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Customer Experience

Qualtrics CXO Julie Larson-Green: ‘I was putting a box around what I was capable of’

As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal chats with Julie Larson-Green, longtime Microsoft executive and Chief Experience Officer at Qualtrics, about her journey from rural Washington to the highest ranks of tech enterprises, how waiting tables led to a passion for UX, and why empathy is the key to her business success.

Listen to the complete podcast episode of Breakthrough Builders with Julie Larson-Green

Early reflections

“Why would you be a paralegal and not a lawyer?”

The question surprised then middle-schooler Julie Larson-Green. She had expected her father to respond with his typical, warm, parental encouragement when she shared her excitement about this new career option she had just learned about at school. But instead she got this challenge to her thinking. Decades later she remembers this moment vividly for its effect on her mindset:

“That was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for me. I realized I was putting a box around myself and what I was capable of.”

Over the course of a career that has taken her from rural diner waitress to the high-tech C-suite, Julie has learned to think without the box, and to inspire others to do the same.

Behind the breakthroughs

Julie talks about how waiting tables helped her develop a customer-first orientation that carried through every step of her career:

“I got pretty good at being able to read tables and understand who needed more coffee and who was happy with their meal, or who was unhappy with their meal. I really do think that waiting tables had a big impact on my ability to have empathy for others and really see what's going on.”

The primacy of the humans using the product or service was further engrained through a year of customer support experience with a small Seattle software company. It was the daily interfacing with users, some delighted and others disappointed, that crystallized the idea of customer experience as the driver of success.

Teaching herself to code and then completing a masters in computer science gave Julie a unique blend of technical depth and user empathy which became a primary differentiator in her approach to product development, user interface design, and team building.

Remember the Ribbon in Office 2007? An elegant, intuitive solution that allowed the user to quickly select the desired option from what had become an unwieldy, overwhelming set of features. That was Julie.

Ever played Xbox One, or used a Surface? Did you use Office XP, Office 2003, or Windows 7? Your experience using any and all of those was developed, designed, or overseen by Julie Larson-Green.

Of the intersection of tech products and customer service, Julie says:

“That’s what the user interface for a computer is, actually.  It's customer service for the computer.”

Culture becomes experience

Julie’s focus on serving the customer did not mean that the customer always deserved to be served. When she became the head of Microsoft's Devices and Services Group, which included Xbox, she saw firsthand the effects of the aforementioned box on some customers’ thinking.

Internet gaming forum comments included such non-sequiturs as: “ their [sic] apps will be dedicated to knitting and baking” and “...a women [sic] may be at the head, but that isn’t where most of the decision making gets done… just another figurehead.

Despite those clamoring for her to be relegated to a lesser role, like a paralegal, she broke through barriers to deliver results. She talks about how it was through taking her customer empathy and turning it towards her teams that she achieved results in this instance and in so many others.

“How employees feel about working on the products and how customers feel about working on products and how people feel about the brand of your company --  the culture informs the products that you build and the outcomes that customers experience.”

When asked what she thinks it will take to be an effective leader in tech over the next decade her response?

“I think it’s still the same thing that I thought it was 30 years ago, which is it’s about what technology can do to improve the human experience.”

Listen to Julie chat with our  Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.

Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs."

Listen to the full conversion with Julie Larson-Green