Customer-Driven Engineering (Lara Rubbelke)

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As technology evolves, more organizations across different industries are looking to adopt new technologies. Lara Rubbelke, Partner Engineering Manager at Microsoft, talked about how engineers at Microsoft collaborate with other organizations to build technical solutions. Lara explained that through customer engineering engagements, they are able to contribute to real world scenarios and help improve products. We also talked about her trajectory to a leadership role and career advice.


Lara Rubbelke



I’m Edaena Salinas, software engineer and host of The Women in Tech Show, a podcast about what we work on, not what it feels like to be a woman in tech. For more information about the show go to 

As technology evolves, more organizations across different industries are looking to adopt new technologies. Lara Rubbelke, Partner Engineering Manager at Microsoft, talked about how engineers at Microsoft collaborate with other organizations to build technical solutions. Lara explained that through customer engineering engagements, they are able to contribute to real world scenarios and help improve products. We also talked about her trajectory to a leadership role and career advice. 

Lara, welcome to The Women in Tech Show. 


Thank you, thank you for inviting me to speak with you. I’m actually very excited, I’ve been following you for some time and love the podcasts. I love the things you share and so thank you for inviting me. 


Thank you, I’m also really excited to have you on I’ve been meaning to have you on the show for the last few years. I’m glad it’s happening right now. Today we’re going to talk about several topics. One of them is SQL and data. I saw that prior to your roles in leadership, you worked a lot in SQL for those that aren’t very familiar with it, can you explain what this is about? 


I did spend the first part of my career working 100% on the data platform, and I was very deeply focused on SQL Server and so this is back in the late 90s, all the way through the early 2000. Very focused around SQL Server, which is a database management system working with companies on prem. 

This is pre cloud, so on prem to help them design, build and manage their SQL Server installations and applications that are leveraging the database platform. 

So we did a lot of database development, management, design, enterprise design, and out of those experiences had the opportunity to collaborate with others to build out tools and systems that help scale how you manage, and scale how, you can deploy and provide a consistent enterprise infrastructure. I worked quite a on that bit prior to Microsoft. 

I was a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, and MVP, in data platform for a while and then I joined Microsoft where I worked in the field directly with customers to help them successfully implement and build out their systems as well. 


Also, when you were at the University of Minnesota, you were database administrator and this was in the early 2000s. Can you talk a bit about the context at the time? 


Certainly, that’s actually an interesting story. That was how I found my entry into what I love to do and I found my calling, my career calling. 

I hadn’t been working in technology much to that point, just dabbled here and there through different functions of previous jobs. While I was at the University of Minnesota I had a role that was managing a Graduate Department for Child Welfare graduate students, and I just saw this need to provide better organization around some of the things we needed to deliver and how we needed to connect across our school, the School of Social Work. And how we needed to connect across to outside stakeholders, outside at the University, and I had heard about this thing called a database. And so I just started digging in to see how I could centralized the data that we were using to manage how we communicate and connect and engage with people those inside and outside stakeholders. 

As I started building this out there was further need across the broader school to start migrating systems out of old DOS based systems, so I’m really aging myself here, but out of DOS into a Windows platform, and they wanted to take things forward into a more modern database system. And I had cycles, so I said I had cycles so I said, well I can take this on as a stretch project. 

And that ended up where it started with me just building this departmental application for my functions. At the end of the year I had built an end to end system for the School of Social work that managed students from the application and ambitions process all the way through tracking them on their field studies and internships and alumni status. And everything in between and had it secured, with role based access based on different department needs within the school and I just started building out my own knowledge on this and I’d learned very quickly how much I loved this. You know, when you find something you love, you lose time that was happening to me. I was losing time, I would just get lost in in the code and get lost in these designs and I started taking one of the benefits of the University is you have free credits you can take free classes so I started taking graduate level classes on information systems and found I was at the top of the class with people who were doing this as their profession and so it just reinforced that this was my calling. 

This is not only something that I lose time in that I love to do, but it was also something that I had a certain talent for. So, from that I negotiated with school to carve this out as a role for me, that there was a need for it. I spent the first very first part of my career just building that role for myself, and building that role within the organization. And I got to a certain point where I wanted to find new experiences and take what I had learned more broadly and continue to learn from other environments and other customers. 

So I moved from that into consulting role, where that just catapulted my learning, my career, my passion. 

I talked about consulting, in the U.S. we talked about dog years, how human life is equal to 7 years in a dog’s life. Consulting is like that, because you’re thrown into lots of challenges, lots of legacy systems. You have to learn quickly how to learn, and out of the number of years of consulting, Ianded in a place where I was globally recognized for my expertise in data platforms and data systems. Specifically, I had cemented a passion around security and compliance, enterprise manageability. I had been speaking at global conferences etc. That was interesting that you asked about that DBA role because that was really the thing that helped me recognized and helped me find what I love to do and got my foot in the door. 


