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THE HALO EFFECT
by Jeff Dodge
“I THINK PUTTING WRITING AND TECHNOLOGY TOGETHER AT CSU WAS THE FIRST STEP TOWARD FINDING MY PURPOSE,” BONNIE ROSS SAID. “IT WAS THE FIRST STEP FOR ME TO REALIZE TECHNOLOGY’S POWER, AND I WOULDN’T BE WHERE I AM IF I HADN’T GOTTEN THAT.”
Ross, a corporate vice president at Xbox and head of the Halo studio 343 Industries, delivered a free public lecture and met with faculty and students this spring. When one faculty member announced to his computer science class that the head of Halo was going to be a surprise guest speaker that day, there were audible gasps of excitement.
HER CSU PATH
The academic journey Ross completed was not the one she started. She initially majored in engineering, then decided to forge her own path, combining what was then a new technical writing track in the journalism department with a concentration in computer science and physics.
“She tied together an innovative collection of courses, including computer programming, physics, and math,” said Greg Luft, head of the Department of Journalism and Media Communication, who recalls having Ross in one of his classes. “She did that 10 years ahead of the Information Science and Technology academic minor, which was created to help students like Bonnie blend programs in journalism and media communication, computer science, computer information systems, business, and psychology. She was well ahead of her time.”
Ross said being in uncharted territory proved useful as she navigated her way up the career ladder in a male-dominated field.
“Having to find my own way prepared me well for Microsoft,” she said. “I realized how hard you have to work to get what you need — you have to be innovative and assertive. My experience at CSU really prepared me for what I’d have to do to get what I wanted in my career. I think having to be creative really helped. I definitely felt confident going into a challenging environment.”
WITH REJECTION COMES OPPORTUNITY
Ross’ March 31 speech to a standing-room-only crowd in the Behavioral Sciences Building was co-sponsored by the Geoffrey W. Holmes Distinguished Lecture Series in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication and the College of Natural Sciences.
After discussing some of the technical advances that have been made to the Halo video game over the years, she showed photos of her college days in the late 1980s and told the audience about her initial campus experience of being one of the only women studying engineering. Then she described her switch to journalism and a resulting internship at IBM.
“CSU having a technical writing degree made a huge, huge difference,” she told the crowd.
But even with that degree and her experience as an intern at IBM, it took a while to find a job. Ross sent scores of resumes and cover letters to tech companies — and got about 200 rejection letters, which she plastered on her wall. At the time, local bar C.B. & Potts would give a free beer to any patron who presented a rejection letter.
“Apple and NeXT bought me a beer at Potts,” Ross said, adding that finally Microsoft took a chance on her. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for all of the pieces of that experience.”
She joked that growing up playing sports was her only qualification for one of her first jobs at Microsoft, which was producing an early PC offering called “Full Court Press.”
At an early Electronic Entertainment Expo, a trade fair for the video gaming industry, Ross spotted movie director Steven Spielberg, who is now working with Xbox to create a Halo TV series.
“I wondered why he was there, and then I realized that technology was pushing storytelling,” she said, referring to the convergence of cinema and gaming. “He was probably just looking for the bathroom, but it was my epiphany.”
PUSHING STEM EDUCATION
During a question-and-answer session, Ross recounted how another kind of gaming helped her gain respect from her male co-workers early in her career: her athleticism during basketball pickup games and other company sporting events.
“These were a bunch of software engineers, so the bar for the level of play was pretty low,” she said with a laugh. “Word got out that I could play.”
She said that while the last couple of years have seen an increase in the representation of women and minorities in video games, more needs to be done to boost the number of women working in tech and engineering fields. According to Ross, while 43 percent of video gamers are women, they compose only 18 percent of the computer science workforce.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “Our industry has that responsibility.”
For College of Natural Sciences Dean Jan Nerger, getting more women into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is also a major focus.
“It’s a huge priority in our college, recruiting and retaining more women in the STEM disciplines,” she says. “Someone like Bonnie is such a wonderful role model for how women can be successful in these fields. We need to provide women with more support and networking.”
One female student asked Ross for advice on switching out of engineering like she did, and Ross responded that while she’d love for the student to stay in that field, she advised her to at least get some technical experience, because in the future, virtually every job will require that to some degree.
“But ultimately, you just need to find what you’re passionate about,” Ross said.