Q&A with Alumna Sophia Velastegui

NOTE: This story orignially appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering's "We Are Engineers" Magazine.

Businesses across the world are quickly being shaped and redefined by new applications in artificial intelligence (AI). Sophia Velastegui (B.S., ME) is playing an integral role in the development of AI across different business units at Microsoft. She is currently serving as the chief technology officer for operation applications at Microsoft. Velastegui has received numerous awards and accolades for her contributions to the technology industry, including being recognized by Business Insider as one of the 'Most Powerful Female Engineers in the World' for her work in advanced technology at Google and then again for her work in AI at Microsoft. We sat down and asked her a few questions about her experience as an engineer and just what the future decade holds for AI.

Sophia Velastegui, mechanical engineering grad and chief technology officer for operation applications at MicrosoftWhere are you from?

I was born in South Korea but came to New York City when I was one. I consider myself a New Yorker.

What is your degree from Tech? Any other engineer degrees we should know about?

I earned my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech. I then went on to UC Berkeley and earned my M.S. in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in Materials. After that, I completed executive education programs at Harvard Business School and Stanford Law.

What is your current job at Microsoft?

Chief Technology Officer in Operation Applications

What’s a day in the life like for you working for a big tech company?

No two days are the same.  I work with amazing people and customers to solve challenging problems leveraging artificial intelligence and other emerging technology. I am fortunate to work with brilliant people and customers regularly. I love how technology can be leveraged in food services to travel to healthcare.

In the coming decade, where do you see AI heading?

There will be a tech intensity in adoption and application across the board in every industry.  Any degree from Georgia Tech will position you well to take advantage of business opportunities in AI.

What do the ‘20s hold for large technology companies like Microsoft?

Microsoft’s Business Application Group that I am part of will be how people interact with their data in the cloud. We are redefining and augmenting how businesses are run.

How has your engineering degree helped you in your career at Microsoft?

Engineering teaches you to solve complex problems, and you learn to break down systems into components. Engineering is an effort of grit, passion and perseverance for a long term goal. I have applied these techniques and processes to my career development and advancement.

At Tech, we are all about innovation. How are you innovative at Microsoft?

We are in the golden age of AI. My job determines new usage of AI into various business units and products that open new capabilities and introduces new business models. New products are being introduced based on AI as we speak, from Dynamics 365 Customer Insight to Fraud Protection.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I’d like to continue to solve challenging global problems but beyond that, solve more significant audacious problems with more substantial impact.

What advice do you have for young engineers, especially women engineers, looking to work in big tech?

Take intentional risks. If you meet 50 percent of the job requirements, go for it. You will be rejected, but if you are not failing regularly, you are not trying hard enough. Be bold, but be strategic. When I decided to go from the semiconductor field to the leading consumer electronics Apple, many stated that it couldn’t be done. But I tried and got feedback, pivoted, and I landed at Apple as a product manager in three years. Also, since I was strategic and intentional, I was able to do so while increasing in responsibility. It’s also important to learn to get comfortable and excel at negotiation. Take negotiating classes or, at a minimum, read about it. My favorite is “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss. Conversation and life are about negotiation. Once you master it, you will be more likely to be positioned for success and better compensated. Finally, learn to be comfortable with data regardless of your degree or background. It could be taking classes or volunteering for projects working with data scientists.

Bonus question: Do you have a piece of advice for those getting ready to start college, and what would you tell those who are about to graduate?

To High Schoolers: For those that are getting ready to start college, explore while you are in college. I was one class short of minoring in psychology because I found the subject fascinating. I find myself applying the learnings to the various interactions even now. As you explore the breadth of your interest, it will expose you to different perspectives, which is the seed of innovation.

To Graduates: Do not lose the curiosity of your youth. Maintain that throughout your life. Learning does not end once you graduate from college. You learned the methods to learn that you can apply to your whole life. As Bill Frist says, “Education brings about opportunity, and in turn, inspiration.” It doesn’t have to be formal education; it can be a book or podcast or chatting to experts.