(Internship) Musings: Finding and maintaining productive side hustles

I may be at Microsoft, which is often identified as an engineering company first and foremost, but I would not consider myself a techie.  For this reason, I was nervous to intern at Microsoft because I didn’t feel like an engineer at heart or in practice. In fact, my three favorite things are 1) storytelling, 2) higher education, and 3) supportive communities marked by diversity and inclusion as central values. For the past three years, I’ve leveraged these values and empower underrepresented voices through my work a reporter, writing tutor, and educator – but journalism stands out as the thing that changed my life.

Journalism as a conduit for meaningful conversations:

My love for reporting started two years ago when I mistook the journalist application for my school newspaper, The Daily of the University of Washington, for the application to be a photographer.  From that moment, I jumped straight into the world of AP Style and [CQ]s and never looked back. Since I often have autonomy over what I wanted to write about, I chose to tell stories about culture and higher education and programs that strive to address differential access to educational resources. Too often, voices of marginalized communities are overlooked in the media, but I wanted to bring these stories to the forefront of our news coverage.

Through my work, I’ve realized that being a good reporter starts by getting out of the way and letting people share their own perspective. So, whenever I chat with people, I try to create space for people to share their story honestly, only prompting them with reassuring nods or follow-up questions about experiences or moments have influenced their beliefs.  When I started doing this, I realized that people want to share the most vulnerable parts to share, and an interview might be the first time that they have space to do so. I’ve had countless conversations where people will tell me about moments where they’ve felt overlooked or excluded as well as times that they’ve finally made a difference in their communities. Being a journalist has challenged by perceptions about what it means to be an undocumented student or commuter or foster care youth thanks to conversations with people who experience these identities on an everyday basis.

Projecting forward to interning at Microsoft:

Armed with these stories, active listening skills, and curiosity, I felt prepared to conduct meaningful 1:1s and informational interviews with my role models at Microsoft. I was able to ask good questions about people’s motivations, measures of success, and long-term goals while gaining some insight about my own professional identity. So, journalism, storytelling, and higher education may not traditionally be associated with a Microsoft intern, but they are central to who I am.

I am convinced that even if you do not pursue journalism as a field, every profession is all about stories. We are always trying to put the pieces of our lives together in the most vivid way, or create compelling narratives about the products we create so a target audience will engage with it; however, didn’t occur to me until I started my internship that my journalism background – not my major or ability to create efficient algorithms – is what made me a competitive applicant. This became apparent when I heard Dona Sarkar, head of the Windows Insider Program, discussed the value of productive side hustles. During her talk, she outlined how she started out software engineer and worked her way up, but people often remember her for her pursuit of fashion design, writing, and entrepreneurship in addition to her technical work. In other words, her unconventional interests, and fervor in pursuing them, makes her stand out – side note, check out this article from Microsoft Story Labs if you want to read more about her interesting background.

Dona inspired me to validate my journalism skills and see them as a strength. To be honest, journalism hasn’t always been my full-time job, but it’s helped me feel like I’m creating something that wasn’t temporary. This became apparent to me when talking with August Niehaus, a UX voice designer on Cortana who studied journalism during her undergrad. At the end of our conversation, August commented that I had great questions and kept the conversation moving while still being engaged in the conversation. I’m convinced that hearing this from a fellow journalist, and someone who looks for the intersection between writing and technology, made me sit up a little bit straighter. It’s cool to know that I’m in the right business, and I’m thankful every day that journalism helps me craft compelling stories that capture someone’s voice and priorities. And I’m even more lucky that I get to have these conversations as part of my job, and the view from the 25th floor of the Microsoft City Center made it all even more worth it. I feel empowered and excited and inspired to be surrounded by people who are blazing trails in their field in voice design and hold themselves to high standards everyday.

Making room for side hustles:

Being at Microsoft has taught me that flexing these skills and developing strengths in related fields is always valuable because it offers a fresh perspective or new approach to problems. So, don’t quit your day job but keep those side hustles active. Here are some of Dona Sarkar’s tips to have productive yet life-giving side hustles:

  1. Make some room, and think deeply about how you spend your time: What do you really value, and what do you want to learn more about it? Be intentional about making time for these skills
  2. Once you identify a potential side hustle or area of interest, run a small experiment to test drive the experience: Test drive your interest by volunteering at an event or attending a class. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll learn something about if it’s a fit. Experiments are always successful because they teach you something, so give yourself a chance to try out new experiences! My favorite way to do this is to take interesting classes that will help me new skills like website design, public speaking, and memoir writing!
  3. Hustle the experts: Find people who need your skills and expertise, and evangelize the things you can offer to others. This can help you identify next-steps to level up your skills, and you’ll start to build a network of people who can help you achieve your goals! Bonus points if you’re able to bridge different fields of interest – you’ll be able to offer a fresh perspective on both!

I’ve realized that I don’t need a perfectly crafted narrative that follows a linear narrative to be successful in the tech industry. Interesting side hustles are a strength, so keep searching for opportunities to keep your skills active and relevant. Now, I recognize that my identity as an interdisciplinary storyteller with a passion for social impact, inclusion, and higher education might be the secret sauce that helped me land this internship. I believe that I am here because I bring all of those perspectives to the table, and I don’t have to spend my time “proving” myself as someone else. I want to write all the time, engage in meaningful conversation, and remember that my work is all about serving people, and my internship honors these interests and allows me to do them every day. I was chosen to be at Microsoft because my other interests make me a valuable asset to my team, and so were you.

So, what are your side hustles, and how do you make room for them? On the flip side, what skills that you want to make room for?

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