Children love bubbles and water fountains. Most adults tend to find more exhilaration from an incoming text. Sometimes, however, there’s that rarest of souls, a grown-up who manages to find beauty in both. Those are the types of people you want to be around, because their contagious joie de vivre delivers a jolt of energy to your ho-hum day.
Laura Butler, Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft, is one such person. Currently she’s standing in harm’s way for a photo shoot, underneath a massive metallic fountain at the Seattle Center. As the waterworks cascade down, Laura just laughs and twirls her umbrella, a modern-day Mary Poppins. “If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Inspiring words to live by indeed. If I had a second umbrella, I thought, I’d probably join her.
Such is the magnetism of Butler’s personality. She’s a funny and self-deprecating force of nature, given to free-form monologues that display humor, pathos and massive amounts of brainpower. “Laura’s incredible energy, intelligence, and dizzying stream of analogies leave you awed in the first five minutes of meeting her,” said Microsoft CVP and former boss, Darren Laybourn. Microsoft Technical Fellow Richard Ward, a longtime peer, concurs, adding, “You never walk away from Laura without learning something new.”
She’s quirky, a pop kitsch queen who freely mixes references to 80s anthems (Safety Dance), cult comedies (“Team America: World Police”), and Miss Piggy with nods to high culture (Dostoyevsky, “War and Peace,” and Horatio Hornblower). Her cats are named Pavlov and Curie, after the scientists. She’s a Star Trek fanatic with an autographed picture of William Shatner and a Spock cookie jar by her desk. She readily admits that she has a thing for the pointy-eared Vulcan and his logical, yet emotional charms.
Butler always carries a journal to scrawl notes. There’s a page devoted to television shows, movies, and books she wants to “consume,” another for book ideas she wants to write, to-do lists, little tactical notes for work, and one for potential inventions, such as an umbrella with a cup holder, that are brilliant in their simple utility.
As one of Microsoft’s early employees, she’s worked on products dating back to Word for Windows (she jokes that it was just a single Window back then). During her tenure at the company, she has helped design a long list of features, including a new user interface in Windows ’95, multi-monitor support, and Application and Desktop sharing in NetMeeting, a forefather to Lync. During the Windows Phone 7 revamp, she was the driving force behind the “Buttery Smooth” metro user interface, including the phone’s elegant home screen, live tiles, modern interfaces and touch capability.