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‘What in the world am I doing here?’ - Amanda Finney’s Journey from the White House to Microsoft

Below is an article originally written by Candace Whitney-Morris at PowerToFly Partner Microsoft, and published on April 11, 2018. Go to Microsoft's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.

Editor's note: We sat down with Amanda Finney to talk about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the unexpected path that led her to Microsoft. She tells this story in her own words.

Eighteen months ago, I was sitting in the Hillary Clinton campaign office, furiously making phone calls. When I wasn't making calls, I was canvasing neighborhoods and talking to people in their homes about issues that they really cared about.

Speaking up and fighting for human rights is a key part of my background and was a topic of conversation at our dinner table while I was growing up. My uncle was a chief in the Cherokee nation, and I served as an ambassador of Cherokee culture as Miss Cherokee of South Carolina. My grandfather on the other side of my family was the first Black chief justice of South Carolina. I was always told that you have to know who you are and where you've been in order to know where you are going.

These are spaces I've been most familiar with and comfortable in—political circles, community activism.

Amanda Finney shakes hands with Hillary Clinton, whose campaign she volunteered for in 2017.

That's probably why, on my first day working at Microsoft last year, I was freaking out. I asked myself, what in the world am I doing here? I had no corporate or technology background—everything for me up until that point had been about communications and media. Although, if I reflect on my history, I can definitely see the threads of connection that eventually led me here.

"You have to know who you are and where you've been in order to know where you are going."

When I was young, I dreamed I would become a political correspondent or an on-camera broadcast journalist. In college, I got a White House internship handling the correspondence for the first family. I would open hundreds of letters daily from Gulf Coast children during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, and I'd read every single one. Reading these stories written in their own small handwriting broke my heart. I selected 10 letters a day for then-President Barack Obama to read.

When the Obama 2012 reelection campaign rolled around, and I distinctly remember telling myself that I was darn sure not going to miss this chance. I wasn't old enough to vote the first time Obama took office, and I felt like I missed out on an important moment in time. The campaign work felt like a calling, a movement. One of my main objectives was to excite and mobilize members of my generation, as well as go around and listen to the stories of the community. I kept hearing story after story that connected people to each other.

Amanda Finney worked on the Obama 2012 campaign in the state of Virginia, listening to voters tell their stories and mobilizing members of her generation to do the same.

After the election, I joined Teach for America. I found myself in charge of 30 students, kids with little to no resources, hearing their stories and getting to know their struggles firsthand, which connected me to their lives in such a powerful way.

By 2015, I was back on the campaign trail again, but this time for Hillary Clinton as her state director for Louisiana. It was my job to make sure that the people who wrote to Hillary got a response. Being the go-between for her and the American people was an amazing experience.

I remember that a mother and daughter wrote to Hillary to thank her for work on the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The daughter was born deaf, and without CHIP, the family wouldn't have been able to afford her early intervention. Now, that daughter is going to college. We made a video of that story; to this day, I cannot watch it without crying.

While that work is very different from what I am doing now, I've noticed that there's a common thread, and that's the power of individual stories to connect humans. You don't realize the effect a bill in Congress can have on someone's life until you hear from those people who are impacted. When you hear a powerful personal story, it doesn't matter what you believe in or who you vote for: what you see is the American story of how something helped keep a family together. We are all the same, we are all human, we are all doing the same kinds of things every day.

So how did I end up at Microsoft?

After the election, I had a moment where I didn't know the next move. I knew I wanted a different experience than politics so I could expand my skill set, but I wasn't sure what it was other than it would be in communications. I heard about a position on a new team called Windows Community. They seemed to be spinning up like a grassroots movement. And that sounded familiar to me.

I worried whether my skills would translate, but one thing the elections taught me is that anything is possible—the good and the bad—and I decided I couldn't rule out any opportunity. I interviewed and got the position.

"We are all the same, we are all human, we are all doing the same kinds of things every day."

Now I get to connect everyday customers to the engineers who make Windows, so that they can learn from each other just like Obama got connected to the Gulf Coast kids or people in Louisiana felt heard by Hillary. Knowing the story behind the product, or the story of the person behind an idea or product, brings value to the user and helps facilitate understanding, just like in politics and community activism.

Although coming to work for a technology company seemed at first like a sharp turn for me, I see now that I can use the power of storytelling here, too. It's the stories, it's always the stories, that connect us all.

Microsoft Corporation

Talking trash with the first lady of online gaming

Meet Alex Hebert, Creative Producer (Xbox), of Microsoft

Below is an article originally written by Jennifer Warnick, of PowerToFly Partner Microsoft. Go Microsoft's Page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.

Xbox employees consider it gauche to be photographed in front of the Halo Reach statue on the Microsoft campus.

It's fine for tourists to "ooh" and "aah" over the larger-than-life soldiers of Noble Team. It's even fine for visitors to linger for an awkwardly long time, hell-bent on creating the perfect selfie with Master Chief. But if you work there? If you work there, show some restraint, man. There's no quicker way to be labeled a noob.

