Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before: I honestly never meant to stay this long.
In 1992 I was working for a start-up that was beginning the slow burn into oblivion. I had a great job there, designing a cross-platform time and task management tool that would take advantage of networking and manipulation of graphic metaphors, all cutting edge stuff at the time…. OK, that’s as far as I’m going on the geek speak. Cutting to the chase, this was the second company in a row that I’d worked for where the project I’d poured my soul into was squashed by a Microsoft product of what I considered to be inferior quality. I can prove that scientifically, but we don’t have the time at the moment.
So when the head hunter called me up and said there were people at Microsoft who knew me and wanted me to come in for an interview, I wanted nothing to do with it. He persisted, eventually convincing me saying “they do a terrifically hard interview, it will be a great way to get ready for the next set of interviews for the job you do want.”
So I went. I had some very pleasant conversations with smart people who were too nice and human to possibly have worked for Microsoft. Turns out that was kind of true, many of them had worked for a company that had been bought by Microsoft, which was why the job was in Palo Alto, CA instead of Redmond, WA. It was an interesting day and at the end of it I had a good time but I was relieved it was over.
And then the bastards offered me the job.
I didn’t take the job for three months. I went back in and interviewed them as to why they thought I was a good fit. Still not convinced, I discussed with friends. Most of my Apple friends at the time disowned me on the spot. Sigh. However, my mentor had a different point of view. And this was the man who taught me to drink dark beers so he already had my respect and admiration. He was simple, direct, and practical: “If you were a military general, given the opportunity to go and train with the enemy for a year, wouldn’t you go just to learn all their secrets?” He had a point. It made a lot of sense. And I figured I could do a year there, and then move on to a more meaningful job.
That was over 17 years ago.
Since then I’ve been working on creating new features in the PowerPoint program in one aspect or another. You’ve no doubt heard of PowerPoint, the program is notorious for destroying communication, confusing and misrepresenting facts, figures, logic, and basically obscuring truth. Those are all true statements in the same way that we can blame flowers for opium, newspapers for ransom notes, or milk cartons for missing kids. The prominence to which PowerPoint has risen makes it a large target for those trying to make a name for themselves. But most reasonable people already know this so I won’t take up your time defending the obvious.
When I started working on the program a the few average users we had would make a presentation a month. That’s one document, every thirty days, or less. The team worked under an easy to understand rule: our customers didn’t have time to relearn the product each month, so things had to be kept simple. More simple than Microsoft Word or Excel to be sure. That was a challenge, but very rewarding as customers would repeatedly tell us jus how well we had accomplished that task. They were using PowerPoint for more and more complex communications, and they were successful.
That customer impact and feedback made it so easy to stay at Microsoft, so satisfying to stay on that team and application. So fast to chew through 17 years…
So now I’m sitting here wondering how to end this post. It’s really not an end, it’s another beginning. Perhaps the best way to do this is to simply share with you most of the mail I sent the PowerPoint team. Slightly edited, here you go:
Friday, May 21, 2010
Subject: Hello, I must be going
Hello, I must be going. – Groucho Marx
The impulse in writing a truly fine good-bye letter is to sum up the experience in total, such that it can be both a memorial to the time spent and a lesson left behind. Of course, such writing has a tendency to be self-absorbed and potentially boring. So, exercising incredible self-control, I’ll try to get this down without attempting to be legendary in my prose.
When I tell people I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life working on PowerPoint, around nine releases of the product, I typically get one of two responses.
One reaction goes something like it must have been an incredible experience to be involved the development of program that went from obscurity to worldwide notoriety, and to have been involved with it over such a long period of time. Of course, this is quite true. It has been an amazing experience. I’ve been fortunate to work with an astounding array of people. I’ve been able to develop and exercise new skills and work with new technologies. And when I meet people, I can tell them about our product with real pride.
The other reaction to my working on PowerPoint for 17 years is a little trickier. How could you let yourself stay in one area, much less work for one company, for so long? That’s simply not how things work in the Valley. There’s so much out there to explore. This is harder to refute, as my reaction is more emotional than practical. Honestly, it’s simply been a joy to be associated with the product, to meet and understand the customers, to work diligently on solving their problems, and to work with a team so similarly motivated.
Recently I started thinking about the time span in general; 17 years. A standard K-12 education plus 4 years of college lasts 17 years. After living with their parents for 17 years, many 18-year olds find a way to move out of the house, get off on their own. And, after 17 years, the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera will end its national tour this very November.
OK, that last one is a bit of a stretch, but it does get you thinking about Act II.
Act II for me will begin with my last day at Microsoft, May 28th. Those of you who know me well already know of my blogging, podcasting, Pecha Kucha nights, other social networking, and these activities will continue. And I don’t expect my love of presenting and presentation software to wane at all. I’ll continue to write and be active in that area for a long time to come. So keep in touch.
What else will I be doing? Well, my wife wanted me just to spend some time cleaning out the garage, selling the good junk on eBay. (Trivia fun fact: I have an eBay feedback profile of over 430 entries, rated 100% positive.) Of course, planning that activity got a bit out of hand and I went a little overboard. Now I’m happy to report that in a few weeks I’ll start working for eBay as a Senior Product Manager working on the user experience in selling on eBay. I’m pretty excited about this, and if you’ve used eBay and have any feedback about it, please let me know!
It’s my hope that my education at Microsoft will serve me, and my future customers, well.
My best wishes to you all!
PS. For those not familiar with the Groucho Marx reference, here’s the entire song from the movie Animal Crackers, which is highly recommended. Margaret Dumont sings the italicized part. It’s one of my favorite Groucho bits, and seemed appropriate.
Hello, I must be going.
I cannot stay,
I came to say
I must be going.
I’m glad I came
but just the same
I must be going.
For my sake you must stay,
for if you go away,
you’ll spoil this party
I am throwing.
I’ll stay a week or two,
I’ll stay the summer through,
but I am telling you,
I must be going.
And with that, 17 years and 5 months draws to a close. And Act II begins. This new blog is for me, for writing about my recollections and reactions, to presenting, software, Microsoft, the industry, what I’m learning, what I’m teaching… well you get the picture.
I hope you’ll find it interesting enough to make it a conversation. Please comment as you see fit.