Last year was the year of big changes in my personal life. I bought a house, got married and brought a very cute and lovable Shih Tzu into our household. Some time during 2007, I realized I'd been at Microsoft for over 5 years and decided that I'd also look for change in my professional life as well.
I learned a couple of lessons from the experience. The first was that looking around for a job while trying to buy a house, moving into a new home and working towards getting married is pretty stressful. The second thing I learned was that I hadn't really thought about what I want from my career in several years. Back in my college days, I had a clear idea where I wanted to be within my first year of graduation and every thing I did back then moved me closer to that goal, from the classes I took to ensuring that I interned every summer break. Since then, I haven't really had a "five year plan" to get me to the next stage in my career. I now have a much clearer idea where I want to be by 2010 than I have in the past two or three years. Finally, I realized that I actually really like working at Microsoft especially within my current job.
Ever since I came to that final realization I've wanted to blog about why this is the case but it seemed like such a corny thing to write about that I didn't want people reading this to think I was shilling for Microsoft. However this morning I was reading a blog post entitled Gone Indie by Jens Alfke which explained why he was leaving Apple Inc. after ten years and a lot of the reasons he is leaving are the same reasons I'm still at Microsoft.
But I’m fascinated with social software. Apple isn’t. Despite some promising starts, the most I’ve been able to get accomplished in that vein at Apple was iChat [the IM part; I’m really not interested in videoconferencing], Safari RSS, and the “PubSub” [which turned out to be “RSS and Atom”] framework. There were some very promising prototypes of sexier things, but I really can’t talk about those, other than to say that they were canceled.
I looked around after Leopard was finished, and didn’t see any place in the company where I could pursue my ideas. It would have meant evangelizing reluctant executives into sharing my vision … and that’s something that I know I have little talent at.
I am similarly fascinated by Social Software and have been since I wrote down my epiphany Social Software is the Platform of the Future after a couple of conversations with my friend Mike Vernal. This epiphany is the reason I decided to start working in Microsoft's
social graph contacts platform team which is where I continue to work till this day. Three and a half years later, this epiphany has been borne out by the rise of MySpace and Facebook as well as the realization by the technocrat masses that without data portability social software is the new vendor lock-in. This is all stuff Mike and I used to chat about back in 2004, and now Mike is off at Facebook and I'm here at Microsoft trying to make our visions a reality in our own little ways.
Unlike Jens, I don't have to evangelize reluctant execs into sharing my vision. A lot of our execs understand the importance of social software and have clear ideas of how Microsoft can add value to our users lives with our contributions to this space. When I talk to folks like Ray Ozzie, Chris Jones or David Treadwell about some of the problems I see in the social software space today, not only do they get it, I always leave the conversation with a strong sense that Microsoft will do the right thing.
Some people may criticize Microsoft for not being quick to jump onto every fad. However as Phil Haack mentioned in his blog post about his first few days as a new Microsoft hire, Microsoft invests for the long run and expects it's employees to think deeply about issues before acting. At the end of the day, the software we build in Windows Live impacts how hundreds of millions of people interact, share and communicate with their friends, family and loved ones. We endeavor to be good stewards of the trust they've placed in us.
Sharing Your Ideas
I tend to have a lot of ideas. I’m not bragging, and that’s not always a good trait; it can be hard for me to focus on something long enough to finish it. A structured job has helped me stay on-task. On the other hand, though, the development cycle in a big company is such that every significant idea takes a year or more to finish, and during that time, more ideas pile up in my brain.
That wouldn’t be bad if there were some other channels to express those ideas. And if they took the form of songs, or novels, or scrimshaw carvings of Biblical scenes on walrus tusks, I could do whatever I wanted with them. But on software, Apple’s position (not unusually for the industry) is “All Your Idea Are Belong To Us”, and I signed onto that when I accepted the job offer. In other words, anything I do that relates in any way to Apple’s areas of business, no matter when or where I do it, belongs to Apple. [Edit: Ha! Note I’m still using present tense.]
(Again, this isn’t something particular about Apple. Most tech companies are like this, and if you work for one, you probably signed a very similar “Proprietary Rights Agreement” that they hid in the stack of paperwork beneath your offer letter. And yes, companies will enforce that if they see profit in it.)
I believe all Microsoft employees sign similar agreements with the company when hired. However, Microsoft is very good about letting employees explore their ideas in software on their own time without getting in the way. Projects like Script#, Reflector, RSS Bandit, DasBlog, Tweak UI and WiX are examples of software projects either developed or maintained by Microsoft employees in their free time that are now benefiting thousands to hundreds of thousands of end users.
However I think that more important than being able to share our ideas in code, being able to share our ideas in words is one of the coolest things about working at Microsoft. Thousands of Microsoft employees share their ideas with their coworkers, competitors and customers via blogs on a daily basis. Lots of companies would clamp down on that sort of behavior and ensure that only sanctioned company positions go out in employee communications but not Microsoft.
Even more surprisingly, Microsoft tolerates employees that may have ideas that differ from the company's ideas of how things should be done. You may wonder why that is surprisingly until you remember that even supposedly enlightened "Web 2.0" companies like Friendster and Google can fire you for disagreeing with the company's technology choices or hinting about future products or complaining about the company's benefits.
A lot of people [including Microsoft employees] wonder how I still have a job at Microsoft even though I've been critical of some of the company's strategies and products in my almost six years as an employee. Although I've had conversations with peers, middle managers and senior execs about my blog, I've never felt that my job was in danger. If anything, I've had it confirmed that Microsoft's culture is about being open and respectful. The one thing I have tried to change about my blog [and in fact all my communications] is being more respectful of other's perspectives and personal feelings especially when I disagree with them since you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar...or so I heard.
Finally — and this may seem petty — Apple’s lack of individuality bugs me. I don’t mean internally: within the company, communication is reasonably open (modulo confidentiality issues) and there’s lots of room for self-expression. But ever since the return of Steve Jobs, the company has been pretty maniacal about micro-managing its visible face, to make it as smooth and featureless as an iPod’s backside. (In my darker moments I’ve compared it to the brutal whiteness of “THX-1138”.)
It’s deeply ironic: For a company that famously celebrates individuality and Thinking Different, Apple has in the past decade kept its image remarkably impersonal. Other than the trinity who go onstage at press events — Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, Phil Schiller — how many people can you name who work for Apple? How many engineers?
And then there are blogs. Apple doesn’t like them, not when they talk about it. (Big surprise.) I’ve heard it said that there are hardly any bloggers working at Apple; there are actually a lot more than you’d think, but they mostly keep it a secret. (I could out a few people, including at least one director…) I think Apple’s policy on blogging is one of the least enlightened of major tech companies; Microsoft in particular is surprisingly open.
There really isn't much more I can add to that. The fact that you are reading my blog and know who I am is a testament to how much Microsoft encourages it's employees to express their individuality in their products and in our communications with our customers.
This may not be a big deal in 2008 when everyone is blogging but it was back in 2003 when the early community of Microsoft bloggers could all fit at a table in a single restaurant. Especially since when you consider it, Microsoft bloggers are probably a large part of the reason corporate blogging is mainstream today. That alone is a worthy legacy in my book.
I'd like to leave you with this image from Scott Hanselman's post about joining Microsoft. Everyone's goal should be trying to get to center of the picture.
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