"Don't get me wrong, when you first get hired, everybody does it," says Alexis Hebert, a creative producer for Xbox and formerly an internationally ranked Halo player. "But you get your picture in the early morning, or late at night."

Yet here is Hebert being photographed in front of Halo's stoic heroes in broad light on a Friday afternoon. She's enduring no shortage of teasing and laughter from coworkers passing through the bustling atrium of the building where she works.

"Eh, these guys are my friends," Hebert says, smiling even more broadly for the camera after a coworker walks by laughing and shaking his head. Between takes, she sticks her tongue out at another of her tormentors.

Hebert is a pint-sized woman with silver screen looks, but you'll rarely catch her using them in any serious way. She laughs often, sports a mischievous smile, favors comfortable clothes, and her long, dark hair is usually in a ponytail. She's a tomboy – a woman comfortable being one of the guys, but also one who could probably out-guy most of the guys, especially with an Xbox controller.

"I think they're all just now figuring out why my hair is brushed today."

Hebert has loved video games since she was knee-high to one of the many horses at her family home in Louisiana. She dreamed of landing a job at Xbox since she was a teenager, blasting her way up the ranks of professional Halo players.

During a recent office move, a couple of years into landing that dream job, Hebert's manager circulated a map of the new space assignments. Each office was labeled with an employee's name, but one square said, "Unicorn Den."

Hebert pointed to the square. "What's that?"

"That's your office."

Hebert's unicorn den is packed. There's a massive flat-screen TV and a video camera on a tripod pointed at a green, leather loveseat (for streaming game play online). There are photos, video game knickknacks and lots of unicorn paraphernalia (mostly gifts – when people see unicorn stuff, they buy it for her). One wall sports a large, framed photograph of Hebert and her coworkers taken at a mall portrait studio and posed in the style of an awkward family photo. They are wearing holiday sweaters, but she is wearing what appears to be something Stevie Nicks gave to Goodwill.

"Oh, that's something we do every year," Hebert says. Around the holidays, when work is a bit quieter, she and her coworkers head to JCPenney for a long lunch. Each person gets $20 and an hour to pick out a festive outfit, then they get a "family photo." Some years it's matching sweaters, other years it's pajamas and robes.

Around the office, she's known for her work ethic, her ideas, her sense of humor, her bizarre eating habits, and her practical jokes – probably in about that order.

"I can promise you, you've never met anybody like Alex. We're all unique individuals, but she is something much more extreme. And I mean that in a very positive way," says Aaron Greenberg, chief of staff for Microsoft's Devices and Studios team. Greenberg met Hebert at a gaming industry event years ago, when she was still a pro Halo player.

Greenberg says it's not uncommon to wander by her office at lunchtime and see her eating corn or black olives or pie filling straight from the can. Her bottom drawer is full of cans of vegetables and pie filling (mainly cherry and apple – key lime was a disappointment).

"Alex has some pretty disturbing dietary habits. She literally will sit in her office and eat a can of olives with hot sauce for lunch," Greenberg says. He gave her a case of black olives for her last birthday.

Hebert, who is now seven months pregnant with her first child, swears she has drastically reformed her eating habits of late.

"Yeah, exactly, she's now eating olives for two," Greenberg jokes.

Apart from her Fear Factor-style eating habits, Hebert is also an Ashton Kutcher-grade prankster. There was the time she left a stack of dog-eared romance novels, the kind you'd find at the grocery store checkout, on a coworker's desk. Another time, she set out a package of Oreos for the team who realized, only after helping themselves, that she'd replaced the cream filling with toothpaste.

"People will eat anything you leave out," Hebert says, laughing.

When Greenberg asked Hebert to buy him a big Christmas gift last year, he returned from a trip to find a monstrous inflatable dog with a stocking in its mouth "like the kind meant for the front lawn of a mansion" filling his office, wall-to-wall. Yep. That was her, too.

"Everyone loves her. She's always positive, always in a good mood and extremely funny," Greenberg says. "There may be a lot of practical jokes, but she's very professional when it comes to her work and getting stuff done."

Hebert made quite the journey from her family's farm in Louisiana to becoming the top-ranked female Halo player in the U.S. then making gaming into a career by landing a job at Xbox.

Young Alex

Unofficially, Hebert became a gamer at age 6. That's the year she got a Barbie house for Christmas, and her brother, a Nintendo. After a few days of play she was hooked – on her brother's gift. She loved her Barbie house, but beating her brother at Duck Hunt became her central preoccupation (later, the game du jour was Halo). In high school, she and her brother started going to Halo tournaments for fun. By that time, most of her large Louisianan family (mom, dad, cousins, and aunts) played as well.

"All the girls I knew played video games," Hebert says. "I had no idea that it was rare."

She performed well at tournaments, and raised eyebrows. People would say, "You're a girl and you play video games?"

"I'd say, 'Yeah, and I drive, I have a job, and I vote, too – what the hell,'" Hebert says.

Hebert's first professional gaming team was Pandora's Mighty Soldiers (PMS). The team had members in each time zone, many of whom were also in high school and living at home, juggling homework and chores.

