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One Year OutLiving the DreamEliot Cowley ’15 Lands at Microsoft

When Eliot Cowley ’15 was growing up, he spent a lot of time playing video games – Pokemon and Mario Brothers were his favorites -- and dreaming of someday creating new ones. A computer science and Japanese double major at Vassar, Cowley designed his first game for his senior project, and now he’s living his childhood dream as a gaming programmer at Microsoft Corp. in Seattle, WA.

Eliot Cowley ’15, gaming programmer at MicrosoftPhoto: Rick Dahms

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known exactly what I wanted to do, and it’s been kind of a blessing and a curse,” Cowley says. “But at Microsoft I’m combining my two passions, writing and programming.”

As a member of the company’s Games and Graphics team, Cowley works with developers from the company’s Xbox division and other game designers. “My typical day involves setting up meetings with project managers and software engineers to help them make new games and writing about them in laymen’s terms,” he says.

Cowley says he draws on the skills he learned at Vassar every day at Microsoft. “I totally credit going to a liberal arts school – and Vassar in particular – with helping me do my job,” he says. “The breadth of classes I took in my two different majors taught me different ways of learning, how to adapt quickly and learn on the go.”

Acquiring such critical thinking skills is important, Cowley says, in an industry that is evolving so quickly. “It’s super-important to have such skills when you’re constantly learning new technologies,” he says.

The first puzzle game Cowley developed with fellow student Cedric Chang

Cowley had hoped to take a course in gaming programming from Associate Prof. of Computer Science Thomas Ellman. When he learned the course wasn’t offered in his senior year, Cowley convinced Ellman to teach him the material through an independent study project. It was during this time that he and another student developed a 3D game. “It was a puzzle game that involved shooting a lot of lasers to open doors, but we never figured out a good name for it,” he says.

Cowley grew up in Katonah, NY, a small town about 40 miles north of New York City. He learned about Vassar early in his senior year when he won an award at his high school that was sponsored by the college. “I decided to make Vassar one of the 10 schools I applied to, and when I visited the campus, I was sold,” he says.

“The breadth of classes I took in my two different majors taught me different ways of learning, how to adapt quickly and learn on the go.”

When he began his job search four years later, it was a Vassar alum, a Microsoft programmer named Alex Koren ’13, who suggested he apply for a job there. Today, Cowley and Koren are members of the same project team, and three other Vassar alums are also employed in the firm’s Content Publishing division.

Cowley says he has had the opportunity to attend conventions and symposiums, meeting game developers and other experts in the industry outside Microsoft. “It’s really been fun to go to these events and meet developers who are using our platforms,” he says.

A project Cowley created for his computer animation class at Vassar

In his spare time, Cowley is learning to get around Seattle and working on some of his own gaming projects. “I’m trying to learn as much as I can, both within the company and on my own,” he says. “I just learned a new programming language called C-Plus that I anticipate will be important to know.”

Cowley says he had some initial reservations about working for a large corporation but says he’s been “pampered” at Microsoft. “All my interactions with my managers have been great—they all really want you to succeed,” he says. “We’re really well treated, from having free drinks at the vending machines to free shuttles to and from downtown Seattle.”

There’s plenty of room for advancement, too, Cowley adds. “It’s a big company, so it’s easy to move around and find all kinds of different work in the games department,” he says. “Landing at Microsoft has been pretty perfect.”