How I Became an Author, Fashion Designer, and Holograms Engineer

Dona Sarkar always knew she wanted to create things for a living.

Dona Sarkar always knew she wanted to make things. After studying computer science in college, she became a software engineer. An interest in writing led to a fiction class followed by four published books.

Her love of fashion urged her to learn to sew, enroll in fashion school, and start her own clothing line. Today, after 10 years at Microsoft, she works on the team that is developing HoloLens, Microsoft's yet-to-be-released wearable technology that allows users to create and interact with digital worlds.

Sarkar, 35, explains how all of her interests — and, most importantly, her curiosity and passion for innovating — have led her to a career that she says continues to surprise her every day.

When I was in high school, growing up in Detroit, my dad and I got into this habit of reading The Wall Street Journal together. We started seeing all these stories about two guys who get computer science degrees, receive $1 million in funding, and grow new companies. It was crazy to think about all these 22-year-old CEOs. In Detroit, the only way to become a CEO was to be born into the family. I thought there was something magical about these people who are completely self-made. They were able to start a company based on their own ideas. I realized I want to do this. I want to make stuff up for a living.

My dad enrolled me in a basic programming class at a community college while I was still in high school. It was all a bunch of grown-ups who had to learn computers for their jobs. I was the only girl. I thought it was pretty logical. I was able to do it, and I was even able to help some people.

When I got into the University of Michigan, I thought, I'm going to [major in] computer science because this is very natural for me. I show up to Computer Science 100 and there are 500 people in there. From minute two, the professor started throwing around terms that I didn't understand — like "bits" and "binaries." Everyone else started saying the topics were boring, they had already learned all this in AP computer science, and we were going too slowly. My thought was, What the heck is AP computer science? Then this guy turns around and sees me and the other nine women in class and goes, "Ugh, there are chicks in this class. That means they're going to go to office hours and take up all the time." I was so upset, because that was exactly what I was planning to do. In that moment, I thought, I can't ask for help. These people don't need it. Now I realize that was dumb. But at the time, I was stubborn and I tried my very best. And I failed.

I had to call my parents and tell them I am not that girl who can do it. I failed not because I was out partying but because I am not smart enough. It took two weeks of soul-searching to figure out what I was going to do. Finally I realized that I've never been great at anything the first time. I'm usually OK and then I'm good. I was one of those slow learners where it took me a year to ride a bicycle. I decided to try it again. So I enrolled in Computer Science 100 again. I actually did way better. And this time I did go see the teacher's assistant for office hours. I realized, this going to be really hard, but I can do this.

My first summer I interned at Autodesk, [a software company] right there in Michigan. I had researched the hell out of this company, and I knew they were looking for a web development intern. Work is nothing like school. School is a lot of theory, a lot of learning a hundred different things. At work you have this one thing to do and you get it done in any way possible, and then you move on to the next thing. They assigned me a mentor and told me not to struggle with not knowing. Working at Autodesk got me used to the idea of asking for help.

The next summer I got an internship at Intel. It was in Portland, Oregon. My parents were petrified, but they realized that was where all the tech companies were. I went out there and I had this horrible imposter syndrome. I thought, What am I doing moving to the West Coast? I didn't know how to code two years ago. My job was to build the software that helped users connect their computer to the Internet using wireless routers Intel built. I understood that customer. I had tried to do that in the past. It was always incredibly frustrating. I realized here's my opportunity to make a really great experience.

I left Intel after that amazing summer, and the market crashed after 9/11 happened that September. Every company started hiring freezes. All of the small startups folded. I was like, Now what? I was about to graduate. I definitely didn't have the best GPA because I failed that first semester. It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and I realized I would need to go home and tell my parents I didn't have a job.

One day I walk into the engineering library and there is a guy holding a messenger bag with a company's logo on it. It's obvious he's a recruiter and he's lost. So I go up to him and I say, "Hi, can I help you? He said, "Hi, I'm Joe from Siebel Systems, and I can't find the interview rooms." I told him, "Oh, I'm headed there myself" — I was not headed there — "I will take you." I take him upstairs and talk to him about Michigan, and how great we do as alumni, and all the things I'm learning in my classes. I deliver him to his room and he says, "Hey, are you interviewing with us?" I said, "No, our schedules didn't quite align." And he looks at his calendar and says, "I have a noon spot free. Do you mind if I interview you then?" I said, "I think I can make that work." I leave him, run back to my workstation, and I learn everything about the company I could. It was not my best interview ever because I was very nervous. But it felt like we were old friends. He wanted to hire me. He liked my enthusiasm.

They flew me out to Seattle two weeks later. Again, it's not like I was the most amazing programmer they had seen. But I knew a lot about the company at this point. I kept restating, "I can see myself working here." So I got an offer from them, and I was able to go home and tell my parents I actually got a job.

