By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
What fascinates Donna Liu most about technology is that it is a stepping stone for bigger and better things.
“At the early stage … you cannot envision the full scope of what technology can do yet, but you know it is at the leading edge, and you know it is going to lead somewhere,” the Microsoft corporate vice president in the Artificial Intelligence and Research division said of her interest in technology. “I think that is how technology is drawing people in.”
Liu, 57, recently became one of the company’s corporate vice presidents in artificial intelligence, after serving as director of engineering. Liu started her career at Microsoft in 1989, after graduating from the University of Arizona with a master’s degree in computer science. But she wasn’t always on the technology path. Her undergraduate degree at National Taiwan University was in liberal arts.
“I actually took a couple classes while still at the National Taiwan University, and they were very interesting to me. At the time, I think it was before all the tech boom,” Liu said, recalling some technology classes she took as an undergraduate. “That was quite interesting, spurred my curiosity.”
Liu started in an entry level position at Microsoft as a software design engineer. She gained a lot of technical knowledge in this first position. In addition to an understanding of what it was like to work in a group on a large scale in an industry setting, she learned that getting small details right the first time is important in order to avoid the expensive process of tracing back problems later on.
Other lessons weren’t as tangible, though. At the time, Liu was just one of two women developers in the group, and as a naturally more reserved person, she found her hard work going unrecognized. She couldn’t count on other people to recognize her accomplishments, and had to learn to step up and advocate for herself.
“I want for my true self to show, and not a facade or not a cleverly wrapped gift, in a sense,” Liu said. “I think the struggle is really, how can I let my contribution show, without having to turn into somebody totally foreign to me?”
So, she said, she’s learned a few tricks along the way.
“One is to really focus on how I communicate, and how I present. One is to use my tones, to use my hand gestures, to emphasize certain points I want to make sure people really take home,” Liu said. “Another is to really focus on the facts, and let the data speak.”
Her efforts worked. She became a team lead but she also needed to learn to delegate responsibilities. When she first became the team lead, she tried to continue contributing as much as an individual code writer, in addition to leading. She quickly learned she needed to make tradeoffs, she said, even if that meant writing less code herself, in order to continue progressing up the company ladder.
Over the years, Liu has been on panels and taken part in mentoring programs. She has also taken on a number of mentees around the company, most of whom are of Asian heritage. She said she sees in them the same problems she faced as a young career woman, especially when it comes to staying authentic to themselves, while adapting to a culture in which they also must advocate for themselves.
Liu’s life isn’t all about Microsoft, though. Her children attend a Chinese school, and she volunteers at the school, helping with classroom activities and Chinese New Year festivities. In a nod to her liberal arts past, she also said she enjoys Chinese poetry. When she was young, she could recite all 300 Tang Dynasty-era poems in the ‘Tang Shi San Bai Shou’ by heart. Though she can no longer remember all of them, she still remembers many of them. They dive into almost everything, she said, from the changing of the seasons to the different emotions that flow through one’s heart to the joys and downfalls of life.
“Some of those poems, I couldn’t understand very well, as a young child. I just loved the way they sound,” Liu said. “But, as I grew up, I could relate better and better to the poems, especially the ones that are very profound and convey a lot of wisdom.”
Liu will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 7 at House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m.
Carolyn can be reached at email@example.com.