The 5-year Crystal

I recently passed my five (5) year employment anniversary at Microsoft, which is when one receives a crystal statue and an obligation to bring 5lbs of chocolate to share with the team. It’s also the establishment at which I’ve spent the most time, since, well, elementary school (which hardly counts, right?).

Five years is both short and long, at the same time. When turnover rates in the tech space (especially in Silicon Valley) ranges from 10-15% (annual), 5 years means I’ve likely entered the upper 50% spectrum of veteran-ness at the company. At the same time, I look at previous generations, e.g. my dad, who’s worked at the same company (albeit two very different subsidiaries) for over 25 years, and I’m still a relative pipsqueak.

Okay, so I probably have more in common with other tech-industry workers; five years is a significant period of time in one place. However, it’s hardly been monotonous. I’ve found myself on three very different teams tackling three very diverse roles. And with the gift of hindsight, it’s clear a fortunate sequence of events led me to where I am, today.

My first year, in Office, as a typical Microsoft PM,  taught me the ways of Program Management, but at the same time, was not the most satisfying experience. Perhaps more than anything, it made me accept the risk of trying a completely different type of PM work.

When the opportunity arose to work in a partner-facing role on the Windows on ARM bring-up, for Windows 8, I had no formal hardware engineering experience, nor any history of working with external partners. In short, I had no business being there, but wanted the role desperately, as it so perfectly matched my personal interests. For whatever reason, the team took a chance on me and it was in the Windows Ecosystem team that I cultivated my love for systems engineering work.

The contacts I made in that position ultimately kept me at Microsoft. After 3.5 years, I was on the cusp of leaving, having made my mind up to try something else. But too many people suggested that I look into a secretive, upstart group for me to ignore. It helped that a PM, whom I greatly respect, recently moved into the group manager role and was willing to entertain my tight timeline. The combination of superstar foot traffic to the team and a final meeting with Alex Kipman convinced me to join, even though I was never told, at the time, the project I’d be working on (a story for another time). Of course, it turned out to be HoloLens, and both the project and people I’m surrounded by, daily, have made the risk, worthwhile.

It’s hard for me not to refer to recent articles about Amazon’s work environment; you’ve doubtlessly heard or read horror stories about Microsoft, as well, but as with most organizations, things are never uniformly bad or amazing. My experience tells me that there are extraordinarily talented teams working on massively innovative projects, impacting some of the largest user bases on the planet. It’s an organization I’m proud to be a part of.

The Polar Opposite Amazons

I really don’t understand these types of articles and the inevitable, vehement counter-points – you might have read or heard about them, if you’re in the tech sphere, over the past two days.

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace

And the counter-points:

An Amazonian’s response to “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”

As with any organizational experience, there will be those who have it good and those who can’t wait to get out. Both sides hyperbolize the reality, particularly gathering and extrapolating the few data points they have into something much grander. I live in the Seattle region, and yes, I know many folks who currently or have previously worked for Amazon. And you know what, I hear both types of stories and everything in between! Imagine that!

The NYT found some disgruntled ex-employees, having gone through hell, while Mr. Ciubotariu is clearly a well-respected, high-performer, working in a team filled with rainbows and unicorns. I believe both of the experiences. For most, reality is likely somewhere in between.

More later.

4

Yesterday was my 4 year anniversary of starting at Microsoft. I can’t believe how quickly the years have gone by (I’m one year from getting my first tenure crystal at year 5!); it’s not infrequently that I feel I’m a fresh-out-of-university new hire or forget that I’m officially in the latter half of my twenties. But, occasionally, I get a chance to interact with the new hires or interns that are streaming through campus at this time of year, and I realize, despite the barely detectable growth, day after day, 4 years of it has resulted in a level of maturity and experience that is starkly different from where I was, immediately after university. Of course, there’s a humbling, infinite amount left to learn, as I look around myself.

The average tenure with a single employer is somewhere around 4.6 years (and 3.2 years, for those between 25-34 years of age). While my 4 years have all been spent at Microsoft, the type of work I’ve had the opportunity to experience over those years has spanned a huge range. All this was possible under the Program Management umbrella. In briefly reviewing my posting history, here, I noticed I haven’t really written about what it is I’ve done. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we typically work on confidential projects, but part of it is also that writing things down in the moment may be personally sensitive. With several years to look back on, here’s a brief summary of my time.

It all started with Office SharePoint. I was a feature Program Manager, working with a couple developers on multi-tenant SharePoint Online administration features. It was a far cry from what I’d originally wished for (UI design). SharePoint was the natural progression from my co-op, in the InfoPath team, which upon my return from graduating, had been folded into the SharePoint organization. And, I (think I) only found myself on the InfoPath team in the first place, because when asked to talk about a Microsoft user experience, I brought up the Ribbon. InfoPath hadn’t had the Ribbon menu facelift at the time, so I tell myself the recruiters were a bit too literal, when placing me. My attempts to get an after-graduation placement into the Windows Phone team was rebuffed by both my team management as well as my recruiter. I certainly understand the aura of safety and known-quantity in staying with the same team, but isn’t the point of a co-op/internship to discover what you want (and don’t want) to do?

