And an engineer shall lead them

Most people in the federal information technology community probably do

not know Mitra Azizirad, but if the new general manager of Microsoft Corp.'s

federal division has anything to say about it — and she does — they soon

will.

Azizirad took her current position in July after eight years of working

through the corporate ranks. She began as a systems engineer working mainly

with Defense Department customers and eventually became the first female

technology director of Microsoft's eastern region.

Azizirad said she has encountered obstacles at every stop along the

way, namely the gender barrier.

"I don't fit any kind of mold," she said. "In 1992, when I would go

on account calls with the sales reps, the customers would ask, "When's the

engineer going to get here?' And when I was at a new partner event, the

man next to me turned and asked, "When's he going to get here?' It's always

been a matter of breaking the mold."

Azizirad said she doesn't expect the same kind of ignorance in the federal

space once people get to know her. "Once I develop relationships, that won't

happen. In the past, [general managers] in the field were not looked at

as visionaries. They relegated the technology messages to the directors

of technology, systems engineers and consultants," she said.

One of Azizirad's first projects at Microsoft Federal Systems was to

reorganize the division, which she completed in September. She created positions

specifically for the federal division, including a technology director and

several business solutions managers, who focus on areas such as information

assurance and knowledge management. She also established teams focused on

specific agencies and areas, such as the U.S. Postal Service and the intelligence

community.

"Before, you either worked on civilian or DOD, and that didn't make

sense," Azizirad said. "I wanted a strong technology focus with horizontal

communication between the managers and teams. Now there's an expectation

of the technology folks to get business-oriented and the business folks

to get technology-oriented."

Tiffany Treacy, business solutions group manager at Microsoft Federal

Systems, said Azizirad's focus on creativity throughout the division has

helped her change their work environment in a very short time. "Mitra is

creating a stronger focus on repeatable processes and best practices that

will drive strong execution and follow through," Treacy said. "She is asking

people to think outside of the box and... she challenges everyone to focus

on what is right for the current business, and think about why it is right."

Triple Threat

In sports lingo, Azizirad is what you might call a triple threat. She

has a communications background, so she can speak eloquently about her company,

its vision and its products. Her engineering background puts her technical

expertise at a much deeper level than is often found in upper management.

And she knows the business inside and out from her work on the Defense messaging

program and her stint as technology director for Microsoft's U.S. eastern

region.

Azizirad's engineering background will help Microsoft translate its

technical solutions into federal applications. For example, the corporate

headquarters has undertaken an initiative known as .Net, which aims to create

a seamless computing environment in which users can access applications

and data through PCs, handheld computers, cellular phones, pagers or a combination

of them all.

Several technologies are key in this venture, including Extensible Markup

Language (XML) and the Simple Object Access Protocol, a messaging specification

that defines ways to package and transmit XML data.

"Just because you put a browser on an application doesn't mean it's

Web- enabled," Azizirad said. "It's about putting intelligence on the front

and the back ends. I really understand that because of my technical background."

Rethinking Office Space

Her background also shapes how she approaches Microsoft customers.

Rather than arming herself with product brochures and price lists, she aims

to help customers understand how the technology works and what it can do

for them. "I want to communicate the message of value of intellectual property

to our customers and not just deliver a sales pitch."

And that creative thinking is not lost on her co-workers. In fact, it's

encouraged, said Cheryl Battan, director of technology at Microsoft Federal

Systems. "She shows courage and is willing to go against the way things

have always been done if it makes sense for the business and for the people,"

she said.

Azizirad herself is not averse to going against traditional methods

to make a point. She used a somewhat unconventional medium to make sure

that everyone within Microsoft Federal was on board with her new vision.

Azizirad showed clips from the movie "Office Space," a satirical look

at the atmosphere in a fictional high-tech business and what happens when

the company brings in consultants to shake things up.

The film spoofs name mispronunciations, which Azizirad has encountered

more than once; a scene where a consultant asks an employee exactly what

they do each day; and managers answering subordinates with a stock, "Um...yeah,"

regardless of what they are talking about.

"There was a lot of gray area here, and I wanted to eradicate it by

prioritizing the business and getting us much more targeted and focused,"

Azizirad said.

The movie also helped Azizirad inject some new life into her division.

"I believe in everybody having a voice, and we have our own lingo to bond

around. Now, if somebody answers you with, "Um...yeah,' you know you're

in trouble.

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