It's Always About the Opportunity to Experience Different Adventures
Elaine Chang has a passion for learning, growing from different experiences to another, and she’s equally excited about sharing what she knows with others. These traits make her uniquely suited to her work as a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, where she combines her love of technology with business applications to help create cutting-edge software products. Wearing multiple hats in this role, Elaine works with diverse groups, displaying a great deal of flexibility and willingness to adapt. Elaine seems to come by these traits naturally, and she’s been exhibiting them since her days as a high school student in Hunan Province, China.
Elaine attended Yali School. Founded in 1906 by the Yale-China organization (now the Yale-China Foundation), Yali School has some of the toughest entrance requirements of any secondary school in China. As president of her student union and excelling in math and science, Elaine knew she wanted to study at a North American university, but found the then-current visa requirements for U.S. study daunting. She also knew she would need strong financial support. Looking over her options in Canada, she was attracted to Trent University, and on the day of that school’s application deadline she emailed to express her interest. This was in 1998 and there wasn’t easy access to email, so she was delighted when Trent immediately responded with a request that she email the basics of her application and then follow up with the rest of the package via regular mail. When she learned she’d been accepted she knew she was on the brink of a great adventure, having never flown on an airplane nor studied in a non-Chinese speaking country. But to the question, “Were you anxious?” Elaine responds with a laugh: “You let the excitement take over and off you go!”
Primarily an undergraduate institution, Trent had small class sizes and allowed for a lot of student-professor contact. Elaine found this to be just perfect. For one, because she ended up studying computer science with a minor in business administration, Elaine was able to study a subject where using English was allowed to come gradually, as a by-product of the study of the subject, rather than as integral to it. She was also able to take advantage of Trent’s excellent international exchange program, studying in her third year at Lancaster University in Lancaster, UK, which has strong CS and business administration programs. Covered by her scholarship, this year abroad allowed her to experience different teaching methods and to meet students from around the world. “There, I was considered a Canadian, even though I was from China. There was some culture shock attached to all of that, but eventually it all worked out and I had a great experience.”
Graduating from Trent in 2003, Elaine saw that the burst of the dot-com bubble was resulting in less-than-stellar job prospects. She knew she’d always wanted to go on for graduate work and thus found the time to be a perfect one for continuing her education. She applied to several programs, including George Washington University, where she’d done a summer internship as a data analyst for the physics department, and she was accepted at several universities, including the masters’ program of the CS department at UBC. Eager to have her, the department flew her to Vancouver, where she met professors, had lunch with department members, and was introduced to the department’s labs and facilities. “They were really nice and the department seemed very good. And then a friend of mine picked me up and took me to dinner and then to Stanley Park. This was at night and we were looking back on the city from the park. And my friend said, ‘Well? Are you coming to UBC?’ And I said, ‘Who could say no to this?!’”
Beginning her two-year masters program in September 2003, Elaine quickly found the work exciting and engaging. “I loved my academic experience. My professors and my advisor were really awesome. I enjoyed my grad studies and having my thesis published in a very good international conference.” Studying in the CS department ended up being much more than just an academic experience, however. Elaine likes to get involved in all sorts of different activities, and in the CS department she found a ready-made outlet for her energies and interests.
As an example, the Tri-mentoring Program at that time was primarily dedicated to helping undergraduates. Elaine felt she hadn’t had the formal mentoring opportunities at Trent that she would have liked and she felt a similar lack as a grad student at UBC. Talking with others in the department, she learned that a grad Tri-mentoring Program had been initiated in the past but had fizzled. Asking if the department “could start it up again for other people like me who would want it,” Elaine worked with staff persons Joyce Poon and Michele Ng, emailing former grad students and enlisting their support. Today, as she notes, “the Tri-mentoring Program serves graduate students as well and has graduate students serving as mentors. It’s been very successful.” During her time as a grad student, Elaine was a mentee with an industry representative and each year since graduation she’s served as a program mentor. Emailing, talking by phone, and visiting with students when she visits from Microsoft, Elaine is engaged in helping students find their way in whatever area most interests them. Currently she’s mentoring two students, one graduate and one undergrad.