Yes, it seems also that this experience was what solidified your knowledge in different technologies, right? You have the data side with SQL and databases but also the security aspects of the project. 


Absolutely. And when you do a role in consulting and you’re thrown into certain industries, and I was working in insurance and financial industry, I was working in retail industry and learning about the different compliance requirements, the security constraints. That security demands across these different industries and what capabilities were available within these systems, and how you implement them to help make sure that we are driving to successful outcomes was a great experience. 

And you know, as I said, I have a passion for learning and so within that space there was always something new to learn. 


You also mentioned in this part of your career you were already learning quickly how to learn technologies and also in the field, working directly with customers. 

I want to transition now to your role at Microsoft because you’re doing very similar things in that you’ve gotten to work with customers and work with new technologies. In particular, you work under the Commercial Software Engineering organization. Can you give some context around this organization? 


Certainly. Just to tie into what you’ve said, I have been customer facing my entire career, and I often joke, my entire life. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and my dad owned a Dairy Queen and so from the time I could peak over the counter I was serving people, and serving customers at the Dairy Queen, all the way till now. I love being customer facing. My entire technical career I have been customer facing. Commercial Software Engineering, it’s the perfect place where working directly with customers and applying and learning and building engineering organization comes perfectly together. 

Commercial software engineering is customer engineering, and it’s different from consulting where consulting often a customer may ask a consultant come in, take this scope of work, deliver it, and then they might move on. Commercial software engineering is a code with organization. We are an investment by Microsoft into our most strategic customers, to help them in their cloud journey. 

We have teams of engineers that code side by side with engineers from our customer. We meet them where they are. We scope out the work and understand what they want to build. Build that into scoped outcome that definition of done, the specific milestones that that needs to be hit in what will be delivered in each milestone. We work together with them on a shared backlog as one team. The advantage is that our customers not only get an accelerated and a safe path on that next stage into and through the cloud, but they pick up more understanding, more learning about how to take that forward.  

Whether it is learning new ways to apply agile methodologies or if it’s a new way to apply the technologies, these are things that they learn because their engineers are sitting side by side, and that’s virtually of course in in days of pandemics. But they’re sitting side by side and working together with us. Sometimes pairing up and doing pure programming. Sometimes just working within that shared backlog. But we have one team that is comprised of both us and the custom. 

This is an organization that’s globally distributed. We have engineers that are all over the world so that we can work closely with our customers geographically where they are. We have industry aligned skills to help bring forward things we have learned from other customers within the industry, to help new customers understand how they may want to apply some of those practices moving forward, and so this is an engagement model.  

The advantage to Microsoft is we learn with our customers. I’d say everything we do is with and for our customers. And that means the customer we’re working with and every customer that follows as well. 

That means that when we are working with a customer on very new services or a new approach on a workload that is emerging within the industry or within technology world, we bring that back to Microsoft as well. We share their learnings about what works, what doesn’t. What are the things that are delighting our customers? What are their expectations, and where are we falling short. 

We bring that to our product engineering to help them do better prioritization on improvements to have, this wonderful customer voice that helps tat make better decisions about what they want to move forward with and how. 

We also will build out accelerator code, so this is IP, that when we work with a number of customers on a certain application pattern, MLOps comes up a lot, machine learning operations, so DevOps for machine learning. And how we can learn how to do certain stages of these workloads. Hardened out what that IP might look like, the IP might be an opinionated approach, it might be an architecture and it could be code. And we use this code with a couple of customers to validate and we might package that up and share it more broadly across Microsoft and beyond to help further the success of future customers. So it’s the most fun place I’ve worked in my career. It is great to be with our customers coding. With them and learning with them and being able to share what we’re learning to help people well beyond just that one customer engagement. 


You’re saying that this organization you get to closely work with some of Microsoft Partners and you’re coding with. How would you compare that to a more traditional consulting approach? What do you like about the code with approach? 


Well, there’s a number of things. First, our customers aren’t paying for us Microsoft’s. As I said, this is an investment of Microsoft into our customers, and these strategic applications. So for us it is different from consulting in that we are truly partnering with the customer. We are partnering around this scoped work that we both have identified as strategically important for that customer and future customers. The opportunity to leverage what we’re learning and build that reusable IP, to help accelerate future customers and to realize that that investment that Microsoft is making into these engagements is a multiplier. That just tends to put things in a different frame of engagement. 


Is there an example of a successful customer engagement that you would like to share so people get an idea of the things that are being built? 


Oh so many. And it’s funny how I might look at success differently than you might define success. So there are certainly the multiple engagements where the customer has been able to work with us and remove risk and reduce time to get to their outcome. And, we can talk about hundreds of customers where we’ve done this over the past few. I also look at successes we are working with a customer who is applying some new technologies or technologies in ways that are new that we see as a patterned approach and because of our work with deep work with product engineering we were able to drive a new wave for them to think to broadly more broadly address this new market. 

