Ep 79: Nafisa Bhojawala: Anything You Choose to Learn CAN Be Learned

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Nafisa Bhojawala, Studio Chief for Cloud Design at Microsoft Corporation, leading multidisciplinary teams who empower fast-moving, agile product development cycles to maximize impact on Microsoft’s customer experience and business goals.

Nafisa, the daughter of an engineer dad, and an art teacher mom,  grew up in India, and then Dubai, UAE.  “My mother had a long career, and art was all around me.  My grandmother, my primary caregiver for years, was an artist.  We grew up, drawing, painting, working on embroidery; just basically making things! But I also did science and math, and I loved the clean rules of math and physics.  I learned to appreciate how the world works around me.”

When Nafisa chose her university major, she wanted to specialize in fine arts and study sculpture or painting. But her parents persuaded her to “pick a useful profession,” so her choice became architecture as she emigrated to Chicago to study at Illinois University of Technology, on scholarship. She spent one year, (“It was hard.  I learned a lot”) before she realized she was hooked on design, “looking at problems, and solving them, even on a smaller scale.” She loved graphics and product design, so she logically matriculated into the design school. “It was great experience for the breadth of topics I could explore.” Nafisa then discovered computer technology.  “I used it first as a tool, as a designer, but very soon I began running into these frustrating situations while using the computer,” which prompted her to think about how challenges could be circumvented, and processes transformed. The design school encouraged undergraduates to “break the problem down; look at different facets: the manufacturing side, the social and cultural side” of any challenge. She began “sketching out ways of doing it,” and, nudged by her faculty advisor, experienced a “Eureka moment.”   She took programming classes to “go deeper, to understand how code is written.” She feels very grateful to her university. “It was humbling to go through that university program. I had very talented colleagues. It made it exciting, but it also made it really hard to maintain grades.” Nafisa feels fortunate. “It was the mid-90’s. This field was emerging.”

Nafisa’s Capstone project was an interaction design endeavor: a learning tool targeted to high school students. To gain confidence to undertake it, she first accepted an internship at Morningstar, the respected global financial firm offering influential investment research/recommendations, managing over $200 billion in institutional assets, and providing software and data platforms for investment professionals.  There “I worked for close to a year on a CD-ROM project,” Nafisa said. “They were converting their stock data into an information tool that financial planners could use. It was the first time I was working as a young designer, figuring out how to apply my visual skills to interaction design.”  While she benefited from her internship (“a very enriching experience”), she also pointed out that confidence can be gained through self-directed projects and noted “it is a different learning environment, now --- there are so many online tools” for education.

After obtaining her university degree, Nafisa joined The Doblin Group, a global innovation firm dedicated to solving complex problems through rigorous interdisciplinary approach.  “They do phenomenal work.” It was another evolutionary experience for her – “their work is very diverse, and I got to sample a whole bunch of things. I learned how to do research there; apply business strategy to problems.”  It was there that Nafisa realized it was important to delve deeply into interaction design and came to the realization that “I like to design things that become real, and that I can see people using.” After the “dot.com” bust, Nafisa decided that “I was only going to look for design interaction jobs.  That's what I like to do.”

Through a friend, 19 years ago, Nafisa successfully interviewed for a design position at Microsoft. She has contributed to that company, ever since. “It has been quite a nurturing place for me,” Nafisa said. “When I joined my team, I felt like I had found my tribe: very talented people, supportive of each other. I had a great manager, and a fantastic mentor.  I could learn everything!” As she has moved into more senior leadership, she has come to the realization that “it takes a lot of work. It takes a culture that supports growth and exploration…where people feel like they can take creative risks, and actually try things.” Nafisa grew in design expertise; was promoted to team leader in a few years; and then wanted to learn more about program management.  “As designers, we work very closely with program managers,” she said. “It’s a technical role at Microsoft as well as a generalist role. I was fascinated by the dynamics of it: where can you be to make the most difference to the customer experience.” She took the role on, and flourished, although “it was a very difficult shift.”

