As I entered the conference room, I took a deep breath. When I saw an invite for an early morning meeting with HR and my supervisor and a vague subject the night before, I knew precisely what was going to happen. The housing bubble, the subprime mortgage crisis, and banks crumbling all over the place made 2008 a bad year. After 11 years with Microsoft, I was about to lose my job in the midst of one of the worst global recessions in history. As I walked into the room, I gave a faint smile.
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This tale was important to me for three reasons.
I believe there is a shame associated with being laid off. That is something I would like to challenge. On January 22, 2009, I was part of a major layoff at Microsoft that affected 5000 people. It wasn't due to my performance: I'd only been promoted two months before. And things worked out fine: I've progressed six Microsoft levels since then.
I am certain that awful things happen in order for wonderful things to happen. Being laid off from Microsoft led me to Amazon, where I began an 11-year odyssey that would change my life.
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I only realised I had let fear and inertia pull me into stagnation through the soul searching that the thought of unemployment imposed upon me. In years, I hadn't progressed in my career. When I joined Amazon, this provided me the motivation and enthusiasm to supercharge my career. I was too afraid to leave Microsoft, despite my severe dissatisfaction.
To be honest, I despised Microsoft.
But I didn't always despise Microsoft. It was the most incredible place to be when I arrived in 1997 as a fresh out of college job. There was a lot of enthusiasm and talent all around the place. Microsoft was incapable of making a mistake. I felt honoured to have been a part of it all. At a dizzying pace, the stock was increasing and dividing. “Memories from working at Microsoft in the nineties,” “The night I pulled an all-nighter for Bill Gates,” and “Bunnies and Bees, Patenting at Microsoft” are just a few of the sentimental stories I posted on my blog about the good old days at Microsoft.
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I am grateful for what Microsoft has taught me. My first five years at Microsoft were formative in my development as a software engineer. You work on small projects for a week or two in college, give them in, get a grade, and move on. You work in groups at times, but the most of the time you work alone. You usually don't have to cope with the consequences of a faulty technological decision for years. However, when I joined Microsoft in 1997, I was thrust into the vast codebases of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows, where I was working with thousands of engineers on multi-year projects worth billions of dollars. I was also surrounded by some of the world's brightest software developers, all of whom were far smarter than me. I was so alert, taking everything in. I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
Nonetheless, the company's collapse began when Bill Gates passed the reins over to Steve Ballmer. It was dubbed the "Lost Decade." Steve lacked commercial skills and embarked on a series of doomed purchases, including a $7 billion blunder in purchasing Nokia's handset business. Steve exuded testosterone and promoted and rewarded competitiveness both inside and outside, so he (maybe unwittingly?) cultivated a culture of backstabbing and cutthroat behaviour. It was a poisonous environment. Microsoft was in a bad way. It showed in its stock price, which has been unchanged for a decade, as well as in its lacklustre software releases. While Apple was wowing the world with the iPod and iPhone, Microsoft was releasing Windows Vista, which was buggy and unappealing.
[Before I get flamed by current Microsoft employees, let me say that I admire Satya Nadella's efforts to turn the firm around.] It's a completely different planet now! However, Steve was not a good fit for the corporation, and that decade was not Microsoft's best.]
I joined Microsoft's Rich Media Group in 2007. (RMG). RMG was a software development organisation, and photography was a pastime of mine, so integrating a hobby with my day job sounded like a good idea. I was ecstatic at the prospect of working in space!
However, I had forgotten to account for some wind.
To begin with, supporting a place indiscriminately is a dangerous thing to do, and the team was actually over-funded.
Amazon (the firm I'd join after leaving Microsoft) understands this to the degree where one of the Leadership Principles that codifies Amazon's DNA is "frugality." “Achieve more with less,” according to the official description. Constraints encourage resourcefulness, independence, and innovation. Growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense do not earn extra points.” Amazon's least popular leadership value is frugality, which is frequently used to explain being stupid. Yes, Amazon is cheap in a lot of ways, but there's a lot of wisdom behind that leadership principle. Getting fewer resources to build something forces you to be laser-focused on the things that matter and build value incrementally to earn trust.
Microsoft’s RMG provided a textbook case study on the opposite. We were going to compete with Adobe Lightroom. Adobe constructed it in 18 months with the help of 18 engineers? We were going to swarm the problem with 35 people! There was an impressive cast of Senior and Principal Engineers that essentially spent two years debating each other and bike shedding and ended up shipping exactly zero code. There were little fiefdoms even among the 35 engineers. We even began purchasing businesses in order to “speed up” the process. None of these acquisitions accomplished anything other than adding to the administrative burden. Today, I am convinced that we could have shipped a product if we had funded a team half the size.
We had so much spare cash that we launched a programme called "Icons of Imaging," in which we collaborated with world-renowned photographers such as Bambi Cantrell, Reed Hoffmann, Denis Reggie, John Shaw, Matthew Jordan Smith, and Art Wolfe. One of our team members was chosen to accompany Art Wolfe to Antarctica to film the public television series Travels to the Edge. We spent an afternoon with Bambi Cantrell doing a private shoot. We had a lab stuffed with high end printers (in the tens of thousands of dollars) so that we could test the product’s printing capabilities. We had a full collection of Canon “L” lenses that we could borrow anytime, like the $2000 70–200mm f/2.8L. Photography was my hobby, so in a lot of ways the perks of the job made it a dream job.
But in terms of software engineering, I learned nothing. I didn’t grow my career. The team was doomed from the start. The fact I was having so much fun with all the perks obscured this fact for a long time.
The second headwind I failed to take into account is that we simply didn’t have it in our corporate DNA to make the right product.
Companies have specific things they do extremely well. Apple does beautiful designs. Microsoft does serious enterprise. Amazon does online services. Google does ridiculous scale. When these businesses stray from their essential DNA, they become more shaky and uncomfortable. Amazon's Alexa is a fantastic tool, but it lacks the aesthetics of Apple's devices. At the same time, I wouldn't expect an Apple web service to have the same level of reliability as Amazon AWS. This isn't to suggest that Apple or Amazon can't create beautiful interfaces or fantastic web services, but it goes against their essential DNA, so there's some resistance.
Adobe was the king of the castle when it came to photography and art. It was ingrained in their DNA. It has been a tradition of theirs for decades. Photoshop, Illustrator, and Lightroom were all really stunning. This kind of beauty and creativity will appeal to photographers and artists if you're creating a product for them.
Instead, Microsoft offered Windows and Office, which were both utilitarian and corporate in nature. Today, I use a Mac, and I gag every time I see Microsoft Windows. It's extremely serious and businesslike. The user involvement isn't at all amusing.
In September of 2008, I had that insight in Köln (Cologne), Germany. We were to Photokina, a well-known photo industry exhibition, to debut Microsoft Pro Photo Tools, a product we had developed. All of the major players were also present. Our stand was immediately close to Adobe's. You could literally glance at one booth, then the other, back and forth, because our DNA differences were so obvious. Even their display was lovely, with bright primary colours, artful curves, and a joyful, inviting atmosphere. Our booth was black and white, with sharp angles and an uncomfortably business appearance. We were dull businessmen, but they were a lot of fun.