Getting the team together… 25 years later
What team dynamics led to ex-Microsofties still spending time with each other two and a half decades later
It was a beautiful, warm sunny afternoon in Seattle. The pool was a balmy 81 degrees. As I sipped my boozy tropical drink slowly, dipping my toes in the water, I looked around with a proud smile. My yard was full of former Microsoft colleges socializing with each other. What made this unique was that we had worked with each other back in the nineties. Yet still today, 25 years later, we continued to gather as a team and enjoy each other’s company on a regular basis.
This is a particularly dear topic to me after finally coming out of a long two year semi-isolation from the world. The industry shut down; we all hunkered down in our spare bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms and became little abstract meaningless squares on Zoom or GVC with no real attachments to one another. I changed companies in early 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. I had spent 11 years at Amazon and knew the culture and tech stack inside out, and had a vast network of people. All of a sudden, changing to Google, I didn’t know anybody or anything. My first year, when all of us were fully remote and the buildings weren’t even open, was particularly lonely and difficult. There’s a beauty in the power of shared experiences and bonding in a workplace, that no amount of remote work will give you. I’ve missed that oh so much. This beautiful, warm sunny afternoon in Seattle I was reminded just how much.
Most people may have a friend or two from a job they had decades ago, but… the entire team? Yes, every summer for the last 20 years, my wife and I have hosted a yearly “Microsoft potluck” at our house, the only exception being 2020 and 2021 due to covid lockdowns. And people have continued to show up, summer after summer.
What makes a team, or a group of people, so uniquely bond together in a work environment that they still enjoy each other’s presence after so long?
For me this adventure started in 1997. I was finishing a degree in Computer Science in Missouri and Microsoft flew me to Redmond for an interview loop. I was in awe. All of a sudden my world had expanded ten-fold from the tiny sleepy midwestern town where I did high school and college. Seattle was a huge, cosmopolitan city full of activities and culture. Microsoft dominated the software world and everybody wanted to be there. The sky was the limit.
I think one of the things that caused us all to bond so tightly was that for most of us this was our first job. Microsoft grew aggressively from 40,000 engineers to 100,000 engineers during my first few years there. This hiring explosion meant bringing in lots of fairly inexperienced engineers right out of college. My team was a tiny spinoff from Microsoft Research… in 1997 we were maybe 20 engineers, but by 2002 we were 500. With that came an innocence to some of the things that were surrounding us. Today, we’re more battle-scarred, after understanding that any job has dirty politics, the occasional injustice, sometimes people backstabbing each other, once in a while incompetent individuals put in leadership roles. These big companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) seem on the outside to operate seamlessly. After all, when was the last time amazon.com or google.com were down? But when you’re inside and you see some of the skeletons in the closet, and you learn ‘how the sausage is made’, you lose some of your innocence. There are part of amazon.com that are held together with duct tape and fairy dust, but somehow the website just works for millions of people — shockingly well!
We were also all very young. As most of us had been snatched up as we graduated from college, we were mostly in our early twenties. I was 21 when I started working at Microsoft. We had a ridiculous amount of energy and free time to spend with each other. We were new in town and we embraced each other’s company to explore the huge cosmopolitan city together and hike around the breathtaking nature of the Pacific Northwest. Today, in my late 40s and with two teenagers, I have nearly zero free time, so I have to be principled about where I spend my time, and how much of it. But back in my twenties, there were days where I would get caught in a little engineering challenge and spend 2, 3 days in the office (sleeping a few hours here and there on a sofa). The hallways of Microsoft in 1998 were buzzing with excitement and people walking around at midnight. Maybe somebody would grab you at 2am to go get some fried food at Denny’s. I remember one night, we decided we needed a break, hooked up a laptop to a projector in a conference and binged-watched four seasons of the Simpsons… then went back to coding till dawn. That intensity formed a bond that still lasts today.
I think because of a combination of innocence and youth, we all felt equal partners in an adventure. Levels were secret at Microsoft back then, and anyways, we were all still in shock big mighty Microsoft had picked us out of hundreds of kids and just happy to be here, without yet thinking about how to progress in our career. There was a sense of equality and community. We were itching to build something cool together, and trusted and depended on each other fully to make it happen.
