“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain, American Humorist, Writer and Lecturer 1835-1910
This year is special for a few different reasons. As my readers know, I moved the family to France back in August as part of a job change at Microsoft and to fulfill a long-time dream to live and work outside the US. It’s also the year my oldest daughter, Hana will graduate from High School and start college (still waiting for her to make her choice). I am just six months away from hitting the big five-ohhh. And, momentously, I just celebrated 20 years at Microsoft.
When people ask me how I like working at Microsoft, I usually reply, with a wink and a nod, “All I really needed to know when I grew up, I learned at Microsoft.” Though a slight exaggeration, it’s fun to imagine what life would be like if I only followed the lessons I learned at this exhilarating, frustrating, challenging and wonderful place. This post is a compile of some of my favorite work stories over the years and the lessons they taught me. No CEO’s stories, you can read about those in the news. All other names removed to protect the innocent. If you recognize yourself in here, thanks for being a part of my story!
Lesson 1: Getting there is Half the Fun (aka What’s a Reorg?)
Lucky enough to have offers from two separate teams for an STE Lead role at Microsoft, I chose the team that presented, I thought, both an interesting project challenge, and a welcoming work culture. Fast forward a couple months, enjoying a delicious gift basket of Seattle goodies sent by the recruiting team, my SF house on the market, belongings in boxes, and Tim and I having both given notice to our employers, I receive a call from my new hiring manager. Cute conversation follows:
• XXXX: “Hi, this is XXXX, I’m your hiring manager. I wanted to know if you were still coming to Microsoft”
• Robin: “Hello, what happened to YYYY, I thought he was going to be my manager”
• XXXX: “We had a reorg, YYYY now has a major role on my team”
• Robin: “What’s a reorg”
• XXXX: explains the reorg – full of acronyms and codenames
• Robin: “Oh, OK. Is there any reason I shouldn’t come to Microsoft?”
• XXXX: “No, of course. Don’t worry. We’ll find something for you to do by the time you get here”
• Robin follows up with call to recruiter who explains this kind of thing happens all the time. Points me back to delicious gift basket.
Robin and Tim (and Zoe and Kimbo the cats) move to Bellevue, WA. Building 25 has a great big office with my name on the door and two PCs, it even had furniture and I didn’t have to put it together myself. They let me do interviews and talk to the developers whenever I wanted. And we had ‘morale’ events all the time. XXXX assigned me a third time repeat college intern – making him more senior than me in Microsoft years. He was also really tall. I was intimidated, but thanks to master intern, I learned tons. In addition I helped the team survive a Watergate-like scandal that had swept up a couple of my team members and got old-school Microsoft yelled at one morning by our build lab guy who later became my buddy ‘cause we both played flute. I even got to ship a little software, a badge of honor in less than one year at the big company.
Lesson 2: Always carry an ice scraper
February 26 1996 was a beautiful, sunny day in Redmond, WA. It was also so cold that windshield on my rental car frosted over. With a bit of a head cold and no idea where Building 21 New Employee Orientation was in relation to my temp housing (turns out it was walking distance), I had decided to drive to work. As a native southern Californian, I had no idea what to do. Trying not to be late for my BIG FIRST DAY I scratched away with a credit card ineffectively while waiting for the car defroster to kick in. Made it just in time, head feeling like a bowling ball, then posed for a fabulous first Badge photo. I should remember more, but only two details from NEO now stand out for me:
• Line “You probably think you’re the smartest person you know. Well look around, that’s not true anymore”
• Scene from how to safeguard Microsoft’s confidential business information – tech reporter dumpster diving in order to gain access to Microsoft’s secrets.
