To meet Sheridan Martin Small is to meet a woman who is extremely hard to categorize. She has an intriguing job title for sure – User Experience Designer for Xbox Incubation – but that doesn’t do justice to one of the most interesting people I’ve met in years. Our paths crossed a few weeks back while chatting with some folks in Xbox incubation and I realized a much longer follow-up meeting was going to be necessary to get her story. Let’s start with her career journey as that’s a story in itself.
Sheridan has a background in fine arts and as she was putting herself through school, she needed to find a job that paid the most dollars per hour. Her research showed that Microsoft’s help desk on campus paid more than anywhere else she could find, and though she had zero experience with computers that didn’t stop her from applying. You’ll see that trend emerge on this journey – Sheridan sees most barriers as a challenge and opportunity to learn, not a roadblock. She figured that her job piercing ears in the mall gave her ample experience of dealing with stressed out people and those skills would be much in need at help desk. The hiring manager agreed and thus Sheridan had her first toehold in to the tech world.
At about the same time her university decided they’d let people create their own web pages – this is way back in 1994 when Lynx was the browser of choice. If you’re not old enough to remember Lynx, it was a text based browser. I remembered those fun times and we reminisced about how you really could get to the end of the Internet back then as every few pages you seemed to end up where you started. Yep, we used to browse the web like this:
[image credit: wikimedia]
Things were moving quickly on the web at this point and as an art student, Sheridan was fascinated that she could type weird characters into a computer and it would result in a web page. She learned as she went and as tables and images got added to HTML she just picked it up – before she knew it, she was a pretty decent web page designer. So much so that the university asked her to create a website for them and paid her for the privilege. She now had two jobs on the go, her salary was on the rise and she was dabbling in tech.
Around this time, Sheridan got a phone call from a friend she’d worked with back on the help desk asking if she’d be interested in a job with Expedia (at the time a Microsoft company) – she jumped at the chance, starting as a contract web developer on the Expedia site. She’d now quadrupled her salary in 12 months, and in August 1998 she joined Microsoft as a full-time employee working on Internet Explorer 4 and building the Expedia channel (remember them?) in the nascent DHTML technology. Not long after this, Expedia was spun off and Sheridan chose to stay with the travel company, developing her skill set and learning a lot as the company went through its IPO.
The next step saw Sheridan return to Microsoft, working as a Web Development Engineer at Production Studios – Microsoft’s internal post production facility – where she developed DVD content, and interactive kiosks. By now she was doing hardcore software development, learning as she went and in this role she was exposed to .NET as the first beta landed. Exciting stuff for an an art student Sheridan recalled – it reminded her of the early days of Expedia, coding with Denali. She’d worked at Studios for a little over a year at this point and as Expedia began to branch out internationally the lure of a new challenge took her back to the travel site. That challenge was building sites in French and even though she didn’t speak a word of that language, Sheridan explained to me that it wasn’t too difficult. She was looking at code and everyone writes code in their own dialect anyway so it was really a matter of translation by exploration.
Where next on the epic journey I asked? Well, it turns out Sheridan has always loved video games but she had no clue how to program them or how to get into that world. A job listing for a web developer at PopCap was the answer and she got the gig, working at the Seattle outfit for a while and enjoying the small, startup nature of that business. However, Sheridan realized that she missed what a big company, particularly Microsoft, provided her – the opportunity to gain a new skill set at every turn and try something new almost every year. She determined that it was time to add some Program Management skills to her portfolio and took the decision to return to Microsoft , joining the Casual Games Group in late 2006 as a job as a Program Manager. I was curious how Sheridan got the job, given she has no PM experience. Your resume can only say so much on paper she told me – get a toe in the door, and get in the room with a hiring manager and your enthusiasm and passion can get you a long way. That seems to be a recurring theme on this journey.
She had her PM role and started amassing another set of skills around planning, documenting, presenting and more – that was until an incubation team spun in the division. They needed a producer, someone creative who could wear a lot of hats. Someone who had artistic, developer and PM credentials. What may have looked like a patchwork cloth of jobs was now starting to look much more compelling – a killer resume. Sheridan took on the role and became a producer – translating between artists and developers in much the same way a producer on a movie may – orchestrating, explaining, communicating….and still coding. As often happens, the project moved from incubation to production and another move beckoned – this time to an evangelism role. That phrase is probably over used at Microsoft but it’s one of the most interesting types of roles as it requires an adaptability to work inside and outside of Microsoft with many different types of people. Those who are good at it are some of the smartest people I know in the company and Sheridan made a similar observation. She decided there was much she could learn from Scott Henson – she wanted the skills he had and taking a role as an evangelist for XNA game development so she became a Senior Strategist in our Game Platform Strategy team.
