Lili Cheng on building tomorrow

Following our post yesterday regarding Microsoft’s participation at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing I thought it would be interesting to profile a few of the Microsoft women attending the event.

First up is Lili Cheng who was the subject of a great profile in the Seattle Times last year. From that we learned, Lili started her career as an architect, has been likened to Tigger and is a consummate risk taker. Having known Lili personally for many years, I can attest to those last two.

As the head of FUSE Labs (Future Social Experiences), Lili leads a team that is pushing the boundaries of social and is working closely with teams such as Bing as we rethink what the web means in the social era, and its impact on search, communication and many other aspects of computing. Lili brings a zest and enthusiasm for this space that is infectious. I got some time recently to sit down with Lili and ask her a few questions about her career at Microsoft and why she’d encourage other women to pursue careers in technology.

The first question I asked Lili is why she works here when I suspect she could work at any tech company given her skills and background. She was quick to answer that freedom is a big reason – she has the ability to work with a group of people who think about the future of a set of tools that we use every day – email, the web, social networks – and doesn’t know anywhere else that she’s have such freedom and support. Lili also talked about the options that Microsoft offers – from working a product like Windows that literally touches over a billion people around the world to working on projects such as Kodu that encourage young children to explore the world of programming in a playful, engaging manner.

Next up I asked Lili why she’d encourage other women to pursue careers in technology. Once again her response was quick – who wouldn’t want a job that gets to shape the future? It’s no longer a nerdy culture she said, noting that everyone now uses a PC, a mobile phone, the web. The stereotypical “guy in IT” is long gone because there’s a real need to have the people who are building the tools of tomorrow be completely representative of the people who would ultimately use them – people from all walks of life, all ages, genders and backgrounds. 

Lili got even more animated as she recalled a recent talk she gave at NYU to a class of freshmen. She began by telling them that everything they’re familiar with (cell phones, email, the web, Facebook) didn’t exist when she was in college and predicted that all of that would be quite different by the time they reached the workforce. It’s was a stark reminder at how fast this industry changes and how prepared you need to be to drive change, take risks and assume nothing. All of the things that keep Lili here and create room for big impact.