What I learned at Microsoft Part II: Choose to be Jesus Christ or James Bond

Jesus Christ

Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? [They] all say unto him, Let him be crucified.
And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified.
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but [that] rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed [his] hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye [to it].
Then answered all the people, and said, His blood [be] on us, and on our children.
Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered [him] to be crucified.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band [of soldiers].
And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.
And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put [it] upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!
And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.
And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify [him].

Matthew 27:22
1769 Oxford King James Bible ‘Authorized Version

According to the King James bible (as well as many other Christian texts), Jesus Chris spent much of his documented adult life trying to get his peers to see a larger world, to imagine a world where we care for others before ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and to use our energy toward making the world a better place. Whether the accounts are historical or metaphor, the message is a simple story of selfless striving toward a common good.  From an evolutionary perspective, it is an ideal message for the sake of promoting the benefit of the species.  From a more personal perspective, there are risks with taking on an insurmountable task.

As with any super hero, there is a certain honor in driving for an outcome that benefits “the many”.  There is a level of satisfaction in staring into the mirror knowing that you are doing something that you can be proud of – something that you can tell your children.  There’s a level of pride in taking on the bully.  Perhaps the drive to be a hero is reflective of a desire to model and to see a better world for everyone.  Or perhaps that drive is inspired by previously failed heroism.  Maybe that drive is the result of a diffuse struggle to define one’s own self worth.  Remember that the “why” is important.


Industrial Strength Altruism

One of the reasons some people came to Microsoft (and other tech organizations) is to have a hand in moving the industry forward, toward a more positive future  – purely for the sake of seeing software and technology help human beings.  In some cases these desires are expressed explicitly with a demonstrable human benefit in mind.  For example one person I worked with, held a great deal of passion for real time machine translation.  Her vision was a world where language and culture was not a barrier to communication.  She imagined a world where you could instant message (IM) any other person on the planet, irrespective of their language and culture.  Eventually she saw a time where you could speak into your phone – and the person at the other end would hear your voice in their language, just like people at the United Nations.

In other cases, these desires are expressed diffusely as an outcome that eventually benefits society – but immediately benefits the industry.  One of my all time favorite program managers, let’s call him Charlie Smith, is someone incredibly passionate about the web and internet technologies.  Charlie has worked much of his career on technologies and in groups that support the web and the internet.  In Charlie’s mind he would ideally spend his day continuing to nurture web standards in his day to day job.  In most cases, industries built around the internet would benefit from the interoperability afforded them.

The tension opposing standards is a proprietary solution that helps an organization differentiate itself or its offering.  For the sake of brevity I’m not going to dig too deeply into the standards discussion.   In the first round of the browser wars (and to a lesser extent in the second browser war) we saw organizations introducing proprietary extensions to promote their platform or feature set.  These features were offered under the auspices of “moving the platform forward” or “innovation”.  However, many platform focused organizations derive customer value from applications – not how well their platform copies files.   Consequently, there is a tension between standards support and proprietary APIs.  Without proprietary APIs, it becomes difficult to get differentiated applications.  The platform becomes a commodity and even more difficult to monetize.  For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to offer alternatives to this approach or assess its moral value.

Microsoft is like any organization focused on furthering its own ends – maximizing profit now and in the future.  Without that focus, Microsoft could not afford to fund its development activities.  Imagine the feelings that Charlie (or any web technologist) would have after the company had not made any browser releases for five years.  Imagine his feelings when faced down by standards advocates who were screaming that Microsoft and IE6 are “Destroying the web”.  It must have been so painful for him.  However, he stuck it out and tried effect change from within the company. Charlie was unflinchingly honest, articulate, logically reasoned and consistent.  At the same time, Charlie was not naive.  He understood that he needed to pitch the benefits to the company beyond the altruistic benefit of moving the web forward.  For years, Charlie made impassioned pleas that clearly showed net benefit to the corporation.

Standards advocates saw IE8 as an improvement, but still light years behind – without coherent plan for catching up.  Charlie wrote memo after memo outlining strategies for supporting standards while still differentiating the platform enough to attract developers.  There were even occasions where I joined in on theses discussions with him.  None of our arguments seemed accepted or prioritized.  After I bowed out, Charlie continued to advocate for standards frequently and unceasingly – until many of the leaders completely tuned him out.

James Bond

For a few moments Bond sat motionless, gazing out of the window across the dark sea, then he shoved the bundle of banknotes under the pillow of the ornate single bed, cleaned his teeth, turned out the lights and climbed with relief between the harsh French sheets. For ten minutes he lay on his left side reflecting on the events of the day. Then he turned over and focused his mind towards the tunnel of sleep.

His last action was to slip his right hand under the pillow until it rested under the butt of the .38 Colt Police Positive with the sawn barrel. Then he slept, and with the warmth and humor of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.

