Women in Tech: Microsoft, Building Your Career in IT, and More with LaBrina Loving

For the latest post in our Women in Tech series, we had the chance to talk with LaBrina Loving, a Cloud Solutions Architect at Microsoft. LaBrina holds more than 10 Microsoft Certifications and has 15+ years of experience in cloud architecture, portals and collaboration, enterprise search, custom web and mobile development, business intelligence, customer relationship management, and integration.

In this conversation, we talk about how her interest in programming and technology eventually led LaBrina to Microsoft and to mentor other young girls in IT and STEM fields at organizations like Black Girls Code and Women Who Code. As a Community Manager myself, I loved what LaBrina had to say about the importance of getting involved in the larger IT community for both personal and career growth. She’s also got great advice for anyone getting started in tech, and she shares her thoughts on some of the best ways to build and grow your skills.

What made you choose a career in the IT industry?

I was really interested in programming and technology. I was always one of those kids that wanted to take things apart and figure out how they work. In college, I actually studied engineering but I took a few programming courses as well, and in doing so, realized that I had found my passion. Luckily, in my first job out of college, I was able to do some programming along with engineering. Then, I quickly switched to doing programming and development full time. So, that was awesome.

How did you become a solution architect?

It was a natural progression, really. I started out mainly focusing on development, but then in order to really understand everything I had to learn a little bit about infrastructure, I had to learn a little bit about networking. So I progressed into becoming an architect, mainly because I was curious about so many other things besides development. So that was how I got into architecture.

Do you have a mentor?

Actually, I didn’t really in college. However, when I started working there were a number of people who mentored me, both on the technical side, but actually more importantly, on the business side. I also I had mentors on the technical side who really showed me that you can’t think of programming or anything that you do as a nine to five job.

Gartner published a new magic quadrant for infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) that, unsurprisingly, shows AWS and Microsoft in the leader’s quadrant. How does that feel?

It’s exciting to see Microsoft really start to become a leader in Cloud, especially in infrastructure as a service. Amazon was born in the Cloud, and infrastructure as a service has always been its strong suit. Microsoft took a different path and started with platform as a service.

I remember being a consultant and looking at the cloud offering from Microsoft. As a developer, I thought it was really cool, but at that time in 2010, I think a lot of people didn’t get it. But then when we started offering infrastructure as a service, I think it made it a lot easier for people to understand of the platform as a service capability. It’s amazing to think about the growth between then and now.

In 2010, people were really skeptical about the cloud. It was common to hear comments like, ”I don’t want my stuff, my important applications and my important files going where I cannot control.” At that point, we had to convince tech leaders to go to the cloud. Today, the conversation is “How can I get to the cloud? How fast can I get to the Cloud? How much stuff can I get out of our data centers and onto the Cloud?” We’ve never seen technology take off this quickly before, so it’s pretty exciting.

Why should people choose Microsoft Azure for their business?

I think we bring a really interesting story, especially because of our experience with platform as a service. Microsoft’s stance is that we really want to be open. When I have this discussion, people are often shocked that you can migrate Linux solutions as well as open source. We just want you to put your stuff on the cloud. We’re not trying to dictate that it has to be Microsoft only technologies. You can do anything in the cloud because we know that we can be the best service provider around for really anything. That’s really our approach, which has been really refreshing and really interesting. I think that message hasn’t gotten out to a lot of people.

I have an iPhone, and a Mac, so when I go to customers and partner sites, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you have an iPhone!” And it’s like, “Yeah, we’re really open.” We have tons of articles about building solutions on iOS using Microsoft tools and frameworks. We’re really embracing openness across everything.

And how do you see Microsoft Azure in a couple of years from now?

I definitely see us growing and continuing to be the place where people want to move their applications, regardless of the platform. So if it’s Linux, if it’s Microsoft based, whatever the platform is, we want to be the provider. We’re going away from these platform wars where if you’re a Linux developer then you only fit in this box, and if you’re a Microsoft developer you only fit in this particular box. It’s that kind of interoperability across platforms that presents opportunities for everyone to work together.

So instead of having to choose one platform, it’s really about choosing best in breed and the right thing for the use case, and using whatever platform or technology you want, and then building that solution on the cloud. I think that’s what’s really key. That way, the end user really wins, because they’re going be able to get the best solution using the best technologies for their use case or application. I think that’s directionally where we’re headed.

What is it like being a woman in tech?

I think one of the big problems is really perception and assumptions. So whenever I walk into a room with a new client or partner, there’s always that initial assumption that, “Oh, she must be the business analyst or the project manager, one of the softer skills within IT.” When they find out that I’m an architect, it’s like, “Oh …” You know, there’s a bit of hesitation, maybe a bit of surprise.

I’ve always understood that there is a bias, and it makes me work harder. I’ve never encountered a situation where I wasn’t able to overcome that through just pure skills. I’ve always been given the opportunity to showcase my skills and that has been helpful in overcoming that bias.

How can we fix this?