I did the dumb thing though. I did not negotiate my salary. I didn't even ask because I was so happy to have a job. I didn't even know you were supposed to negotiate. There were four other new people who worked with me, all from the Seattle area. One day I heard two of them talking, one saying, "I'm using my sign-on bonus to buy a car." I was like, What's a sign-on bonus? It was a hard lesson. Now I'm a negotiation master, but it took me a long time to get there.

The job at Siebel was to work on the mobile client. I made a mobile app that ran on a Palm Pilot that synced data from mobile to the [hard drive] database. It was something that was used by mostly sales people. [After] about three years, I realized I didn't want to work on databases anymore. I wanted to point to something and say, "I made that."

I applied at Microsoft and I did not get in because I applied to the completely wrong job where I didn't understand the tech. It was on the messaging team and I didn't know anything about messaging. Then six months later I gathered up the courage to do it again and this time I applied to the exactly right team. It was for a job on the Windows user experience, which builds everything you tap on or click on in Windows. These were things I knew a lot about. This time, when I got an offer, I negotiated. And they said yes.

My first job was to own something really cool, which was hardware detection in Windows. I fell in love with Microsoft and the job. I talked to my manager about taking on bigger challenges and I learned an important lesson: Your manager cannot actually read your mind. So if you want to be a leader, you have to point that out. I filled in for another manager when she went on maternity leave. When she came back, she decided to take another position overseas and I asked if I could permanently have her position. They were hesitant. But I said, "I'm going to do a good job, and if I don't, you'll learn that I'm not ready for it." They gave me a shot and I've been leading people ever since, on a few different teams. I learned to get comfortable asking for what you want. Because you definitely won't get it if you don't ask.

When I moved to Seattle in 2002, I really wanted that creative outlet other than coding. I enrolled in a fiction-writing course at a community college. I wrote a story about a single girl's struggles in Seattle making friends. Everyone thought it was hilarious. They said, "This girl is too ridiculous to be real." I finished that book in six weeks in the class. It was not good. But I learned a lot about the writing process, how to get an agent, how to pitch manuscripts. I realized I want to do this. It took me four years and three manuscripts, but I got an agent and my first [young adult] book came out in 2008. [Two more fiction books and this year's career advice book, You Had Me at Hello World, followed].

A few years ago I was walking through Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle. I saw this window that said New York Fashion Academy. I had always been interested in fashion, but to me it was another world. I bought a sewing machine and hired someone to teach me to sew in a month. Then I enrolled in fashion school while working full-time at Microsoft. I realized there's a huge opportunity to revitalize the fashion industry. It was around the same time Microsoft announced HoloLens [wearable technology that allows users to interact with holograms, which will be released in 2016]. Here's this really cool device that enables people to create and design and explore. I thought, I can use this in fashion school to design better, rather than actually going through the work of cutting and sewing and fitting and it not being the right thing, then starting all over again.

When I left fashion school, I made couture pieces for family and friends, but quickly realized that there is a much better way to custom-make clothing for people using tech to solve the fit problem. I believe my calling is to help fashion designers design and create in a more modern way, rather than actually being a fashion designer.

I reached out to a friend on that [hologram] team and said, "Hey, I really want to use the tools you guys have to build an app." She said, "We're not really ready for external use, but I think you'd be great on the team." That was an interesting idea to me. I never thought I should go and help build holographic platforms. I didn't have any experience. Most people don't because it's not a thing that's ever been done.

I joined the team as a product manager this year, which means I go out and understand the market conditions of the specific thing I'm trying to build. Within a few weeks, we were starting to get ready for a conference, which would be the first big coming out of HoloLens to the general public. My team put together this tutorial and experience for people to come through and [use] holograms for the first time. We would teach them to build a holographic app from end to end — build a 3-D image, give that image an action, then [decide] what happens when you tap on each item. The whole goal of holograms is for them to behave like real-world objects. It was really cool to see people freaking out over this technology.

If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be writing books, making clothes, and that you will be seeing holograms in your world, I would [have told] you to get some meds. But it's absolutely possible. It's why I got into tech. We are the modern-day magicians and alchemists. That is what we do. We create stuff out of nowhere.

By Heather Wood Rudulph  |  Cosmopolitan



item Career: How I Became an Author, Fashion Designer, and Holograms Engineer
How I Became an Author, Fashion Designer, and Holograms Engineer Career
Loaded All Posts Not found any posts VIEW ALL Read More Reply Cancel reply Delete By Home PAGES POSTS View All RECOMMENDED FOR YOU LABEL ARCHIVE SEARCH ALL POSTS Not found any post match with your request Back Home Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat January February March April May June July August September October November December Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec just now 1 minute ago $$1$$ minutes ago 1 hour ago $$1$$ hours ago Yesterday $$1$$ days ago $$1$$ weeks ago more than 5 weeks ago Followers Follow THIS PREMIUM CONTENT IS LOCKED STEP 1: Share to a social network STEP 2: Click the link on your social network Copy All Code Select All Code All codes were copied to your clipboard Can not copy the codes / texts, please press [CTRL]+[C] (or CMD+C with Mac) to copy Table of Content