There’s still a perception that the most successful computer scientists learn programming at a young age, study engineering at a top school, and then get a software development job right out of college. While that’s how many people enter the field, it’s not the only path. Microsoft Software Engineer Rebecca Nzioki is living proof. She started out studying business but switched disciplines because she found IT more interesting. She decided to switch disciplines again after she started working and discovered a passion for solving customer problems. She then dedicated herself to learning how to code so she could find permanent fixes to issues that were frustrating the customers she supported.
In my experience, no matter what path they followed in the field of computer science, the best engineers are those who, like Rebecca, focus on solving problems for customers and making sure their experience just gets better and better. There’s no reason to think that, just because you weren’t a “child genius” who already knew how to program before you reached high school, you can’t enter the field now and still be incredibly successful. Rebecca impressed us so much that we tried to recruit her multiple times. Now she’s a software engineer in the identity and network access group, working from her native country, Kenya, as part of our Africa Development Center (ADC). While she’s only been at Microsoft for a short time, her contributions are already notable. I can’t wait to watch her grow.
Rebecca’s interview with Igor Sakhnov, Corporate Vice President of Identity Engineering at Microsoft, has been edited for clarity and length. We’ve included some video snippets so you can learn more about her personal journey to Microsoft.
Igor: Rebecca, I’m in Redmond and you’re in Nairobi, and here we are working for the same company, on the same problems and challenges. That’s the beauty of the current world! So, tell me about your history. Let’s start at the beginning. What was your first experience with computers? For me, it was playing games.
Rebecca: Mine too, it was gaming. When I was in primary school, we had computer lessons, but I wasn’t interested in anything to do with the history of computers. I joined so that I could play games.
Igor: I think most people started learning about computers this way. As you grew older, did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?
Rebecca: I went to college to study business administration, but when I was applying, my mom advised me to do something that had a little bit of IT, because everything revolves around computer science and IT now. She felt it was important to have that background. While I was studying, I found I was more interested in the IT side of things than the business administration side, so I ended up focusing on that.
Igor: Your mom gave you great advice! Did you jump right into coding after you finished college?
Rebecca: My first job after college was in support. The company focused on telecommunications; specifically, selling mobile phone airtime. Our boss created graphs that we would watch to make sure our markets were up and running. I watched up to 22 screens. I did that for two years and then got the opportunity to go to the next level—creating the screens myself.
At that point, we had just launched a new market that had many problems. It was always down because it was totally new, and we were trying so many new things. Not only was I now creating the screens, but I was also moving into customer care, so I knew how our work was impacting customers, allowing them to borrow airtime credit when they really needed it. I was communicating with customers and working on the technical side of things.
Seeing the engineers solve problems that came up—getting to the root cause of the issues—got me interested in programming. I became curious with each new problem: how can we solve this and make it go away completely? We want new problems, not the same ones over and over! After two years on the support side, I finally started coding. For a while I did both, but I transitioned slowly as I built up my confidence.
Igor: What a journey! You mentioned that you really liked solving customer problems, which is so near and dear to my heart. What was your motivation?
Rebecca: Knowing that the customers would be able to use the service any time, and they would be happy. Knowing they could use the service smoothly and knowing that I could give them a service that is also dependable.
Igor: It’s awesome that customer focus defines how you think through your work and your next steps. And that’s something that defines our organization at Microsoft. I’ve heard that you were asked to come talk to us three times. Can you tell me more about that?
Rebecca: Microsoft first called in December 2019, when I had first gotten into engineering. I wasn’t confident enough at that point to interview. It wasn’t the right time for me to change my career, so I didn’t respond to that call. They reached out again the following September, but they were looking for senior software engineers. By this time, however, I really wanted to do something different. The recruiter told me to reach out to them in December 2020. When I interviewed in January 2021, I felt ready.
Igor: I guess the third time was the charm! And I love that you built your confidence up to succeed in the interview. I’m curious, did the recruiters give you any support in terms of how to prepare for the interview?
Rebecca: They gave us a PDF document of algorithms and other things we needed to go through. I had a really good recruiter who would call to ask if I was actually preparing for the interview.
Igor: It’s great that these resources were useful to you. It’s awesome that you’re here now and that between building your confidence and getting those resources, you were set up for success.
Igor: You’ve been at Microsoft for about a year. What is your perspective on Microsoft and the Africa Development Center?
Rebecca: I’m loving the experience. It has been a steep learning curve, but I’m here for the challenge. We were all new, on my team, so we didn’t have anyone in ADC to guide us on how to go about it. We’ve navigated it together, and at this point we have it figured out. We’re still learning, but we’ve gotten our pattern going.
Igor: Technology-wise, what are you most excited about working on?
Rebecca: My project right now is working on the Microsoft Authenticator App. We’re letting the user sign in through the application without using their passwords, or have two-factor or multifactor authentication, where you’re not using your password only, but you have levels of security. And knowing we’re driving such changes is pretty exciting.
I’m loving the authentication experience and going passwordless. Our laptops have always been using passwordless, but I hadn’t seen it before on the browser, or signing in to Skype without using a password. It’s exciting because I used to always forget these things! Also, seeing the way we manage code, the way we collaborate, the way we push and deploy—it’s all been very interesting.
Igor: Before we go, what’s your motivation in terms of your growth, your path forward? What do you want to achieve or move towards?
Rebecca: Right now, I just want to continue improving my coding abilities. I haven’t thought that I want to be a manager yet; for now, I just want to specialize in the technologies we use, grow my experience, and continue becoming a better engineer.
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