Kate Tsoukalas gets outside of the box

One of the first things you’ll notice about Kate Tsoukalas is the zest she has for what she does. As a tester on the browser user experience team of Windows Phone, Kate sees herself as being an advocate for the end user. And it’s clear she gets an immense amount of gratification from combining her interest in robotics, human computer interaction and usability testing.

When Kate joined Microsoft three years ago, work on Windows Phone 7 was in the very early stages, so she was able to provide input on some crucial design decisions. Putting the address bar at the bottom of the Windows Phone 7 browser, instead of at the top? Kate was involved in that decision. The tab center in the mobile version of IE also has her fingerprints on it.

Working on a project of this magnitude from scratch has been pretty amazing, especially for someone who never imagined working in the software industry.

Although Kate’s parent’s both studied English in University, they wanted their daughters to have a wide range of career choices, so they encouraged an interest in the arts and sciences. They went on lots of nature walks and trips to science museums. Star Trek was also a part of their weekly routine, which explains the movie posters proudly displayed in Kate’s office.

Unfortunately, Kate’s first encounter with a computer science class in grade 10 was less than hospitable, so she changed course, eventually earning a BS in Physics. She soon discovered that without a PhD, a degree in Physics did not provide the kinds of career opportunities that her parents had hoped for. Kate’s fallback plan ended up being a two-and-a-half year stint in Japan, teaching English and eventually overseeing the operations of five ESL schools and managing around 20 instructors.

When she returned, Kate enrolled in an intensive one-year program in computer science, and went on to earn her Masters. Around the same time she attended her first Grace Hopper Conference. Spending time with so many PhDs was all the motivation needed to earn hers.

Grace Hopper has since been tops on her list of resources for professional development. The opportunities to network, develop leadership skills and further your career are perhaps unequaled within the tech industry. And this year Kate is one of a handful of women from Microsoft who are speaking about how to advance your career.

Things have certainly come a long way since Kate’s first ill-fated foray into computer science. The curriculum and teaching have improved, the number of female role models has increased and companies recognize the benefits of having diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Here at Microsoft we sponsor numerous events aimed at encouraging women to work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

At the same time, the company isn’t afraid to think outside the box when it comes to hiring decisions. Kate can think of a political science major, one person with a degree in architecture and someone with a biomedical imaging background, all of whom are on her team.

Kate can’t point to one particular thing as the reason why she loves her job. Instead, it’s a mixture of working with such a variety of people and using her background in physics, software and hardware interaction and user experience design to create something basically out of “thin air” that has the potential to be used by millions of people.