Empowering—Dona Sarkar’s passion for upskilling people around the world

Published Dec 18 2020 08:00 AM 4,986 Views
Microsoft

This is the third of a three-part series on the ways that Microsoft Power Platform empowers people with no coding experience to upskill and quickly learn how to create apps to solve business problems or problems they’ve identified in their local communities. The first post, Empowering—Gomolemo Mohapi’s journey from student to Microsoft Power Platform advocate, focused on this young South African student’s path to becoming an app maker. The second post, Empowering—Joe Camp’s path from no-code to Microsoft Power Platform advocate, features the career switch and journey to app maker of one of Mohapi’s colleagues on the Microsoft Power Platform Advocacy team. Today’s post tells the story of how Dona Sarkar, team lead, built the Microsoft Power Platform Advocacy team. To hear Sarkar, Mohapi, and Camp talk about their experience with Microsoft Power Platform, listen to this Digital Lifestyle podcast.

 

Dona Sarkar, lead for the Microsoft Power Platform Advocacy team, is a person who brings her own unique perspective and energy to whatever she touches. She asks questions, notices problems or opportunities for change, brings her creativity to them, and then does something to make a difference in the world. Helping people around the world upskill with Microsoft Power Platform is by no means the whole of her story, but it is one of her great passions.

 

When Sarkar was working as the “Chief #NinjaCat” of the Windows Insider Program at Microsoft, a community of people in every country/region in the world—even Antarctica—who give feedback on Windows releases before they goes out to public, she noticed something was missing. Windows Insiders are passionate about technology, she says, and they’re also passionate about other people learning and using technology, which is why their input is so valuable. But most of the Windows Insider feedback they were getting came from the United States and Western Europe. How could they build a good product for everyone in the world, she wondered, if they didn’t have feedback from other places, countries/regions, and cultures with different circumstances and needs? Not everyone has 24/7 online access, for example, so the requirement to be online to sign in to Windows doesn’t work in many places.

 

So, what did she do? She and her team got on planes and traveled to places all over the world—Jakarta, Malaysia, Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa, and more—to find out what those other needs were. The team found that people in developing countries/regions wanted to help their peers and colleagues who were not as technical as they were to skill up to improve their lives and get better jobs. So, while she was in South Africa, Sarkar focused on talking to people about how to organize an upskilling program Microsoft could sponsor and on finding people who might help with leading this locally. That’s how she met Gomolemo Mohapi, who had traveled from his home in Durban to Microsoft Ignite The Tour in Johannesburg in 2019. Mohapi, a college student at the time, was already “a big Microsoft follower—a huge .NET fan and a Windows Insider.” He told Sarkar he thought they really needed just such a program in South Africa. What really inspired her was that this young student, who was working hard and getting good grades, was taking time to help other students learn—for free. She was so inspired by the work he was doing that she and her team started building out an upskilling program, #InsiderUp, with Mohapi as the inspiration.

 

Envisioning and creating the Microsoft Power Platform Advocacy team

A year later, Sarkar was asked to head up a new Developer Advocacy team for Microsoft Power Platform, focused on getting people to understand this new technology’s potential to help them. She was interested in how it might help workers already in jobs, but she also asked different questions that led her in another direction. “How do we get people all over the world into jobs? What about the people who don’t know what Microsoft Power Platform is, who don’t know that it’s a really quick way to build app development skills? That with these tools, people who aren’t software engineers like me, people with no developer skills at skill, can very easily build websites, chatbots, workflows, and automation?”

 

So, what did Sarkar do? She was so inspired by Microsoft Power Platform and its potential to help upskill people around the world, especially in places where computer science degrees are expensive and very difficult to get, that she started sketching out a team centered on upskilling people no matter what background they came from.

 

Sarkar identified three audiences her team would serve all over the world: students under 25 who might be a little lost career-wise, with no one to guide them into technology so they could get a better job; mid-career workers who wanted to do better at their jobs or to switch jobs or careers; and classic software developers who wanted to do their job more efficiently and to write and debug less code. When it came time to hire, she wanted to work with people who were passionate about upskilling and who already doing this work, so she hired “three people who were the best in the world at what they do.” To head the Student Ambassador program, she hired Mohapi. For the mid-career/career switch position, she hired Joe Camp. And for the developer position, Greg Hurlman.

