Children love bubbles and water fountains. Most adults tend to find more exhilaration from an incoming text. Sometimes, however, there’s that rarest of souls, a grown-up who manages to find beauty in both. Those are the types of people you want to be around, because their contagious joie de vivre delivers a jolt of energy to your ho-hum day.
Laura Butler, Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft, is one such person. Currently she’s standing in harm’s way for a photo shoot, underneath a massive metallic fountain at the Seattle Center. As the waterworks cascade down, Laura just laughs and twirls her umbrella, a modern-day Mary Poppins. “If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Inspiring words to live by indeed. If I had a second umbrella, I thought, I’d probably join her.
Such is the magnetism of Butler’s personality. She’s a funny and self-deprecating force of nature, given to free-form monologues that display humor, pathos and massive amounts of brainpower. “Laura’s incredible energy, intelligence, and dizzying stream of analogies leave you awed in the first five minutes of meeting her,” said Microsoft Corporate Vice President and former boss, Darren Laybourn. Microsoft Technical Fellow Richard Ward, a longtime peer, concurs, adding, “You never walk away from Laura without learning something new.”
If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.
She’s quirky, a pop kitsch queen who freely mixes references to '80s anthems ("Safety Dance"), cult comedies ("Team America: World Police”), and Miss Piggy with nods to high culture (Dostoyevsky, “War and Peace,” and Horatio Hornblower). Her cats are named Pavlov and Curie, after the scientists. She’s a Star Trek fanatic with an autographed picture of William Shatner and a Spock cookie jar by her desk. She readily admits that she has a thing for the pointy-eared Vulcan and his logical, yet emotional charms. Butler always carries a journal to scrawl notes. There’s a page devoted to television shows, movies and books she wants to “consume,” another for book ideas she wants to write, to-do lists, little tactical notes for work, and one for potential inventions, such as an umbrella with a cup holder, that are brilliant in their simple utility. As one of Microsoft’s early employees, she’s worked on products dating back to Word for Windows (she jokes that it was just a single Window back then). During her tenure at the company, she has helped design a laundry list of features, including a new user interface in Windows 95, multi-monitor support, and Application and Desktop sharing in NetMeeting, a forefather to Lync. During the Windows Phone 7 revamp, she was the driving force behind the “Buttery Smooth” metro user interface, including the phone’s elegant home screen, live tiles, modern interfaces and touch capability. As a Distinguished Engineer at a company filled with brilliant minds (or, as she puts it, “people who got beat up in high school”), Butler takes her corporate role very seriously. “With authority and power comes obligation and responsibility.” That’s why she’s constantly self-evaluating, not in her own interest but on behalf of her team, wondering: What’s the right thing to do by them? “Each person gets that feeling that she’s personally invested in their success,” said Ward. “She knows what everyone’s working on and the issues they’re having.”
At the same time she understands the product and audience with pinpoint precision. “She knows the right problems to solve, pushes hard for good solutions, and is willing to take big risks to do the right thing,” said Dana Huang, a Microsoft partner software engineering manager and a peer to Butler on the Windows Phone team. “People are attracted to her group because of her personality and drive.” Butler sees it another way. “My superpower is to create happiness.” She means that last statement in terms of her team and herself. An avid adventurer, she’s traveled around the world to far-off places such as Zanzibar and summited peaks near Everest. She’s taken circus classes and done comedy improv to improve her public speaking. “It gave me self-confidence and helped me lower my shields,” said Butler. She has enjoyed bustard for Thanksgiving in Africa and eyeball soup in Bangkok (a spoonful of eyeball guaranteed in every bite!). She’s also had the wherewithal to navigate herself to safety, 19,000 feet above sea level, while alone in a snowstorm. It speaks volumes about how she handles pressure. “I’m a military logistic general. It’s how I get a lot done.” Yet that analogy understates her enchanting ways, which, according to Butler, probably would have gotten her burned at the stake during the Salem witch trials. Of course she’d have had one hell of a ride back then. And chances are she’d have baked cookies for the event too. They’re her signature move. She’s a cookie maker to a degree that would make Mrs. Field’s envious. “You can really get to know people when you wrap things in sugar,” remarks Butler. I am living proof. The first time we meet, she brings salted caramel chocolates from a local vendor, which she hands over with an apology, chagrined at having not had time to prepare a treat. Our second encounter results in home-baked cookies and a thank-you note for the photographer, editor and me. Our third encounter leads to more cookies (mine, all mine) — chocolate chip with peanut butter cup guest stars. We conclude our get-togethers with gluten-free snicker doodles for my daughter, who has Celiac’s disease. How she even remembered that fact is beyond me. “She bakes cookies to encourage her team or recruitments,” said Ward. “Her holiday cookies and brownies … she’s totally dominant.” Laybourn takes it one step further. “Laura is the most ‘all in’ person you will ever meet. She is willing and able to do anything to help her team succeed, including doing all the final check-ins of code, baking dozens of cookies to thank people for great work, or dressing in cat pajamas to lighten the mood.”
Cat pajamas? “It was a stressful time,” Butler recalls. “So we tried to lighten the mood with a pajama party.” Imagine talking to your boss while she’s dressed in detachable paws, a tail draped jauntily over her shoulder. Team members with sudden design change requests often had to come in sporting animal pajamas themselves. Butler, being open-minded, let them select their own spirit animal.