My first team at Microsoft was NLG, the Natural Languages Group. Our goal was to empower computers to understand human languages. Today this may sound pretty mundane, as you regularly yell at your Alexa, your Siri or your Google Assistant. Twenty five years ago though, natural language understanding and speech recognition were in their infancy and for the most part science fiction.
I think that too had something to do with us forming a life-long bond. We all had the conviction that our work was going to change the world. I’m not sure I can claim that it actually did, but we genuinely thought it was going to, and that partly fueled our friendship too. The research we did in the field of natural languages at Microsoft in the nineties was revolutionary, and our engineers eventually spread out to Amazon, Google, Apple, Meta, Netflix, spreading what they had learned at Microsoft, so yeah, maybe we did change the world a little bit.
We all specifically chose that team. For some software engineers, where they actually work isn’t particularly important. A job is a job is a job. You write code, you fix bugs, right? Same no matter where you go. Not for me. I have always needed to be part of something bigger that I believed in. It doesn’t need to be world changing, but it needs to matter. I couldn’t think of anything cooler to do than to take science fiction and turn it into reality, like it was to talk to a computer in 1997 and have it talk back to you.
I think the majority of us had gravitated towards the team because we had specific interest in natural languages. This was Home. There were computational linguists, and native speakers in dozens of languages, as well as software engineers that had a passion for AI. Engineers were from Mars and Linguists were from Venus, but somehow we understood and liked each other.
I spent almost nine years there. We did eventually all go our separate ways. I left the Natural Languages Group circa 2006. That excitement of Microsoft-in-the-nineties died off with Steve Ballmer’s lost decade. I stayed around Microsoft for a few more years, then went on to spend 11 years at Amazon, and two and a half at Google so far. I made friends that I still hang out with in every one of those teams. But never the entirety of the team quite like that.
I’ve never been able to fully understand what made it so. But I suspect it was a combination of things… our age, our chemistry, the intensity and purpose of the job, the excitement of the company and the times. Maybe that’s just a once-in-a-lifetime combination.
I worry about kids that graduated from college in the last two or three years. The world they knew after their graduation was not the world I knew after my graduation. It was countless zoom meetings, muted, with their camera turned off and solitude in a spare bedroom. Maybe we’ll never go back to a world where people physically go to the office. I come to the office two or three times per week, and work from home the rest of the time. So I definitely take advantage of my newly given freedom to work remotely. I enjoy not having to drive to downtown Seattle, as that gives me an hour back of my life every day. I enjoy being able to see my family earlier in the day. I enjoy having a lunch date with my wife on a weekday. Teams that were in different parts of the world now can work seamlessly. I am the Tech Lead of teams in Seattle, New York, the Bay Area and Waterloo. All those little perks were the exception to the rule in 2019, and they are the norm today.
But that has come with a price. A huge price. We’ve become more disconnected with our co-workers. We’ve become more disconnected to our work place. During my time at Amazon, I traveled internationally probably 4–5 times per year. Sometimes it was to educate smaller satellites offices or amazonize new companies we had purchased. I visited 16 Amazon engineering offices in four continents… Amman Jordan, Iași Romania, Gdansk Poland, Berlin Germany, Madrid Spain, Dublin Ireland, London England, Beijing China, Tokyo Japan, Cape Town South Africa, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi in India, and San Francisco and Boston in the US. Some had 100 engineers, some had 1000 engineers. The time I spent in all these places gave me a huge amount of pride in the company for which I worked and the people that worked hard, had fun and made history with me. I had countless chats over breakfast, coffee, lunch and dinner where I bonded with folks. Being physically in front of each other mattered. People stopped being abstract names on an email and became humans and friends.
Maybe I’m just a dinosaur and the world has evolved. Maybe I’m just an extrovert in an industry of introverts. But I think the final proof will be: will you still want to hang out with the co-workers you have today in 25 years? I do, and I hope you do!