 

Her team, the Microsoft Power Platform Advocacy team, was ready to go in July 2020. “There’s so many people we can help,” she realized after they were up and running. And they have. From the get-go, they’ve been extremely busy. They’re constantly creating new content, organizing events, helping train people, and maintaining a job board where they post Microsoft Power Platform jobs. In just the few months her team has been working together, they’ve put on 3 conferences, spoken at over 100 events, and created 50 pieces of content—plus, Mohapi kicked off the Microsoft Learn Student Ambassadors Low-Code League.

 

No chance of this team slowing down. “Our work has just started,” Sarkar says. “We’re going big on international now, which has been our aim from the beginning.” They’re working on a series of events in Africa, called Power Africa, for citizen developers with a range of skills from no code all the way to code-first developers. Sarkar herself is heading up three in-person events in Barbados, called Power Barbados. She’ll be leading a series of workshops for The University of the West Indies there, which will be open to educators and students and to business owners. She’s also recruiting people to do an in-person hackathon there to solve local problems.

 

And these are just the team’s short-term projects. In January 2021, her team starts moving their advocacy into South America and Latin America, where up until now they’ve done very little work. They plan to work with local Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs), student partners, and others to create Power Latin America/South America.  

 

Empowering people everywhere to solve local problems, including her own

Sarkar’s commitment to diversity and advocacy for Microsoft Power Platform are part of her life, not just her role as the team leader for Microsoft Power Platform advocacy. In May 2020, she and a friend of hers, along with teams of volunteers from the community, ran a 48-hour virtual hackathon for 390 people from over 40 countries/regions. At #Hack4GoodMBAS, participants used Microsoft Power Platform to build solutions to problems real people were facing in their local communities during the pandemic. One person created an app to connect elderly people who need groceries with designated shoppers. Another created a mental health app to help combat the loneliness many people are feeling right now. That app’s SharePoint list of people willing to connect and talk means people can reach out to those willing to listen and help. The winning app came from New Zealand—an app that enables businesses to scan your signature, so you don’t have to touch a pen or other device to complete a transaction.

 

“These apps are all so simple,” Sarkar stresses, “and yet they’re enormously helpful.” And most were built in just a few hours by people who were brand new to coding or had minimal coding experience. People can learn how to use Microsoft Power Platform in a day, she says. For the hackathon, she did give participants pre-work, a set of unique learning paths she created for them: a carefully chosen set of Microsoft Learn tutorials—the best of Microsoft Learn—combined with other resources, all on one page. That content is now available as Upskilling Academy for Power Platform, a co-created curriculum designed for people starting from scratch, especially for groups that want to upskill their employees and fellow students together in cohorts or groups.

 

The curriculum was developed by a Microsoft customer in Nigeria and blends Microsoft Learn content, docs, tutorials, guides, and videos, plus other resources. You can use it as a loose starting point to learn the basics of each aspect of Microsoft Power Platform, including customizing canvas apps, managing apps, working with Common Data Service and model-driven Power Apps, Power Automate, AI Builder, Power Virtual Agents, and Power BI.

 

During the virtual hackathon, Sarkar and the other helpers “stayed away from technical instruction because we believed people could figure it out on their own.” And they did. “Most people figured it out, and they did it fast.” If someone asked, “How do you use AI to …?,” they wouldn’t show them how to do it but instead would point them in the right direction, saying, “Go look at AI Builder.” People were immensely proud of themselves, she says, because they built something out of nothing to solve a real problem they had identified in their local community. “Anyone can build an app,” she says. You can watch her prove it in the video, Anyone Can Build a Power App—and Today I Prove It. And you can prove it to yourself. If you want to learn how to build apps with low-code techniques to simplify, automate, and transform business tasks and processes, check out this handy Learn Power Apps collection of learning paths on Microsoft Learn. And if you want to learn app-making skills and validate them, explore the Microsoft Power Platform app maker training and certification.