For a Windows Phone annual charity talent show, Butler performed a one-woman rendition of “Flashdance,” played AC/DC songs with a toy guitar, and belted out a version of Madonna’s “Vogue,” complete with backup dancers wearing paper masks. Who wouldn’t want to be on that team? (Needless to say, she won.)
While meetings are a function of our daily work lives, Butler took her all-hands-on-deck monthly gatherings to the next level as an event called “cupcakes.” “You learned some interesting stuff and you got sugar,” said Butler. To keep the event lively, Butler wore different-themed aprons: Valentine’s Day here, a Halloween get-up there. Her powers of persuasion are so strong, she even got then-CEO Steve Ballmer to attend, wearing an apron and serving frosted delights to a surprised bevy of attendees. “She’s a chameleon,” said Ward. “One minute she’s acting like a mom, the next she’s this super confident engineering manager.”
What is her special sauce? “She looks out for people, offers coaching, keeps people motivated, and rewards them for great accomplishments,” said Huang. “She creates a culture that makes people feel a part of a family. At the same time, she’ll roll up her sleeves and work with the team to tackle hard problems and get things done.”
For a charity talent show, Butler performed a one-woman rendition of ‘Flashdance,’ played AC/DC songs with a toy guitar, and belted out a version of Madonna’s ‘Vogue,’ complete with backup dancers wearing paper masks. Who wouldn’t want to be on that team?
So what happens when, as Dr. Seuss once wrote, “Bang-ups and hang-ups happen to you”? Butler is more likely to balance the miscue with a Godzilla impression on a table than a dressing down. “It’s the code and bugs that are bad,” said Butler. “It’s not the people.”
Simply put, people love working for her. When she recently decided to switch teams to SharePoint and OneDrive, hundreds of people signed her online goodbye photo, wishing her encouragement and thanking her for the opportunity to work with her. It’s the kind of loyalty brilliant leaders command.
So where does such a personality come from? Butler was born in New London, Connecticut, in August 1970. She came out big, just like her personality, a whopping nine pounds. In elementary school, she was a T-Rex lording over her Lilliputian classmates, topping out at five feet by the fourth grade (still her height today). That same year, she got scolded at Catholic School for spiking a king after becoming chess champion.
Excellent school performance landed Butler at Harvard, where she dove into new subject matter. Living on orange juice and chocolate chip cookies, she discovered computer science and decided to concentrate in math, but found that the school didn’t fully engage her. “I never saw my advisor. I was never invited to cookies. I felt that they didn’t really want me there.” Yes, the cookie theme returns. Perhaps this is the root of her cookie drive?
She stumbled upon Microsoft at the career center, where she was enticed with the promise of a free dinner. That dinner eventually led to a free plane ticket, temporary housing and an internship on campus beginning in May of 1989. “The recruiting machinery was unbelievable even back then,” she recalls. “They just wanted agile, smart problem solvers.”
For a self-described resident of the Island of Misfit Toys, it was like going to Oz. “I had never been on my own. I didn’t even have a driver’s license.” She started working on Windows, reporting and fixing bugs. “There were no rules,” said Butler. “Harvard is about rules, waiting in line and paying money. Here I had rights and they were paying me.”
She thrived at Microsoft, loving the interaction of brilliant minds. “My memories of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are they pushed you on stuff and expected you to push back.” To date, she has more than 10 patents to her name, for ideas such as a scalable multi-party conferencing and collaboration system, and repositioning and displaying an object in a multiple monitor environment.
Ten years into her career, having advanced to product general manager, Butler took a break from Microsoft for a series of ambitious adventures.
She went to eastern Africa and summited Mount Kilimanjaro. She started studying for a law degree, but ended up in Katmandu instead. She took a four-week excursion to Nepal, trekking different peaks where she discovered she thrives in thin air. She also delved into Cambodian culture and toured caves in Cappadocia, Turkey. If “Let’s Get Lost” wasn’t already the title of an award-winning documentary on troubled trumpeter Chet Baker, it’d make the perfect title for her autobiography. “I hate being afraid so I throw myself into stuff,” she admits. “The best way to fail is to be too afraid.”
Since returning to Microsoft, she’s worked primarily with the Windows Phone team. Recently, she switched to SharePoint/OneDrive because it’s different and a path less travelled for a brain that requires constant stimulation. The name of her group is MI6, which sounds like the office where James Bond works. Her goal is less world domination though and more using business intelligence to decipher what’s going on with the group's services and customers, how their products are being used, and how can they can improve services. “Laura took on the role of leading our Data Analytics group that was in need of a re-model,” said Phil Smoot, vice president of Engineering for SharePoint/OneDrive. “Her impact has been immediate—a rising tide that lifts the boat. A whole class of problems has gone away and a whole new set of potential and possibilities is becoming apparent.” So as she waits one day to be recruited for a mission to Mars, she bides her time on this planet at Microsoft.
With her mother and adopted sister living nearby, she has her comfort and heroes around her. The future remains unwritten, but entices her to, as Captain Kirk would say, “boldly go where no woman has gone before.”
“If you’re going to go on an adventure, you’re going to be uncomfortable, but you might see something amazing you can’t see anywhere else. That’s the beauty of adventure.”Originally published on 11/3/2014 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft