Jennifer Byrne was the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft US. She infused innovation practices into Microsoft’s technical field teams which led to high-value and well-publicized digital transformation strategies with top global companies. Now, she is an independent advisor, speaker, and author.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up on an island in Puget Sound not far from Seattle. My Mother moved us there in the seventies because she was looking for a small community where she experiments with alternative ways of living. We became vegetarians and did a bunch of new-age stuff. Even in the quirky community where we lived, we were pretty unusual. I was also half-Japanese in a mostly white town. Through those experiences, I learned early in life how to be comfortable feeling and looking different from everybody else.
On top of that, my family didn’t have a lot of money, so I got my first job at a Shell Gas Station when I was thirteen. By the time I was fourteen I was fixing flat tires and changing the oil in cars. As a girl in that era, I was doing things that most people thought that I either couldn’t or shouldn’t do. I’m not sure why I never doubted my abilities, but I didn’t. I just threw myself into whatever challenge was in front of me. This was when I first made the connection between working hard and believing in yourself and achieving success in life.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Because I’d become financially independent at the same time I graduated from high school, I never felt like I had any room for error. I worked two or more jobs through college and even as I became successful, I always felt the anxiety of being poor. I wish I had learned how to let go of some of that fear so that I could have made decisions based less on achieving financial security and more geared toward personal passions. I don’t know if I would have made different career decisions, but I might have felt better about the decisions I did make.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
There is a myth around the need to achieve deep expertise in a given area or function in order to be considered for a promotion or a bigger job. People often spend too many years in roles they don’t like because they think they need a certain amount of experience in any one thing before they can move on to the next. However given how fast technology is everything, it no longer makes sense to toil away at something you don’t like. It is much better to build a broad set of experiences that allow you to be agile and adaptable as the world changes.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
By the time I’d gotten to a mid-level management position in the tech industry, I was totally burned out. I’d been so focused on achieving the success I’d lost sight of the fact that I didn’t actually like the work I was doing. My marriage was also falling apart, and my kids needed more of my time than I was able to give them.
I did an incredibly impulsive thing and fired off an “I quit” email to my boss while we were on a conference call with colleagues from all around the country. It was hardly a practical decision, but it did give me a lot of time to think about where my life was going and what I wanted to do. I started a small business and a year later, went back to the tech industry in a new role that was more aligned to the kind of work that brought me joy.
My personal life had also been disrupted pretty radically during that time period, and as a result of all of the changes I went through I felt like I was able to let go of an old version of myself. The version I let go had helped me achieve a lot up to that point, but it was no longer able to help me get to where I needed to go next.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Since that first gas station job when I was thirteen, I have been very clear about the tremendous value of hard work. I learned that more than talent or credentials, it is the key to the achievement of almost any goal, whether personal or professional.
The ability to apply myself to tasks that are beyond my current skill level, and not be afraid of hard work, is what has given me the confidence to always push myself outside of my comfort zone. I know that no matter how unqualified I might be at the start of something new, I can always work my way toward competency and success.
What is your morning routine?
My alarm is always set for 6:15 AM but I often get up much earlier as long as I’ve gotten at least seven hours of sleep. I give myself about an hour for black coffee and meditation so that I can ground myself for the day. I think about my broader goals, from my life purpose down to what I want to achieve that week. That way I’m able to sort through the myriad tasks in my day and make sure that I’m always working toward a bigger mission.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I’ve started taking a very holistic view of health. I think of my physical, mental, and spiritual health as all connected. For example, my physical health is no longer just measured by a number on a scale and how many workouts I squeezed in that week. I pay more attention to how I actually feel and what I need to do to keep myself in a good place. That could include diet and exercise, but it also includes meditation, stretching, yoga, reading, learning, and time with friends.
As I get older I realize that my body is only a part of who I am and that overall health is the key to getting the most out of my time here on earth.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I always align tasks to goals. I focus less on completing tasks than making progress against goals. There are always too many tasks than time in the day to do them and getting too focused on a to-do list is a recipe for getting overwhelmed. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many tasks I accomplished: meetings, calls, reports, etc. What matters is that I spent my time in alignment with my goals, my values, and my broader purpose in life.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
“Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden was very influential for me at a time when I was trying to learn how to be a better, happier, and more effective person. It provided a very comprehensive overview of the internal and external factors that influence a healthy sense of self. Not only did this book inform many of my views about myself, but I also happened to read it right before I was promoted into my first management position at a tech company. It gave me an understanding of how to help people overcome their own self-doubts and inner negativity as they worked to build their careers.
I read, “Reality is Not What it Seems” by Carlo Rovelli about five years ago when Quantum Computing was starting to become a more mainstream topic in the tech world. I realized that I needed a very thorough review of science and physics in order to keep up in my own industry. The book is a great overview of physics, written for non-math people. However more than that, Carlo Rovelli is a master at telling the human story of science which I think is an extraordinarily important thing to do these days as the world gets more digital. We need to remember that technology is just a reflection of the people who created it. Although we don’t think of it this way, it is in a sense, a very human thing.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
The quote that has always been on my desk is from the philosopher Thomas Merton: “Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.” It is a daily reminder to me that the most important contribution I can make to others is to be my best and truest self. It is also a reminder that each of us is already enough, just as we are.
The other quote that I look at daily is from Mahatma Gandhi, “My life is my message.” I think life ought to be a series of adventures, and those adventures don’t have to follow any particular order or theme. We don’t have to follow a plan that we wrote for ourselves early in life. It is OK to change course or change careers, or perspectives. In the end, the greatest gift to be given in life is the ability to live it freely and fully.