I left Microsoft in 2010 to join Facebook, after 12 years straight out of college. Though I then left Facebook in 2018, this article continues to express many relevant thoughts around careers and life.
Below is the email I sent to Microsoft colleagues on my last day there, in 2010.
12 Years of Randomness, Ended
Philip Su, Sept. 3, 2010
Microsoft has been an awesome place to work over the past twelve years. Today is my last day.
I’ve always been somewhat random, so I’d like to end this whole adventure true to form: quirky, controversial, optimistic, seat-of-the-pants, with rarely a satisfying explanation.
Don’t look for coherence below — you won’t find it. And if parts of this offend you, it’s probably because you don’t know me well enough — I offend people inadvertently all the time, almost as a rule.
Thanks for everything.
# # #
In college, I never thought I’d work for Microsoft. Then I interned in 1997 and fell in love: free sodas, individual offices (with doors!), Pentium 66’s — what more could a coder ask? Years later, my manager from the internship quit suddenly when his hard drive crashed, erasing weeks of code that hadn’t been checked in. He said it was a sign from God. I have no idea what he’s doing these days.
People often complain after getting a “bad” review that their manager has a distorted and inaccurate view of them. Don’t you think that, of all the people in the world, the person reviewed would have the most biased view of their own performance? I sometimes gently suggest this. People don’t believe me.
Choose carbs. Eat dessert first.
Use Occam’s Razor in interpersonal relations: look for the simplest, most straightforward explanation that assumes the best of everybody. Stay away from people who always have a conspiracy theory involving twisted office politics, unfulfilled Machiavellian ambitions, and unspoken agendas.
Anonymous college course evaluations often ask for the student’s grade in the class. Turns out that there’s a strong correlation between a student’s grade and their assessment of the professor’s abilities. I don’t listen too carefully when a poor performer tells me how awful their previous manager was. My ears perk up when a star performer constructively criticizes their management.
Bias towards action. “Litebulb” will drain your soul. [Ed: “Litebulb” is a reference to an email distribution list used within Microsoft to discuss various topics]
Words matter. Connotations matter.
If you consistently deliver what the business needs most, and you do it well, it’s impossible not to get promoted. People tell me this isn’t true, that it’s all about the people you know and about “visibility.” I have no idea how to consistently deliver impactful business results without becoming visible as a side effect. I hate it when developers ask me how to become “more visible.” They hate it when I tell them to “do great work.” They think I’m mocking them.
Be genuine. Never give advice for your own advantage. I’ve never once counseled a person to join my team or to stay on my team because I needed them.
Listen to understand. Speak to be understood.
Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Great ideas are usually laughed at. Neither sees the light of day without you taking action. Do the work to prove your idea, or stop talking about it. In an entrepreneurship class in college, I pitched the idea of an online grocery delivery service and got laughed off stage. Hurt, but convinced of my great genius, I returned the following week to pitch the idea of online movie rentals using the postal service. I called it NetVideo. Everyone thought it was absurd. I used to tell this story to bolster what I thought was my streak of unrecognized, prognosticating technical genius. These days, I tell the story to remind myself that in the end, only action and execution matter.
What’s your final level at Microsoft? Please don’t say CEO or Technical Fellow — I can almost guarantee you it’s not. A realistic appraisal helps you aim for the right things, and is also essential to happiness. A VP once told me that he had already attained the highest position he’d ever reach at Microsoft. It wasn’t false humility. It wasn’t sour grapes. He was confident in his abilities and ambitious about doing great work. He was just more grounded and self-aware than many, and thus more content. Don’t give up or sell out. Just know yourself.
If you only ever implement feedback that you agree with, you probably don’t need the feedback in the first place. For feedback to be useful, you must at least occasionally consider implementing feedback that you don’t initially agree with. How else will you discover your blind spots?
Good people with good process will outperform good people with no process every time.
– Grady Booch
Don’t fear process. Fear bad people dictating process. Fear process trying to make up for bad people.
I’ve managed almost 150 people across dev/test/PM. I estimate about 60% of employees think that they belong in the top 20% when ranked against their peers. I have never once had a person say that they belong in the bottom 10%.
What would Mini do? (Incidentally, one of my managers once asked me, in all seriousness, whether I was Mini-Microsoft. I guess you’ll find out after I leave.)
In a company as large as Microsoft, I guarantee you’ll find someone higher level than you who you think is worse than you. Don’t get stuck in this mental trap — it won’t motivate you to be your best. Look instead towards the person you admire most at your level. What can you learn from them? What unique strengths might you have which they don’t have?
A person is either passionate or they’re not. People who expect their manager to make their jobs fun and interesting won’t get far.
Once, at a Pizza Hut counter, I noticed that all the pens meant for signing credit card receipts had little flowers attached to their tops. Stuck together in a cup, the bunch of pens looked like a bouquet. I asked the cashier whether this was a new Pizza Hut policy. She said no — she had done it on her own. What would you pay to have her in your company?
