And an engineer shall lead them
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Oct 16, 2000
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
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
"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."
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
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,"
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,"
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