Source: The Corydon Democrat

Remove Images

Microsoft’s Cortana has local roots

by Bobby Shipman

July 08, 2014

Harrison County native Susan Hendrich owns the personality behind Microsoft’s new personalized personal assistant, Cortana.
Susan Hendrich grew up a simple, Southern Indiana girl who enjoyed hiking, nature and just about anything outdoors.

She lived near Georgetown, just off Interstate 64.

"It was a great way to grow up," she said. "You could just walk out the backdoor into the woods, and that's before everybody had 'No trespassing' signs up. You could just take off through the woods and just go exploring."

Although she attended kindergarten in Milltown, she received the rest of her education at North Harrison, where she played tennis and enjoyed the math program.

She believes North Harrison gave her a good, solid education.

Hendrich, 36, now owns the personality of Microsoft's new "truly personalized, personal assistant," Cortana.

Growing up, Hendrich liked to watch her father, Paul Hendrich of New Salisbury, as he worked on cars.

"I started out as the official light holder, and then he was really good about explaining to me what he was actually doing," she said. "So, after a while, it all started sinking in and became pretty interesting. Eventually, one day, he started handing me the tools, and I really enjoyed that."

When it came time to decide the type of degree she wanted, Hendrich said mechanical engineering seemed the right fit.

While attending Purdue University, she interned at Hewlitt-Packard and then Allied Signal Aerospace Co., where she got to "blow up" turbo chargers.

After college, she went to work in the San Francisco Bay area for Applied Materials Inc., which sells equipment for constructing semi-conductors to companies like Intel.

About 1999-2000, the "dot-com boom" had Hendrich reconsidering her engineering career.

"While I really enjoyed mechanical engineering, I felt like I would really love the dynamic nature more of technology," she said.

Her next excursion into the world of engineering became her position as project manager at Lycos Inc.

"The engineering degree is such a great degree to have because a lot of the classes are really focused on teaching you how to solve problems," she said. "Whether you're solving problems on a mechanical engineering system or problems on software, oftentimes it's the same kind of critical thinking."

Hendrich grew tired of the steep living costs of the Bay area. She had been at Lycos three years and loved the tight-knit atmosphere of working for a small company — and the gourmet dinners served nightly — but missed the wilderness she played in so much as a child, she said.

"I really wanted to have the mountains super accessible, and I liked what Microsoft was doing," she said.

A friend of hers, who worked at Microsoft, constantly informed her about the "cool" projects they worked on, Hendrich said, so, she interviewed for Microsoft and got the job.

"Microsoft is a really great place for me to work as a woman. They're very much about creating an environment that is very supportive of women in tech, which I really appreciate," she said. "It's really about who has the right idea, the enthusiasm to get things done. It's a great place to really come and make things happen."

Hendrich has been with Microsoft for 11 years.

A few years back, Robert Howard, a co-worker of Hendrich's, came up with an idea.

"We are all busy people, right? We're always trying to juggle not forgetting to pick up the milk and making sure that I call my family at least once a week and all of these things that are going on in our lives," Hendrich said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could each have our own personal assistant to help us get things done and help us be the people we want to be in our lives?"

The idea was to have an easily accessible personal assistant for everyone; thus, Cortana was born.

Although she lives across the country, Hendrich returns to Southern Indiana often. Her mother, JoAnn Weathers Spaashelm, lives in Floyds Knobs. Her grandparents, Harold and Connie Weathers, live in Marengo. Her father is still in New Salisbury. Another grandmother, Katie Overton, lives in Corydon near the town square.

To help make her grandmother's life easier, for Overton's birthday, Hendrich bought her an iRobot Roomba, an automated vacuum cleaner that roams around and sucks up dirt.

At first sight of the contraption, Hendrich said her grandmother looked confused but, when it turned on and began spinning around in circles, Overton "squealed" with joy, Hendrich said.

Overton asked, "Oh, what should we name it?"

This memory stuck with Hendrich throughout the entire Cortana project.

"If you ask around, you'll probably find that a decent percentage of your friends have named their cars," she said. "It's really interesting, but a lot of us do go and assign inanimate objects personalities that bring us joy."

The name Cortana is derived from the fictional artificial intelligence character in the popular video game series Halo.

While working with the creators of the Halo games, Hendrich and co-workers decided they wanted their Cortana to have a similar air of confidence.

Cortana can be used to keep track of schedules, search information on the Web and more and is available for Windows Phone 8.1 operating system.

Hendrich also wanted to give the personal assistant a more playful side that users can have fun chatting with in their downtime.

For instance, if you were to ask Cortana, "Who is your daddy?", she would respond, "Technically speaking, that'd be Bill Gates. No big deal."

"From the personality perspective, we wanted to create someone who has a very strong ethical background, strong morals, just a pretty solid person," Hendrich said. "I definitely feel like growing up in Southern Indiana that was something that was really important. I feel like people there are just really good people, people you can trust, and so I definitely can see that connection."