Inclusive design isn’t just polite – it’s also good business, says devices exec Christina Chen

Sometimes, serving others can be a wonderfully self-serving experience. Take Christina Chen, a fast-rising star at Microsoft who was recently named by Business Insider as one of the “most powerful women engineers in the world.” She began her “education” young, working in her parents’ restaurant, where she first formed the customer-centric mindset that has taken her from appetizers to app development.

“I started out cleaning tables,” she said recently, discussing those quite-literal salad days. “My parents always told me that everyone was the same, and to treat everyone with the same respect.

“When you’re working with the public like that from a young age, you see a huge cross-section of humanity,” Chen added. “I’ve always thought that people’s strengths and their circumstances sometimes match and sometimes don’t. I think there are a lot of people out there who haven’t been given a chance.”

Christina Chen calls the neighborhood library her "happy place."
Christina Chen calls the neighborhood library her “happy place.”

But as any good small business owner will tell you, being inclusive isn’t just an altruistic idea – it also makes good business sense.

“From an engineer’s perspective, focusing on customers is about efficiency – spend your finite time on the things that people actually use,” she reasoned. “From a business perspective, people now have an abundant choice of experiences and they will choose the experiences that best serve their needs.”

Wielding that customer-focused mindset to make technology more inclusive, Chen has blazed a unique career path. Today you can find her serving as general manager for Microsoft’s Emerging Devices Experiences team, building apps for new devices. She recently shipped four high-profile apps for wearables that some might call emblematic of a new, cross-platform era at Microsoft. And on top of that, she is responsible for fostering innovation within her larger organization through incubation, open sharing and code reuse. It all would be enough to stress out most people, which might explain why Chen asked to meet us in her “happy place.”

“I love libraries; it’s a manifestation of all the world’s knowledge,” explained Chen, a picture of serenity as she described her affection towards the building she frequents daily. “The Bellevue Library, specifically, is meaningful because it’s part of the story of how I ended up back at Microsoft.”

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