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Microsoft Inspires Students to Pursue Careers in High-Tech at Native American Youth Day

REDMOND, Washington—Technology is improving lives and creating economic opportunities in Indian country, particularly on reservations in rural areas and with far-flung populations.

And, as 50 students from Quinault, Tulalip, Yakama, Seattle’s Eastside Indian Education and Skykomish Valley Indian Education learned August 17, they can someday be the ones who create solutions that improve lives. Visiting with a “gaming ninja” and getting to handle innovations worth thousands of dollars was pretty cool too.

At Microsoft’s Native American Youth Day in Redmond, Washington—the first since 2008—members of the employee group Native Americans at Microsoft discussed their upbringings and their journeys to the world’s largest software company. They described their daily roles and told students there is no limit to what they can accomplish for a company like Microsoft and even their own tribes—but the key is education, they said.

“Only one third of the jobs at Microsoft are pure engineers,” said engineer Tracy Monteith, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “We want to dispel the myth that you have to be a mathematician [to work here].” Technology companies need people in accounting, administration, legal, marketing, sales and other fields, he said.

Monteith said that, with the exception of education and persistence, there is no set path to a career in high-tech. “None of us took a straight path. We struggled. We worked through school. We supported families,” he said. “Everyone had a different path to what today’s world considers success. But if you work hard, these are the opportunities you get. To make software that 1 in 7 people in the world are using is a humbling experience.”

Monteith speaks from experience. In his bio in Diversity/Careers in Information & Technology—a magazine serving engineering and IT professionals—in 2009, he said he was raised on and off the reservation, spending school months in Atlanta, Georgia, and spending summers and some weekends on the reservation in western North Carolina. “Today, my brother and I are some of the few members of our family not living on the reservation,” he told the magazine.

Monteith didn’t finish college but had been fascinated by PCs since the advent of the personal computer, he told the magazine. In the early 1980s, he saw the potential for PCs as cultural preservation tools. He spent 10 years in a variety of jobs, including construction, while teaching himself about computers at night.

Monteith joined Microsoft in 2009, after several years as a consultant to the company.

Today, Monteith is a senior engineer on the team that developed Microsoft Lync, an instant messaging and collaboration software system. At the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, staff members use Microsoft Lync to instant message, show availability for real-time communications, and web conference from PCs and mobile phones. Web conferencing is helping Cherokee health clinics and doctors improve response to patient needs. In addition, Cherokee will be a language option in Windows 8. Teams from the Cherokee Nation, the Microsoft local language group and Microsoft Windows group worked together to perfect the translation.

“My Tribal background has given me a perspective to put systems in place that help solve problems,” Monteith told Diversity/Careers. “You can’t ignore the social aspects of software development.”

Don Lionetti, who is non-Native but manages tribal government and gaming accounts for Microsoft, advised students to follow their passions, pursue education, and embrace their culture as they continue their journeys in whatever field they pursue. He told students they could be the next generation of leaders for their respective tribes.

Then, the fun began.

Eric Neustadter, a “gaming ninja” from Microsoft’s XBOX Team, discussed game design and development and showed the students some free online tools to help them get started with game design and development. He encouraged the students to follow their passions and, if that is gaming, there are lots of jobs at Microsoft and hundreds of other firms in game development and design.

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Josh Rice, senior director of technical sales in Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector, demonstrated how Kinect’s motion-sensing technology is being used in the medical field and to assist children with autism.

At Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, a Kinect sensor allows surgeons to access, rotate and zoom in on CT scan and X-ray images without leaving the operating space. Formerly, surgeons had to step out of the sterile field to manipulate the image on a computer, but that meant having to rescrub. Now, the surgeon can remain in the sterile field and directly adjust CT scan and X-ray views by making simple and measured gestures in the air—without touching or interfacing with the screen or mouse.

Watch a video of Miscrosoft's XBOX Kinect in use at Sunnybrook:

At Lakeside Center for Autism in Issaquah, Washington, Kinect helps children with autismbuild communication, physical and social skills through play. Traci Corazin, a Microsoft employee, explains in a Lakeside video how Kinect has helped her son, Sam.

“Sam plays the Kinect with his friends. They cheer each other on, they have eye contact, they’re integrating with each other in ways I’ve never seen Sam do before,” she said. “As a mom, it’s incredibly exciting to have that connection with your child, the eye contact, the high fives, the enthusiasm. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

In this video, see how therapists at the Lakeside Center for Autism are using Kinect to help children with autism build communication, social and physical skills:

The final presentation was on Microsoft’s PixelSense Flat Screen, which responds to touch and objects, enabling unprecedented interaction between the user, or users, and the device.

Ensuring students are proficient in the subjects that lead to careers in a rapidly technologically advancing world is a big concern in many quarters, including education, high-tech industries and among tribes.

According to a Microsoft report, the U.S. Department of Labor has projected that by 2014, there will be more than 2 million job openings in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in the United States.

“Yet, across the U.S., student performance on international math and science benchmarks lags behind that of their peers from other nations,” the report states. “Multiple studies have found that many students begin to lose interest in these subjects as early as middle school. And colleges are finding too few students with the interest and preparation to pursue STEM degrees.”

It’s a big concern among indigenous governments as well; most fields in which Tribes have an investment involves high-tech, such as energy, gaming, governance, health care, information technology, and resource management.

“When I meet with Tribal leaders, they typically ask how Microsoft can help ensure that Tribal children and students have access to technology at an equal level to non-tribal students,” Lionetti said.

Microsoft has several programs to help young people—Native and non-Native —prepare for the future. Microsoft is a partner in programs to improve technology in schools, teach digital literacy skills to children, and increase middle-school achievement in math, science and technology studies. Since 2006, Microsoft’s Students to Business program has helped more than 300,000 students acquire new career skills, and provided internships and jobs for 15,000 students. The Microsoft Academy of College Hires is an accelerated career development program designed to help the company recruit, hire and develop top talent “and cultivate them as passionate and innovative contributors to our various sales and marketing teams.” In addition, Lionetti hopes to make Native American Youth Day an annual event.

To end the day, Microsoft gave students some gifts: T-shirts, pens, and a packet with a list of websites and places to go for free tools they can use to extend their interest in technology.

On the front of the T-shirts: “My Mom thinks I am smart.” On the back: “and so does Microsoft.”