Karuana Gatimu of Snohomish, director of the customer advocacy group at Microsoft Teams Engineering. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Karuana Gatimu of Snohomish, director of the customer advocacy group at Microsoft Teams Engineering. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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Microsoft executive: Tech opportunities for women have grown

The sector hasn’t always been friendly to women or people of color, but it’s getting better, says a Snohomish resident.

SNOHOMISH — Take it from Karuana Gatimu, who’s spent 25 years in the technology industry: The rainbow has broadened.

Opportunities for women, and men and women of color, have steadily improved in the past three decades. “Your diverse perspective is welcome and incredibly valuable,” said Gatimu, 54.

Gatimu is principal manager of the customer advocacy group at Microsoft Teams Engineering. The Daily Herald spoke to her about what to expect from a career in technology.

“I do a lot of public speaking to help business people figure out how to get the most out of Microsoft 365,” Gatimu said. “Being able to talk to regular people and being able to do the deeper technical work is probably the thing that makes me a bit unique.”

Gatimu, a resident of Snohomish, moved here eight years ago from Los Angeles to join Microsoft, the Bellevue-based software behemoth.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Gatimu, who grew up in Kitsap County. At age 14, she met a boy at a bus stop in Keyport. He’s now her husband.

As a bi-racial woman — Gatimu’s father was Kenyan and her mother is of Scottish descent — she has experienced her fair share of bias in an industry dominated by white males. Although that ratio is undergoing a modest shift, she said.

In the bad old days, some men in technology “talked a lot, never listened and man-splained,” Gatimu said. At Microsoft, CEO Satya Nadella is setting the tone with people encouraged to be curious,” Gatimu said.

“Microsoft is the most supportive, most progressive company I’ve worked around, or for, in terms of women and women of color in tech,” Gatimu said. “I love working there.”

In a recent company filing, the software giant declared that its “board is committed to actively seeking highly qualified women and individuals from minority groups to include in the pool of potential CEO candidates,” she noted.

Despite glitches, the tech industry gets her full support as a gateway to great things.

“Having a career in technology is the ultimate freedom,” Gatimu said. “You can be anything. You can find more than a job, you can find your calling,” Gatimu said. “Find the area you’re passionate about and get really educated so you can speak from knowledge and not ego.”

Plus, her paycheck puts her in the top ranks of women wage earners, she said, citing a 2017 study.

Gatimu’s own route into tech was circuitous. She studied business administration at the University of California Los Angeles. She almost went to law school in her 20s after being offered a private scholarship.

Her employer at the time, the owner of a small law firm, offered to pay for her to attend law school. Gatimu, a paralegal at the firm, had earned a reputation “for being really good with clients,” she said.

It was a pivotal moment. Her colleagues gasped at her response. “I didn’t know any happy lawyers. They worked really hard but weren’t really happy. I just didn’t see it,” said Gatimu, who turned down the offer.

But the legal industry also happened to be where she caught the technology bug. A new generation of software programs intended to streamline law firm operations piqued her interest and sharpened her technical abilities. “It’s where I got my feet wet in technology,” she said.

A series of jobs with increasing responsibilities ensued. Before joining Microsoft, she was head of e-commerce and marketing operations at Skechers, the edgy California-based shoe company.

Despite rising through the ranks, it’s been trying at times. “I definitely had my fair share of mean, slightly racist people that I had to deal with,” Gatimu said.

In the early 1990s, she was closing a deal over the telephone with a business client. “There’s a stereotype that a black woman has to sound a particular way. Things were going along great and then I went to the firm and everyone in the room looked at me,” Gatimu said. “It was not a look of appreciation they gave me.”

Those looks have mostly faded, Gatimu said. Still, “a lot of people look at me and assume I’m not technical.” That irks: “I work super hard. I put a lot of effort into keeping my skills really sharp. I study technology on the weekends.”

Her younger self didn’t always take kindly to slights. “I really let those things get under my skin,” Gatimu said. “Now, I find it better to listen and ask questions about what the person really needs,” she said. “It’s OK to take someone aside and ask them, ‘Am I misinterpreting you?’”

“Usually people making assumptions comes from their own insecurity,”Gatimu said. “The few times where the person was defensive or a jerk — at least I did my part.”

The feeling that women and women of color often harbor — that they have to be smarter than everyone else to get ahead — can be exhausting, if not destructive, Gatimu said.

“I don’t have to know the answer, I just have to know how to figure it out,” Gatimu said.

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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