Building a career: Sarah Kaplan’s journey from marching band to Microsoft

sarah kaplan

Taking the road less traveled is difficult, but what do you do if there is no road at all?

This was where our own Bay Area leader, Sarah Kaplan, principal director of site engineering reliability (SRE) at Microsoft, found herself as she was wrapping up her education at University of California Berkeley.

There was no role or major for her current job. Throughout her network though, Sarah’s friends understood her innate ability to breakdown problems and passion for computers. It was in marching band that her career path started, and those connections ultimately lead Sarah to where she is today.

“I wouldn’t have made this journey if I wasn’t at Cal,” says Sarah. “I listened to my Cal connections, and definitely glad I did because I received great advice.”

Shaping a Profession

As a sophomore playing the drums, Sarah was excited when her UC Berkeley band mate came in and announced the Department of Health Services Viral and Rickettsial Disease Lab needed an intern to manage its Oracle database. Being an environmental science and German language major, she thought it would be great working experience.

Sarah was hired on full time after graduation but wasn’t there long. Her boss realized her aptitude for problem solving and understood her potential wasn’t going to be fully realized at the lab. One day he walked in, threw down a copy of ComputerWorld and told her, “You shouldn’t be here. This is what you should be doing.”

At that time Sarah was talking to a friend from her freshman dorm days who had become a technical recruiter. “I was telling her about upgrading and re-configuring the lab systems to get them online, and she says, ‘you know, we hire people like you.’”

It didn’t take long for Sarah to get a job as a technology systems consultant. After that she worked in a variety of areas from helpdesk and server maintenance to systems engineering, securing systems and service engineering. All these experiences helped her shape the role of SRE today.

Defining a Job

As head of SRE, Sarah manages a 105-person DevOps organization responsible for the availability and reliability of the O365 Exchange and Skype platforms.

“It is a discipline that’s still being defined, but fundamentally my team manages infrastructure for large services.”

“The analogy that I’ve started using is that your online service is like a car,” she says. “Few of us fix or service our own. Instead, we take the vehicle in to be fixed by specialists. SRE is the service department for your infrastructure. Cars sometimes break down, need tire changes or new brake pads. SRE does all of that for infrastructure. We set up the processes and procedures to ensure services continue to run smoothly.”

Data science, another career path still being defined, is a big part of SRE.

As we continue push our infrastructure, SRE is increasingly looking at the data to determine its health. Sarah’s group first leveraged data science more than a decade ago to do capacity modeling. Services were growing. But how fast? What were the major contributors to growth? Where would the capacity bottlenecks be? Stress tests of the system under varying conditions and gathering data on system performance, allows the team to determine if storage, I/O, memory, or network are constraining factors.

“We have so much data. This allows our data scientists to pinpoint when and what sort of systems to purchase through correlation analysis, calculations, projections for traffic and catalysts for growth. This level of accuracy helps us have the right infrastructure in place as the company grows. We even get hardware as we need it, which avoids early purchase holding costs and service disruptions if it is too late.”

For example, the data science team’s models for Hotmail growth is so precise it proved to be accurate within 5% of actual every time.

Clearing the Path for Others

Technical majors are still catching up to jobs in the workplace. Sarah noted that those not as adventurous as herself would benefit from a clear path.

The 2018 LinkedIn Workforce Report found that there were more than 151,000 data scientist jobs going unfilled across the United States. A recent KPMG CIO Survey noted 46% of CIOs interviewed had a dire shortage of data specialists.

This spring, UC Berkeley—Sarah’s alma mater—graduates its first class of data science majors. It is the first class of graduates for the major which was made available back in November 2018. As a champion of learning and developing new careers, Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft U.S., is invited to give the commencement speech.

“This first class of data science graduates represent the future thought leaders of the industry and carry a supreme responsibility in the ongoing transformation within technology. I’m honored to have the opportunity to address this powerful group at the launch of their careers.” – Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft U.S.,

Sarah defined the career of data scientist in just three words: “Making data actionable.” Her advice to those graduates is to not get caught up in theory. Always ask why a data insight matters, and if it doesn’t drive change or business results move on.

Keep Learning

Just because Sarah is a SRE lead now, doesn’t mean she is not open to what comes next.

“Microsoft is on the cutting edge of technology,” she says. “You never know what might come next. There is so much data and systems keep changing. If you stop trying to learn new things or get stuck in your ways, you’ll fall behind quickly. I still learn something new every day.”

Microsoft in the Bay Area helps employees continue the learning process by providing manager training, internal career fairs, external group learning sessions and our annual Growth Conference, an all-day focused on career development.

Picking a career is no small task. If you are interested in building one with Microsoft in the Bay Area, please visit our Bay Area job openings here:


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