My father was a product of post-Independence India and worked in all of three companies in his entire professional career. As I finish 15 years in the only job I have ever had, I realize I am fast emulating him.
Fifteen years have flown by since I walked in for my first day at Microsoft in the IEOESE team. The acronym that is quite a mouthful stood for Internet Explorer Outlook Express Sustained Engineering. Those were days when the company had abandoned development of the browser. It was a nondescript team in a rather large company. In the fifteen years that have followed, I have worked on teams big and small, projects earth-shattering and mundane, in buildings old and new, in circumstances happy and frustrating. It has not been a spectacular career, but one that I am proud of.
To mark the milestone, I thought it might be an interesting excercise to talk about the things that stand out for me — the exciting, the exasperating, the quirky and the inspiring. Here goes.
“It is all about the people, stupid”.
There is a distinct advantage of working in a place where you are rarely the smartest person in the room. To my advantage, I made my peace with it very early in my days at Microsoft and have benefited from that. This place thrives with intellectual horsepower and the leaders have had the unenvious task of harnessing it, often times unsuccessfully. I have had the privilege of befriending exceptionally gifted people like Eric Lawrence and witnessing the growth of leaders like Scott Guthrie.
The Global Address Book. Quite literally.
One of my colleagues in the Dynamics AX team had done the interesting excercise of having his colleagues write his name in their native languages. Half of his board was occupied with scribbles and wiggles in scripts from all over the world. The diverse backgrounds that people come from influence and shape the software that we shipped. The multi cultural experience that began with my graduate studies blossomed into a complete education in my years spent in Seattle.
Adamant and Vehement
I have had a running joke that Microsoft only harbors three types of personalities — type A, type A++ and type A+++. This comment was not plucked out of thin air. From the very beginning of my career, there was a strong dominance of the table thumping, domineering personalities who’d cut people out mid-sentence and act as if they owned the room. I could have been forgiven in thinking that was the only way to grow in the company which was at odds with my own personality. Thankfully, I have seen that culture change over the years and I have seen more accommodation and respect for those who don’t necessarily want to shout to be heard.
“Dude, where’s my office?”
When I joined the company, I had my own space. A cozy little room in the serene building 2 on the Microsoft main campus. You could forgive me for thinking that this was how the future was going to be. I had small offices and large, window offices and inside offices, offices with wooden door and sliding glass panels. I had many such offices, but I always had an office to park myself in. Until the time that Microsoft gave into the open office concept. I don’t do well in commotion. I like my space to think, to do my work. That becomes difficult in an environment with noise that could mirror a fish market at times. I am not a fan of the open layout and perhaps it might be a clear indicator that I am aging.
Microsoft has a great culture of philanthropy. Bill Gates was the man who led with the torch and over the years, the company has followed in his footsteps. Every year, thousands of Microsoft-ies donate their time and money to causes they deem worthy with a fullness of spirit and openness of heart. As a company which has often been termed the ‘evil empire’, the amount of goodwill it generates is tremendous. I have personally enjoyed being involved in the Give campaign and doing my bit.
Manager or Damager?
There is a truism that your career at Microsoft is inexorably dependent on what your manager thinks of you. It is a company of hierarchies, of layers upon layers, and the key to your success more often than not is dependent on what your manager thinks of you and how he or she represents you. As is the case with everything in life, my managerial spread has been a mixed bag.
Dullness, be gone!
When I joined the company, there was another SDET on the team who was asked to mentor me. He was a decent chap to work with and looked like Leonard Nimoy. Little could I have guessed what happened with him when one day his office was sealed and all his computers taken. It turns out he was accused of eco-terrorism and had fled somewhere in his private two-seater airplane that had been tucked away somewhere in rural Washington. The place never slackened after that and I have many such exciting incidents added to my bag of Microsoft memories in the past decade and a half.
Super adjective driven
Everything is “super” exciting. Everything is a “super” achievement. Every adjective is ordinary unless it is elevated by the supremely superfluous serial “super”. If there is anything that typifies Microsoft speak, it is the use of this adjective
There are TLAs (three letter acronyms) for everything. When I would move from team to team and project to project, it would take me a lot of time to make sense of what they stood for. TLAs are the vexing problem that all managers solve before they actually solve the problem at hand. It is as if without the naming of the project with three letters, the project cannot be started at all.
Email is king
I am sure there are stats out there that explain how much email an average information worker sees. Double that and I am sure that might be roughly the number Microsoft employees see. We are an e-mail heavy company. Some of it is historical. Some of it is pragmatic because we are so far spread out. As a person who finds it comforting to articulate using the written word, I have only contributed to the burgeoning mass. I have had people send me e-mail and walk over to my office to tell me to check my e-mail. The medium is non-negotiable.
When your work and life hangs in balance!
Work life balance is an overwhelming part of the conversation at Microsoft, as it rightly should be. As a company, it offers a great array of benefits and one with that I have greatly valued is its emphasis on ensuring that its employees enjoy a good work life balance. I have always believed in pursuing my many interests outside work and my years in Redmond never interrupted that pursuit. Working from India has challenged that status quo though, what with the night calls and the work day stretching itself to accommodate for the commute.
Building the same product. Twice.
Only a company as large and profligate as Microsoft can get away building competing solutions for solving the same problem. For years, product development was driven by organizational (read, head of organization) aspirations. The current CEO Satya Nadella has been attempting to put an end to this culture of competition but it will be some while before “One Microsoft” truly unites to tackle existential challenges. I am optimistic that there is much more that it can achieve when it crosses this hurdle.
“Developers, developers, developers”
The spectacle of Steve Ballmer rallying the crowd with his truly infinite reserves of energy is a sight to behold. I got to witness it multiple times in Seattle during the large company meetings that were once an annual fixture. They were akin to going to a picnic with your team. There were obviously hundreds of projects vying for attention in the videos and the demos and if you didn’t pay enough attention, your work would whiz past you in a blink and you miss it moment. The company meetings are now considered a largesse but I always enjoyed seeing the greater community of Microsofties come together.
For years, the stock stayed as calm as the surface of a windless lake. There was no turbulence. Little movement. Other tech companies came and surged but the stock reluctantly stayed put. Until recently. Working inside the company, it is sometimes difficult to correlate the enthusiasm of the stock market to the sentiment inside the corridors and vice versa. But I’ll take the upward movement. The day I joined the company, the stock was worth $25. Today, it is $95. You are welcome!
The Little Things
It is the little things that have stayed with me over time. The orange paper cups with Microsoft written over them in the cafeteria, the T-shirts and water bottles from various teams becoming mementos long after I have left it, strolling around the Microsoft main campus sheathed in its own history and fallen leaves in autumn, wearing that little blue badge as a mark of belonging, of honor, celebrating the shipping of products with your fellow workers and drinking that Farmer’s brothers coffee from the kitchen while being completely unaware of how stale it is. The plaque of awards that adorn my desk — the patents, the 5,10 year completion prisms, the ship-its marking the various products I have shipped. They are little markers, little reminders of a journey that is growing in miles.
There is of course much more to my Microsoft experience and I am keen to see what new additions make it to this list when (if) I get to the figure of 20!