Erin Hoover, a Northern Virginia Community College student, was making a sculpture from tiny Lego blocks. But she also was trying to make a pointWomen need to feel more welcome in software development and other "nerdy" technology jobs.
Miss Hoover´s assemblage, concocted during a session at the Microsoft Developer´s Conference, sponsored by the Redmond, Wash.-based firm, showed a woman at the top of a tall staircase.
The significance of the image was not lost on the 20 or so self-proclaimed techies taking part in the exercise sponsored by WomenBuild, a small grouping within Microsoft that's looking to find and develop female software "stars" of the future.
"This is not about getting in a room to experiment, but to let women know they're not alone; that creates a community," said Lindsay Rutter, a Microsoft "development evangelist" who confessed to the crowd that she "likes to go around and play with Legos."
Miss Rutter and Asli Bilgin, another Microsoft developer and Lego enthusiast, were a big hit at the developer´s conference, which drew 380 attendees to a hotel in Reston on Friday for seminars on new Microsoft technologies and products.
Key to the firm´s 2009 plans is the expansion of "cloud computing," where the operating system and applications reside on servers owned by Microsoft with space and bandwidth rented by users, said Bob Familiar, also an "evangelist" for the firm.
"This is the computer version of Edison versus Tesla, of direct current versus alternating current," Mr. Familiar explained. Tesla won out, he said, because power plants could be located remotely and the electricity delivered over wires as a service. Cloud computing works on a similar principle, he asserted.
Along with the "cloud," Microsoft is pushing the Beta version of Windows 7, its new operating system widely viewed in computing circles as a fix for the problems unleashed on many users by the 2007 launch of Windows Vista.
The new operating software, available for a 30-day trial download at www.windows.com/windows7, can take advantage of touch-screen displays found on desktops from Hewlett Packard and other makers to "zoom" and shrink views of documents. The software also has a desktop interface more reminiscent of Apple Inc.´s operating software, with some preview tweaks not found on the rival´s product.
But for the Lego handlers, assisted by a "facilitator" who encouraged the budding builders to talk about their creations, the new OS was secondary to the chance to get women moving through the echelons of technology.
"It's fun, it's creative," Miss Hoover, 19, of Sterling, Va., said of her training in Web design and now computer-based graphic design. "There's a side of me that likes to 'code,'" she added, referring to writing programs, "and a side that is really, really artistic. This combines the two."
She said that colleagues aren't put off by having a woman in the tech mix: "The only person I get hassles from is my mom because I changed majors," Miss Hoover said. "She thinks I should be in [regular] information technology."
Mekka Williams, an engineer with North Carolina-based Network Appliance in Research Triange Park, held up her model that showed a tiny "eye" representing a woman against a large "male" figure.
"This represents opportunities women may not be aware of, because they don't have the networks," she said.
Miss Bilgin, who previously developed complex financial modeling applications for a unit of Credit Suisse and other Wall Street firms, now spends her time promoting Microsoft's products to the financial community - and looking for ways to bring more women into the mix. The "WomenBuild" effort, which already has its own page on the Facebook social network, is finding a ready audience, she said.
"It's growing faster than I wanted it to. I keep saying, 'baby steps, baby steps,'" Miss Bilgin said. "I didn't realize the guys would care so much" about increasing diversity.
At the same time, the long hours and isolated nature of software engineering - programmers often work alone - are among the stereotypes Miss Bilgin has to battle.
"Like the ones about wearing a blue shirt and khakis," she replied. "I write code, and I don't wear khakis."