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Te Karaka to tech hub

Katharine Holdsworth returned mid-pandemic to Tairawhiti last week from her home in Seattle, Washington where she works for Microsoft, one of the world’s biggest computer companies. She spoke about her career, and being a woman in a man’s world, to a packed crowd at last week’s U3A event. Sophie Rishworth reports . . .

Dr Katharine Holdsworth graduated from Canterbury University (UC) with her Masters of Engineering in 1994 and travelled to Denmark for work.

But the company Katharine went to work for sent her straight to the marketing department because they felt she would have a better experience, as there were no women in the engineering department.

“I got very good at fixing the photocopier and during lunches made friends with the people in the engineering department who were lovely and helped me work my way back to engineering. It was more of a man's world.”

It was a similar story during her student years at Canterbury — Katharine was one of only three or four women out of about 100 men in her undergrad engineering classes.

When she was doing her Engineering PhD a few years later, things had not changed much. She realised women supporting each other in their studies would be useful, so helped kick-start the UC Women in Engineering group.

Katharine has continued to encourage more women into the engineering and computer science space during her 18-year career at Microsoft in the United States, where she is principal group programme manager for operating system security in the Microsoft Azure Edge and Platform team.

The Te Karaka-raised engineer now lives in Seattle, Washington State, with her husband Alex Boyd and their son Jack, 12. It is the same town as many of her tech heroes like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, and the home of Microsoft.

Katharine was back in Gisborne last week to see her family, and took time to speak to the U3A group. Her parents, Dame Bronwen and Peter Holdsworth, are members of the group.

U3A stands for the University of the Third Age, an organisation for people in their “third age” — retired or semi-retired, and aged 50 and over.

The Cossie Club was packed with more than 200 people for Katharine's talk, where she spoke about her career, and gave some tricks and tips to keep people safe online.

As she told the U3A crowd, “you're the prime target”.

Technology was her biggest delight — and sometimes her biggest frustration, she said.

She grew up in Te Karaka as one of four children, and went to Te Karaka Primary School, Gisborne Intermediate and Gisborne Girls' High School.

Maths and science were always her strong suit, as was her curiosity and “girls can do anything” attitude — something she thanked her parents for instilling in her.

She remembers her dad bringing home the first family computer when she was 10. The self-described “geek of the family” loved horse riding growing up in Te Karaka, but today that has been replaced with biking around Seattle.

Katharine is one of 175,000 people who work for Microsoft worldwide.

She hasn't been at the office since March 4 last year due to the pandemic but has worked from home alongside her family, and the toilet paper she stockpiled.

But when she does go back to work it will be to Microsoft's Redmond campus, which covers an area of 500 acres in the Puget Sound area of Seattle.

A total of 57,000 people work there, which means Katharine has more colleagues than the population of Tairawhiti.

The campus has a bus network, a place to drop dry cleaning, she can get her bike serviced, there are lots of cafés, there's a “treehouse” meeting and workspace (yes, really) and it also sports the biggest gym in the US for employees to work out and keep healthy.

Seattle is the hub of technology, where X-Box, Amazon, Starbucks and aircraft giant Boeing all started, and it is where she moved in 2002 with her new husband.

Katharine never misses an opportunity to mentor or help other women. She is co-chair of the Women's Microsoft Resource Group, which has members from around the world.

She also has a role working on the culture of her Microsoft team to make sure people feel like they belong — particularly women and people from indigenous backgrounds.

“Microsoft makes an effort to bring diverse voices into technology building because we are building for everyone. We have a very inclusive mission — ‘Empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more' — which I love.

“Without those people contributing to the work and listening closely to what customers need, then the only person I am building for is me.

“People are encouraged to be themselves and belong in these great big teams and to bring their voices and all their ideas to the table, no matter how big or small.”

Katharine said on top of all the incredible products and technology, she loves that Microsoft is big on diversity and inclusion (learn more here https://aka.ms/2020DIReport), were leaders in protecting the environment with one of the eco-friendly focuses to be carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 removing from the environment its carbon footprint dating back to 1975.

When Katharine moved to Seattle in 2002 it was a “super tough time in tech”. She wondered who would hire her.

Biking around Seattle one day she realised she was in Microsoft country and decided she wanted to work in the Microsoft phone division since she had a PocketPC at the time and loved it.

She applied for a job there but in the meantime was offered another job, which she took.

Then six weeks later MS came back, interviewed her and offered Katharine two roles in the phone division — either to focus on phones for companies or making phones secure.

She figured she knew less about phone security and it sounded interesting and figured she could learn so took that job, she said.

Katharine works in the background, deep in the coding world, with people who work to remove bugs from our devices, and enhance security features, to keep us and our information safe.

Her biggest piece of advice is to stay up to date with new software updates.

“Known vulnerabilities are a popular attack vector, so the most up to date are the most secure. So when you see that ‘update required' notification on any of your devices, accept it as there are people at all those big tech companies working to keep you safe.”

Her whole career has been deep in the operating systems, starting with phones and now working on Windows, Azure and Microsoft systems.

She loves creating for all the products she works on and is especially fond of Windows as there are 1 billion or more people using Windows 10. She loves the thought that the work she does every day helps keep people protected and productive, allowing them to achieve more.

“That 1 billion number also freaks me out,” she said.

That means a bad bug has the potential to affect that many people.

Making sure everyone was safe online kept her awake at night, she said.

Katharine said early attacks were usually kids in the basement at home, but these days it was quite sophisticated cyber-crime out there.

Hackers, scammers, whatever you wanted to call them, were smart people.

Katharine said the Nigerian prince scenario was not used so much any more. Instead cybercrime followed the contemporary news issues of the day — for example, there was a rise in Covid-19- themed attacks in 2020.

How to spot the bad guys online

But the bad guys still use email to try to get your passwords, so don't open an email that looks dodgy (which apparently 23 percent of people do).

And don't click on the link in a dodgy email (which many people also do).

Look out as well for bad spelling, bad grammar, fake websites, threatening messages (like your account will be closed if you do not give your password) to indicate a scam, and definitely check the address of the email sender.

“Keeping yourself safe online is a bit of an art rather than a science. Be sceptical, and be aware, don't just click around on things (that's you too Dad) but also don't stop using technology.”

Katharine is an advocate of facial technology to log into her devices because while people can steal your passwords, they cannot steal your face.

She uses lots of methods to keep herself and her family safe online. One is that she gets a text from her bank any time money goes out of her account.

She has been caught a few times — people stealing her credit card number and buying things — and been able to stop the card straight away with minimal damage because of the text notification.

She finished her talk with a suggestion to all the parents and grandparents out there to keep your kids learning, being curious and encourage them to stay with tech subjects as long as possible.

Many jobs today required some degree of technology skills, she said. Importantly, the work she is doing now was not a thing when she was at school — so the future is exciting.

• For some inspiration, she encourages kids to dig into the Microsoft Story Labs, be inspired about the future and to imagine how they will help shape it.

Advocacy: During her career, Dr Katharine Holdsworth has never missed an opportunity to encourage more women in to the engineering and computer science space. Pictures by Liam Clayton
HOME VISIT: Dr Katharine Holdsworth with her parents Dr Peter Holdsworth and Dame Bronwen Holdsworth.