Lesson 3: Don’t let go
The first team I joined at Microsoft was building a new web layout technology and platform to be used in Visual Studio, Office and Internet Explorer. Though I had been in the workplace several years already and had team management experience, this was the first time I was involved in juggling deliverables between teams the size of my two previous companies put together. One of the GPMs we worked with (who later became a State Representative in Washington for the city of Redmond) described the PM’s role to me in this way: He slid his body forward in his ergo chair until he was suspended by the arms:
• GPM/Congressman Guy: Holding the pose he looks me in the eye and says “you know what happens if I let go?”
• Me: Confused. Probably made a weird face to top off my blank stare.
• GPMCG: “My ass” big pause “is grass.”
• Me: Besides putting in his nomination for best actor in a leading process discussion, I got to hear more about how it’s on each one of us to make sure the right things are happening and not assume someone else is taking care of filling the gaps.
Lesson 4: Love what you do, and you might as well get paid
Following that inspiring lesson from GPMCG, and other stuff I won’t bore you with, I pursued the offer from XXXX to look around the company if I felt like it. I had found some kindred spirits on the “SOC Music Geeks at Microsoft” DL who invited me to check out their team in the MSN part of the company (where some at were said to be “resting and vesting”). The team was building interactive music technology for web apps. I interviewed for one of the open SDET jobs, didn’t get it, but the team still wanted me. They introduced me to content manager guy, a musician/composer/producer type, who was looking for someone “technical” to help him build music into “Metro”. Design buffs will note that this code name is pre-millennial, in fact MSN 2.0 was one of the first to try out the clean and modern concept, but I digress… Content guy made me an offer and said I was a “very important person”, so naturally I wanted the job. Oh, right, what was the job again? He wasn’t sure…
So then there was this HR lady who was involved and wasn’t sure about the whole thing
• HR lady: (paraphrasing) hey, that’s not too cool, are you sure you want to take a job without a title
• Me: (paraphrasing) but this seems way cooler than my old job
• HR lady: (direct quote) “Robin, after six weeks, send me an email telling me what you do every day.”
• Me after six weeks: (paraphrasing) Dear HR lady, here’s a detailed description of all the planning, prototyping, spec’ing, project management and team building I doing every day.
• HR lady: (direct quote, in email): “Congratulations, Robin. You’re a Program Manager.”
(This is the part of my story where I reference Spiderman) Endowed with the great responsibility that accompanied my power, I thought I better really find out what this PM thing *really* meant. I knew some PM’s had worked with them, and had been advised by a few. Still I took every opportunity to be with other PMs, learn from them, emulate them and to keep everyone’s ass from hitting the grass. And I loved loved loved loved my job no matter that my office in RedWest D was literally a closet when I first started. I learned a ton, got to be creative, and I got to work with people who were talented and really cared about what they were doing. I also got to go to Hollywood and New York City, oh and people seemed to really appreciate my work. I was having so much fun I couldn’t believe Microsoft actually paid me. Even better, no one seemed to notice I was just making things up as I went along.
Lesson 5: Let the damned thing ring
So I’m sitting in my (new and improved) office up in RedWest E, sweating over some spec for MSN media when the desk phone rings. I pick it up innocently, thinking my lovely hubby might be calling to check in on me or whisper sweet nothings before we head home to our childless cat filled couple life.
• Me: (picks up phone) Hello, this is Robin
• Caller: Robin Goldstein?
• Me: Yes.
• Caller: I’m glad I reached you, I was told you could connect me with the CEO’s office
• Me: I think you’ll need to connect with the Microsoft Operator, I’m not with the CEO’s office
• Caller: Come on Robin, I really need to talk to Bill Gates, can’t you help me?
• Me (suspicious now): No, sorry, I can’t help you. (hangs up phone, wishing there was a social network I could log in to tweet “that was weird” but social networks hadn’t been invented yet
Then suddenly….Ring Ring Ring
• Me: (picks up phone) Hello, this is Robin.
• Caller: Hello Robin, it’s me again. I really need you to help me out.
• Me: I told you I couldn’t help you with that request. Please don’t call me again. (hangs up)
So now I’m on my way out into the hall to “tweet” with my teammates about this crazy guy who wants me to help him talk to Bill Gates. Halfway out the door, ring, ring, ring….
