Mona Akmal is a group program manager for Microsoft SkyDrive, which has emerged as one of the Redmond company’s most important products. Not only does SkyDrive compete against an array of startups and tech giants in cloud storage and file synchronization, but it’s also a key component of Microsoft’s broader cloud strategy, working behind the scenes in products including Windows and Windows Phone.
It’s not a low-pressure job, requiring an ability to collaborate with teams from across the company. But Akmal has plenty of experience navigating these types of situations — including her past role as co-founder of Dreamfly, a non-profit group that highlights and builds upon shared human aspirations in places such as Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Rwanda. She’s also an active participant in Microsoft’s charitable giving programs.
Akmal grew up in Pakistan, studying computer science and minoring in social sciences and math. For the sum of her professional life, the past 12 years, she has focused on areas including development, testing and program management, worked on core graphics, security software and large-scale consumer services, and lived in the US and the UK.
“Seattle’s home now,” she says, “and I even have some plaid shirts to prove it.”
Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and why do you do it? I run program management for the SkyDrive Experience team at Microsoft. My job is to build a great team and keep my team happy, work with them to define the path for SkyDrive and how we can make it even more useful and essential to people’s lives by solving real problems, develop partnerships with other groups at Microsoft so we can work as one larger unit and help the team manage risk (which is inevitable with large and complex projects).
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? You don’t have to be great at math or be a genius to be great at technology. There’s a common misconception that people in this field know how to do integral equations, study physics for fun etc.
Technology requires creativity (in that it’s more like an art than a science), has to solve real human problems (in that it requires an understanding of human life) and being good at communicating in a foreign language (i.e. we must translate our ideas into a language computers can understand – mastering the language and speaking it elegantly is how the magic happens).
Where do you find your inspiration? I find inspiration in observing people, their behaviors, tasks, habits, problems and creativity in solving them…the more global the better. That’s why I make it a point to visit two new countries each year.
Great ideas and awesome products really appeal to something fundamental about human psychology (e.g. Facebook and its core appeal for our inherently curious nature and vanity) or solve a real problem in a way that’s much more appealing than existing solutions.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Funny incident that led me to a quick realization that my phone is now completely indispensable. I was travelling to see my sister (who had recently moved). On the way there, I accidentally dropped my phone in the airport toilet. Needless to say, it stopped working. I was struck with panic because I didn’t know a single phone number by heart, had no means of calling anyone, didn’t know her address, didn’t have my flight information, didn’t have my car rental information etc. Lesson learnt = no life without phone.
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My office is centered around informal communication, hence the four chairs/living room ambience/soft lights. My co-workers call it the therapy room. :)
I don’t have a desktop and do all my work on my laptop, slate or phone. So there’s no need for a desk. I don’t like clutter so my tea cup is the only thing other than seating that’s a permanent fixture of the room.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Be ruthless about triaging your things-to-do list. Only do what’s important (i.e. not necessarily urgent) and be proactive instead of reacting. Your checklist is there to serve you, not the other way round so if there’s something on the list that has been there for 6 months, get rid of it and set yourself free.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard. He is a quiet leader, is principled and high-integrity and has a fantastic voice (have you heard him say “Engage”). And easy on the eyes.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time Machine. Knowledge and experience are locked in time and we are limited in our ability to acquire it because of the linear nature of our existence. A time machine would take that limitation away. Imagine being able to go back and learn from Da Vinci, observe Genghis Khan, or go in the future and have a Jodie Foster moment in Contact.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … launch a startup that lets researchers find individuals who want to fund their research initiatives and also find like-minded individuals to do research with. My hope would be that it would minimize the biases that exist at universities and research facilities about taboo subjects. I think of it as a kickstarter for ideas and not necessarily immediately viable products.
I once waited in line for … Cuban sandwiches from Paseo. Good food is the only thing I’ll typically wait in line for. I’m pretty patient with gadgets and devices so I typically order online (not in line) and wait for my package to arrive.
Your role models: – Ayn Rand (and this doesn’t imply political affiliation) – her model of assessing self-worth in terms of value created in the world resonates with me. I am because I think. I am because I do. Technology is one of the most profound products of human thought and action and it’s only happened because of the will of those who want to dream, think and act to realize those visions.
– Hafiz – he’s a mystic poet who thinks of the world beyond what the five senses can perceive and connects with realities that are not immediately obvious. Given that so much of my life is immersed in logic and sensory interaction, Hafiz offers something completely different – and that helps me grow and stretch myself.
– Brene Brown – her work on vulnerability and shame is incredibly powerful. It’s helped me see and honor the vulnerability in others and in myself.
Greatest Game in History Power Grid. I love that there’s very little chance in the game, so success and failure are directly related to skill and strategy.
Best Gadget Ever: Fitbit at the moment. My entire team is competing over number of steps and it’s fun having walking meetings.
First Computer: A second-hand custom built Windows 3.1 PC
Current Phone: I use an HTC 8X Windows Phone and an iPhone 5 interchangeably. It keeps my knowledge of both platforms relevant and up-to-date.
Favorite App: Skype (to talk with my family and friends around the world)
Favorite Cause: Progressive education for children (thedreamfly.org)
Most important technology of 2013: Not 2013 specifically but I think the research and trials using nano-tech for cancer treatments are incredibly promising, and that’s such an exciting direction for medical science. It’s great to see technology and medicine coming together in such a sci-fi way.
Most important technology of 2015: Low-cost chips leading to all devices and surfaces in our homes becoming truly smart and connected.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Time is the only valuable non-replenishable asset we all have. Use it well. Move the needle. Make a difference. And be proud of your geekiness.