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Profile: Lucy Sanders

Microsoft Research Community Partner

CEO and co-founder, National Center for Women & Information Technology

Focus: Encouraging young women to pursue degrees and careers in computer science
Education: B.S. in computer science, Louisiana State University; M.S. in computer science, University of Colorado

Illuminating the Power of Technology Careers for Young Women

People often compare a sudden revelation in their lives to a light bulb turning on. But for Lucy Sanders, it was actually an LED.

Lucy Sanders, Microsoft Research Community PartnerLucy Sanders, Microsoft Research Community Partner In 1978, fresh out of the University of Colorado with a master’s degree in computer science, Sanders was working at the prestigious AT&T (now Alcatel-Lucent) Bell Labs in Denver. Although she had received top grades and several awards throughout college, “I wasn’t really in love with computing yet,” she says.

“Then I got to write some software that, when you picked up the handset of a phone, made this little light go from red to green,” Sanders recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh—look at that!’ The power of computing finally hit me. I wasn’t writing a program for class to get a good grade. I was doing something real in the world.”

Sanders went on to earn the Bell Labs Fellows Award in 1996 for her work on leading-edge software architectures for telecommunications, including an operating system called Oryx/Pecos that helped pave the way for the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in enterprise telephony systems. A named inventor on six technology patents, Sanders was inducted into the Women in Technology International organization’s Hall of Fame in 2007.

As co-founder and CEO for the nonprofit National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), Sanders’ passion these days is encouraging girls and women to study computer science and pursue careers in information technology. “Women make up half the world’s population, they use technology as much as men, and they are innovative technical thinkers,” says Sanders. “So if we want the best technology that we can get, we need diversity at the design table.”

“Women make up half the world’s population, they use technology as much as men and they are innovative technical thinkers. So if we want the best technology that we can get, we need diversity at the design table.”

The challenge is that few women choose to pursue college degrees in computer science or professional careers in information technology. In much the same way that she became fervent about technology only after college, Sanders believes that many students—women and men—struggle to see the real-world value of pursuing a computer science degree. To address this challenge, NCWIT is partnering with more than 170 universities, corporations and nonprofit organizations on a range of programs that Sanders says can “show how computing can unlock people’s passion and enable them to solve society’s most complex problems.”

Microsoft provided startup funding for NCWIT when it was launched in 2004 and has been a strong supporter ever since, contributing $1 million in 2006 to help NCWIT raise awareness of women’s positive impact on the IT industry and improve the image of computer science. Through the organization’s Academic Alliance Seed Fund, sponsored by Microsoft Research, NCWIT provides up to US$15,000 for educational projects aimed at recruiting and retaining women in technology fields. Microsoft External Research also helps fund NCWIT’s Aspirations in Computing Award program for high school girls and supports NCWIT’s yearly national conference involving more than 100 organizations.

“Having the support of Microsoft, a worldwide leader in research, sends a strong message that diversity of thought is essential to innovation,” says Sanders. “And technology research is one of the areas where we most want to attract more women.”

Likewise, she says NCWIT’s success flows from its diverse academic, industry, government, and nonprofit partners.

“We are at a tipping point in our mission to promote greater opportunities and advancement for women in computing,” says Sanders. “So many good-spirited people and organizations are working to make progress on this issue. I just have the honor of helping to orchestrate it all.”