• Me: (picks up phone) Hello, this is Robin
• Caller: (loud, angry, threatening) Robin, no one ever EVER hangs up on me. I know where you are, I will GUT YOU LIKE A FISH!
• Me: (hangs up the phone, calls security)
Security calls back later to confirm there is an anonymous caller reported that fits this MO. They believe he is harmless. Coworkers walk me to my car. I am still alive.
Lesson 6: The more the merrier
Every look back on a Microsoft Career has got to have a section about manager and office changes. So here are my stats…I think….sometimes it’s hard to keep track
• Offices (19) – Longest time between moves (3 years)
• Managers (15) – Longest time between manager change (5.5 years!)
Seems like a lot of changes in 20 years. If you were part of the recent One Microsoft transition, to you I say “I know that feel bro”. Still in my experience, most of the changes turned out f-ing great. Like the managers – 15 seems like a lot – but most of them, even the ones I didn’t have for very long were pretty f-ing AWESOME. Even the less awesome ones were smart, often funny, charming, and eminently quotable. Overall win-win.
Lesson 7: Know when to move on
One reorg story that I always chuckle about is the one that happened while I was on maternity leave. While at home with sweet baby Hana, my team went through a reorg and moved to RedWest A. As part of that move, my office got moved to a closet, again. Luckily, by the time I got back to work, there was an actual office for waiting for me. I remember coming to visit it just before the end of my maternity leave to practice being at work away from the baby.
As a part of that org change, Tim (loving sleep deprived husband dad) had was in a great new FTE job, on the same team! So cool! Well kind of. I was happy to be back and talking to adults instead of my adorable crying, puky infant 8 hours a day, but I still did a double take every time Tim and I would walk out into the hall at the same time. In addition, I learned we were no longer in the product group but part of the newly minted Microsoft Studios. (Sidebar, true story – the guy who ran Studios formerly produced the TV show “WKRP in Cincinnati” and was quoted as saying “the talent pool in Seattle is so shallow you could fall face down in it and not drown”).
Parting sorrowfully with my beloved team, I pursued my independence and took the open PM role in IMT where I finally got to work on interactive audio tech and later the Interpress platform. With new inspiring and cool teammates, I continued loving my work, and I got to go right back to RedW D, around the corner from my former closet. Thanks to some great managers in that group I also grew my skills and rocked as a PM if I don’t say so myself. Got my first patent too! Incidentally, in another PMs to Pols move, my new boss on that team became my State Senator.
Lesson 8: Office Space isn’t just a movie
We of a certain MS era have generally been spoiled by the notion that every person deserves their own private office. As someone who used share a cube with two other people at a previous company, my first MS office seemed like a suite at the Ritz. I have already mentioned the storage closet in RedWest D. It was meant to be an office, but it was used for storing office supplies and team stuff, they just stuck a desk in there so I’d have a place to be near the team temporarily. After that I was moved to E where I had an amazing view of the mountains and was very productive, it’s also where I encountered the phone stalker, and where I eventually was very very pregnant and couldn’t get up one day after I bent down to pick up a floppy disk (say the GenZ’s “a whah?”). I remember having to call my intern to help me up. He was scared I was gonna have the baby right then and there.
Since then, as my move stats suggest, I have known the inside of lots of different offices and buildings. Currently I sit in shared open space with several other people where we frequently share European viruses (sniffle sniffle), and a partial view of the Seine and la Peripherique.
