On Why I Left Microsoft
Updated (17-Sep-2005, 11:21 PDT): Added the second postscript pointing to the Business Week article.
Updated (14-Sep-2005, 22:36 PDT): Added the postscript at the end.
Updated (12-Sep-2005, 18:00 PDT): Added RobMen's blog reference and corrected a grammatical ambiguity.
Eric Raymond recently posted on a recruiting attempt on him from Microsoft and towards the end of his post mentioned:
FURTHER UPDATE: I had my serious, constructive conversation with Microsoft last year, when a midlevel exec named Steven Walli took me out to dinner at OSCON 2004 and asked, in so many words, “How can we not be evil?” And I told him — open up your file formats (including Word and multimedia), support open technical standards instead of sabotaging them, license your patents under royalty-free, paperwork-free terms.
I believe Steve Walli went back to his bosses and told them that truth. He is no longer with Microsoft, and what little he’ll say about it hints that they canned him for trying to change their culture.
It was a great dinner. Eric was there, along with Larry Augustin, Pamela Roussos and Andi Gutmans from Zend, Rob Mensching (Microsoft — runs the WiX community), and my then partner in crime Jon Rosenberg. I believe it might have actually been Rob that asked how Microsoft could be less evil to Eric. Those that know me well know that's not really a "me" sort of question. I've always felt actions were important and was trying to get Microsoft engaged in the broader open source community beyond strict sharing programs under the Shared Source banner. I still believe that Microsoft has a huge opportunity here.
They didn't fire me for trying to change the culture. I've met Eric and others in the free and open source software community since leaving early in December 2004, and friends have heard the anecdotal examples of things that were deeply frustrating me. I left completely of my own accord.
Microsoft is a Very Large Company. It is wrestling (as all large companies do) with the very processes that enabled it to succeed and grow. It is at a point in it's life where it needs to be defined by operational excellence as much as product development. The single scarcest resource is (as one friend pointed out five years ago) executive bandwidth. It takes forever to get a meeting with the very execs that can open the doors for success through their sponsorship. And once one of those meetings is scheduled, you enter data preparation and PowerPoint hell. For me, it had become not very fun. I simply don't have the patience of people like Danese Cooper, Simon Phipps, Bill Hilf or Bob Sutor. When interviewing with companies like Microsoft, you will often hear about the incredible reach you'll have in the world. That is of course predicated on the ability to be heard inside the company first, and on the ability to actually ship something.
As a vice-president of R&D at Softway, I worked with a team that delivered 11 releases of software (Interix) over our four years. As the product unit manager for the same team and technology, I left the team two years after entering Microsoft because we still hadn't shipped technology that was basically almost ready when we were acquired. We were essentially waiting on integration with a ship vehicle. Tightly integrated innovation isn't always the right answer. (Look at the length of time it's taken to get the new Windows command line shell out the door.) There was a recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Microsoft warming up to open source. The data points were the same three small open source projects I helped launch last year. I also have a background in industry standards, and as a gross generalization, most people at Microsoft don't care about the difference between de facto technologies and industry developed standards, and the subtleties required to engage customers while confusing competitors with standards, so I was only frustrating myself in those discussions as well.
To be clear. I thought I was fairly treated in the acquisition (despite the fact that Softway had essentially hit the cash wall as a startup). I was well compensated as an employee. The benefits were great (but that may be shifting a little as they need to deal with the operational excellence mentioned above). I had sufficient seniority, credibility and visibility to be able to request short (~10 minute) meetings with a number of senior execs on a number of occasions. (It was larger reviews where decisions need to be made across parts of the organization that are impossible.) Three of the best managers I've ever worked for in 25 years were at Microsoft, including my immediate manager in my last assignment. I learned an incredible amount about business, but then I had a different set of radical business lessons running my part of Softway, so part of that may simply be a pre-disposition to learning. I haven't met anyone outright evil, (and I've been in Bill and Steve reviews on a number of occasions). Only a couple of people were sort of broken with respect to their thinking, and they certainly weren't execs. I still have the utmost respect for the company and its executive team. If you looked at my annual poll results, you would see a "happy" employee.
I just wanted to build things and have fun again. I believe free and open source software are incredible business tools, and a lot of fun. I left Microsoft to work for myself after a little over five years. I've done this twice before in my career. I left EDS in 1991 and in 1994 I left Mortice Kern Systems (MKS). The latter lead to the founding of Softway. I'm one of those people that would rather rock the world of 40,000 customers, than touch the lives of 40 million. I like small growing companies.
Early this year, Optaros convinced me I should help build their company, and it's been a great experience ever since. Life's too short.
Postscript: I was going through my back log of reading this evening and came across Hugh MacLeod's "How to be Creative" again. I appreciate everyone on the planet that reads blogs or themself blogs has probably come across MacLeod by now, but just in case you haven't, I've included the link. Re-reading parts of it again summarizes so much of the way I try (and sometimes even succeed) to create over the past 15 years. (Yes, I've known Jeff Haemer that long, and he continues to push and encourage me.) MacLeod just captures the ideas and the work so perfectly. If you haven't discovered "How to be Creative" — please do.
P.P.S. Business Week's cover story this week is on the Microsoft exodus. (The article is also the start of Business Week's podcasting initiative around their cover stories.) I have a minor quote in the article. In discussions with friends about the article, it was observed that the type of people leaving now are the sort that question everything and aren't willing to take "no" for an answer. Essentially, these are the sort of people that made the company what it is, and exactly the sort that can't be happy in what it's become. This doesn't come out in the article, but explains the dichotomy in the article's view points.