Cynics don’t get anything done. Stop talking to people whose first response is always skeptical. They will crush you.
I had a coworker in Money who, by the time I joined in 1998, had already been at Microsoft for 15 years and could probably buy the county I grew up in. He drove a beat-up Datsun and coded every day in his office as an individual contributor. There is no doubt in my mind that he knows what he loves.
Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. It may change your life.
Offer me one great Microsoft engineer for five “solid” ones: I gladly take the exchange.
Practice articulating positions you disagree with faithfully and persuasively. Unless you can do this, you’re implicitly assuming that people who disagree with you are idiots. Smart people understand why smart people disagree.
People keep asking for executive accountability when something goes wrong. When’s the last time you saw a line engineer take accountability — real, public accountability, the type that says, “I screwed up. This needs to go on my review. I will make this right, or I will find another position”?
The team you want to join is the one that’s hard to get into.
If it seems easy getting a bunch of great reviews, you’re probably working on the wrong team.
Do you practice specific skills with repetition and intent? Athletes do drills. Musicians hone difficult passages. What do you do?
Mentees sometimes ask for the secret to my moderate career success. They’re disappointed when I tell them that it’s partially due to hard work. It sounds trite and preachy, like a public service announcement, like I’m commending myself for breaking a light sweat. As if they’d be more satisfied with an answer like, “I clawed my way up to middle management through shameless brownnosing.” My first year at Microsoft, I had a sleeping bag in my office and worked all the time. On weekends, I still write code to learn new technologies. I regularly read books about leadership, communication, management, and technology. Equally smart people fare differently in their careers partly based on the amount they’re willing to put in. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
Follow great people. Work for great people.
Above all else: Integrity. You must be able to trust who you work with and for. Theodore Roosevelt once fired a rancher who stole some neighboring cattle and added them to Roosevelt’s herd. When asked about this by incredulous friends, Roosevelt simply replied, “A man who steals for me will also steal from me.”
A PM once remarked of a former Microsoft VP known for being ultra-aggressive in meetings: “I’d rather have him pissing from my tent than into my tent.” Everyone within earshot chuckled at this witty political insight. I’d actually rather not have anybody pissing on any tents, mine or otherwise.
Organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.
– Conway’s Law (Melvin Conway)
Don’t ship the org chart.
– Steven Sinofsky
You can control outcomes with three types of approaches: a) People Control, where you decide who to hire, who to fire, and who to put in what positions; b) Action Control, where you tell people what to do; and c) Results Control, where you define the metrics of success. Know when to use which.
Isn’t it a neat feeling when you’re introduced to a coworker’s kids or spouse? For a moment, the bubble of work is burst. You imagine baseball games, music recitals, anniversary dinners. I remind myself of this when I get frustrated at people.
I love watching exceptional people do what they’re good at. It amazes and inspires me. I once saw an alleyway chef in Shanghai turn a basketball-sized clump of dough into hand-pulled noodles for a table of eight, amid a blur of arm movements in under a minute. Ever watch speed stacking? We each have astonishing potential.
Amidst some LCA controversy around “Dr. Who(m),” a site I worked very hard on creating after hours, I arrived at my office to find a handmade two-foot-high Dalek. Someone had taken the time to print, cut, and tape together a mascot to support me. What inspires people to this sort of kindness? I still don’t know who did this for me — but if you’re reading this, thank you.
Spend time with people whether they’ll be “useful” to you someday or not. Respond to emails whether from a VP or from a campus hire. This advice will likely make you less “efficient.” But it’s good advice nevertheless.
We used to get Dove Bars and beers all the time. It felt like free food was on offer at least once a week, usually with a pretense of some small milestone to celebrate. Why did we cut stuff like this? (I know the boring fiscal reasons why. I’m asking the deeper why, as in, “Was it worth the savings? Is Microsoft better now that we’ve cut these costs?”)
One day, a sign appeared on a soda fridge in RedWest saying something to the effect of, “Did you know that drinks cost Microsoft [ed: millions of dollars] a year? Sodas are your perk at work. Don’t bring them home.” This depressed me on too many levels to enumerate, but I’ll toss out a few:
- Someone had enough time to get these signs professionally printed and affixed to our fridges.
- It was someone’s salaried, 40-hour-a-week job to do things like this.
- Someone thought soda smuggling was a big enough “problem” at Microsoft to draw attention to it.
How much soda can a person steal? How much does that same person cost the company per hour in salary and benefits? Our most interesting profits will come from capitalizing on huge opportunities, not from micromanaging costs. I’m sure some finance person will lambast me for this, which would only further depress me. Believe in our upside. Focus on our upside.
Leadership is the art of getting people to want to do what you know must be done. This was told to me third hand; I’ve unfortunately lost the attribution. [ed: I’m told this was said by Eisenhower]
What have you enjoyed most in your time at Microsoft? What made that experience great? How can you do more of that?
What would you do if you hit the lottery? How can you do some of that right now?
Individuals are the sole cause of anything that’s ever happened.