Mary-Ellen Anderson, Microsoft’s Vice-President of Developer Experience & Evangelism, was the featured speaker Wednesday at Communitech’s Women in Tech breakfast series, where she delivered an hour-long discussion on the importance of having what she termed a “growth mindset,” a concept from Carol S. Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Anderson, a Canadian based in Toronto, followed up on her talk with an hour-long round-table with more than a dozen women holding senior leadership roles at tech companies in Waterloo Region. Afterward she sat down with Communitech News and talked about Microsoft, delivering on change, and encouraging women to opt for careers in tech.

Q – You spoke today about transformation, and the challenge of effecting change in a large technology company like Microsoft, which has more than 100,000 employees and contractors worldwide. Large enterprise companies seeking to innovate and cope with disruption face essentially the same problem. How do you effect change in a large organization?

A – First and foremost, you have to have courageous leaders and you have to know what the mission is. Once you know what the mission is, you have to make sure everybody buys in, from your senior leaders to your first-line managers. The key thing [with buy-in] is to be super clear. What is the mission? What’s the goal? And then follow up and make sure you’re delivering.

Q – You mentioned that in Canada we tend to be risk-averse, and it’s true that startups here tend to have more trouble raising money here than in the U.S. What is the solution?

A – Maybe another way to frame that is, generally in Canada we seem to want to know a lot of the answers before we say “Yes” to a given project or request. I think we need to understand that if you wait to have all the answers, or even 60 per cent or 70 per cent of your answers, before you build something, then by the time you build it those answers will not only have changed, the questions will have changed, too. Sometimes you have to dive in knowing less and go for it. Iterate along the way.

Q – What kind of impact do startups that work with Microsoft have on Microsoft? Is their feedback valuable?

A – Companies will say to us: “I could do this, if you only had X, and when we get that specific ask, that feedback, it helps us be more agile and deliver what people need to be successful. It goes back to the mission: If we want to empower you, and you’re giving us feedback about what exactly we need to do in order to help you, then that helps us quickly go and provide whatever feature you need that’s going to help you be successful.

If you have 30 startups giving you the same feedback, it helps you understand a problem you wouldn’t have known before. We’re trying to operate more like a startup within Microsoft, take that idea of being agile.

Q – Microsoft recently announced it is tying executive compensation to improved metrics with respect to diversity and specifically hiring a higher percentage of women. How do you encourage women to opt for a career in tech, not only at Microsoft, but in general?

A – Every person, and I’m speaking about men too, has to be a talent spotter. We don’t want to get into a situation where we’re all stealing the same great women. We need to help women know that there are a whole bunch of different roles within the tech sphere: there’s marketing, HR, legal.

From the standpoint of growing the next developers, that’s where we want to lean in and help with coding programs. We have a program called DigiGirlz, basically for girls who are in Grade 7 and 8, which is when they usually pivot away from tech. We have this amazing program for coding called An Hour of Code: A lot of our managers are being trained to go into their children’s or nieces’ or nephews’ schools to do an hour of code with kids, to get them excited.

Anyone can contribute to this industry if they have a growth mindset. We often think you must have a computer science degree or an engineering degree, but that’s not necessarily true. I don’t have that, for example. We want to grow the next generation, but also nurture those folks who think it’s not for them.

Q – How can we continue to scale the Toronto-Waterloo tech corridor?

A – There’s a vibe here, an energy here, that’s simply amazing. Waterloo Region in particular is just on fire and the things happening here are going to change the world. If we can bridge that to Toronto and the rest of Canada it would be amazing. To do it we need infrastructure. We need a high-speed rail line. With that, what we’d be able to accomplish would be incredible.

About The Author

Craig Daniels
Senior Journalist

Craig Daniels is a veteran reporter, columnist and editor who has joined Communitech’s editorial team as senior journalist. He worked most recently at Postmedia in Hamilton, where he led the team that produced the National Post, and before that at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Financial Post, the Montreal Daily News and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B. He has an abiding interest in the transformational power and promise of tech and startup ecosystems, is a commercially licensed pilot, and has a debilitating wrist-watch fetish.