From M&T to Microsoft: Catching up with Jason Xian (M&T ’21)

One of the most engaged and committed M&T community members in recent memory, Jason Xian is an alum of both the M&T Program, the M&T Summer Institute, and the QuestBridge Scholars program, to name a few of his many accomplishments. We caught up with him to learn more about his journey through Penn and what brings him to his new life in Seattle.

M&T: First, how did you first discover the M&T Program?

Jason Xian: I think a better question is, how did I discover the M&TSI program! So I discovered M&T because of M&TSI but how I discovered M&TSI, I guess, was first the realisation that M&T even exists. So, as I mentioned, I did ESAP, which is the Engineering Summer at Penn and that was just sheer coincidence. I applied to different summer programs during my sophomore year in high school or something like that and I ended up in ESAP biotechnology. There, I met a few people on campus who were sleeping at 1:00 am every night down the hall from me. We were like “Why are they still awake at such odd hours?” and it turns out, they were the M&TSI people.

So that’s how I actually found out about M&T – by meeting people through M&TSI and knowing that it was a hard program. Being a high school student who wanted to try everything, I was like “I want to try that program next year!” So, I tried that program out and ended up really loving it. I really loved the engineering side, especially just working with Sid on the labs, all the hardware. That even actually really influenced my decision to pursue electrical engineering [as a major] as well. It started with ESAP, went to M&TSI, from M&TSI, I learned about M&T and then you know, the whole thing is history now.

M&T: Did you apply to other schools in your college search process?

JX : So, I was a QuestBridge scholar, which is a program for underprivileged, first-generation students, and so I applied to different schools early through Questbridge. I applied to many of them. I don’t think I met the financial threshold to be fully accepted into any of them, and on the day that I didn’t get accepted to any of them I was really sad. But, at the same time, a few hours later Penn emails me and says, “We really loved your application. Can you apply to us Early Decision?” So, I was really confused like, “What happened there?” But I ended up saying yes to Early Decision so they put me in the Early Decision round, and then I got into Penn there. So, I don’t really know [which other schools] I got into. I guess Penn was my only choice, but at the same time, I did apply to a few other ones, but you know I really knew at that point that Penn was a good school. I had already been there through two summers, exploring the campus, I already had met a lot of friends like my whole M&TSI cohort; a lot of them were also applying to M&T as well. If not M&T, then Penn in general, so I thought it was a good choice, and that day getting a reaching hand from Penn, that was a really big moment for me and just saying yes to that, that was a big moment for me as well.

M&T: That’s wonderful. I didn’t realize there was that two-step process for Questbridge scholars applying to colleges, so that’s interesting to hear.

JX: Yeah I didn’t know either. I didn’t actually know you could ED while doing Questbridge, but I ended up still being in the QB community, which has been great for me.

M&T: So when you came to Penn, what would you say is the thing that has surprised you the most about your time here?

JX: I’m born and raised for 18 years in California and southern California, in the heart of LA so, I gotta say the snow. I’d never seen a drop of snow in my life, never felt the cold, and was deeply unprepared for the weather. So that’s why every time I talk to a new person from California I’m like “You got to do the preparation ahead of time, you’ve got to anticipate maybe 10 to 20 degree weather.” I think that’s unbearable for anyone in California, but you know it’s the reality.

M&T: That’s funny, I never would’ve thought of that.

JX: Yeah, it’s definitely one of the biggest ones. And you had only been here in the summers, so you would have never experienced that. Never, never. I didn’t know you had to wear inner clothing and layer up so much.

M&T: Yes, layering is important! What would you say in your time during college has been your most rewarding experience either academically, socially or professionally?

JX: This is more philosophical but the things about life that really stick out to you aren’t the things that are one-time events, they’re really the things that you do in the long term. Very small things you do and keep on doing them for a very long time. I think the memories are just of the empty office they’re just really sticking in my head, because I go there so often, and especially the second floor, just going there like between lunches or between classes during lunch. I think that’s just like a memory that would be with me for a very long time. Especially the study nights where a lot of us group together in the third floor office and just do math problems. I think, just the small individual moments, they just stick out so much to you over time. Of course, the free food as well. I think those moments are unbeatable and when you look back at what you did, I don’t think it’s actually the events or anything that I remember I think it’s the small things like the M&T office and going to M&T board meetings as well that that’s been like a whole three and a half to four years of my life, just every week persistently in the office, that’s been an incredible experience well.

M&T: Yeah that’s fantastic, and that speaks to the importance of creating spaces where people can get together and something that has been really lacking in the past year.

JX: Oh yeah, I miss it. I miss being able to just go in and talk to people. I didn’t know this at first, but I learned so much just by being there and just talking to other people about what’s going on in the world. I don’t get that experience at home.

M&T: In your time here, did you have any particular faculty professional or even peer mentors that really influenced you?

JX: I would say, Dr. Victor Presiado who was my Professor during my sophomore year in my first data science course, heavily influenced me to pursue data science and at the same time, he also offered me a position to TA his course during my junior year and senior year and, on top of that, during my junior summer leading into senior year, he and I tried to onboard his class on Coursera so we tried to make like a whole curriculum for that and making all these different projects for the students and everything that. That was incredibly rewarding for me both academically and just getting to know him as such an interesting person who’s definitely given me so much professional and academic advice and I think a lot of my success is really due to his help, helping him out throughout so much, and getting so much valuable advice from him.

