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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  • Undoubtedly convincing! - Good luck, Dr. James.

  • good luck James! i def. agree on the mobile and most of web stuff - they are really poorly designed and executed and most mobile is so clunky...for crying out loud - please don't design everything towards handheld devices like tablets...does not make for a good UI experience first of all. And I personally think it all got blown out of place with Apple and that first touchable iProduct...

  • nice post, thanks for your frankness !!

  • So James

    As I understand it,

    Past 2 or so years has been Microsoft-->Google-->Microsoft?

    Good luck and nice you have you back out of "semi retirement"

  • I think you're confusing disruptive innovation with sustaining innovations.  If you swap out those words I agree with you 100% of the way.  I would only add that large companies have the deep pockets to take chances and incubate ideas while small or startup companies need to see profit fast.

  • You were concerned about a broken mobile space and thusly joined Microsoft who is late to the game when it comes to mobile? You were concerned with a broken web and joined a company that broke it? You were concerned with user privacy and joined a company that has a patent on selling my private data to third parties?

    I agree that Microsoft has enough IP and engineers to be a power player in any field they want. The problem is that large companies often pull in multiple directions at once. Google is now finding their size a hindrance. Not all of their releases and projects work together. And they can't release as quickly when so many rubber stamps must be applied.

    Microsoft has the same types of problems. Using the new Windows 8 I see a company that doesn't entirely know the direction they want to go. They're still pushing Ribbon while touting Metro. After making the mistake of keeping with a desktop paradigm on mobile devices (and failing) now they're trying to force a mobile interface on the desktop.

    Microsoft is doing right today by encouraging HTML5/JS apps that are easily ported to multiple platforms and architectures. They're embracing standards more.

    But their products contain more and more usability regressions with each release. I don't care how a product looks as much as I care about how it works. If I need to make extra clicks to accomplish the same task, then this isn't innovation. I have little faith that Microsoft knows what it is doing in most arenas today.

  • Very interesting post.

  • good luck and correct company choice :)

  • Hi James!

    Great post. Regarding the

    "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"

    It depends on the context. Here is why:

    Regards, Karlo Smid.

  • Nice Post...

  • Hey James thanks for the feedback and being honest. At the end of the day, you have to do what is right for you because its your life. I do hope that Bing for example becomes a major power house in organic search because clearly Google is just stomping on the little guys/gals trying to make it online. I'm not saying Microsoft has been innocent either, but they learned a few hard lessons along the way too.

    What we need is balance in organic search. Meaning, that if Bing and 1 or 2 other companies can take away market share from Google, then it will hopefully be a good reminder not to be so evil and stupid.

    I mean there latest Panda update is so over the top, we need some other players in the market place.

    Best of luck in your future.

  • Having been an entrepreneur twice over and then worked for a startup and two large companies, I agree 100% with James' statement: "I know the alternatives to big companies and I prefer big companies".

    Being surrounded by smart and passionate people (a.k.a. "aggressive" by those on the outside) is an immense kick.

    Also, as someone on the wrong side of 50, I loved James' other statement: "Personally, I don't think big companies should even bother with cool... I respect a big company that acts its age. There is dignity in age. There is pride in big."

  • Seriously this is complete nonsense. And I mean that in the most polite of ways. MS is not the place for you because their ship has already sunk. If you are worried about Google trying to dethrone Facebook, well you have just stepped further down the ladder with MS trying to dethrone Google. You are taking steps backwards. There is no disruption at MS, doubt if they even understand what that is. My bet is you will be leaving within a year for something else.


  • If a company's culture can change for the worse, is it really that far fetched to think that a company's culture can change for the better? In talking with employees from Microsoft there seems to be a renewed vigor and passion that emanates from them that was lacking just a few years ago. In many ways, Microsoft has become the underdog in the consumer space (if one considers the less than stellar view that many have of Microsoft), and it's that same underdog mentality that motivates people to join/stay at Microsoft. It attracts those who seek to tackle challenges rather than run from them. Many are quick to right off Microsoft as a dinosaur who is out of touch with today's tech demands. But there are a few who actually stop to listen with an open mind and engage in their own research of a company's offerings rather than rely on the hearsay of naysayers. Those are the types of people who will reap the rewards from postive "disruption" as James has so poignantly illustrated.

  • Sorry, I don't buy it.

    Microsoft is not averse to walled gardens, they are quite busy creating their own with Windows 8.

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