Cornell University
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Barrett Amos, Alum, Communications Major & InfoSci Minor '08


Barrett Amos is currently a Program Manager at Microsoft. His responsibility is to determine customer needs and to design and build software to meet those needs,

What do you do at Microsoft?

My title is Program Manager. My responsibility is to determine customer needs and help design and build software to meet these needs.  As a Program Manager, I ultimately have ownership over particular features within the overall software product. This means I get to wear several hats over the course of a product life cycle: one day I may be doing user research with customers, the next I may be working with UX designers, and the day after that working with software developers to implement the design. And once it’s complete and coded, I’ll still own triaging product bugs and demoing the output to the world.

While I don’t sit and write code every day, there is a minimum technical bar that is expected to be met and demonstrated on a day-to-date basis.  Personally, I didn’t take many CS courses at Cornell; however, I taught myself C# and PHP and leveraged that knowledge to get a few more technical internships.  Combined with the some of the social- and business-skills I gained through the IS and Communication programs at Cornell, it put me in a great position to be hired as a Program Manager at Microsoft.

Why do you think you were hired by Microsoft?

The interviewers were looking for a set of minimum technical skills, but focused more heavily on communication, critical thinking, and problem solving. Ultimately, Microsoft is looking at how an individual approaches a problem. In my case, one interviewer showed me the newly developed “ribbon” interface in Microsoft Office 2007 and asked me how I liked it. I told him I didn’t.  I said I could understand how a new user might find it more intuitive, but that it alienated the large user base that was experienced with the older design.  After letting me go on for a few minutes the interviewer interrupted and told me he was in charge of the team that developed the ribbon.  We proceeded to have a great discussion for the next 30-40 minutes on how I would have approached the specific design problems and what I might have done differently.  While I can’t say for certain that this conversation led to my job offer, I strongly suspect that it played a large role.

Why did you decide to select the IS program?

During high school I wanted to go into a field that included English, writing and/or technology.  I settled on the Communication major in CALS as I thought it was about as close as I was going to get.  Jeff Hancock was my faculty advisor and he suggested that I also take look at the IS major as it offered a great blend of both the technology and social sides of computing – something I wasn’t even aware existed when I applied to Cornell.

Did the program meet your expectations?  Why?

Yes; however, I did not have a lot of expectations going into the program.  I had completed most of my Communication course work before starting in IS.

What qualifications were required from Microsoft and do you wish you had continued in a master’s degree program? 

I had just started taking some research-related courses during my senior year and would have liked to have gained more experience performing my own research.  A 5th year would have given me that opportunity, which in turn would have opened many other doors at Microsoft.

Did you feel you had a clear cut goal either before or while in the program?

No, but in retrospect I wish I did.  I bounced around between Communication, IS, and CS quite a bit.  By sitting down up front and looking at the courses each department offered, I think I could have come up with a plan to get even more out of each program.

What parts of the program were important to reach your goal?  What skills learned in college have helped you most in your career?

The most valuable courses I took were the ones on Human Computer Interaction and User Research. They forced me to really think of software from the user’s point of view and hammered home the idea that I’m not always the intended user of the software.  I also really benefitted from the Public Speaking course offered through the Communication department.  Yes, public speaking may be a something that many students dread going through, but it’s a skill that has benefitted me tremendously in both my personal and professional life.

The courses that prepared me the most for working at Microsoft were the ones that included large projects.  In the business world, you’re going to be working with others to produce some output.  Learning how to plan, scope, complete, and deliver a project on a deadline is a very important skill to have.

Ultimately, I only had two years in the IS program and therefore was at a disadvantage for taking more courses.  It’s too bad, as there were many more IS courses that sounded fascinating.

What keywords would you use in looking for a job?

Human computer interaction, human factors, program management, or software development.

If you had to make any recommendations for the program, what would they be?

Upper level courses that are based on theory should also include a group project instead of or in addition to a final paper.  Combine the theory with the application.  It forces us to apply everything we’ve learned into a real-world situation and collaboratively produce some output.  These are skills I use every day at work and it would be great to have had a little more practice while still in school.

What advice would you give to a current student in the program?

When looking for jobs consider non-traditional avenues as well.  For example, I found my current job at Microsoft through a friend who was already worked at Microsoft. My friend knew my skill set and suggested I apply to Microsoft as a Program Manager.  Prior to the suggestion, I wasn’t even aware such a position existed.  Don’t get me wrong, career services and career fairs are great avenues as well, but don’t discount the value of your personal networks.  You never know what you might find.