In making the shift to program management, one of the lessons for Nafisa was realizing that she needed to “lean on others.”  The key was also “being humble about it: being a learner,” she said. She practiced reaching out, asking for help, insight and advice.  And “that has served me quite well,” Nafisa exclaimed. “Now I’m not afraid of pivoting. If I’m in that situation, I can figure it out. “  One of her revelations has been that early in her career she focused on how to get things done, (“because you need to perfect your craft”) but later in her career, she has had to “focus on the big picture, because I needed to solve bigger problems, that were more ambiguous.”  For that, she required the assistance of others. She takes pride in the fact that she feels comfortable “being the person who asks the stupid question.” That exercise often results in pinpointing the most innovative solutions. “I have to ask: how does this matter? And I must think about people, above all.”

For example, working on Microsoft Azure (Microsoft’s primary cloud platform providing a full portfolio of technical services for IT developers) as a program manager, Nafisa realized that there was a “weak link:  the customer research piece.” Azure now comprises 75 different cloud services, that form the basis for the management of all cloud applications. Accessing customer feedback was a complex issue as the product line was being developed. “There were various stakeholders, timelines were crazy, and we did not have resources.” This propelled Nafisa to join Microsoft’s customer experience team, another pivot in her career. In less than 6 months, she had created and led a “high trust” team, to “do research at a very fast clip;” and work with diverse user “personas” encompassing developers and IT professionals, to ensure high feature quality and useful deliverables across a decentralized product set.  Azure is robust and successful in part “because we figured out how to pump data through our decision-making process, from the time we decide what we want to build to actually building something.”

“I’m a big believer in making connections and investing in those connections” whether it be an academic setting, an informal educational setting, or a formal corporate setting, Nafisa emphasized. “Think about who are the other people around you” who do the kind of work you want to do, or from whom you can learn.  “Reach out to your friends who would know a design practitioner. See if they can give a couple of hours to critique your work.” She also advised designers to get feedback from end-users, members of the audience for whatever they are working on. “When you are in a company, you have stakeholders, partners, engineers” to be your validation audience “and you have your customers! All these people make you smarter about what you are doing. “

Nafisa has now moved to lead the UX (User Experience) for Microsoft’s Power BI (Business Intelligence), PowerApps, and Flow tools designed to elegantly provide the highest level of productivity to developers and others deploying BI rules inside the enterprise. “I have been focused on business insights, and how to enable people to build apps and automation,” in a simple way.  “Now we are adding artificial intelligence and machine learning. The responsiveness of systems is just at another level. You suddenly feel like you have more power, working for you.” She foresees a world where “you don’t have to think about” the mundane everyday tasks.  They can be automated for you.

Nafisa acknowledged: “I have a need to create. Art has always been the place I go to, my sanctuary.  It has, also, been a way for me to connect to a very different community, that I would not be connecting with in business. I am inspired by other artists, doing amazing things in their lives.” Her art “informs” her career and vice versa, and has taught her useful leadership precepts:

  1. When you start something new, “be optimistic about the process and the outcome.”

  2. “Pour your soul into it.”

  3. “Take risks along the way. Once you get comfortable in your space, think of what you can do differently to raise it up. When you do that, it becomes a habit. “

  4. “Recover from the failures you encounter.  You will discover you are very resilient. You know more than you think you do.”

Nafisa also characterized her art as essential because “It helps me understand the ‘creatives’ I manage. It is a journey all of us go through.”

As a busy mother, as well as business leader/artist, Nafisa achieves balance by “not thinking about perfection.” Instead she works on doing a little bit better each time and brings heightened awareness to each project.  And “I lean on others,” she said. “My partner who has an equally busy and chaotic work-life is my partner in parenting, too.” She stressed that “we can all be present in all parts of our lives, if we have a strong community to work with, that we trust.” Additionally, she said: “I am very selective about what I spend time on.  I am a little bit ruthless, setting those boundaries.” Nafisa’s final piece of wisdom was simply “anything you choose to learn, can be learned. You get to decide. But keep doing it, because that is how you keep growing.”

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Diva Tech Talk Team

Podcast Divas