When Phoebe Ash accepted a work-study position one summer at a Tuskegee University computer science lab, she had no idea it would change her life in the way that it did.
A political science major intent on becoming a lawyer, Phoebe, originally from South Central Los Angeles, was attending Tuskegee on “lots of loans and a wing and a prayer” as she puts it. So, when she accepted the computer science lab position she was simply looking for a summer job to help pay for her tuition. Like many other colleges and universities, Tuskegee becomes a bit of a ghost town during the summer. So, with time on her hands Phoebe began to dabble in programming.
“I loved political science, but I realized I loved being in the lab more. And the more I worked there it became clear I had found my true calling.”
She was later offered a position to manage the computer lab and in time she became the university’s web developer; but it was an internship in the IT department for Morgan Stanley in the summer of 1998 that really changed the course of Phoebe’s life.
“When I came back from my internship I started picking up as many computer science related courses as possible. I considered staying an extra year and picking up a double major, but then I started getting job offers. Just like with the internship, employers could tell I was passionate and eager to learn.”
Today Phoebe Ash is a Software Senior Test Lead Engineer for Microsoft in Seattle. She has been with Microsoft for 12 years and joined the company upon her graduation from Tuskegee University.
When asked how she was able overcome the challenges of having not majored in computer science to become part of a core group that includes developers, program managers and testers, Phoebe shared the following,
“There was certain hurdles I had to overcome, but that is with any career. I’ve learned working at Microsoft you must continue to learn, ramp up your skill set and stretch yourself, so you can grow. That is the case with any career, but especially technology fields.”
In her role Phoebe manages Software Design Engineers in Test that test product code against specifications and writes tools and automates tests to create quality software for millions of users. Along with managing her team, she does project planning and hiring for the Outlook Test Team. African American female software test leads like Phoebe are few and far between. In fact, she is the only African American female on her team despite there having been 14 openings last year.
Politic365 asked Phoebe what African Americans, particularly females, can do to prepare themselves for careers and roles hers.
“Don’t fear math and science. You need to push yourself a bit more to understand what this field is about. Too many people have a fear of the unknown and of things that seem too hard. Also see what resources your school has to help you. Tuskegee has pre-summer courses that help students begin to master the basics. If students take the time to explore this field, they might find it’s a perfect fit for them.”
Part of the work Phoebe does to ensure there are African American candidates qualified for roles like hers is through work with the affinity group Blacks at Microsoft. Phoebe readily credits this program with positively impacting minority students by exposing them to life outside of their bubble to the technology industry, where opportunities abound.
Every February, the group hosts Minority Student Day. Throughout the day, Microsoft employees will guide students through information sessions and workshops. Employees serve as mentors, talking with students about the wide variety of career opportunities available to them in the technology industry.
“[Minority Student Day] brings in African American students into a world they are not usually exposed to and they get to see people who look like them succeeding in the field of technology.”
In addition to her work with Blacks in Microsoft, Phoebe is an active contributor to the Blacks in Microsoft Scholarship Fund.
Ash offers the following advice to those who may be considering a career in technology or any field for that matter, but have fears of inadequacy,
“Self-doubt will come, but don’t set limitations for yourself. You can do anything in life and there should be no one to tell you that you can’t, no matter what your background or where you come from, you can achieve what you set out for in life. You don’t have to play the cards you’re given. I didn’t have the money to go to school, but I didn’t let that obstacle become a hindrance. It just takes hard work and lots of dedication to excellence.”