From: Mike Zintel
Date: Monday, July 15, 2019
Subject: 25 Years …
[ edited to remove personal and confidential info, trim most incomprehensible ramblings and eliminate the proper noun Cthulhu ]
Is Microsoft a good company?
(tl;dr: it is)
In my youth, the thought of working for Corporate America invoked Kafkaesque imagery. I dreamed of a life of original and authentic experience, not serving the man. What I didn’t get at the time is that these things required more than dreams. They required confidence, knowledge, maturity. And money. I was surprised to learn how expensive original and authentic experience was, unless that experience was being uncomfortable and afraid.
In America first you get the job. Then you get the money. Then you get the original and authentic experience.
Corporate America is where the jobs were.
My first job was writing accounting software, at a company in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. 6 of us designed, wrote, debugged, documented, sold, installed, and supported a substantially complete multi-user package including point-of-sale.
Over the years I forgot how hard it was. When Terry asked for iTunes+Amazon in 24 months, at Windows scale, backwardly compatible with everything ever: Sure. How hard could that be.
Now we know: Devilishly hard, in ways I didn’t expect. But not impossible. And well worth it.
The meme these days is that we are a good working to become a better company. The largely unspoken implication is that we weren’t. There’s truth to this. But it’s an over-simplification. In the late 1990s, I was making concrete plans to exit not just this company but the industry. I was working for and with a handful of difficult people. Fortunately, the stock market crashed, and I decided that a paycheck would be handy at least until I figured things out. I’ve been figuring since then.
I changed jobs within the company, and encountered some of the finest people I had ever worked with. For the next 20 years I have been fortunate to work for and with many hard-working, intelligent, creative, honorable people. Good people.
Back then we had a sense that something profound was happening, and while we were well positioned to contribute to it, success was far from assured. Indeed, it was often a long shot. It’s hard to really appreciate how bold Bill and Steve were – bold in vision and bold in follow-through. Microsoft brought a global scale and economy to the industry the world had not seen before.
The ethos at the company then was that there was huge opportunity here, but you were expected to work for it. You had to be talented, a hard worker, adaptable, and tough. Managers, candidates and employees generally understood this.
The work ethic, and the leadership’s stamina was critical to success. You simply couldn’t build a company like Microsoft (or Intel, Oracle, Amazon, etc.) without it. We often stumbled and fell short, but we stood up, dusted off, and dove in for another release.
But it was rough and tumble.
Most leaders thought they were doing what was necessary to succeed. And there was a lot of money to be made and lost quickly. This is a climate where values are tested. I learned a lot about people, good and bad. I didn’t like everything I saw in others and myself, and made some changes. Even the difficult times helped me grow as a person, and later to be a more effective manager and, later still, a leader.
Microsoft was early adopter of profit sharing at a broad scale. The goal was to succeed together.
At Microsoft, I met many people of different backgrounds and life experience. And people were open, and curious. And generally respectful.
Microsoft took chances on people without regard to their education, country of origin, or any other factor beyond their ability and willingness to work hard and write good code.
IBM or Kodak would not have hired me when Microsoft did. I was not credentialed or polished.
Regardless of how good or bad we were in Redmond, one thing that is true is that we changed the world. For the better.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen truly mind blowing improvements in many things: material science, health care, manufacturing, energy, shipping and supply chain logistics, entertainment, communication and more. Cars, motorcycles, boats and planes are safer, more reliable, more comfortable and more fun. Travel to remote destinations is a delight. Libraries, monthly magazines and a set of Encyclopedia Britannica are no longer the only source of information to most people.
Cheap, compatible and approachable computing and networking are the underpinning of all of this innovation. And Microsoft and Intel and others made this possible at global scale.
It is good. Very good indeed.
Some folks know that I’ve been thinking about retiring for several years now.
I thought this might be a hard transition. It is.
On one hand, I love building deep, powerful systems that scale and last a long time. We’re building one right now. We have the right team, the right strategy and the right system. And we’re not done. I love sharing what I’ve learned about how to do this, and I love learning from you about how to do this.
But I really did start my career as a photographer, and I never really gave up on that.
I’m at the point in life where I’m starting to think about time as being a scarce and precious thing. A thing you have to use increasingly wisely. I think my family would give me an OK, mostly for being there, and mentally present so far. But as I get older I find myself not thinking I wish I had spent less time with my loved ones so I could have worked more.
It’s going to be a bit hard not being the “boss”. Anyone who tells you that being the boss does not come with considerable advantages is not being truthful. On the flip side, it creates a necessary distance between you and others that I understand but dislike. People want to ghostwrite what you write and say, lest you go off message. A handful of people learn to manage you. You being to wonder about these things. It’s easy to lose yourself in the comfort of it all. To lose the edge.
Do not lose the edge. Never stop building wonderful things. Never stop being curious, and never know so much that you cannot learn more.
A few things I’ve learned by building things:
TCP/IP scales well. VPN is useful. Large interoperable networks are unbelievably useful, and are generally achieved with clear, deterministic protocols and one or a few broadly adopted implementations.
Cool, counter-culture fringe projects like IrDA don’t survive in the face of real, problem solving, highly interoperable, widely adopted things like USB.
Bluetooth is too complicated.
uPnP was way ahead of its time and too fringe. Jini was too complicated.
People like gaming. Games are a unique class of apps.
Garbage collected, typesafe languages are useful. But they allow you to write a lot of bad code quickly. With C, it took more time to write bad code.
Quality is a choice. It is also survival.
Windows Live Mesh turned out to be an incubation for talent for the rest of the industry. We should have sold it better.
Admit mistakes quickly and learn from them. Move on.
You don’t get to do the job I have been doing without a few obvious things: talent, hard work, a bit of luck. But what is not obvious is that you don’t get to do it without huge support from many people. Bosses, partners, influencers, mentors, peers, folks in your org. Sometimes this support is visible, and sometimes it’s a willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to prove or disprove and idea.
I help I’ve received is profoundly humbling. And I am grateful.
It’s hard to thank individuals in an email like this because there are so many. But I’ll hit some big ones: David Treadwell was the best manager I’ve ever had. He got me to stop recognizing how brilliant I was and start recognizing that being nice to people would make them more likely to want to work with me. Gregg makes other people successful at scale, and brings a rare humility, decency and sense of humor to the job. Eric always sees the best in people. Chris Jones challenged me, strategically. I think Terry listened to me, and might have even believed me. He generally didn’t act on my suggestions, which I’m told is not a thing to take personally. He also challenged me intellectually. Ray Ozzie is brilliant beyond belief, and extremely fun.
There are, and have been many, many others.
I am going to miss you and I hope some keep in touch.
A LongMail™, about retirement.