Sometimes the silent voice behind new, exciting, cutting edge technology may not get the likes and retweets that the well-known and social media heavy product evangelists do, but that does not mean they are less important or influential. Sometimes they are right in your own backyard making a huge impact and you don’t even know it until you are at a community event and share a glass of wine or brief conversation and take the time to get to know them the “old school” way of talking and sharing stories. When I ran into Lisa Ruff at a local DC SharePoint event, I knew right away that I had met an inspiring hidden gem in the Microsoft realm that most of the IT world was missing out on. Lisa, also known as the “Office Demo Queen”, has been working in the IT industry in roles that we now call “evangelist” since 1984. She currently is the Business Development Manager for H3 Solutions Inc, a local IT consulting and product company in the DC area that created, AtBot , a no-code, bot-building platform for Microsoft Teams and powered by Microsoft Flow and Microsoft AI. In earlier days, Lisa was with Microsoft for 13 years teaching, endorsing, and selling Microsoft technology. She carried a strong voice introducing government agencies to the value of the SharePoint collaborative platform starting when it first came out in 2001. Lisa is so humble that she has never really been interviewed until now! She was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule to meet with me and answer some of my pressing questions about her IT career, experiences, and thoughts as well as offer her words of wisdom for working in IT and business in general. Below were my questions to her and her answers to share with the world.
Thank you, Lisa, for being my first spotlight interviewee!
Please tell me about you.
I am 56 years old and have lived in the DC area for about half my life. I was known as the “city girl” and had a condo in Dupont Circle, no one thought I would ever move. Life changes and although I never thought I would leave DC proper, I met a great man (Hugh) got a dog and we moved to Arlington about 5 years ago. The love of my life (besides Hugh) is a rust colored Vizsla doggy named Sadie. My happy place is the ocean and seeing the DC cherry blossoms which I haven’t missed in all the years I’ve lived in the area. I have wonderful family and friends, I love to travel but also happy just staying at home.
What made you want to start a career in information technology field?
I was a mathematical science major at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (and I also played goalie for the Women’s lacrosse team!) When I attended college, IT degrees weren’t a thing. There was Engineering, but not the variety of Computer Science / Information Technology degrees as there are now. Computer programming was one area I chose to study as part of my math-sci degree along with liberal arts classes. I remember writing code and printing it out, cutting it up and then pasting it to a folder – that was how we turned in our computer programming homework. Luckily, I was just one year beyond the punch cards! I have always loved math and logic, but also teaching and helping people. I guess that put me on the IT career path. Product management and technical sales positions were a natural fit for my skills and passion.
And then where did that take you?
I started out of college with Data General Corporation and did internal field support and product roll out for the Data General/One – one of the first PC laptops on the market along with its version of MS-DOS 2.1. From there I moved to Compaq Computer Corporation as a Systems Engineer in the field and then went to Microsoft. I was there from 1993-2006 – or you could also say Windows for Workgroup 3.1 and Office 4.0 through Windows Server and Office System 2006 In addition to focusing on technology, an especially rewarding aspect was being a part of the Microsoft accessibility team. I supported the reps and provided information to the Government agencies as they work to comply with Section 508 – I presented and shared information on Microsoft’s efforts to provide equal access to software for people with disabilities. I also enjoyed participating in Microsoft’s support of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) summer IT internship program.
What was it like being a woman working at Microsoft in the early 1990s to 2000s? How do you think it compares to today? I worked with great people and wonderful women. One thing I do remember was always counting how many women were in the room with me during technical briefings and as you might imagine, it was a very low percentage. While I find myself still counting today, I think it has gotten much better but the ultimate goal is to stop counting the women in the room and just be an equal part of what is happening there. There is clearly much more awareness and consciousness of the lack of women in IT and we need to continue to work helping girls and women learn, be excited about technology and be in the room – I have participated in some women in technology events and the local DC Women in SharePoint group is doing a great job.
So what are you working on now?
I thank networking and staying connected with great people, for where I am today and have been for almost 9 years. I work for H3 Solutions Inc, and one of the founders of the company was one of my first customers at Microsoft! I am currently in a position I love that keeps me inspired, learning and wearing many different hats of Sales, Microsoft Partner manager and yes, I still to do presentations and product demos. We just launched an innovative new product called AtBot. It continues the same thread I worked on since Microsoft of helping people to be productive, and collaborate (Yes, works with SharePoint) – but also on the cutting edge of today’s AI technology.
AtBot is a Bot-as-a-Service platform for building conversational UIs in hours not months. Using no-code building blocks, you can train and deploy bots for your business needs. He (Atbot is a guy)AtBot is deeply integrated with Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft AI Cognitive services. It can be deployed in Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, or any web app. AtBot is trained by Microsoft Flow and gets its intelligence from Microsoft LUIS (Language Understanding Intelligence Service) and QnA Maker. Most people wish they had a 24/7 subject matter expert available in HR or Customer Service. They also want to be able to accomplish tasks automatically. AtBot quickly delivers the ability to do both and so much more – He truly is smart, and it is very fun to show him off!