 

Although Sarkar is a software engineer, she uses Microsoft Power Platform to help solve her own real-life challenges. After being diagnosed with dyslexia four years ago, she realized that many coping mechanisms were available and there was no need to suffer in silence, so she started using the tools in OneNote and other hacks. But when she encountered difficulty reading a teleprompter, she realized that Microsoft Power Platform is actually “a hack for dyslexia.” Looking at an Excel spreadsheet or SharePoint list is very stressful, for example. But if you generate it into a Power App, it’s much easier to decode, even on a phone, because the content is displayed not all at once but one segment at a time. So, what did she do? She created a teleprompter app for herself that pulls from an Excel spreadsheet all the lines she needs to say and displays them on her phone in a way she can easily read, so she knows what’s coming up and can be extra prepared. For her, Power Apps are a “dyslexia coping tool.” And the potential is there for helping to solve other neurodiversity challenges that people experience, too.

 

The advantages of diverse points of view in the workplace

Hiring is expensive, Sarkar says. “Companies spend so much money hiring people. You have to interview 10,000 people to hire 1,000.” She’s hired over 1,000 people herself, from all over the world. The more you get outside your bubble, your comfort zone, she explains, whether that’s Redmond or any other place, the better hires you’re going to get. You’re not just looking for people who can code in C. You want people who bring a different point of view to whatever problem you’re facing. “Say you’re working in AI and are tagging pictures of people, and you want to tag light skin or dark skin. A person in Nigeria is going to tag a picture very differently than a person in Britain. I consider myself to be a dark-skinned person, but in Nigeria I’m considered to be a light-skinned person.” That subjectivity is true for many things—what we consider good or bad, offensive or funny, for instance. “Many other cultural context issues are missed, as well, like internet connectivity and speed or what hybrid cloud means in different parts of the world, when you build products in Redmond with only an American point of view. The more diverse points of view you have, the better your product or service is going to be.”

 

That’s why corporations don’t need clones. They need “misfits and weirdos,” Sarkar notes on her website, “the b, entrepreneurial types. The ones who refuse to do the job the way the last guy did it. The ones who hate tracking our work in the tool. The ones that are always creating our own jobs. The ones that are determined to use the power of the corporation to make a real difference in the world.” She calls winning in the corporate world—while being you—the “art of Intrapreneurship.” She still tells herself, “I’m a software engineer. And I’m a fashion designer. I don’t belong at Microsoft.” As you might expect, her colleagues quickly let her know that she indeed does belong. “It’s the people who think they don’t belong who are often the people companies need most, people with different points of view.” People like Sarkar herself, who saw a need to help people in countries/regions all over the world get into jobs by helping them skill up in technology and then set about making that happen in her role at Microsoft.

 

Working is learning

Intrapreneurial workers need corporations as much as corporations need them. Corporations can help their “crazy” ideas become reality. They provide mentors and support. They give you the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, because they provide a buffer of time, money, and people. And they pay you to learn. “You’re always learning on the job,” she notes. “No one expects you to know everything. You may know how to deliver a service for 10,000 people, but who knows how to scale to 1.5 billion?” You’re always being challenged by problems and situations you haven’t dealt with before, so you’re always learning something new. Big companies give you an opportunity to learn. “That’s why I believe Microsoft needs weirdos and weirdos need Microsoft.”

 

Fast Company lists Sarkar as one of its Most Productive People. It’s hard to disagree. All you have to do is check out her Instagram or Twitter to see what she’s up to currently. Whether working with her Microsoft Power Platform advocacy team, speaking or leading workshops, running hackathons, creating apps, coaching entrepreneurs in emerging markets, designing an ethically made clothing line for women by women, or writing fiction, she’s always taking creative action, doing something to make a difference in the world.

Make some friends somewhere else in the world, Sarkar suggests, and bring them along with you on your adventures. Go forth and #DoTheThing—together.   And check out the new Microsoft Power Platform course at aka.ms/UdacityPower.

 

 

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