By Marisa Nadolny
Two unlikely interests fuel Lili Cheng’s work in computer sciences: design and human interaction, particularly with technology.
But it was her years as an architect that set the blueprint, so to speak, for her career at Microsoft headquarters in Redmund, Wash., where she is general manager of the software company’s FUSE Labs. FUSE—or Future Social Experiences—focuses on software and services that center on social connectivity and media-rich real-time experiences.
Cheng’s unique career path illustrates one of this Seattle resident’s main strategies for success: be flexible, follow your passion whatever it may be, and remain open to different opportunities.
“A lot of times doing different things really makes you stand out, because you can combine things in ways that other people can’t,” Cheng explains.
Cheng’s passions for math and design became clear to her at a young age. As a child, she applied her knack for visual problem-solving to the puzzles and pattern games she grew to love. Those skills, nurtured by an architect father and interior designer mother, eventually brought her to Cornell University in 1982 to study architecture. The field appealed to Cheng, because, as she says, “It does a really nice job of building beautiful things and thinking about how they can work.”
Cheng left Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a new interest—computers. Cheng says most architecture students in those days took computer science classes, and Cornell’s architecture school, at the time, housed the budding computer graphics department.
After graduation, Cheng went on to work for an architecture firm in Tokyo, where she was one of three women architects. She describes the experience as intense, noting the fairly traditional roles of women as secretaries in Japan’s corporate world. A few years later, Cheng took an architectural position in Los Angeles.
Future successes aside, Cheng’s career goals started to shift. As she looked around at her senior colleagues, she began to wonder if she still aspired to do the jobs they were doing. It became clear to her that she didn’t, and she made what she identifies as the hardest decision of her career, which was to leave architecture and return to school.
Cheng says, “When I left architecture, I remember it was this huge choice for me because I had this incredible experience working in Tokyo, I had worked in L.A. for this amazing place, I got to design buildings and people were like ‘Why are you leaving that?’… Everyone around you is an architect, so leaving the profession feels like you’re leaving your friends.”
Cheng landed in 1990 at New York University, where she earned a master’s degree in interactive telecommunications, a program that considers how design and technology can be combined—how they might “augment, improve, and bring meaning and delight into people’s lives,” according to NYU’s Tisch School of Arts website. Cheng cites Red Burns, the founder of the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program, as a mentor, who she says worked to encourage women to work in computer science.
“She’s one of most amazing people that I’ve met,” Cheng notes.
Cheng’s first job out of graduate school was at a little firm called Apple, in what would be an ideal fit for a former architect. Her first project involved development of QuickTimeVR (also known as QuickTime Virtual Reality), a program that stitches together images to create explorable panoramas of real and hypothetical places. Cheng’s team looked at how digital video applied to urban design—a combination of technology and architecture that she found liberating and exciting.
“It was really fun and creative to be designing public spaces that were online and very fluid,” Cheng notes. “I actually use all the skills that I learned as an architect all the time.”
Indeed, when Cheng moved on to Microsoft in 1995, she started to view her research on Windows as “a massive urban design project” in which several factors must be evaluated in terms of how they interact.
“There’s all these parts and systems coming together that you have to understand,” Cheng says. “You want to keep it simple but also very flexible.”
Simplicity and flexibility also apply to Cheng’s advice for students of all ages.
“Find something that you’re really passionate about. It could be anything. It doesn’t have to be math or science, or something that’s going to look good on your resume. … Finding your passion versus being a generalist is a skill that helps you throughout your life,” she says.
Cheng advises students still looking for their particular path to perhaps seek out a mentor.
“Find something that you care about and find out the mentors that you want to have. Ask yourself, if you could have anybody in the world be your mentor, who is that person?”
And technology, of course, makes it all the easier to find and interact with a prospective mentor, she notes.
If there’s one other takeaway lesson that Cheng’s career has taught her, it’s “extreme work-life balance.” As the mother of three boys, she has mastered the art of prioritization and advises her peers to nurture their personal lives in the same way they would their careers.
In the end, Cheng suggests that those who channel their true passions into a profession will meet with success on multiple levels.
“What I’ve always loved about my jobs is I’ve always felt like I’ve been able to be who I am,” she explains, “and as a result I think your work kind of naturally expresses that.”
Students with questions for Lili Cheng can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.