With every move I’ve accumulated prize possessions accumulated at Microsoft. Still each space is customized with a combo of personal artifacts and Microsoft prized possessions. Up until the move to France here’s what’s accumulated in my office space:
• Photos of family
• A few small art pieces
• Team photos
• Product ship-it prizes
• Two Patent Cubes
• Three Patent-Plaques
• Three dogfood awards, made from real cans of Dogfood (these finally went away when we moved to France)
• Bench Program awards and certificates
• Two Ship-It Award Plaques
• 5 year Clock (stopped telling time years ago)
• Wall clock (to actually tell time)
• Hermione Granger magic wand (stolen in move between B84 and B85 about three years ago)
• 10 year and 15 year crystals
• 3 CEO Bobble Head team Award
• JS Bach Action Figure
• Divan from Schoenberg furniture (aka the green couch – now in our ‘game studio’ at home)
Lesson 9: Build your own posse whenever you can
Quick story about how I became a group manager. I was working for another cool team doing multimedia stuff for another codenamed project when suddenly Microsoft stock went through the roof and old timers started bailing like passengers on the Titanic. I think my boss’s words to me were something like “I’m gonna buy that house across the street, the one right on the water on Beach Drive. Then I’m going on vacation, and when I’m done with that you’re gonna take my job, OK?” And then that happened.
The mission I inherited soon incorporated the charter for MSN Explorer and I had open head count and a team to hire. At first a couple new people were presented to me due to another project shutting down – one turned out to be amazing with design, the other with getting functionality built. After that, I got to hire some leads and some junior and senior PMs. Along the way I took chances on some people who were switching discipline. My team was strong. Their talents complemented each other. We got along. We produced. People wanted to join us. It was my first chemistry experiment and I found I really liked bringing people together.
Fast forward to many teams and many wonderful experiments. Shout out to the entire DNX team class 2009-2012. Thanks for all the pizza and ice cream, the beer and barbecue, for being “super heroes” and doing the catwalk, for //BUILD, for the MOSCARS, for getting along so well with each other, for doing really hard stuff and getting it out there in the world, for making me proud, #FavoriteTeam!!!!
Lesson 10: He who gets to go home first, wins!
So things were cruising. Tim and I both had great jobs at Microsoft, and we had two really little kids and our first real lesson in work/life balance. Tim was knocking it out of the park at this time, one of the few people I ever met to earn the coveted “4.5” on the old rating scale (old timers will know what I mean). I continued to love my work. This made for some interesting conversations from time to time about who “got to stay late.” Some of the wisest superwoman mentors I had already advised me to temper my expectations of being wonder woman, still it was always hard for me to make that choice to go home early.
When we decided for various reasons later on that Tim would leave Microsoft, he ended up with lots of time to watch the girls and experience their changes, especially when they were younger. Today, as our oldest is poised to graduate, and their adolescent aversion to hanging out with mom and dad is in full force, I wish I had been the first one to always “volunteer” to go home early. I missed a lot, and work was always there the next day.
Lesson 11: What happens in Vegas…
OK, so sometimes we just mess up and we gotta take our lumps. Recent stories in the news come to mind, and there are a few other public instances I can think of, some I was closer to. Here’s one I remember:
Great party in a luxury Vegas hotel following a big MSN release announcement at CES – remember the “It’s better with the butterfly” campaign? My colleagues and I were delirious with pride having shipped the new MSN comms client with all our creative ideas after a shipping dryspell that included two consecutive ventures in the world of codenamed projects that never saw the light of day. We attended the official party where many of our colleagues were variously delirious. There were several signs this was going to be an interesting evening. The interwebs being forever, I’ll spare stories that implicate individuals from our team and company, but this was one of the ones where public apologies were issued.
One funny moment that I remember, which I hope won’t incriminate any individual concerns the music at the party. There were several sessions of upbeat DJ’d music including popular party hits like “Hey Ya” by Outkast, where we the delirious geeks “let loose”. At one point this singer-songwriter musician comes on, Pete Yorn I think, and no one knows what to do. We just stand their awkwardly, and some of us may not have been very polite. At one point Pete starts gets fed up and tells us how lame we’re acting.
Lesson 12: Hobbits are good employees
Then there’s the Microsoft review process, oh yeah, baby, that system. A lot has been written about this over the years as it has evolved and transformed. In my teams we always tried to keep it real and to even have some fun with it.