And secondly, I can say, I would say, probably one of the biggest moments of my time at Penn was actually the take your friends out to the dining hall type of thing that the swipe exchange or whatever it’s called. During my sophomore year, I didn’t know who I was going to have dinner with, but you know I was randomly paired with a senior who I actually knew beforehand, but we didn’t frequently meet up. So I met Chris Lin, who was a senior, at the dining hall through that swipe exchange. And that was an incredible event because that just opened me up to Microsoft and learning about how he was going there as an intern and what the process would like there. So he taught me through the entire process I and heard about that from him, and he was even nice enough to refer me to the internship program, which was a huge step in my career as well.

M&T: I’m curious to learn a little bit more about your path to Microsoft, which is where you’re heading after graduation and correct me if I’m wrong, but your role is a Program Manager there?

JX: So, Program Manager is kind of a misnomer at Microsoft, it’s one of the lines of product management. So it’s just a misnomer there, but I did learn a lot about Microsoft from Chris Lin. He was so instrumental for me to apply beforehand, I didn’t even try to apply to a lot of the big tech companies until I talked to him during our lunch session. But my history of Microsoft goes back even before Chris. Because when I was in high school, you know, I was really into big tech companies – Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft. And during my freshman year, I wasn’t really anticipating this, but I saw so many events that came together during my freshman year. Adam Grant interviewed Satya Nadella who had just then become the CEO of Microsoft and he published his book, and so Adam Grant interviewed him in the Irvine Auditorium at that time. I got to see up front, you know the CEO of Microsoft and he gave everyone a free copy of his book and in this book he outlined the cultural changes that he was putting into place in the company, and that really stuck out to me a lot – especially the parts about making an impact on so many different people around the globe. How they’re working in India, how they’re working in developing countries. This was impacting a lot of people through advancements in technology, which really spoke out to me, in addition to the culture changes he was bringing along about not being a know-it-all but being about a learn-it-all, about having a growth mindset, those really stuck out to me during his conversation with Adam Grant. To me, that was one of the biggest goals that I had in college – I thought, “I really want to get into this company to do something big in technology,” Of course, I wanted to learn a lot along the way as well, and eventually when I had that conversation with Chris it really got me through the door and I felt that was like a huge stepping stone for me. And then, I guess, I always was interested in product as well, so I wanted to make a huge impact, and Microsoft just feels like such a great place to do that, because you have millions of customers, your products touch hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. I think it’s just a phenomenal place to be. And being in product, especially, where I can actually have a lot of influence over some of the features and product decisions. I find that really fascinating and I think you know, this is a perfect fit for me and especially my education as an M&T to just combine the business side and technology side.

M&T: That’s awesome I’m so excited for you to kind of see that journey come to fruition.

JX: I know, and it was so unexpected. And you know I remember, like my freshman year I was writing down what I wanted to do over the summers and I was like “I really want to go into Microsoft.” And you know everything just came together, and I’m so happy that that happened.

M&T: Yes, you’re doing it! So, did you intern with them previous to this year?

JX: Yeah I interned with them last summer in Azure, which is their cloud service, specifically in their media side, so they tried to use the cloud in order to help media companies like Disney, for example, try to put a lot of their computing resources into the cloud so that they can even reach more people and have a more stable infrastructure. S I was also doing product there, and that was very interesting because one, it was remote, and two, the people there are just so much smarter than me. I hate to admit this, but my main manager held two PhD degrees. So I always hear from people like Gad and others: be in a company where other people are smarter than you. I think Microsoft was the right place because of that, like literally my manager has two PhDs. So it was a very unique opportunity and I thought that even though it was remote, I felt like the very strong presence from the cultural side of things as well just hearing people talking about how you keep on learning and having a very strong culture.

M&T: It sounds like those are the kind of people that you want to keep learning from for sure.

JX: Yeah exactly.

M&T: So obviously your life is going to look pretty different. Once you get this work underway, what are you most excited for in this post graduation life of yours?

JX: Well, perhaps no more snow.

M&T: No more snow! Never again? We’ll never see you in the Northeast.

JX: There might be some snow. I think it’s just the freedom and flexibility of living on my own. I’ve had roommates throughout my four years, I guess three now. And so it’s actually going to be very interesting living alone in Seattle, which is also a totally different climate than California and the Northeast. It’s going to be super rainy. I think it’s going to be interesting – maybe I’ll hit up some of the mountains, do some hiking, do some skiing maybe (I’ve never skied before either, even in the northeast).  It always has to do with the weather for me, I don’t know why. As a Californian, the weather is so unique. I have never experienced four proper seasons before.

M&T: Yeah it’s true. Well I’m so excited for you, I think it’s gonna be a really wonderful next step and we’re so grateful to everything that you’ve done for the M&T community throughout. So just much appreciation for you and we can’t wait to see what’s next.

JX: Aww, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure working with every one of you guys from the admin to community to student board. And I’ve just learned so much throughout my time at Penn, not just academically but actually just growing as a person. I think it’s been such a phenomenal experience.