Geek of the Week

With 25 years at Microsoft, Mike Tholfsen is old fashioned — and a champion of schooling accessibility

Mike Tholfsen at a global Educator Exchange event in Budapest, Hungary, where Microsoft brings in more than 400 Microsoft in Education experts from over around the world. (Photo courtesy of Mike Tholfsen)

Long before COVID-19 thrust how we teach and learn using technology into an uncomfortable spotlight, Mike Tholfsen was imagining the tools that would make learning more inclusive and empowering for students of all abilities.

Tholfsen, our latest Geek of the Week, is a principal group product manager on the Microsoft Education team. He’s spent more than 25 years at the tech giant, and now leads the creation of many products and features for educators and students.

Most recently, he worked on Immersive Reader, which helps students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, as well as non-native speakers and emerging readers. The tool, with 23 million monthly active users, is built into over 20 Microsoft apps and platforms including Word, OneNote, Teams and more.

The pandemic has only solidified Tholfsen’s views on accessibility and inclusion, and why it’s even more critical that we don’t leave students behind.

“Some of the most negatively impacted during remote learning are students with disabilities, and as I’ve seen personally, free technology tools can make a world of difference,” Tholfsen said, adding that, in reaction to remote learning needs, Microsoft has sped up certain projects, some updates have been released to customers and others are forthcoming.

With a daughter in the midst of remote learning, Tholfsen marks one net “positive” from the current situation in that she’s been forced to be much more independent with keeping track of exactly what she is doing across multiple classes, probably a younger age than would have happened in the natural flow of in-person schooling.

Being so tuned in to the needs of educators, it’s hard not to picture Tholfsen as a teacher himself.

“I have a huge admiration and respect for the work educators do,” he said. “My dad was a university professor for a while, and while I’d like to hope I would have been a good teacher in a parallel universe, it’s hard to say.”

Tholfsen credits the ability to positively impact people at a global scale as the number one reason he has stayed at Microsoft for so long, and he likes the hack culture, accessibility focus, and renewed efforts in education championed by CEO Satya Nadella.

When he’s not immersed in “school” work, Tholfsen likes to geek out on writing and recording music in his home studio. Things have come a long way since the dawn of digital recording and the web.

“Fun fact — my college band was one of the very first on the internet, back in 1993, with IUMA (the digital Underground Music Archive) with songs that anyone in the world could download,” Tholfsen said. “It was such a big deal that our local newspaper wrote a big article about it.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Mike Tholfsen:

What do you do, and why do you do it? In short, I help make learning more accessible and inclusive. I love to talk with educators and students to better understand what they need and then work with our engineers and designers to turn those ideas into product reality. Every day, I field questions from teachers and help them learn how to use the free tools we have within Teams and Office to engage and support all of their students. I’ve seen first-hand how much these tools can positively impact people’s lives and want to continue to build products, as well as share tips, to not only save time but learn new things in a simple and concise way.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Microsoft Education is having somewhat of a renaissance right now. We’ve spent a great deal of time engaging with the education community and listening closely to them. We’ve rapidly improved our products and services, and done some cutting edge things with accessibility and assistive tech as well. One of the biggest misperceptions I see is that some people still think of us as Windows-only, and expensive software. However, Microsoft Education products are free, work across platforms, and have cutting edge capabilities. When I show off some of the current free capabilities across Teams and Office, I often find people are pleasantly surprised with the offerings.

Where do you find your inspiration? The ability to positively impact people at scale, especially in education, charges my engines. Especially in the space of assistive technology and accessibility, there is so much opportunity to help so many people. Because Microsoft is a company with global reach, amplifying that impact is about as motivating as it gets for me.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? OneNote! It’s my one stop shop that helps me save time, organize and collaborate. I specifically love being able to create Class Notebooks – this houses all reference materials for students, and is convenient to store materials you want students to read, view and reference easily and often.

(Photo courtesy of Mike Tholfsen)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Like many people during COVID-19, my workplace is now at home. My primary machine is a Surface Laptop and I splurged on a 49” monitor, a good web cam, better lighting, and a good microphone. I also sometimes will go out to my home studio for a change of pace.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) The one thing I suggest to anyone looking to keep on top of work and life is make sure you have a productivity system to organize and track whatever you are doing and who you are communicating with. Everyone can use a different system, but you need to find or develop one that works for you and then stick to it religiously. I’ve found one that works for me with a combination of OneNote and Outlook, and it allows me to not lose track of things or miss deadlines.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Kirk.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Focus on assistive technology and accessibility solutions. I think this is one of the greatest opportunities to help empower people through tech. With AI and other cognitive services rapidly improving, many people who have been left behind in the analog world will have equal access in the digital world.

I once waited in line for … A John Denver concert

Your role models: – My Dad – a very sharp guy who helped foster a strong work ethic, persistence and early tech passion.
– My Montessori school teachers from age 2-8 years old. The most amazing educators I ever had who focused on creativity, a holistic view of learning, and fostered a consistent feeling of wonder.
– Satya Nadella – yes, he’s our CEO, but he is a leader who fuses mission, purpose, empathy and deep technical acumen into a single package. I’m a big fan.

Greatest Game in History Lode Runner.

Best Gadget Ever: Sony Walkman.

First Computer: Apple II+.

Current Phone: iPhone 11 Pro.

Favorite App: Flipgrid.

Favorite Cause: American Cancer Society.

Most important technology of 2020: Cognitive services and AI.

Most important technology of 2022: While I hope we have a COVID-19 vaccine fully deployed by 2022, I suspect that vaccine development and production technology will continue to be a focus for the future.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Whatever it is you are passionate about, stay persistent. Many of the things I have had success with took years of determination and tweaking and iterating. Getting something boot strapped into reality is hard and takes time and effort — but stay persistent and you’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Website: Mike Tholfsen on YouTube 

Twitter: @mtholfsen

LinkedIn: Mike Tholfsen

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