Stephanie Sharp is impressive for several reasons. She has influence on a Microsoft Office app, and she’s determined “not to sell herself short” as a woman in the tech industry, and she's pretty young for someone with such a decent CV.
Further, she's not your average engineer. “I used to spend a lot of time on the computer, but I didn’t code anything until I got to university. Instead, I read on the internet, play games, or write my own stories in Word. I never imagined I would work for the Office team,” Sharp tells Techworld.
Like many, Sharp says she “had no idea what I wanted to do.” Somewhat surprisingly, her English scores were higher than math in her SATs, but now she works at one of the largest software companies in the world. We quiz her on her day job, and the reasons for choosing Microsoft.
Why did you decide to study computer science?
“I was really good at math, and whenever you are good at math nowadays, it seems that everyone tells you, ‘You should be an engineer!’ So I thought…why not? When I decided I was going to the University of Florida, I went through the majors they offered in the college of engineering and found one that sounded particularly interesting: Digital Arts and Sciences (I’ve always had a bit of a creative side growing up).
"It combined fine arts, digital arts, and computer science, so my classes were all over the place. That first semester, I took my first programming class, and once I finally wrapped my mind around what a nested loop was, I was hooked.
“I still liked doing art and animation work, but programming was more exciting for me. It was like trying to solve complex puzzles. As I started interviewing for internships, I realized the ‘Digital Arts’ part of my major was holding me back (I once spent an interview trying to convince the interviewer to ask me a technical coding question), so I decided to switch to Computer Science Engineering my second year. That cleared things up a bit.”
The worry that girls are too focused on literary and creative subjects rather than engineering is often referenced by governments and corporations keen to get women into tech - but devs can harness both skills, as proven by Sharp, 24.
After completing an internship at Microsoft during her degree, Sharp decided to find out more about a top secret project underway in the Office team.
A year on, with a succesful interview and job offer under her belt, Sharp has taken control of the user experience (UX) for the innovative cropping element of storytelling app Sway – and is responsible for its delivery, user testing, supporting the developer and getting buy-in from relevant stakeholders.
She spends her time researching, user testing and “really immersing myself in a feature area so that I can form an opinion on what the right thing to do is,” she says.
It can be difficult to get everyone on board, but Sharp’s learnt that “getting feedback early and often, not getting too attached to something (for example, if I listen to others a little bit, the idea gets better), clearly articulating what I mean rather than leaving it to assumption and never assuming anything myself” is the recipe for success.
“It's a great moment when you ship your feature, nothing breaks, and almost everyone likes it.”
The most exciting moment of my career
Sharp landed her first feature, Focus Points, this year. Focus Points is the cropping tool for Sway, an app that favours an ad hoc approach to presenting information.
You can choose different 'Sways' in Office 2016
“Designers use image cropping to create composition or drama, or to draw your attention to something. We get Sway to achieve this by using an algorithm called Smart Cropping. This automatically determines what is important in the image in a way that is responsive across any device. But it doesn’t always capture what the user wanted.
“During preview, customers were consistently telling us that they needed the ability to change the crop. But cropping (as we know it) would break Sway – it just wouldn’t work.
“Users are typically blinded by the viewport they’re working in, and make decisions based on that. Take your cover photo on Facebook, for example. Users think, ‘it’d be so easy for me to just drag this picture slightly to get the horizon in the crop. But what happens when this gets viewed on a phone or tablet? Focus Points allows them to tap on what’s important and Sway takes care of the cropping across devices. It even has semantic intent. It can help users create ambient animations in title and heading images without any knowledge of motion curves.
Sway in action
It took a bit of convincing to get all stakeholders on the team on board with this approach over traditional cropping – so this was a pretty big turning point in my career,” Sharp says.
What’s it like working for Microsoft?
In a larger corporate, “you’re responsible for driving your own future. There is so much opportunity at a big tech company, but it can be tough to realise when something has potential,” says Sharp, who almost applied for an entirely different role.
“I could have joined the team I interned with because it was the path of least resistance. However I sought out another team that had more potential for impact – the then unreleased Sway.”
Being a woman in tech - or any business - can be difficult. The UK government and corporates have invested heavily in attracting more women and young girls into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.
“I think it would help if more people realised they might have a biased point of view. We don’t mean to be; we’re good-intentioned people. But it’s very easy to surround yourself with people you’re similar to," says Sharp.
“When I think back to all the times I thought about leaving computer science, it was usually because I was feeling ostracised in some way. The team leader on the school project would assign a task to someone (assuming he was capable) and then ask me if I even could do something (assuming that I was incapable).
"Sometimes I felt I was being treated as if I was stupid for needing clarity if I asked a question. Or a friend being upset when I did better on an exam than he did because that meant he had really screwed up. I felt this pressure all the time that I couldn’t mess up or I’d be hurting the perception of all women in STEM.
"A stronger network or mentorship at my university would have really helped. Above all though, my internal motivation to be just as good - if not better - kept me going. Women shouldn’t sell themselves short. I’m beginning to understand that everyone around me doesn’t actually have it all figured out.
"One thing that really stood out to me when I joined the Sway team was how many women were a part of it. I admired Jen Halberstam in particular for her ability to put her finger on underlying problems and generate solutions that really have an impact - all while maintaining a work/life balance.
A day in the life of Sway
There are about sixty employees focused on Sway in Seattle, and another team dedicated to its Japanese offering. Development makes up the majority of the workforce, all of whom sit in pods together.
“All the walls are whiteboard so we can start brainstorming. It’s really relaxed and the team has a good energy,” Sharp says.
Sharp at work in the Sway office
When the product launched its preview last year, the dynamics took a slightly different turn.
“We were all really nervous before the launch of Sway Preview in October last year. It had been pushed further-and further back, and we were worried about being leaked. Some people had been at the office all night. Others had gotten there insanely early. Our marketing guy and the general manager were in New York City to make the announcement and our teams in Japan and Serbia were Skyping.
“I got to the office around 4am. We all were wearing our brand new Sway shirts and at 6am (well, we actually turned it on at about 5.30am to do a last set of testing, but the announcement didn’t come until 6), we flipped the final big, red switch that released Sway to the world!
“The rest of the day was a mixture between telling Sway stories, drinking champagne, and making sure that our site didn’t crash and burn (we weren’t sure what kind of traffic we were going to get). I spent most of the day on Twitter just reading what people were saying. Some people on this team had worked on Sway for so long, it was amazing seeing it come alive for them.”
Tips for budding software engineers
Sharp has several tips for any developer keen to work on a project like Sway.
“Everything is always changing. You think you have a plan locked down, and then some feedback comes out of nowhere that derails the entire conversation. Or a bug might come in, which you have to fix before returning to your current work. You need to remember that you’re only ever minutes away from your competition.”
Work well on teams
“Everything is a team effort, whether that’s brainstorming, vetting designs, breaking work into separate tasks then recombining the code, testing new features, or pushing the code into production.
Have a thick skin
“But be open to feedback. When you work really really hard on something, it’s easy to get really attached to it. Sometimes people won’t get it, sometimes it will need a redesign, and sometimes people will have really critical feedback for you.
“All you can do is learn quickly and move forward. Falling into the trap of defending your work can make you miss key insights that would help you improve overall.”