What are you most proud of?
As noted above, demoing has been a core part of my job – 1:1 and 1: many. One of these demos was at the Washington DC MCI center (aka the Verizon center and now the Capital Center) There were about 5,000 people present for the DC launch of Office XP. I was showing off the cool new features in the products. One could say I was proud of being chosen to do this demo – but there was a little bit more that was surely not fun at the time. I was doing great and was 8 minutes into the scripted 12-minute demo and then PowerPoint hung – remember the old hourglass? This was also before the time of just switching over to prerecorded demos when there was a glitch. I was presenting with Sr VP of the Office Product group Jeff Raikes and he told me quietly through a smile (grimace?) “you have got to do something!”. Well, I continued the demo so to speak, explaining the rest of the features with my words and hand gestures, as I was done with my portion I smiled to him and audience, said thank you and then walked off stage (they then did switch to the next portion from behind the scenes) . Needless to say, I was quite upset – after working so hard and being prepared to have it go south! But, the feedback from my leadership and peers afterwards was extremely positive about how I handed the situation with class and professionalism. I am proud of that. It just goes to show that no matter how prepared you are, things happen! You can be sure I always have sympathy for any presenter who has demo issues! – I will add that my demo a few years after with Steve Balmer in front of 3000 Air Force Officers, personnel and Contractors went without a hitch.
Lisa’s Notes From the Demo!
Who do you consider your biggest supporter?
I feel very lucky that I have a great support network of Hugh, my friends and family both in and out of the IT industry. One person who was always my champion in the early days was my mom. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been around for a long while, but she always supported me in school and my first job. It is a little silly, but a fun story I like to tell is that my mom encouraged, ok made me, take a typing glass in high school during night classes. (yes, a real typewriter – no PCs at that time) She said I was on my own for typing college papers, she did all my High School ones. She never really knew that my fingers fly on a keyboard hours a day (first coding now all the communications in support of my job) thanks to her urging. But of course, there were many other ways she influenced and supported me. While very loving, she was also very practical and pushed me to be independent, work hard and do the best I can.
What attributes do you believe lead to success?
This is a bit of a tough question because everyone has their own definition of success. In the IT world, having knowledge and understanding of technology and business is of course key, but I think it is also important to admit when you don’t know something and then success is taking the steps to find the right answer and follow up with whoever you said “I don’t know’ to. No one knows everything, and a successful person isn’t afraid to admit that.
If you had one do-over, what would it be?
I definitely needed to think about this one. Of course, there are things I think most people wished were different/could do over. But, from a career perspective, as I look at this logically, I think all the steps that occurred helped take me to where I am today. If anything was changed or the ‘do over’, it would have branched to a different path and not have lead me to the happy place I am now. I have been lucky that all but one of my career decisions have been my own. I experienced one lay off in the later part of my career. During that time, I traveled to South Africa, took up yoga (which I wish I still practiced), met Hugh and explored a variety of options from my own consulting demo company, and at the different extreme, a DC tour company. But actually, I don’t think I would even ‘do this lay off over’ as it helped lead to where I am now in life – so no, I am ok with no do overs.
What do you want to learn more about? What new technology is exciting to you?
This may sound cliché, but I remain excited about the technology I am focused on because it grows and changes so quickly! People wondered how I stayed passionate working at Microsoft for 13 years on just “Office” but I was constantly getting to work on new versions with new features and new products. I have worked with SharePoint since 2001 and now still learning new things about SharePoint Online and Office 365 and all it offers. I am also delving into AI – I can talk, demo and even build smart bots! And no, when I left Microsoft I did not automatically buy a mac. I have been a pc person since 1984 – but I do get laughs when I say, that I can now “Google without guilt”. I think I was one of the very last Windows phone user – and only moved to IPhone because the Microsoft Teams app – critical to my job, would not work on my Windows 8 phone – so I had to get a new phone and went to Apple and yes, pretty good on my iPhone.
What are your thoughts on mentoring? Do you have a mentor? Do you mentor anyone?
I am lucky that one of my closet friends has also been a great mentor. Dana Simberkoff, is the Chief Risk, Privacy, and Information Security Officer at AvePoint. I believe a mentor is that safe person that both provides support, guidance and isn’t afraid to tell you at times things you may not want to hear. I have never formerly mentored anyone but hope that I have helped a number of people throughout my years informally –nieces, nephews, friend’s children and other peers – hopefully I was able to help them with ideas and guidance towards things in their careers or daily life.
What advice would you offer those who are just starting a career in IT?
I would say make sure you get hands on with whatever it is you are learning. It is important to read manuals, whitepapers, training guides, now blogs – but I always feel you learn the most from hands on experience – step through the product features, follow the instructions and create first what you are telling others to do – then you can put your stamp on it – I did this! Also don’t be afraid to try new things – just get started. For women, it has been stated many times, but take credit for what you do! It is fine to say when others have helped you or you are a part of a team, but if it is yours, take the credit, take the compliment and say thank you!
More of Lisa’s presentation Notes! (Notice SharePoint 2003 mentioned)