Voices of Change — Keeping Everyone Connected and Healthy

 |   Sharon Gillett, Principal Networking Policy Strategist at Microsoft

Diversity and inclusion are critical underpinnings to our evolving culture at Microsoft and powerful bridges to the marketplace. We are inspired by the local leaders who make diversity a priority in their daily work. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we’re honored to celebrate women in our community who are carrying out the mission of civic engagement, leadership and empowering other women.

— MSNE Staff

Sharon Gillett

As Principal Networking Policy Strategist at Microsoft, I am blessed to spend my time translating technology innovation into practice. I appreciate the opportunities I’ve got in a company of Microsoft’s scale to work on big problems. There is amazing work being done at Microsoft Research. I work with teams focusing on healthcare and internet connectivity, helping them bring that technology into the real world. We’re looking to overcome the barriers of policy, economics, and more to make sure everyone is connected and healthy.

I love solving problems, and there’s hardly any more powerful way to do that than through technology, because it’s such a fantastic tool. I started my career in networking; it was all about connecting people in new, different, and more efficient ways. There are still at least four billion people on this planet who are not connected to the Internet. I was interested in connecting people in new ways when I started my first job writing software for the ARPANET, and as long as there are still people left to connect, I’m still working on it.

Recently I’ve expanded my focus to healthcare, which is less about connecting people and more about using technology to help us live healthier and more productive lives. It’s also about a broader societal problem, which is making our healthcare system more efficient and productive. Having the opportunity to apply the skills I have to something that is so important to individuals, and that is beneficial to both society and our economy, is great. I like the idea that I’m helping Microsoft to do well by doing good.

Right now, I’m seeing two trends with women in healthcare. The first is about women working in healthcare. There are more women employed in healthcare than in technology. So what happens when you marry the two? I’m seeing efforts to boost the number of women CIOs in healthcare, for example — ensuring women are just as well represented in the technology aspects of medicine as in delivering care.

A second trend reminds me of the saying about “old wine in new bottles.” In this case, the old wine is the long-standing issue that women – and children and minorities for that matter – have too often been left out of patient cohorts for medical research, and if research isn’t done on a diverse group of patients, healthcare isn’t delivered well to all groups of people. The “new bottle” in this case is genomics. We’re seeing that when people do genomics research, if they don’t have a diverse data set, they get the wrong answers about, say, what a mutation means in the genome and whether it’s something rare or common. Some of our researchers have focused on statistical techniques that give more accurate results no matter what, and this kind of work is very important to patients of all genders and ethnicities.

Encouraging women to pursue careers in technology is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, and one on which I have two key thoughts. The first is one of simple economics: women need to be aware at a very early age that technology is already a major driver of the economy — and likely to become even more so in the future. What I’ve observed is that very bright women just don’t get exposed to coding. Microsoft has a lot of efforts to counter that, including supporting the Hour of Code through Code.org and other groups that are trying to bring coding specifically to young women. I think what needs to be said is that you’re not just coding because it’s cool; you’re coding because it’s a foundation of our economy and everybody needs to know it. There are different paths people can take based on code. You don’t necessarily have to become a software engineer, but you do need to know what code is all about, how it works, and understand enough about it to be in the industry.

The second key point is that young women need to understand that there’s bias everywhere, in every industry. That’s not unique to technology. It’s unique to human nature, and you need to prepare yourself for that. A lot of people go in naively, thinking, “It won’t happen to me,” or, “Things are different now.” Things are different now, but bias persists. It persists in different forms, and all over our society. We have to stop pretending that it’s not going to happen to us and we need to prepare ourselves. We need to expect it, learn how to deal with it, and learn to be a little tough to protect ourselves from the emotional drain it can take.

I learned to toughen myself by realizing that it’s not about me. This is not a personal thing, it’s a societal thing. If you take it personally, it’s easy to get bummed out. But if you can step back from that and realize that bias is everywhere, it becomes a little easier to deal with. Once you realize the problem isn’t something wrong with you, it becomes clearer that we all need to work to counter the effects of bias everywhere in society.

Being a leader in technology means looking ahead. It also means crossing boundaries. One of the things I’ve done for a long time is made myself hard to pigeonhole. And I mean that in a positive way! Most problems are not problems of just technology, or just politics, or just economics. They blend all of these elements, and we need to look through all of these perspectives to solve them. One thing that makes me impatient is when people say, “I have a great technology. It’s going to solve all of the world’s problems.” I would say it differently: “I have a great new technology. It has the potential to meet some people’s needs better than before, and let’s see how well it addresses other dimensions of their problems.” It’s easy to forget how important people and their social environment are to technology adoption. There are also economic dimensions and interests involved. We have to look at the full picture in order to understand how a technology can improve things.

That’s what leaders do. They integrate, they look across, they hear other people’s perspectives — they don’t look at things one-dimensionally. You need to have all of those perspectives if you’re going to accomplish meaningful change.

SharonGillett_HiResAt Microsoft Research, Sharon Gillett translates world-leading technologies into practice in the domains of healthcare, biomedicine, and Internet connectivity. Prior to Microsoft, her experience includes leadership positions in federal and state government, academic research and the technology industry.

As Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau at the US Federal Communications Commission, Sharon led staff work on network neutrality and achieved significant reforms to support broadband Internet access through the Universal Service Fund. As Massachusetts’ first Commissioner of Telecommunications and Cable and first Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, she spearheaded successful efforts to secure and deploy legislative funding to develop broadband access in underserved areas of the state. As a Principal Research Associate at MIT, she researched and taught telecommunications policy and directed an industry partnership program. As a software engineer, Sharon developed massively parallel text-mining software at Thinking Machines Corporation, and at BBN Communications, she wrote congestion control software for the ARPANET, precursor to the Internet.

Sharon earned a Sloan MBA and an MS in Technology and Policy from MIT, and an AB in Physics from Harvard.

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