Microsoft Program Director, Rokeya Jones discusses being a woman at Microsoft and how to innovate education.
Rokeya Jones is a rock star in the tech world. She is the principal program director at Microsoft, where she focuses on engineering education. She has spoken on countless panels and talks at tech conferences about everything from Microsoft Azure’s cloud platform to empowering youth studying STEM into tech careers.
Having previously worked as a tech leader for IBM, Disney, and Verizon, Jones is first foremost an agent of change. As an executive advisor to CloudGirls, which works to empower women in tech, she helps mentor the next generation of STEM students into tech.
Next up, she’s focusing on The Have Not Story, a program she founded, which is committed to inspiring young people into technology careers. With a focus on the underserved communities, it provides youth with tools, resources, and interactive programs to stay productive. Since it was founded in 2019, the program has helped over 200 high school students who are seeking careers in STEM.
As a technologist, Jones grew up in Atlanta and focuses on three key areas in tech: engineering, product design, and higher education strategy. She is a networking queen, having co-founded Tech World Half, an online community that celebrates women in tech, and has spoken at the Legendary Women’s Empowerment Awards, the Scientista Foundation, and the Channel Partners Conference & Expo.
Jones took time out of her busy day to talk about mentoring young women, 5G, how “data is the new dollar” and why women make excellent data scientists.
How has the pandemic changed your life?
Rokeya Jones: This year I’m excited that I got the time to focus more on my family, versus my job, even though I enjoy it greatly. Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise, it has been horrible in terms of losses to us all. It made me realize so many other things I put on the back-burner throughout the years, I now negated so many things I need not do that anymore. I learned what’s more important is life. It’s come to the forefront.
How has the past year changed technology?
It has. I recently moved into my new role in remote connectivity and digital learning. It's about how we’re being impacted, how can we enhance this? It’s the most impacted area: education and healthcare. They have been the slowest moving areas in tech. I feel like I saw this coming.
What did you see, how education would change?
It’s a big question. It’s impacting us in many ways. I’m working on internal work right now. It involves crisis management in how we are educated. In today’s world, we’re doing everything virtually. We’re trying to learn this hybrid model of what the new normal looks like. While there are these different shifts, education models are changing. We realized that we pushed the norm to say students and educators can do more and learn differently.
Now people have this fear of the unknown, how do we adjust our wireless network, our infrastructure to accommodate the unknown? It’s a culture shift and a behavior shift. When you have the business, the behavior, and the culture, when those things meet, there must be new operations in place. In my role, I operate as general manager, I tend to look at overall strategy in our organization, I create programs I put in place to say: “What do we need to do from an engineering standpoint to create a new product or service or program that helps us be more productive? Or create a better experience for our customers? Both externally and internally. Right now, I’m focused internally, we’re going to test it out first.
What makes your role at Microsoft unique? You seem to have a hybrid position.
I started my career as a coder, then an engineer and a developer. I was a bona fide coder. I got bored, I had to evolve, I wanted to do more strategy. I wanted to figure out how to do things better and with more scale. I realized early on, I started learning how to be a business engineer, [in] the world of product. That was a hard shift. Someone had to give me an opportunity. I just ran with it. That’s where I found my niche.
What makes me unique is that I can bridge the gap between the developer and the executive businessperson who thinks sales. I sit in the middle. I know what both sides of the model are thinking. That’s what makes me different, that’s what makes things change. It's what makes education so special: there’s a new for new operations, a new way of doing things at Microsoft. We have the people to do that. We have the tools and the cloud to make it happen.
What have you learned working with CloudGirls as an advisor? How do you help them?
At Verizon I worked with Janet Schijns, she recommended me to CloudGirls a long time ago. I thought, let's give it a try. I am called on to help mentor other members inside the organization. We have a lot of channel partners. Mentorship is a huge thing for me and the girls, I help women when they want insight or knowledge on Microsoft products. I coordinate a special session for someone to come in and do that for CloudGirls.
How will the pandemic change healthcare and education in tech?
Now, there’s going to be what I call “data is the new dollar.” Right now, around the world is in competition to gather the most data. To me, that’s what Covid-19 is all about. I hate to say it, but you had two industries that were becoming dinosaurs—education and healthcare in relation to technologies. They were the lowest on the totem pole to adapt to tech. It was because those industries could not afford to adapt to tech.
“My philosophy is that this is the start of the robotic era. This is my prediction.”
Governments weren’t allocating dollars to move the needle forward, investing tech in those industries. The only way to create a need to push an industry like that forward is to create a need. To create a need you need to create a problem, to create a problem, you need a solution. Now we have a problem, Covid-19. Now to create a solution we have to have used tech in some way which used healthcare, which uses medicine to solve the problem. But it involves education to bypass and get through the challenge. Now, we have moved dinosaurs to the next level. We have increased the level of understanding of mankind and made them more comfortable with these technologies.
At a recent CloudGirls talk, you said that the most exciting opportunity for women in tech right now is being a data scientist. Can you explain?
Women have always been masterminds of business and process. In making a solution with the current data set, they’ll all be collected when everyone is getting Covid-19 tests around the world. Many think these tests are only being taken to check if you don’t have Covid-19. But they’re being generated for more than that—just so you can enter a building, go back to school. As these things start unraveling, we’ll see preconditions they’re attached to. Data scientists can create new business processes that can come out of this data collection.
What do you predict will happen next?
My philosophy is that this is the start of the robotic era. This is my prediction. This is the true start of procreating AI in robotics. That’s an exciting opportunity for women in tech if you ask me.
Why did you create the educational platform, The Have Not Story, and what’s next for it?
I started it in 2019, we put a pause on it. It was right before the pandemic. Over the years, I always wanted to give back to the youth. I was considering leaving Microsoft, I had just finished working on the 5G network service, onboarding AT&T. I was irritated with the youth for them being so lost. I had given a talk in 2017 to the Jackson Public School's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. So many of them are being left behind and are not going to understand what’s happening to them in the world. They don’t get it.
I was creating the 5G network service, working with telecommunication companies all over the world, how it was going to change it. I felt so convicted to get the message out. That’s how it started. For me, I want people to realize everything we do is painting a narrative. We’re creating a digital profile for ourselves that will create a digital footprint for the future. I want to be more of an evangelist, a person who lives with purpose who does meaningful things that enhances mankind. I don’t want to build just for money anymore, but to build for purpose.