New Microsoft Board Member Maria Klawe on Bill Gates, College Students, and Seattle Innovation

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‘You must have some questions.’ It was a great meeting. Then I didn’t hear anything for two months. But then I got another phone call, and Microsoft wanted me to meet with their governance and nominating committee in February. These are fabulous people, wonderful people to talk with.

Then Steve Ballmer’s son was visiting Pomona [College], so Steve made an appointment to talk with me. There were checks of independence, to make sure I’d qualify as an independent director. I’m going to learn a ton.

X: In the Microsoft announcement, Bill Gates said your “close connection to university students and the way they shape computing trends will bring an important perspective to the board.” Can you talk about that perspective and why it’s important for Microsoft?

MK: For all technology companies, especially in areas of fast moving technologies, college students are the first to really take up new technologies. They also drive the development of new technologies. Look at the Google guys doing a search engine while they were students at Stanford. There are lots of other examples where students and faculty work together. Mudd is small and has amazingly talented students. I know most of their names, and I talk with them about what’s important to them. I live on the campus and have a better sense of what they’re excited about. That’s hard to do if you’re a senior executive at Microsoft.

For example, about a year and a half ago, I finally went on Facebook. I don’t ask current students to friend me, but after they graduate, I will ask. We have an a cappella group called Midnight Echo, a group that runs across the five Claremont Colleges. I got an invitation on Facebook to attend one of their concerts, and it turned out we were the only non-students to attend. What’s interesting is, with this Microsoft announcement, I’m getting e-mails from all over—but from former students, it’s almost all from Facebook.

It helps to know what motivates students to do things and not do things. I have a good sense of how much time students are working on laptops, and the different roles that cell phones and mobile devices are playing.

X: Which leads to my next question. In his statement, Steve Ballmer said you bring “a solid grasp of the technologies that will be important to Microsoft’s future growth opportunities,” as well as “long term vision and focus.” Which technologies do you see as most important to Microsoft’s future?

MK: I can’t comment on that. But I can talk about the technologies that interest me. I’m really interested in serious games . There are huge opportunities in areas of healthcare and the lives of elders. I’m also very interested in [Internet] search and what happens to search eventually. We’re just at the beginning of what search will mean in our lives. It’s a blend of mathematics, algorithms, economics, sociology—a fascinating interdisciplinary mix that you need to have to make progress.

I’m interested in the convergence of technologies. [Klawe notes that she has multiple game consoles like Sony PSPs, Xbox, and others.] I’ve done research in games, but I’m also genuinely interested. My son is constantly trying to get me to play what he thinks are interesting games, like Prince of Persia 2008. He said, ‘Mom, this is such a forgiving and easy game.’ I actually finished it—it was good except for the fighting parts. So, I’m interested in the convergence of TV, games, cell phones, mobile devices, and tons of other things on the consumer experience side.

X: I noticed your top three company-board choices were all based in the Northwest, or have major operations here. What are your thoughts on technology innovation in the region?

MK: It seems like the Northwest corridor from Portland up to Vancouver is continuing to hum. I had an interesting conversation with Google. Google wanted to invest more in … Next Page »

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