he was like, ‘Great. Come on over.’”

Then, when White was on maternity leave with her second child, a colleague got in touch to ask her to “come lead Exchange marketing.” She says, “To have a newborn and take on a new job at that level was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my career. But I led Exchange for four years and then, two years ago, picked up my current job responsible for Technical Marketing across the Office team.”

One of White’s priorities when she took over Office 365 marketing was focusing her team on talking to IT Pros about moving to the cloud. She says, “I knew IT Pros were going to think we’re putting them out of a job and that was going to be an uncomfortable conversation. To help my team, I told them my story about how ‘NO ONE is going to bank on the internet.’”

“That’s why we’re in tech – it’s constantly changing, we’re constantly adapting. If you stand still, you die.” She sat forward in her chair. “At Quicken, I spent two years building up a company I loved, then I spent two years trying to kill it. That’s the mentality you need to survive in this industry.”

That’s why we’re in tech – it’s constantly changing, we’re constantly adapting. If you stand still, you die.

Now with Microsoft, White too sees the dawn of a new era. “Microsoft is moving forward: not because we’re not happy about our past, or because we don’t think we’ve changed the world, but the next chapter is going to be different by design. And we need to be proud about that. Making the company successful means going where the customers are and doing what it takes to keep winning their hearts and minds.”

White noted that change may sound good on paper, but that doesn’t make it easy. “Change is uncomfortable,” she said, dribbling the soccer ball under her desk. “But if you’re comfortable, something is wrong – you’re not pushing hard enough.”

I left White’s office evaluating my own career and thinking about ways to push forward and innovate. Ulanoff was almost right. He did see something inspired on the stage in San Francisco. But the statement is not the leather jacket. It’s Julia White herself.

Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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