Xbox Kinect architect, Dawson Yee, wins 2019 College of Engineering Alumni Merit Award for ECE

Yee gave advice to students on how to best prepare for a career helping produce the next generation of high-tech electronics.

Dawson Yee and Mingyan Liu Enlarge
Dawson Yee and Mingyan Liu, the Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of ECE during Homecoming 2019.

“Why are we here?” Dawson Yee asked a packed classroom during his Homecoming presentation. “It’s probably because there are cookies and coffee.”

The audience laughed and settled down to listen to the Hardware Systems Architect of the Xbox Kinect, the fastest-selling product in consumer electronics history, reflect upon his career.

Yee (MSE EE 1987) is a System Engineer – Azure Hardware, Quantum Computing at Microsoft. Prior to this position, he was Hardware System Engineer & Architect for HoloLens. The HoloLens is a “mixed reality” device, or Microsoft’s version of augmented reality. It uses multiple sensors and advanced optics to generate holograms that display information, blend with the real world, or even simulate a virtual world.

Karen Fireman, Khalil Najafi, ad Dawson Yee. Enlarge
From Left: Karen Fireman (2019 Distinguished Alumni Service Award Winner), Khalil Najafi (Schlumberger Prof. of Engineering, Arthur F. Thurnau Prof., and former Chair of ECE), and Dawson Yee (2019 College of Engineering Alumni Merit Award Winner for ECE) during Homecoming 2019.

Yee joined Microsoft in 1998, working on projects such as Microsoft Surface (the Interactive Table) before becoming the Director of Devices for Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group. He joined the Xbox team in 2008, and from 2009-2013, he was the Hardware Systems Architect and Engineer for both Xbox 360 Kinect and Xbox One Kinect.

Prior to joining Microsoft, he was at Intel for 10 years working on Mobile systems, Xeon processor, Intel Architecture Labs, USB, Server systems, and Desktop systems. He started at Intel as the motherboard design engineer for an 80386SX-16 MHz system. Yee is author of more than 80 granted and pending patents. He is also a member of the ECE Advisory Council.

Yee returned to campus during Homecoming this year to accept the 2019 College of Engineering Alumni Merit Award for ECE. This award recognizes alumni who have achieved significant success in either academic, governmental, and/or industrial positions. Awardees are regarded as leaders in their respective fields.

“I seldom see a seminar room this packed and full of eager students, and Dawson didn’t disappoint!” said Mingyan Liu, the Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of ECE. “His wealth of knowledge and experience as a hardware engineer working in major software companies offers unique perspectives to our students, and does a fantastic job connecting the dots between what they are currently learning in classrooms and their future careers in tech.”

Dawson Yee presenting to a packed classroom Enlarge
Dawson Yee presents his talk, "How to prepare to work on the next Xbox, Kinect, Hololens, or Quantum Computer," during homecoming 2019.

The cornerstone of Yee’s talk was about following your passion. He quoted Mark Twain, saying, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Yee said it took him many years to discover that he was born to be Mr. Fix It.

“Mr. Fix It just means that I like to learn how things work, and when I found out how things work, then I can apply it to engineering principles,” Yee said.

Yee said that he was most successful when following his passion to learn how things work and apply that information to make new things. While he was a successful manager, he said that climbing the managerial ladder didn’t necessarily make him happy, and we need to redefine what “success” is in the world of industry.

“There’s different aspects of growth,” Yee said. “Always remember you have choices.”

Yee also stressed the importance of always learning, and he shared several personal anecdotes to illustrate how he learned these lessons himself.

“There’ll be times where you’re going to feel down, but just keep going, because if you have the fundamental knowledge, it will carry you through so much,” Yee said.

Additional advice Yee offered included:
• Let your manager know what’s important to you by writing it in an e-mail so it comes up on the agenda.
• Delegate. When pressed for time, do the things that only you can do, and let other people take care of the rest.
• Prioritize. Everything is important, so do what is urgent and important first.
• Assume that you know nothing. It’s important to always do your research and be thorough on any project.

Throughout his talk, Yee spoke about how we must all be grateful to those who supported us. He credits his wife, who passed away in 2017, for helping him to find out “why he was born.”

“What was important to her was educating students, and so I really wanted to be here to give back, mentor, help,” Yee said. “Think about others before you. Your professors, your teachers, all the people who have done all the research, all the papers you read, all the articles you read – they have all given you this knowledge to add to your toolbox. They gave this because they felt that it was a good thing to do.”

Yee encouraged everyone to try and give back in some way, even if it’s years from now. He said to remember that as much as you chose U-M, U-M also chose you, and we’re all a Michigan family. For those who can give money, he said to give consistently, even if it’s a small amount, and to direct the donation to the department you want to support, which lets Michigan know that “you remember, care, and are thankful.”

“Do great things as engineers,” Yee said. “Go change the world. You have the capability. You’re in the Major Leagues now, okay? Pass the knowledge forward, and remember where you got it from.”

Watch Dawson's talk here.