She also saw how hard the department was working to support and encourage girls in secondary education settings and women at the university level. Inspired by that support, Elaine worked for two years with the department’s Focus on Women in Computer Science (FoWCS) committee to help organize GirlSmarts programs. GirlSmarts is a program that introduces Grade 6 girls to various aspects of computing such as HCI, programming, hardware, and building websites. For university-level women in CS, Elaine was impressed by what she saw at UBC. “I think UBC CS is doing a really good job in supporting women to help them network with other students who are in similar situations. In the US they have the CRW [Committee on the Status of Women in Computing, a committee of the Computing Research Association]. In 2004, the CRW initiated the Graduate Cohort Workshop, a conference where a lot of students in first or second year, masters or Ph.D. studies, come together to meet.” In 2004, UBC CS paid for Elaine to attend the first Graduate Cohort Workshop in Seattle, where she met and networked with other women graduate students from around North America.
Experiences such as these, together with her growing interest in linking computer science technology with business applications, led Elaine to branch out in other mentoring situations as well. In 2004 she was chosen to take part in the Vancouver-wide Leaders of Tomorrow program, a mentorship program run by the Vancouver Board of Trade, in which university students in their final year of post-secondary or graduate study are paired with industry mentors (https://www.boardoftrade.com/programs/leaders-of-tomorrow). Paired with the CTO of VanCity, Elaine had a fantastic experience and knew she would be looking for a job after graduation in which she could pair her twin interests in technology and business.
But before graduation happened, an opportunity came knocking. “This was January of 2005 and I was just starting my masters’ thesis. I was thinking about the general direction I’d go, either to get a Ph.D. or to industry, and I was pretty sure I’d go into industry. And then Microsoft called me.” To this day she’s still not sure why she was approached, though thinks that her leadership involvement in the CS community at UBC may have been partly responsible. In any event, she talked with a Microsoft representative by phone and then flew to Redmond for a more formal interview. “I wasn’t really worried because I figured I didn’t have much to lose. I could just enjoy the conversation and see where it would lead. They told me they were thinking of me as a Program Manager, a job that combines technology and business interests. I remember thinking, ‘this position sounds exactly like what I want.’ And then suddenly I had a job with Microsoft and I started a year later, in January 2006, after finishing my masters’.”
Now employed for more than six years at Microsoft, Elaine has enthusiasm for her job, what’s led her to it, and where she might go from here. “I like this role of combining business and technology. I’m passionate about technology and I like business and I like being able to think from the user’s mind. Microsoft is a great place. I thrive in the type of environment where you have enough room for people to take initiative and have the support to let people succeed.” As a Program Manager, Elaine exercises initiative in multiple, concurrent roles, helping design software solutions, authoring technical specifications, driving the vision, design, and implementation of next-generation software solutions, transforming the vision of a new product into a design that ultimately will be used by Microsoft customers worldwide, and advocating for end-users. In her roles she must successfully work with experts in other disciplines at Microsoft, including software development engineers, usability experts, product designers, product planners, user assistants, marketers, and salespeople.
She’s found that some of the conventional aspects of her formal education weren’t the best predictors of her success in this role. “Most of the education students get concerns programming and the basic stuff they learn from the textbook. But for a Program Manager, a lot of the skills needed are more like design skills and thinking about the bigger picture. What UBC CS taught me was how to do generic analysis and problem-solving. I’ve also found that people who do more extra curricular activities are better-suited to managing because they’ve developed leadership skills. If you take the initiative at UBC you can develop those skills as well.”
Working as a mentor in and outside of Microsoft helps her continue to develop those skills, as does serving as Vice-Chair of CHIME, the CHInese Microsoft Employee Network, a Microsoft employees’ organization, which, with more than 3,000 members, is one of the largest Chinese communities in the Northwest region of the U.S. Each year CHIME hosts a Microsoft-sponsored Asian Spring Festival in Redmond, bringing together different Asian communities and cultures in a day-long celebration. In 2011 Elaine was not only the general manager for this large event, but also performed with the Chinese dance troupe that she helped found . “I like to do all sorts of diverse things. I like to work hard and play hard,” she says with a laugh.
In the future Elaine could see moving in a direction in which she increasingly works with managing people, though she’s continually interested in honing her technical skills. Whatever she does, she’ll clearly balance her roles as savvy businessperson, agent for technical change, and supporter of students and employees. When she looks back on her time at UBC, she sees how valuable the graduate program was in helping her develop these many sides to her personality. “Just like Microsoft is not just a place to have a job, being at UBC was not just about getting the degree and it was not just about doing a thesis. I went for the experience and I had a great experience. UBC has so many diverse experiences to offer to students. If you want to take the initiative, this department has great resources to offer you.”