After Kate Tsoukalas earned her master’s degree in computing science from SFU in 2009, she was determined to “go big or go home.” She went big, and was quickly recruited as a software development engineer at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA, where she is now the senior test lead on the apps and foundations team for Windows Phone.
“I love the technology and the product I’m working on – there are lots of opportunities to grow and improve,” she says. “The people I work with are wonderful, smart and diverse. There are people from all over the world and at different stages in their lives.”
Kate has influenced some crucial Windows Phone design decisions, including the three-column layout and customizable ringtones.
“If you want the Starship Enterprise theme on your phone, you can get it,” she says – a nod to one of her favourite childhood TV shows. She recalls watching the Star Trek engineers in the control room and thinking that she too would like to be an engineer one day.
“I loved building things and you would always find me playing in the sandbox with the boys,” she says.
Increasing gender diversity and championing women in technology are causes close to Kate’s heart. As the only female in her Grade 10 computing science class, Kate felt isolated and intimated – an all-too-common experience for many girls in technology, she laments.
A former president of the Women in Computing Science (WICS) student group, Kate recently established an endowment fund for female computing science students with fellow alumna Brittany Zenger. “If you don’t encourage women to study computing science, you will be missing out on some of the brightest students," she says.
Once the fund has met its minimum goal of $20,000, the award – valued at a minimum of $800 –will help pay for schooling and provide formal recognition of outstanding volunteer efforts.
“WICS is a community and a place where women can find camaraderie and support,” says Kate. “Being involved with WICS takes a lot of commitment, but the network is so valuable – we want to encourage female students to see that immediate benefit.”
Before embarking on her master’s degree, Kate earned a B.Sc. in physics and then spent two and a half years in Japan teaching English. When she returned to Canada, still unsure of her career path, she read that Wall Street was hiring physicists with computer programming skills to model the stock market. “I thought I would go back to school to learn programming and get a job on Wall Street,” she says, with a laugh.
Although Kate deals with software instead of stocks, her work at Microsoft still keeps her close to the action. Unlike the stereotypical software developer who writes code all day, Kate says she actually doesn’t spend all her time at her desk. “I’m working with other people all the time; in meetings about strategies for features, spec reviews and talking with customers,” she says.
Kate advises students to be intellectual explorers and take advantage of the global opportunities offered to computing scientists. “Whether you work for a big company or a startup, I would encourage students to be proactive, try different things and think outside the box when it comes to education and opportunities.”