I think it starts at a really young age. I work with several organizations that help mentor young girls in STEM and technology. One is Black Girls Code. It hosts a ton of different events and workshops throughout the year to help young girls learn about technology and the careers in those fields. There are projects for building an app in a day, lots of things like that.

I also work with Women Who Code, which is geared toward helping women who are trying to enter the workforce in technology. They work with all types of technologies, such as Python or learning JavaScript or HTML, and they host workshops and meetups where they inspire and build this community of women who are interested in coding.

Those are just two of the organizations out there, and I think we need more of them. Especially for younger girls, it’s important for them to see people who look like them actually doing it, to believe that it’s possible. If you don’t see women around you in technical careers, you may not think that it’s possible for you.

It’s also conditioning. Someone told me once that little boys are more prone to press the button and tinker with stuff, and they’re really encouraged to do so. Programming, and really all technical careers are really all about, “I have this problem, I need to solve it. I’m gonna try this thing, it could be awesome or it could blow up. I don’t know.” But you’re willing to try it. I think that young girls are discouraged to really explore or tinker with things. On the other hand, boys are always encouraged to take things apart and get dirty.

How important has your community engagement been, how has it contributed to your success?

I attend a ton of meetups on a wide variety of technologies and topics. I generally try to attend a meet up almost every week.
Earlier on in my career, there wasn’t nearly the kind of community that is available today. When I was first starting out, I would see all these people that appeared to be super duper smart, and I felt like, “Man, I could never be as smart as these guys.” But then when you see them doing a demo and it doesn’t go well, you see that human side and you can talk to them. It really helps to see that, “Hey, maybe they just study and learn more than I do. If I just put in the work, I’ll be at the same level.” I think that really helped me get over my fear of going further in technology.

There are so many benefits from getting involved in the community. For one, it’s a great way to learn. I attend meetups even when I’m traveling for work, and I frequently speak at meetups and conferences. I’ve found that having to explain something to others is a great way to hone your skills. I would definitely encourage anyone to speak. Whether at a local meet up or a national conference, do it to get over your fear, and build that unity, and give back. It’s been awesome.

Taking part in the community also helps you learn new technologies and get up to speed on things pretty quickly. There’s always a meet up on some new topic or technology, and you have the chance to meet new people, share experiences, and even build friendships.

I would encourage anyone who is learning or just starting out to get involved in the community. See what meetups or other activities are available in your local area and just go. Then, don’t be shy about participating. Raise your hand, go on stage and make your first presentation. It’s absolutely okay. People will like it because it’s personal, it’s authentic, and it’s technical.

Where do you see yourself in the next three to five years?

I’d like to merge my love of tech and helping customers and clients build awesome solutions with my love of community and helping inspire women in technology. I would like to start a program where I’m able to put on workshops and coding camps for women and then be able to follow up that experience with real-world projects for them to work on.

After completing a six- or eight-week coding camp, you don’t want to be left on your own to find a job or find an opportunity. I would love to be able to start my own consulting company and have a few senior people, but also be able to bring in very junior developers who can learn and grow.

Do you have any advice for women who are passionate about IT and the cloud in general and who want to have a future in this field?

I would say that you have to really learn and study the craft. I saw my mentors living and breathing the technology. They always had a side project that they were working on, not just their day to day job, and they were always reading. I think really it’s about really learning as much as you can. There are so many ways that you can get knowledge now!

Always have some kind of passion project that you want to do that helps you learn. I think that’s the way to really grow and build skills. That way, you understand exactly what the technology does, and you can be able to articulate and speak very clearly about all the different technologies.

Then, definitely start getting involved and build your reputation in the industry. Maybe start a blog, or participate in a community event, whether it’s a meetup or a conference, something like that. The programming community is huge, and it’s really really open. You don’t have to have so many years of college or be this person or that person. You just have to be curious.

When you get involved, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much faster your skills will grow, just being around like-minded people. I would definitely encourage women who are interested in a field in technology to get involved in their local community, and then once you feel ready, blog about it. If you have a little project that you’re working on, blog about how you did it and all your trials and tribulations. It helps get your name out there and it helps encourage other people.

Finally, I would really like to reiterate to anyone, especially women who want to work in technology, to just get involved and don’t be afraid. I think a fear of making mistakes is a big deterrent for women getting involved in technology and I would say, embrace those mistakes, learn from them. Expect that you’re going to stay up and work on something for eight hours and it’s not always going to turn out like you expected. Just keep going.

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Thinking of a Career in Cloud Computing?

If you are considering a career in the cloud, our Considering a Career in Cloud Computing Learning Path introduces you to cloud computing in general, and then gives you insight into the three major platforms – Amazon Web Service (AWS), Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud Platform – before outlining career opportunities by role.

Show notes

Black Girls Code is non-profit that is working “to increase the number of women in color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages 7 to 17 to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology.”

Women Who Code is a is a global non-profit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. It offers benefits and services to help women achieve their career goals.

Connect with LaBrina on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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