Mai-lan Tomsen Bukovec, Amazon Web Services director. (Annie Laurie Malarkey photo)

Some people tell great stories about camping out for the latest gadgets, but when your life experience includes time in the Peace Corps in West Africa, your strongest memories of waiting in line are very different. That’s just one of the characteristics that distinguishes our latest Geek of the Week.

Mai-lan Tomsen Bukovec grew up in Asia and the former Soviet Republic, in the family of a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. (Her dad just published a book based on his Afghanistan experiences.) A Microsoft veteran who is now an Amazon Web Services director, she worked at companies including Qpass and Digeo Broadband in their early years.

Married with three boys (ages 5, 7 and 9) she loves to cook (and eat). And in her spare time, she’s a recreational boxer — which explains her favorite hangout. Continue reading for details on that, and many other gems, in her answers to our questionnaire below.

Name: Mai-lan Tomsen Bukovec

Job, hobby and/or other geeky pursuit: Engineering Manager at Amazon by day, spouse and mom at night.

Coolest thing about what you do: I believe that we are creating a revolution with pay-as-you-go cloud computing.

What does it mean to you to be a geek? Being unafraid of get your hands dirty when you want to understand how it works.

Geekiest thing(s) you’ve ever done, built, or worn: The distributed system platform we’re building at Amazon blows my mind with the scale we see. I have gotten a crash course in partitioning, degraded ops mode, and other practical details in distributed computing. Super cool.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life: Establish boundaries and keep them. You may have large territories or small spaces within those boundaries. That’s your choice. Once you define how much time and energy you want to spend on that territory, respect its boundaries. No one else will. The boundaries are your responsibility and your control lever for separating how much time/energy you spend on work, yourself, and your home life.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac for home, Linux for work and Windows for my parents.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who could probably kick the collective butts of all four.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter so I could go anywhere meeting new people and seeing new things.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … create a cost-effective way for local community groups to share requests for micro-funding across a broad base of international non-profit organizations. International non-profits could search by micro-fund grant amounts and match with local community groups. It might get implemented as an auction or reverse auction, which would maximize the benefit for both parties. I would start in the US and expand internationally, with large organization sponsorship.

I once waited in line for … gamma globulin shots while working in Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa. The only thing worse than standing in line in 110 degrees is knowing that you are waiting for a shot that will make you limp for two days.

Your role models: Warren Buffet because he keeps it real, my parents for helping me realize how to parent, and Raymond Carver for being a master at his craft.

Greatest Game In History: Backgammon. You can walk into coffee or tea houses the world over and find people with their heads down over a backgammon board. It’s a game that combines strategy, fun and social networking in one highly portable board game.

Best Gadget Ever: Digital camera for enabling a stream of images from professional and non-professional sources.

First computer: A Toshiba laptop that weighed 1/6th of my body weight.

Current phone: iPhone

Favorite app: “One Bus Away” which tells me when the next bus is coming. I am not very good at waiting.

Favorite hangout: Cappy’s Boxing Gym on 22nd and Union in Seattle’s Central District.

Favorite cause: Autism Awareness

Most important technology of 2011: Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing

Most important technology of 2015: Solar cells integrated into public utility power grids.

Words of advice for your fellow geeks: Take more smart risks.

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to

[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey,]

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  • Guest

    How does a PM at MSFT become an engineering manager at AMZN? Must suck to be an engineer there, having to report to non technical managers.

    • Scott Blanksteen

      If you ever worked with Mai-Lan, you would know that it does not suck to work for, with, or around her…

    • Kevin Lisota

      Mai-Lan was the Product Unit Manager for IIS at MSFT, hardly a non-technical role.

      Agree with Scott whole-heatedly, having worked with Mai-Lan in multiple groups, she is awesome, and would be respected by any engineers, but apparently not by blog trolls.

      I moved teams twice and pushed to recruit her in both instances and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

  • Ron Faith

    To work with Mai-Lan is to love Mai-Lan. Great to see a member of the Qpass Mafia continuing to do so well. 

  • Beway

    Great to see Mai-lan get recognition like this. Working with her at Microsoft was always a treat !  And yes, Buffy Rules :-)

  • Kelly O’Mara

    Awesome article, Mai-lan! AWS is lucky to have you. Mai-lan’s Monitoring team is hiring. Please send me your resume if you are interested in working on the Elastic Compute Cloud team:

  • Vidu

    Geekwire’s bar for geekiness seems to be quite low. There are far more geeky people and women at both Microsoft and AWS who don’t have the fancy titles but have accomplished much more technically and as leaders than the one featured here. Learn to look past the titles and facades to find real technical talent. You don’t even have to look far – look for senior and principal engineers (yes, there are such women in MS and AWS) and you’ll find them. While there are some directors and group managers who have actually built products and understand the technical details, from what I hear, this isn’t one of them.

    Having had a chance to work in a peer unit at MS and hearing from friends who work around her at AWS, such middle managers continue to make great paper pushers and hog the limelight for products and technologies that they happened to become a part (IIS had hundreds more people who actually envisioned features and built them). Well, the pay as you go revolution had long happened before people like this even joined Amazon to ride coat tails.

    Most people who come to arms for such folks were typically part of the inner circle or as Ron puts it, the “Mafia”. None of the guys here vouching for her technical astuteness have much tech chops themselves. Heck one of them is in real estate which I guess is the career path for these “product” people at Microsoft. Ask past this mafia and you’ll hear about how such middle managers were basically shown the door at MS and ended up at companies like Amazon – a pretty decent competitive strategy :) As for the comment about how it should suck to work for people like this, my friends tell me there are other suckier things to worry about working at AWS and as long as you are part of the mafia, you are safe (well of course, you must also have the technical chops to be an engineer at a minimum). Most technical decisions are taken by the principal engineers and dev managers (thankfully for amazon I guess).

    There is a lot more technical talent and geeky folks (no having an iphone alone doesn’t count for geekiness) in the NW. I hope geekwire features some real talent here.

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