There was one era where I would have my leads come over to the house to hold our annual people discussion. One time, in the first year after Win7 launch, we finished our meeting and celebrated by playing in the backyard – I had a fire pit, and some boxes leftover from a Windows 7 party that never happened due to the “Swine Flu” epidemic that had swept through earlier in the season. The boxes were giant replicas of Windows XP and Windows Vista packaging. We burned them and took a video.
Not long after that, in response to team Poll feedback that we weren’t “transparent enough”, we put our heads together on how to demystify the review process. I actually convinced them do a little play-acting and organized a meeting. So we invite the whole team, we get in a room and explain how people discussions work, show a slide of people sitting in a dark room with a bunch of post-it’s on a whiteboard, and then….we discussed the contributions of our (fictional) team members as they pursued their quest in the universe of the Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring. Each lead had a set of characters to represent. We compared by them Elf to Dwarf, Wizards to Kings and Hobbits to Hobbits. Turns out the Elves and Dwarves were always trying to be heroes, but the Hobbits were generally very reliable performers.
Favorite moment, totally unrehearsed:
• Manager of Gimli (dwarf): My team obviously contributed the most to the battle, Gimli was the fiercest warrior
• Manager of Legolas (elf): Yes, but Legolas killed more Orcs
• Back and forth between managers on who was the better warrior)
• Manager of Gimli (dwarf): I see your point, let’s move Legolas higher, after all he did kill more Orcs
Word soon got around and our “mock calibration” was later formalized and scripted by another teammate to use as a repeatable training session. The packaged version placed Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and the other characters from Star Wars in a fair and balanced people discussion.
Lesson 13: It’s good to be replaceable
In 2011 I had the opportunity of a lifetime to take 12 weeks off as a reward for strong performance and seniority, and because I had some vacation to burn. I split the time between exotic Woodinville, Seattle, and the lovely country of France where I travelled partly alone, partly with a friend, and partly with the kind and deserving Tim. I spent a couple weeks immersed in language school greatly accelerating my speaking and comprehension skills in French. I tasted a lot of wine. For 10 days following I spoke as much French as possible with a close friend from the US – a newly minted Microsoftie who had some vacay and wanted to join the fun. We were like characters in a movie – actors playing ourselves. Since my friend was only on a short vacation, she checked in with her work from time to time, and that is when ze dreaded Ingleesh would occur – language of reorgs…we would soon return to our happy little French dialog and all would be well.
Before doing this I was worried about leaving my team and job – would things crash and burn? Would they still need me when I got back? Would they even remember me? After all, the break felt long and very different than my normal life. Even the part spent at home. I was not tempted to work at all.
When I returned I discovered two truths:
1. Very little had changed, as if time had moved at a different pace at Microsoft, and maybe it had.
2. The team did just fine without me, so fine in fact, that I left some of my responsibilities with those who were filling in.
I was welcomed back, things were familiar. And, I had time to invest in other opportunities like doing tech press demos and investing more in planning for what’s next.
Lesson 14: How I learned not to dis my life (aka My Life of Pie)
The “sabbatical” experience got me curious about how much time we actually spend at work. When I came back I did a presentation where I explained the reason for my trip (What’s the MS Achievement Award, where I went, what I did, what I learned…). I also got a little philosophical thinking about how much time I’d spent at work vs. other things in my life. I had no other choice but to make a pie chart.
First I calculated 21 years of working and how many hours that added up to be. I added rows in the table for every other major activity in my life, sleeping, eating, etc. All during that 21 year period. Have you ever seen that graphic “Pie I’ve eaten, Pie I have not eaten”? That’s kind of what my chart looked like. Work and Sleep took up two big wedges, watching TV took a decent amount too. Then there were all the other things in my life spread around the circle in tiny slices:
etc etc etc
Cautionary tale – life is too short to spend that much time in Excel. Also, take your vacations, you spend enough time at work.
