ISABEL BOLGER

Microsoft Software Engineering Intern



How did you first become interested in computer science?

My mom was an engineer and even though she was not in the field of computer science, she encouraged me to give it a try. During my junior year of high school, I decided to take AP Computer Science since I really liked math, science and solving problems. Even though I didn’t think it would become my future career, I figured programming would be a cool skill to have. I ended up finding it really interesting but noticed there were very few girls in the class. This prompted me to join other communities that supported girls in STEM like ChickTech. Through ChickTech, I met my mentor Kevin who worked at Dropbox at the time. He showed me around his office in the Columbia Tower and let me meet his coworkers which really helped me understand what it was like to work in the tech industry. That’s when I decided I would pursue Computer Science in college.



Can you tell us about your experiences in the computer science field so far?

Right before I went off to college, I was really lucky to have the opportunity to intern with Microsoft through their high school internship program and really enjoyed their inclusive culture. This summer, I will be returning for the fourth time and will be on the Office Word team. Also, my school Northeastern has a co-op program, where students can take a semester off to work at a company during the school year. Last fall, I took that opportunity to try interning at a small startup called Skillz which is a platform for mobile e-Sports. This gave me some insight on what it was like to work at a small startup company. I’m so appreciative of the mentors I’ve had through ChickTech, Microsoft, and Skillz, and I really want to be that mentor for others as well. I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer at my college to mentor incoming freshmen and through organizations such as Coder Girls. I'm really thankful to have the opportunity to give back and share my experiences.

What do you think is the biggest difference between working at a small startup like Skillz and a big company like Microsoft?

I would say that the main difference is definitely the scale. At a larger company, your work affects more customers, and the problems are far more broad in scope and complex. This requires many teams and a rigorous software development process to ensure the highest quality. At a smaller company, quality is also very important, however, a smaller scale is often leveraged to ship features more frequently. Smaller teams allow for faster shipping cycles on smaller, and less complex amounts of work. As for diversity, both types of companies value a diverse workforce, since diversity and inclusion is required to attract today’s talent. Diversity programs are much more robust at large, established companies, but smaller companies have diversity programs in place, too.

So you’ve interned with Microsoft through both of their university programs (Explore and Software Engineer), can you talk about the differences between the programs?

The Explore program is geared towards freshmen and sophomores in college and the software engineering internship is geared towards upperclassmen. In the Explore Program, there is a lot more hand holding. You’re placed with a “pod” of two other interns and each intern is assigned a mentor. Throughout the summer you can rely on your mentor, your pod members, and their mentors as well so there is so much support. When I was an Explorer, we did pair programming so my mentor would sit next to me and guide me throughout the coding process. Of course, every explorer has a different experience but that was ours. During the internship, you also experience both program management and software engineering which is really unique. What’s interesting about program management is that it's about putting the pieces of a project together rather than implementing it. It's much more people oriented in that you have to plan out how you can bring different roles together to make a feature which will eventually be passed off to the engineers. During the program management part of the Explore Program there was really no coding at all. I’ve met a few program managers that don't have a computer science background, however, understandably, a lot of them do. This is because program management requires you to make plans for engineers so you have to understand engineering in order to effectively communicate those plans.

When you get to the software engineering internship, they expect you to be a lot more independent, but don’t worry, you still get a mentor! It can be really challenging, but you also learn a lot because you have to take more initiative and seek out help on your own. During my time as a software engineering intern, they gave me an outline for the project, and I had to figure out how to complete it within 12 weeks, leveraging the resources around me. It was really an opportunity for me to apply what I learned as an explorer to my own project, and take ownership. In the end, I was even able to ship a feature which is now live on PowerPoint insiders.

What advice would you give girls pursuing STEM?

I think what really helped me to succeed was seeking out the resources that are out there. There are so many groups like ChickTech and Girls Who Code and online programs like Codecademy and Coursera. You just have to take the initiative to find them. Also, don't be afraid to reach out to people that inspire you. In the beginning, I reached out to people on LinkedIn to talk about how they got to where they were in their careers which was really scary as someone who was just starting out her career, but everyone who I reached out to was all very supportive. Lastly, I would say don't let imposter syndrome get to you. It can be really intimidating to work in environments where people seem to have so much more experience than you. Even though you might feel like you “aren’t good enough” or “don’t have enough experience”, stick with it because if you're really passionate about the field, you’re bound to succeed. Don’t forget to help other people succeed, too. We’re all in this together!