JW on Tech

James Whittaker is a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers. He is a former Googler, former professor and former startup founder. Follow him on Twitter @docjamesw.

Why I joined Microsoft

Why I joined Microsoft

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I suppose that pointing out that the Google to Microsoft transition is not particularly rare won't suffice as an explanation so what follows is a more long winded account. For those uninterested in the finer points, here's the short version: I think much of what is happening in the mobile and web space is broken and is trending toward becoming more broken. Users have their privacy under assault and are losing control of their identity and personal data. Independent developers are facing walled gardens around the data and services necessary to move the web forward. Solving this problem is going to require a diverse set of intellectual property, technical and information assets and an inclusive attitude toward software developers. In my opinion, Microsoft is among the best positioned companies to lead such an effort.

Yes, I know, your comments made it clear that you doubt this explanation, thus the long version:

Big companies aren't cool, why would you join another one?

I did the startup thing twice, once as a key developer and again as a founder. I was a professor for ten years and spent a great deal of my time doing research and consulting. I was even a sysadmin for the FBI in my youth. I know the alternatives to big companies and I prefer big companies.

Clearly I am not alone, otherwise there wouldn't be so many big companies and they wouldn't be so, well, big. But there is a bandwagon effect to the shrill cries that big companies aren't cool and don't innovate. Personally, I don't think big companies should even bother with cool. The middle-aged guy hanging out at the bar trying to pick up a 20-something isn't cool; he's pathetic. I respect a big company that acts its age. There is dignity in age. There is pride in big.

Companies get big for a reason: they emerge from a primordial soup of vision, ideas, talent, innovation, success, investment and execution. Keep this soup cooking and a company gets big and stays big. Get the recipe wrong and a big company can spill it. Spills abound and many of today's most successful companies were written off at one time or another as having an empty pot. If you'd like, buy me a Starbucks and you can have an Apple while we discuss them.

Doubt big companies all you want. Doubt them by name. Doubt them by reputation. Doubt them by rumor. Doubt them because a critic doubts them. Doubt them because you think its cool to be a doubter. Doubt them for reasons that have been moot for a decade. Doubt them from the safety of your anonymity. Hell, start an Occupy Doubt Street movement and doubt the lot of them simultaneously. Go ahead and doubt big companies, but doubt their talent at your peril.

That's the real kicker. The talent at big companies is abundant. That reason alone should explain anyone's choice to work for any big company. Who doesn't want to be surrounded by smart people all day? That's why startups work so hard to hire big company talent away. That's why big companies create tugs-of-war over top performers, because they all have them. Microsoft was built on the back of DEC, IBM et al talent and in turn helped fuel Google's growth and Apple's resurgence, who in turn are acting as supply chains for Twitter and Facebook. Guess where the new startups are getting their talent? And where does this put IBM which is the root of this tech talent tree? No soup for you? Hardly. You can't walk their halls without tripping over smart engineers. Talent flows upstream too.

However, talent isn't the only big company asset. Smart is a necessary condition for big, but once a company gets big there are two additional wings built to accommodate an arsenal of new weapons unavailable to their smaller rivals. Scale is the first. Big companies work on big problems. Reach is the second. Big companies ship solutions to nearly every corner of the globe. If you want to work with smart people on problems of planetary proportions then a big company is your kind of place.

This scale and reach means that big companies are singularly capable of disrupting large industry segments or even multiple industries at a time. Finally, we've gotten to the real draw of big companies. The ability for mass-scale industry disruption. Microsoft disrupted the PC ecosystem, Google disrupted the web, Amazon disrupted retail, Apple disrupted mobile ... these disruptions changed the course of the future. The coolest part is that any of these big companies, thanks to the smart-scale-reach triad, are capable of doing it again. 

Your doubt won't be enough to stop them.

Ok, but which big company?

This only explains my fancy for big companies. Everything being equal, many people might go for the company with the sweetest perks. I think pivoting on perks is a mistake. Whether your company buys you lunch or pays you to buy it yourself is a zero-sum game. Whether the common areas are strewn with toys to the point of resembling Paris Hilton's childhood nursery is irrelevant. Those toys never stopped Paris from throwing a hissy fit and they won't keep you happy if you stop liking your job. Perks are smoke and mirrors that smart people see through and the mediocre covet. Facebook's kitchens don't make them smarter than Apple. Want to enjoy your work more? Find better work.

That's what it really boils down to: find work you can be passionate about. Then find the company that considers that work important, wants you to be part of it and is in a position to be an industry disruptor.

Passion, importance and the ability to disrupt, this is what great jobs are made of. Find these three and you will find yourself working hard and wishing the night would pass faster so you can wake up and start all over again. When your work is so much a part of your daily thought process that you breathlessly seek it out you call this "the good times." When the experience ends you remember it as "the glory days." Who wouldn't want a career full of good times and great memories? It's like crack that only gives you a buzz and never makes you ugly.

Once you find that change-the-world passion, the next step is to find a company to share it with. Rule out the companies mired in the existing world. Any company wallowing in cash from the status quo won't be so interested in ideas that move the world forward.

And Microsoft is the right big company?

What I want to work on rules out a lot, but not all, big tech companies. Microsoft, in my opinion, has the right collection of IP, product segment leadership and technical assets to be a disruptor. They aren't beholden to revenue streams or walled gardens. They stand to benefit the most from such a disruption.

So let's get to the bottom of my decision:

Why Microsoft? Because my passion is perfectly aligned with their ability and desire to disrupt. The one problem I want to work on happens to be a company priority staffed with A-level talent.

Why Microsoft? Because most big competitors don't want the disruption. When you make your money on the status quo, you are incented to move slow or not at all. 

Why Microsoft? Because they didn't just ask me to contribute, they asked me to help lead.

Why Microsoft? Because every time I tell someone who uses the mobile web what I am working on and what experiences it provides they want it now. Every time I tell a developer what I am building, they want APIs and an SDK now. Having people tell you to hurry is a good sign that what you are doing is important.

I think Microsoft is the right company to do this and 7 weeks into my job I am liking what I see. When I joined in 2006 the company was centered around Windows and Office. Today there is a new main street in Redmond and it houses the studios, not offices but studios, of the Xbox team. This change is more than symbolic. Windows and Office, far from sacrificial lambs, have clearly undergone some sort of genetic re-engineering. I have yet to fully grasp what they have done and how they have done it but their mojo is undeniable. Bing has completed a blending of development and test they call "combined engineering" that Google was still trying to pull off a year after their big reorg. There's more, I notice changes everyday. Perhaps when all the data is in, I will write a before-after post for this blog.

Does Microsoft still have problems? Yes. Will I avoid pointing them out now that I am on their payroll? No. There are some improvements Microsoft still needs. Meetings come too often and last too long. When I announced that I expect all my managers to code, the excitement didn't exactly overwhelm me. There's more, I'm cataloging warts.

One thing I really like about Microsoft is that when you push a mirror in their face, they will look into it. Give them some time and the image looking back will change.

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  • Even after seeing all negative ads M$ is putting out, do you feel you made right decision?

  • Thats superb...

  • Passionately written ...your reflections today would be appreciated!

  • Two years later ...

    Valid points James about the benefits of working in a large company. Having made the same career stops, I would make a  counterpoint that large companies tend to make it difficult for people's talents to be recognized due to the tribalization that occurs. At IBM for instance, it was impossible to get on any of the Smarter Planet initiatives you see on TV because the groups reserved spaces for people in their own department to ensure they had full utilization.

    As a recognized expert in the field it is easier for you to find the interesting work you seek but for most of us, its a challenge to navigate the ocean of large corporatedom.

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