Industry Professional

I gave Cortana her personality

Susan has been working on Cortana, the cool new functionality that’s coming to Windows Phone and powered by Bing. Cortana is a personal assistant whose persona is inspired by the much-loved character from Halo. In her own words, Susan shares what she loves about her work, how she got here, and advice to help you shine in job interviews.

Working on Cortana over the last nearly two years has been the highlight of my career.

My PM role on the Cortana team has been the perfect combination of new technology, creating unique experiences, and working with one of the best teams in the industry. For Cortana, I owned personality (written, spoken, and the circle) as well as chit-chat. Moving forward, I’ll also own the natural language experience for Cortana.

How did we create Cortana and who is she?

To create the personality of Cortana, we started by interviewing celebrities’ personal assistants. We learned what makes them successful. Then we thought deeply about what personality attributes our users would like in a personal assistant. From that research and a lot of iteration, we created a brief that outlines who Cortana is. We use it to help guide us in all decisions when thinking about how Cortana would respond in conversation, what tasks she would do, or how she might remind you of an urgent situation.

Cortana is competent, caring, confident and loyal. She’s always prepared to help, but not bossy. She’s eager to learn. When she’s chatting, she can be outright funny, peppering her answers with banter or even a sparky comeback. She assumes friendly familiarity with you, but her job is to be your personal assistant.

A Microsoft PM is a problem-solver.

In my role, I focus on technical and creative challenges:

  • How are we going to get the animations on the phone without using too much RAM?
  • How do we cultivate a relationship with users that will build trust – while bringing delight to their lives every day?
  • How do we create a natural language experience that feels like talking with a friend?

These are the types of problems I love working on and solving.

But my entry into the software world wasn’t a straight shot.

What am I doing here?

I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University. About six months into my first job out of school, I was working in a clean room on an R&D project in the Bay Area. It was during the boom, and there were people making it big and working on exciting projects all around me. One day, I walked out of the clean room and pulled up my sleeves. I found mild chemical burns up my arms. I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?!”

I’m a terrible developer.

My next thought: “How can I step into the fast-paced world of software development?” Like any smart person who wants to be in software, I bought a Project Manager for Dummies book and memorized it. I interviewed with Lycos and landed my first program manager position in tech. I’m a terrible developer, but being a PM is a great fit.

What’s not to like about a lower cost of living with mountains and water nearby?

I started at Microsoft in August 2003. Before that I was working in the Bay Area at a startup. I had a friend who worked at Microsoft. He was always telling me about what he was working on and how much he loved it. I was ready to live somewhere with a lower cost of living that had mountains and water nearby. Redmond seemed like the perfect place.

My advice for other women (or anyone) wanting to land a job at Microsoft:

  • Before the interview, outline your top three strengths. During the interview, clearly articulate the qualities you bring to the table.
  • If you’re excited to be interviewing at Microsoft, let that enthusiasm shine! We love to work with people who really want to be here.
  • If you go through the interview process and don’t get the job, don’t let that stop you from applying again. Our minds tend to drift toward the worst conclusion – “I wasn’t good enough” –   when in reality it may be the job/skillset wasn’t a good fit. Take it from someone who had to interview more than once.

Something about me that might surprise people…

I ride a motorcycle. I think I can come off as being a bit formal or proper. People usually tell me they need to rethink their perception of me once they find out I ride.

As a woman, I am lucky to work at Microsoft.

Microsoft takes a great deal of care to train managers and employees to treat women equally. There is also a strong effort to prepare and hire more women into leadership positions, which I think is key because 50 percent of our users are women. To make the best products, we should have a balanced percentage of women at Microsoft creating them.

All I’ve ever wanted:

When I walk into a meeting, I feel I am treated with respect. My opinions are heard. That’s all I’ve wanted in my career as a female: to be treated equally and given respect for the work I do.

Ready to take on creative challenges? Make an impact? Visit our Global Careers site.


See Susan in person in this Windows Phone video about the team that launched Cortana.

Meet Cortana in this demo by Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president for Windows Phone Program Management.