"I was the captain of my Halo team in high school," Hebert jokes, and though she'd graduated by the time she went pro, it's not far off. As leader, it was Hebert's job to wrangle her team. "What do you mean you have prom, we have practice! Can you tell your mom you'll do your homework in a minute? You're my other slayer, dammit!"

The practice paid off. In 2007, French video game developer Ubisoft chose Hebert for "The Frag Dolls," its all-girl gaming team. She and her teammates traveled the world, competing and making appearances at conventions, enjoying the flow of free laptops, gadgets and gear. Hebert was always fascinated to see the reactions of gamers when they were "beat by a team of girls."

Xbox girls

"Why is it extra humiliating that we won?" she'd wonder. "It should just be normal humiliating."

She pauses, and smiles a rascally smile. "Not to say we didn't use our gender to our advantage sometimes, casually applying lip gloss during a match while our opponents were dying."

In 2009, she left professional gaming for Texas-based game developer Terminal Reality, where she worked on "Kinect Star Wars" and other games. She had long dreamed of working for Microsoft, and in 2011, Hebert was hired to help launch Play XBLA, a community website for players to learn more about Xbox Live Arcade games.

According to Larry Hryb – Xbox's Major Nelson, in the old world a company would talk to the press to reach consumers.

"Now, with the kind of community building Alex is doing, we have so many valuable ways to directly engage with and interact with fans and to stream game play and demo products for them," he says.

Hebert has led Microsoft to stream game play and interact with fans on services such as Twitch and to get more involved in electronic sports (eSports) gaming competitions. Some days you'll find Alex hosting live game play on the green couch in her office and broadcasting it on Twitch. Other days she's chatting with gamers in forums online (look for her Xbox Tart gamer tag), or helping to organize an eSports tournament, or making friends at a gaming convention.

"Alex has led us to do some groundbreaking stuff," Hryb says. "She's been kind of a pioneer of social media and community building. And the community loves her because she's true and honest – they know it's not just marketing."

"Whether it's hard-core or casual games, competitive gaming is taking off. Hebert thinks some of the titles in Xbox One's portfolio – games like "Killer Instinct," "World of Tanks" and "Power Star Golf" – would be great for eSports.

"Major League Gaming has only been around for 10 or 12 years, and this is a really new thing for Microsoft," she says. "I'm excited to help create a road map of where this goes."

Hebert grew up in rural Louisiana on 50 acres of land that has been in her mother's well-established French family since the 1700s. Other family gems: they own a crawfish pond, and also the meat shop that invented the "turducken" (a deboned turkey that is stuffed with boneless duck and chicken).

"We ran around like Lord of the Flies," Hebert says of her siblings and 15 cousins. "I literally don't think I wore shoes until I was 10. My dad's parents lived two miles away, and I'd just get on a pony and ride there and say, 'I haven't had lunch yet, feed me.'"

It's a tightly-woven clan. Her relatives all built adjacent houses on the family land, and she and her cousins were homeschooled together there until high school. She got a job as a racehorse trainer out of high school, though Hebert says she comes from a long line of women who "have never had jobs in their lives." Then, she became a professional Halo player.

"You'll never meet a doctor this way," her mother told her at the time. And she didn't, although she did eventually meet and marry a mechanical engineer, Jeremy Ruiz.

"He's this 250-lb. former bodybuilder covered in tattoos. He's learning to play the banjo, and he likes to sit on our porch and pluck away with our four Shih Tzus sitting at his feet," Hebert says. "Yeah, we get looks."

Back in the unicorn den, Hebert is playing Halo 3 on her work Xbox. "Not so tough without your turret, are you?" she calls to the screen. A coworker walks by, pausing in the window behind where she sits. She turns around.

"Oh hey, thank you so much for the work on those consoles," she says.

"No problem," he says. His eyes then rise, fixing on the massive flat screen. "Um – are you getting shot?"

She doesn't even turn to look. "Yeah, it's OK."

This nonchalance is a far cry from a recent Christmas, when she stopped by her then-boss Chris Charla's house after dinner. Charla's guest happened to be Lars Bakken, the multiplayer design lead for Halo developer Bungie. Her boss goaded them into a split-screen game.

"It was very fun to watch. I won't say who won, but the level of trash-talking was pretty amazing," Charla said. "Alex is an extraordinarily nice person – until a game of Halo is fired up in her proximity."

On second thought, Charla decides he can share the results. "Alex crushed – sorry Lars."

Microsoft Corporation

Meet the Women of Microsoft

Meet some of the inspiring women of Microsoft living & working across the globe.

The Women's employee resource group at Microsoft is one of the largest at the company, reaching over 20k women globally. From volunteer programs to leadership summits, growing female talent is crucial to the success of Microsofts diverse team.

Take it from one of their own employees:

"The most important thing in life is to love what you do, and if you love what you do it's no longer a job."

You, too, can join the Microsoft team. See all available opportunities here, and make sure to follow Microsoft to stay up-to-date on future openings.