Lesson 15: Fierce women rock
Before I ever got to Microsoft I was used to being one of the few women in my class, major, team, etc. Case in point, first day of one of my first jobs, one curious co-worker visited me in my office and blurted out “they were right there IS a girl here now”. That trend has more or less continued as I’ve been in engineering teams almost my entire career. I used to let stuff like this bother me, but now I’m thinking “wait, there IS a girl here, so you better watch out ‘cause she’s badass!”
Microsoft has some of the most amazing women who have walked the face of mother earth. Lucky me I get to see them in action on a regular basis. Sometimes I get to work ‘em too! Once I even had a whole trio of badass reporting to me. They each remain unique and impactful product and team leaders doing amazing things in work and in life. They also still like to shop, gossip and look awesome! I love the men too, and some of them have been incredibly inspiring, but having role models and others who ‘get’ what it’s like to be you? Priceless.
Lessons 16: The world is flat
Before Thomas Friedman published his book which repopularized the term referring to an old world notion that ships sailing East would fall of the edge of the earth, I wondered if the world was getting closer together. Microsoft seemed to be making it so. In the past twenty years I’ve met people from all over the world – colleagues, customers, engineers, marketers, lawyers, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Russia, name a country, I can probably find someone on my contact list who lived there. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel on behalf of Microsoft many times, in the US of course, but other places in the world too. On behalf of Microsoft I’ve visited these exciting cities:
• Las Vegas
• New Orleans
• San Francisco
• Los Angeles
• New York
• Ann Arbor
• San Diego
• Mexico City
• Buenos Aires
• São Paolo
Lesson 17: Use your words
Quick comment on this: There are lots of words and acronyms and plenty of Ivy League graduates here, a tall order for plain spoken types.
There’s the MS speak that we all have to get used to, for example, early in my MS memory is “superexcited!“ Then there’s the geek speak like “aggregate” and “2-D Layout.” Then there are the people with their enormous brains and vocabularies. There was that one time I was in a meeting with my boss and teammates and one of the guys finally said to our manager “could you repeat that please in English?” I must have used a few big words myself from time to time. I can’t remember what I wrote in one of my emails that caused my teammate to respond “liberal arts major!” but it must have been pretentious.
Lesson 18: If you want something done, don’t count on doing it yourself
We do a lot of on the job learning at Microsoft but we also go through different types of trainings from time to time. One theme that’s come up in various trainings, especially the ones offered in women’s communities, is the need for different people in your life and work to help you shape and grow your career and what kind of person you want to be. There are various jargon floating around defining the different types of people but the categories always include mentors or coaches, collaborators, people who push you or fight you, and those that support you unconditionally. Some will serve on each other’s “personal board of directors” long after Microsoft is a part of our daily life.
I’ve come to realize that without these people, I might have quit years ago. So thank you mentors, managers, sponsors, coaches, friends and colleagues, supporters, fans, and those who’ve pushed me or pushed back on me. You make me better!
Lesson 19: It’s the people, stupid
I was kind of floored the first time I realized that some of the people I worked with actually loved each other. I’m not talking about the office romances that and marriages or torrid affaires that lead to awkward but swift personnel changes. I’m talking about deep respect and joy, and in many cases the true friendship that grows out of the camaraderie that builds when you accomplish something incredible with others. This love and connection can transcend the workplace, and many of us are friends in life as we were at work.
I am trying to take to heart some advice I got once to always take good care of these personal connections, not just the professional ones. It seems especially important now that I’m half a world away. Got to admit Facebook really helps.
Lesson 20: Ship before it’s too late
I’ve been working on this post since February 26, the date of my 20th anniversary. First I had the wrong design, then the feature set was incomplete. Then there were the bugs and the customer requests. It’s not perfect but I think I’m ready to let go and see what impact I can have with my product. As my first and best customers, your feedback is welcome. I am listening.