Working Geek: Microsoft’s Harini Gokul looks for women to have more impact, but not more pressure

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Harini Gokul hiking in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. (Gokul Family Photo)

Microsoft’s Harini Gokul is eager for women to excel in their careers and in charitable work, finding the places where they can have the greatest impact. But she also doesn’t want to add to their burden and guilt as they juggle jobs, family and life.

“None of us need more pressure in our lives,” Gokul said. “I don’t need anyone to tell me to do more.”

Gokul, who has been at Microsoft for more than a decade, is director of partner cloud strategy. She manages a program that helps Microsoft’s partners build and grow profitable businesses in the cloud. Partners are companies that work with businesses, nonprofits and institutions, supporting them in the use of Microsoft products and services in wide ranging ways.

Gokul urges women to think carefully about what they want to accomplish and target those goals. She also reminds herself that she doesn’t have to do everything at once, and was able to take time off when her son was born nearly four years ago to focus on being a mom.

“These are cycles,” she said. “I’ve stepped back from things knowing that I’ll step back in a few years.”

In addition to her career at Microsoft, Gokul is on the board of Tiny Trees Preschool, a non-profit providing affordable, outdoor-focused education in the greater Seattle area, and is active with Washington Women’s Foundation and Seattle Venture Partners, two philanthropic grant-making organizations.

We caught up with Gokul for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: Lenovo ThinkPad and Surface

Mobile devices: Recently switched to an iPhone SE, but miss my Windows Phone!

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “Venmo for easy money transfers. I like the idea of getting closer to a cash-less, check-less society. In Europe, I got used to the convenience of electronic banking and instant wire transfers across the EU. It was an adjustment coming back to the U.S. and starting to use checks again. Sway has been my most recent discovery. I love the stories you can tell with Sway. Power BI appeals to my inner data analytics geek.”

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “My current workspace is a simple, clutter-free desk in an open space environment. I love the collaborative nature of working in an open space. But in this new age of work, the days of being tied to a desk and a dedicated space are over. I work from everywhere as long as I have a device and connectivity. Have phone, can work!

When I worked for Microsoft in Western Europe, we had the flexibility to work from home while not on the road (when you work with 13 countries, you are on the road a lot). My workspace at home in Amsterdam was a desk by the windows overlooking the canal, watching the boats go by.”

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “There are two lessons I live by and I wish I had started practicing this earlier in life. The first is, life is a marathon, not a sprint. Understanding my long-term goals helped me be intentional in what I wanted to do, how I wanted to spend my time and who I wanted to spend it with.

Second, enjoy the ride. The Indian academic environment is a very results-based, competitive culture. It took me years to slow down and enjoy the ride and take some adventures. One of those detours took me to Europe where I had some of the most fulfilling years of my professional life and met my husband, so all in all, I recommend the road less taken.”

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “LinkedIn is my preferred network for business/work. It is the app I start with every day. I find that LinkedIn is a virtuous cycle where the more I invest, the more meaningful connections I make and the more I am able to give back.”

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “Less than 100. One of my managers gave me some invaluable advice. She said, ‘Microsoft did not hire you to respond to emails, we hired you to get things done.’ That has been my guiding mantra for a long time now — I focus on where I can truly make a difference and move the needle. And if an email chain starts to become long, I switch to a discussion over phone or even better, face to face.”

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “25 to 30 meetings. I prefer a conversation/meeting versus email, so I tend to have more meetings. I feel I accomplish more in a discussion.”

How do you run meetings? “Two things: set expectations and be outcome based. Time is one of our most valuable commodities and I want to make sure we are making the best use of everyone’s time. I like to state expectations and outcome upfront so everyone knows why we are there.

In our environment, where many of the participants can be on the phone and across geographies/cultures/time zones, it is important we are intentional about soliciting inputs and comments from folks in the room and on the phone. All voices need to be heard.”

Everyday work uniform? “I only wear dresses and 90 percent of my wardrobe consists of Marimekko dresses. I got introduced to Marimekko when working in Finland and find that their pieces capture my personality pretty well — bright and punchy with a sense of tradition. I find that a dress is the simplest outfit, just one piece and ready to go. Especially now that I have a 3-year-old, I am all about efficiency.”

How do you make time for family? “Family is my number one priority. I find that being disciplined and planning ahead are key. We are very disciplined in looking at calendars and marking important milestones, for family and at work. And then we work to achieve that.

I am fortunate to have flexibility in my work. Thanks to this new world of work, it means that while there are days that I jump on a 6 a.m. call for work, I can then also leave early to pick up my son from school.

My husband and I moved here from Europe two years ago and we have intentionally tried to retain the European sensibility. This translates into things like weekends and vacations being sacred time, where we are truly offline and unplugged.”

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “The outdoors and my reading. We are big hikers and get outdoors every weekend. I also always have a stack of books and newspapers on my bedside table. The outdoors and my books are a good reminder of the world out there, of what is really important and helps puts things in perspective, helps me differentiate the urgent versus the important.”

What are you listening to? “‘Peter and the Wolf’ thanks to my 3-year-old! I generally like classical music and opera.”

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “I love my newspapers: Financial Times, New York Times and the Guardian are must reads. Favorite sites and magazines include the Economist, The New Yorker and GeekWire, of course! I love the Skimm app for a quick update.”

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “I have an ever-changing stack of books. The latest includes ‘Adaptive Markets’ by Andrew Lo, ‘Hit Refresh’ by Satya Nadella and ‘L’appart’ by David Lebovitz on buying a home in Paris — one can always dream!”

Night owl or early riser? “Night owl for sure. But I function best when I sleep well, so we are in bed early on weekdays.”

Where do you get your best ideas? “Walking, the outdoors.”

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “There are many people I learn from, professionally and personally. But I think you have to create a work style that works for you, plays to your strengths and opportunities.

My role models tend to be people who are curious, have a passion and willing to take risks, go off the beaten path. And this may sound surprising but Agatha Christie, the English crime writer is one of my role models. In an era when respectable women did not really pursue professions, she created a very successful career. She led life on her own terms, overcoming personal setbacks to go on and have a successful career (including writing about archaeology when she was in her mid 60s).”

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