It's a small thing, but fun. Today I was given my 5-year service award for Microsoft. With a brief ceremony and a few jokes about how much more gray hair I have these days, I am now the proud owner of a new conversation piece. Just like Star Trek, I have a crystal that is seemingly capable of recording my memories and replaying them at will.
Unfortunately I don't have the glamorous history of so many people at Microsoft have. I do not have an expensive MBA, nor was I a catch in the college recruiting net. I do not wear the badge of having managed a failed startup / VC-backed thing. I was / am an "industry hire" with a surprisingly boring history of working on very successful products and services. I worked on Adobe Acrobat and PDF for a long period of time. I worked for a company named System, Integrators, Inc. Once a leader in the monolithic newspaper publishing automation space. I was a System Engineer there, working on Tandem hardware, installing systems, doing Y2K conversions, and writing routines in languages like TACL, RGEN, FGEN, FUP and a few other favorites.
I chose to work for Microsoft expecting to find great people building great products. I expected a highly competitive, smart work environment. I expected that the talent level at Microsoft would be the highest that I would have ever seen. In joining the Office team and one of the largest and most significant franchises in the brief history of software, I expected to find a caliber of leadership that exists in very few places.
I must say that my expectations have been exceeded in almost every instance. The IQ of each individual in this company is amazing. The per-capita talent level at Microsoft is something that one must witness in person to truly understand. It can work against you on occasion, when you have too many smart people asking hard questions. But on the whole, I will continue to bet on Microsoft long after I am gone because of the discipline the company has for finding, selecting, cultivating and utilizing talent.
Things I have worked on / with or Titles I have held:
- Sr. Product Manager, Microsoft Word
- Sr. Product Manager, Microsoft InfoPath
- Sr. Product Manager, Open XML
- Group Product Manager, Office Technical Product Management
- Group Product Manager, Office for IT Professionals
- Group Product Manager, Office for Developers
Most of my role at Microsoft (despite the numerous titles) really revolves around doing more with data, and improving portability of information between our applications and other systems. Data portability is a concept that I learned and practiced building newspaper production automation systems (that were invented in the mid-1980's). For all the hubub about XML, SOA, Services-based computing, etc., this central idea really has not evolved much. Certainly the technology has changed a lot, but the end goal is still the same - enabling information exchange between systems and applications to enable better information exchange between people. (There's a famous saying at Microsoft about "Solving any problem through abstraction" - sorry for "abstracting" a bit here. In truth the problem is complex, nuanced and fiercely competitive among software vendors.)
I'll end the ramble here with a thought - for the readers from other software companies, a bit of a challenge to you.
Microsoft is great as an employer for many reasons, but one in particular that is worth highlighting is the competitive fire and spirit that burns in the core of so many individuals here.
I once worked for an employer who regarded competitors in a very unhealthy way. I won't quote some of the statements that were particularly offensive, to avoid internet searches that might reveal the identity of those people. But I'll just summarize it by saying that when issues / publicity about competitive products surfaced, the general mentality set by leadership (and therefore employees) was "how dare you?" As if they were viewing other companies who dared build similar products as a personal affront. Part of my reason for leaving the job was this mentality. competitors were innovating, and the company was responding by sending MBA's into business strategy reviews to "Fix" it.
Microsoft is quite different. A very important moment from early in my Microsoft career was when I watched Steve Ballmer on stage at a meeting talking about competition. I'll spare the context, but I have a very vivid impression of him standing there, rolling up the sleeves of his powder blue button-down shirt, saying "Bring it on." - Never was there a more concise encapsulation of the mentality of this company. It isn't about MBA's in a strat review for us - it is about engineers writing code and innovating. We focus on the product, and we are strongly committed to our customers and their success.
It is for this reason that I stay at Microsoft. We're not always perfect, there is definitely a "bleeding edge" to brining new products and technologies to market. As we stand on the front end of the Office 2010 launch, though, one can't help but have a very good feeling. When we get it right, the impact on how people interact with computers is profound and long-lasting.
Here's to hoping the next 5 years are as gratifying as the last.