Achievement Unlocked: 20 Years at Microsoft
They say be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. To be honest, on Commencement Day at Syracuse University with my freshly inked Newhouse School of Television, Radio and Film Production diploma in hand, I could never have imagined the career that I have had so far.
It started with a phone call.
In 1995, my wife and I joined the newly launched MSN. As vendors, we managed the Television Community, soon followed by the Soaps Community. Several years later, we shifted gears and worked with the MSN team to host hundreds of celebrity chat events known as MSN Live. One day, in December of 2000, my wife received a call from a friend at MSN, asking if I might be interested in the newly created role of Editor-in-Chief of MSN Music.
It was the call that changed everything. At the time, I was working in the music industry on the east coast. When I got home from work, she told me about the call. I said, “Absolutely. Yes. It would mean leaving the East Coast though.” She said, “Wherever we are, you’re my home. Plus, I can work from anywhere.” So, I flew out for the interview in Redmond and immediately connected with the people on the MSN Music team. They had an innovative vision and a passion for this new product that I wanted to become a part of. I had worked in the music and television industry since college and I was thrilled to join a company like Microsoft in this new capacity. In January, my wife and I took the leap and moved from New England to the West Coast.
On January 15, 2001 I walked into NEO (New Employee Orientation). It was an incredible time. Microsoft was focused on building and launching MSN Music, aligning with the upcoming launch of Windows XP, which was still ten months from launch. At that point, Microsoft employed about 38,000 people. Now there are over 163,000.
As I started drafting this post, I started thinking about my early days on campus. I remembered something my Dad told me when I left for college. He said, “When you start a new school or a new job, make an effort to meet one new person a day. Listen instead of talking. Really listen.” As a freshman at Syracuse University, I thought of my Dad every time I made a new friend or got to know a professor better. I learned to listen and focus. It was such a great piece of advice. I kept this in mind when I joined Microsoft. There was so much to learn, not just about the products but about Microsoft’s greatest asset—its people. Every day, I scheduled some meetings out of my office which forced me to walk the halls, learn the campus and meet new people. Another piece of advice from my Dad: Be punctual. Respect someone else’s time. Early is on-time. On-time is late. Do a run-through. Know where you are going.
As I think about my time on the MSN Music team, it’s wild to think of a time when music streaming didn’t exist. We literally hand ripped thousands of CD’s and entered the metadata for each one. It was innovative at the time and an exciting place to be. Adjacent to MSN Music, was a small team in the next hallway. They were working on a gaming platform which was launching later that year called Xbox. One of my first experiences with video games was with a Sears Video Arcade, a rebranded Atari 2600, that my Mom bought us. From the moment I saw those blocky pixels on the screen and the 8-bit beeps and bloops I became an avid gamer. So, being at Microsoft while this new platform was being created so close by was fascinating. I would hear snippets about Xbox: A game demo, a hardware schematic or logos. I wanted to be part of the team that launched this product. It felt like everything I had worked on, everything I believed in, everything had come together to bring me to that moment in time.
I needed to work on that team. My first day at Xbox, I felt like a kid standing on Main Street USA at Walt Disney World for the very first time. It was everything I could ever have wished for. It still is. Every single day, I can still say, this is the best thing (outside of marrying my wife and having our daughter) that I have ever had the honor of being part of.
Being able to be one of the first at the company to blog, tweet and have a direct connection with the customers and to work alongside the incredible Xbox team members globally has been the most rewarding part of my career so far. I feel incredibly fortunate.
While I have always been in awe of the innovation and brilliance of the members of the Xbox team and what Xbox brings to the world of gamers, in the past ten months, I have developed an even deeper appreciation for the brand. During this pandemic, it has been so rewarding to see how Xbox has brought family members and friends together. We may not be able to be together in the same room but thanks to this technology, that connection is maintained and even strengthened. I haven’t seen my family on the East Coast in almost a year, but when I play Sea of Thieves with my niece, I am very grateful to Xbox for that experience
I’m also grateful for what I have learned at Microsoft. Here are some of the things in no particular order:
- Look ahead. One of my favorite books is “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson. It’s a profound book. There are two types of people: settlers and pioneers. Be a pioneer. Keep your antennae up. Wonder. Before the pandemic, I traveled often and at the airport newsstands, I would often grab a few magazines about subjects I knew little about. I learned about beekeeping, architecture, cooking, woodworking, photography, backyard chickens and more. I highly recommend reading an enthusiast magazine on a topic you may not know much about. It’s a great way to open up your mind.
- Be generous with gratitude. Give credit easily. Be kind. Listen. Look people in the eye.
- When designing Xbox 360 J Allard once said, “If you don’t know what to do, always fall on the side of the customer.” I think of this often.
- Always treat the admins with respect. They are the backbone of the team.
- Speed is a feature! Often you can add all sorts of features to software, but speed is one of the most important things. The software needs to keep up with the human and let them get to where they are going in a clear, concise and fast method. Bonus points if you can make it fun.
- This is a big one that I’ve seen used by many successful managers and VP’s who I have had the pleasure to work with. If you are in a meeting or on a lengthy email thread where it’s just not clear what is going on, ask the one question to bring it all into focus: “What’s the problem we are trying to solve here?” I can’t tell you how many times that one phrase has unblocked many a meeting or email and just bring instant focus to the issue at hand.
- Keep it simple. Does your email really need to go broad or can you keep focused on just the stakeholders? Keep your email concise.
- I’m very grateful for the managers I have had who believed in a positive work/life balance. Take a breather when you need it. If your partner or child wants to talk, put down what you’re doing and be present for them.
- Take a leap. Extend beyond what you think you are capable of.
As I think about the past twenty years (which went so fast!), I have to say this: This version of the company is the best one I’ve seen. It’s incredible. Last month, in my conversation with Phil Spencer, he spoke about where we are going in the years ahead. I know some details about some of these projects and, well, I am wildly excited about the future of Xbox.
So, here we are.
Twenty years. I remember the first day my wife and I moved into our home in Washington. I came home from work to an empty house that still smelled like paint. We had moved 2,954 miles away and the moving truck hadn’t arrived yet. We were eating Chinese take-out. I looked at my wife sitting cross-legged on the floor across from me and asked, “Well, what do you think? Did we make a good decision?” She smiled and said, “I think the best things we’ve ever done are going to happen here.”
Twenty years at Microsoft, three gaming platforms and one three year-old daughter later, she was absolutely right.