Around this time, a project called Natalwas gaining momentum and she began to work on that in her evangelism role – helping game developers get to grips with totally new ways of building games that would work without a controller. Natal became Kinect, of course, and during this time Sheridan was on a Kinect tour in London and listened to a talk by a guy named Alex Kipman - regular readers will know Alex as the spiritual father of Kinect and quite a charismatic chap. During that talk Sheridan made the decision that she had to find a way to get involved in the future Alex and team were dreaming of and building…a future where “computers understand the language of humans” as he puts it. As fate would have it, a user experience designer position opened on Alex’s team not long after and we’re now neatly back at the start of this story as that’s her current role. I asked Sheridan how long she plans to stay with this one and she explained why she loves this role more than any other she’s had – it allows her to use all of the things she has learned on this epic journey. Writing code, prototyping, doing art, product management etc..
An epic journey I think you’ll agree. What I love about Sheridan’s career is the varied nature of it. Logically you wouldn’t think a fine art major would end up with the skills she has amassed – that’s testament to the person. As Sheridan freely admits, she loves a challenge and is always on a quest to learn something new. Just last year she decided to do a drawing every day in order to get better and more confident at the discipline. You can judge for yourself how good she has become. I think her art is great and it turned out that Presidents of the United States of America did too. They asked to use one of her drawings as a poster/T-shirt for their PUSAfest last February. Some of those challenges she created for herself are outside of work but a big part of what keeps her at Microsoft is the constant opportunity to find similar challenges inside the company…or even better, combining both….
If you saw the Microsoft keynote from E3 last month, you may remember a small fluffy character called Ronaldo who starred in the Fun Labs demo. Guess who created Ronaldo? Yep, Sheridan. You may see those little furry friends go in to wider production soon too.
Things never get boring around here Sheridan says (unless you let them)…and on we move to discuss the next project, a dress made from paper. Sheridan went to a creative workshop over a weekend a while back and the instructor gave attendees a thick stack of paper. Use all of it by the end of the day, creatively he said. So Sheridan began crumpling it up…and made a dress from it. That spurred another idea – how about putting lights and sensors into clothing? She found the LilyPad Arduino microcontroller – a circuit board designed for wearables and e-textiles. Soldering boards were a little daunting but Sheridan knew how to write code and so she pressed on in her spare time (what spare time I ask?). She was soon collaborating with Asta Roseway in Microsoft Research to create The Printing Dress. I’ll have another story and video on that soon, as it recently won Best in Show and Best Concept at the International Symposium on Wearable Computing Design Exhibition. A few weeks back, Sheridan was showing another paper clothing creation of hers during Seattle’s community art center event, PRAT.
Not content with expending her own knowledge, she’s keen to help others and each year leads a workshop at Expanding Your Horizons – a volunteer organization focused on getting middle school girls interested in taking math and science classes. I am so impressed that I get to come to work every day and work with a group of people who not only impress me with their intelligence and creativity, but with their kindness as well. I work with incredibly wonderful and thoughtful people. Because that’s the other half of the coin…there’s challenge and opportunity on the one side, and the community you work with on the other.
I know this has been a long story but I wanted to share all of it so you could understand what’s possible if you’re prepared to take some risks and push yourself, particularly inside Microsoft. You can have an amazing career and work with incredible people and I’ll not paraphrase Sheridan on this point as she said:
“I am so impressed that I get to come to work every day and work with a group of people who not only impress me with their intelligence and creativity, but with their kindness as well. I work with incredibly wonderful and thoughtful people. Because that’s the other half of the coin…there’s challenge and opportunity on the one side, and the community you work with on the other”
I’m exhausted just thinking about all of this creativity and energy and left wondering how Sheridan finds time to pack all of this in. She tells me that she doesn’t watch much TV and finished by saying:
“A lot of the stuff I’ve done has taken some sort of courage (for example, I’m not really a natural extrovert, so standing on stage giving a talk can be pretty freaky), but I tell myself that if I do it, even if I fail, that it’ll make a great story someday. I guess this may be the day”
Yep, this is the day…