Recently we’ve worked with a number of customers in media and communications and been working on how to do video analytics. We developed some IP that we can reuse with other customers within that industry that helps reduce the time from, you know, several months to several weeks to implement these systems. In some stages of the system, it’s gone from months to days, to be able to get things stood up and start gathering data to build out models. That’s incredible for customers in that industry. 

The other side of that, is that we also took this pattern and understood we had certain gaps in our first party services in in Azure that required a lot more work on the engineer side to overcome the gaps. We drove that learning through deep conversations, bringing the multiple customer examples that were of customers that were doing this same workload, worked closely with our engineering leadership that is building out and designing the machine learning capabilities in Azure, and they have now taken these customer requirements. 

We built out user stories, they’ve designed new features or updates to existing features and have these committed in their current plans. This full circle in this particular case you see that our work has accelerated customers to get to their outcomes, it’s reduced the risk, they have more confidence and how to apply the shared learnings from previous customers into their future work loads, and we’ve got some great new improvements that are going to further improve that for customers in the future. 


Before we finish, I want to talk now about your career and your trajectory. You’re currently in a leadership position at Microsoft. Did you always aspire to be in this kind of role? 


No, I haven’t. When I joined this organization, I joined as what we call an individual contributor and I see where Microsoft we have acronyms for everything. And I’ve been at Microsoft for almost 14 years working in this organization for the past six and a half years. I joined as an IC or Individual Contributor, which means, I was just I wasn’t here to manage after about two or three weeks, they had a couple of shifts within then the organization and there was a manager role that had opened up. They started speaking to me about, if I would I be interested in that, and I thought, I’d gotten to know the team over the course of a few weeks. I’d known some of them Prior to joining formally joining the org, and I looked at that as a fun opportunity. 

First of all, I’m all in in the cloud. I love application development, cloud application development. This team is 100% focused on that and you know it’s a team of subject matter experts. I just love working in that space of these subject matter experts in core areas of their field, and so I accepted that. Over the course of the years that followed, I just continued to learn. I love to learn. Learn about how to leverage the best out of people, how to accelerate people and the way that they think and approach solving problems. 

To the privilege to work with such talented people and to learn with them as well on how to best design how we should organize ourselves, to help with our overall mission, it’s just been a wonderful learning path, it’s been a privilege. But just to clarify, I am a geek at heart, and I will always be. And I think that’s why this particular organization is so perfectly suited for people who like to continue to learn and build their leadership skills, but also stay in the game technically. We take an approach where all managers, it’s we call it player coach, even you know at the highest levels of our organization we’re still engaged with customers. We’re still engaged in the technology, we treasure that. So that has helped me in my comfort zone on taking this path. 


The reason I asked this question is because I know there are multiple paths. Some people have leadership on their mind and they ask how can I get there? What do I need? Maybe I need to lead a group of volunteers outside of work to show that I have those skills. I’ve also heard other cases where somebody identified me and suggested I be a manager, but some people might say, you were a good IC, but not a good manager. How did you make sure you had the skill set for manager? What were you doing once you were a manager to make sure you were doing the right thing? 


That’s a great question. I’ve had some really good experiences with managers through my career that I think I learned from and I took forward. When I started managing in this organization, my manager taught me quite a bit. It’s pretty easy to, just get very linear and just keep driving down a certain path, and one of the biggest lessons I learned from my first manager in this organization was to always remember there are people. There are people at the end of whatever you’re doing. 

Whether you’re writing the code or whether you’re making a decision about you know how to align people to certain technical areas. There are always people, and to learn what motivates every individual, what their aspirations are to help support them and provide that guidance. You can’t take that for granted. That was something that I continued to think about every day that there’s always a person at the end of whatever we’re doing, and to have that empathy to put yourself in those shoes and to also listen and understand, what is motivating that person and what support they need. Sometimes it’s as you said, people may have an aspiration to manage, to lead, and finding opportunities to give people you know, an opportunity to try that as it is important. It doesn’t mean that everybody has a formal management chain. Leading doesn’t always mean managing. That’s one thing that we impress here, leadership doesn’t require that you have people that you are managing. So finding different ways for people to start building those leadership skills.  

We at Microsoft, also, I would say have over the last couple of years, invested heavily in leadership, training, leadership skills and this has been even for myself having been managing for some years already, going through some of these different types of trainings, whether they’re groups or virtual sessions or just collaborative sessions and mentors, formal mentors and informal mentors, Microsoft really embraces this. And I’ve even continued to learn, and I will continue to learn, make the mistakes, be humbled, learn from them, try and take them forward. These are all things that we at Microsoft have invested heavily, to help our managers with how we work better with the people across Microsoft. 


Well, Lara, thank you for coming on the show, it’s been really great having you on. 


No, thank you, and like I said, I’m a big fan and, I also saw you had Chris Kluwe as one of the people that did one of your 5 Minute Mentors and as a Viking fan and Chris Kluwe fan, I’m like yay! 


Nice. That’s awesome. 


Thank you again for the invitation.