It also didn’t help that in my last semester at university, I realized my passion was more for hardware (or at least low-level software) than anything else. So, it was with great fortunes that my co-op interviewer was suddenly the group manager for the Windows Ecosystem team, responsible for working with our key hardware partners. So, in mid-2011, I became a partner Program Manager in Windows, working with Texas Instruments on some of the first Windows on ARM (WoA) hardware projects. I had an opportunity to work on both the hardware bring up of development systems, as well as directly with Toshiba on two hardware designs (they were slick). Unfortunately, those projects weren’t meant to be, and we concluded the OMAP work and the 2012 Windows 8/RT launch with nary a piece of released hardware.

Texas Instruments exited the majority of the consumer AP business, towards the end of 2012. With the post-Windows 8 reorg, I was given the opportunity to work with Intel, and particularly on their new breed of low-power SoC platforms: Haswell and Bay Trail-T. This assignment was the hockey-stick growth point of my nascent career. With the mentorship of my management chain and exposure to an amazing amount of corporate strategy and personnel at both Microsoft and Intel (the intersection of Microsoft and Intel is an incredibly exciting place, even today :)), I was forced to grow rapidly in technical and business acumen. Frankly, at my junior level, it was an incredible, fortunate opportunity, one which I’m grateful my team had enough faith to give me. It’s also incredibly exciting to look back after only 1.5 years of that, to see direct and indirect impacts to the ecosystem: the popular Dell Venue Pro 8 and ASUS T100 (Bay Trail-T) tablets and 2-in-1s, Windows with Bing-based products, Connected Standby Surface Pro 3 (Haswell), and just reaching the market, Bay Trail-CR Windows systems, at much more competitive price points (Toshiba Encore 2).

After 2.5 years in the Windows Ecosystem team, I began to long for direct product work, with a deeper engineering focus. Throughout my time on these SoC projects, I worked with a number of excellent teams, so started poking around for opportunities, after the Windows 8.1 wave concluded. One in particular, the Windows kernel team, rose to the top of my list. As it happened, by the time the post-launch reorgs closed, the PM lead I’d been in contact with had moved to a new team, a new team with PM openings. In that new team, I would be able to build on both my technical experience in working on low-power systems, but in a product-focused role, and my leadership and relationship skills, with internal and external organizations. With much secrecy around the project itself (I signed on without really knowing what I’d be working on), I decided to join the team, because I trusted my new group manager and I could tell by the caliber of folks, already on the team and about to join, that it was something special.

And 5 months into the new role and 4 years at the company, I look back at the projects I’ve had a chance to be a part of and the opportunities I was given, and I don’t know how events could have transpired any better to give me the breadth and depth that I have today. Plus, 4 years is a mere blink of an eye in the overall epic of one’s career and life. Certainly, a high bar has been set for the rest of it.

2014

The past year has been one of great learning for me. Both my wonderful girlfriend and great job combined have taught me many lessons and etched more than a year’s worth of maturity onto me. I have also become a mess of contradictions: while feeling young and invincible (still), I also sense the rapid approach of both cynicism and wisdom that often accompany old(er) age.

I know this year will be one of great change. I’m officially in the latter half of my twenties, I’ll have had 4 years of industry work experience under my belt, and big decisions to make, such as buy or rent when my lease is up (and all the associated implications that would have).

Part of the reason for my internal confusion is because I’ve been blessed with a job that has given me visibility and influence at a scope I couldn’t have begun to imagine as a relative whipper-snapper in the company. It’s been like a lanky kid going through puberty. The physical reality is there, but the mind hasn’t  grasped the entirety of what’s happened. The feeling of invincibility to have almost no fear in meetings, discussing problems and solutions with some seriously smart and senior people, while also beginning to develop the maturity to frame discussions in the right manner to achieve the best outcome. At the same time, ignorance truly can be bliss, and unfortunately, I haven’t had the luck to be spared any detail when it comes to the business or the organization.

It’s also within that context that I’ve seen my work experience drift more towards the strategic, the higher levels. I find myself missing the deep and intimate work on technically challenging problems and seeing it through to the end. In a somewhat idyllic way, I sometimes long for the all nighters in the engineering labs at university, ploughing through the latest calc assignment or FPGA design project. The goals were straightforward and little in the way of convoluted scheming was needed to accomplish them. It’s rarely that simple to do anything these days.

So, it’s with these thoughts that I enter 2014.