Casino Royale
Ian Fleming

Bullets flying overhead, beautiful women trying to seduce him, evil organizations trying to recruit him and ego maniacs trying to kill him.  Nothing could stop James Bond.  He used guile, magnetism and even force to stylishly accomplish his goals and occasionally they coincided with the goals of MI6 (the British intelligence agency that he was a member of).  Bond was frequently under cover – he was pretending to be a bad guy to sneak into and subvert the evil organization.  He only revealed his true identity after he had completed his mission. Whether Ian Fleming’s accounts of James Bond were fiction or riffed off of the life of a real spy, there are important messages to consider.  The overt, full frontal attack, though moral satisfying,  may not necessarily be the most effective approach to effecting change in an organization.  

Another friend, Marcia, worked at a company FooBarTech (names changed to protect the innocent) was an advocate for diversity and a technology go to girl.  Marcia is multi-racial, though most of her family is African American. FooBarTech had asked her to advocate as part of her organizations diversity counsel.  Marcia and the experience of other black folks at FooBarTech were less than consistently positive.  In general, there are few women in tech.  However FooBarTech had few women and had a high attrition rate among African Americans and women.  Marcia took the time to meet with several folks to capture their negative experiences in a power point deck.  Her deck told the anonymized black experience at FooBarTech along with some recommendations for stemming the attrition tide.  She proposed that they develop a standardized onboarding experience that focused on how to be successful in FooBarTech’s culture, on getting mentors for black folks and in designating someone an ombudsman to help arbitrate contentious issues.  Confident that she was taking a positive approach and honestly a little pleased with herself, she sent her proposals to the diversity team and the human resources group.

Shaken and Stirred

Mary, the HR director, organized a meeting to review the deck with Marcia.  As Marcia entered the room, she noticed a distinct lack of smiling.  This group of people were sophisticated and disciplined at thoughtfully driving the tone of these kinds of conversations.  Marcia thought that they were either nervous about the conversation or the stoic demeanor was intentional.  There was a nervous exchange of hellos and the introductions started.  Mary introduced Inari, an HR investigator and Claudette, the director of diversity.  Marcia confidently shook their hands and made every effort to appear happy and at ease.

Inari: Marcia, we need for you to release the names of the employees.
Marcia: I understand your need to look out for the best interests of the company. At the same time I hope that you understand my need as an advocate for this group, to protect everyone’s privacy. These stories were released under conditions of anonymity.
Inari: I do.
Mary: Sure.
Claudette:  Yes. However, after bringing this to our attention we are obligated to take action on it.
Marcia: Taking the onboarding program forward is one of the best ways to take action on these issues.
Inari: As a manager you are an agent of the company and have a responsibility to reveal the names of the people that contributed stories to the deck. If you do not, you can be demoted or fired.
You have a week to decided.

Always bet on black

The following week, Marcia confidently walked into Mary’s office. The same team from last week was sitting there. Marcia sat down, nervous, but stoic. Before anyone else could say a word, Marcia slid copies of the last four years of diversity data across the table.

Marcia:  I completely understand that you are trying to mitigate the risk to FooBarTech by following up on each of the stories in our deck. I understand that you feel as though this is the only way for you to protect the company. However, you have to ask yourself how this would play out in the court of public opinion: ‘FooBarTech fires African American woman advocating for diversity’

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room.  Marcia knew that they would not be able to make a decision without conferring.  She knew that Mary could not make a decision until Inari had assessed the exposure risk for the company with the legal team.  She knew that Claudette was old, had her position too long and was afraid of losing her job in the house.  Marcia also knew that there was a genuine risk of her being fired.  She let the silence set.  Mary, Inari and Claudette exchange glances.

Inari: Are you threatening to reveal this information publically?
Marcia: (without pausing, stood up, pushed her chair in and looked at each of them)
I’m not making any threats. I am just asking you to think through this. If you are taking an action that you would not want to see revealed to the scrutiny of public opinion, then you are not taking an action that benefits the organization. In that case, you should drop this matter.

I’ll give you a week to think about it.
(she walked out)

Lesson Learned

There were many times where Charlie and I sat in his office or my office.  Dreaming, whispering and fantasying about what the web and the internet could become.  We had designed some of the Avalon (nee WPF & Silverlight) APIs and render stack together – in hopes of delivering on some of that possibility.  We spoke about the ways in which unfettered access to information and resources could change society.  However, when we looked at what we were delivering, we found it wanting.  Frequently, I reminded Charlie that Microsoft was a corporation and ultimately, there was no room for technical altruism in decision making for the organization.  Instead of fighting internally with them, he needed to generate enough external stimulus to get the organization to react – covert technical activism.  Organisms only respond to stimulus – pleasure or pain.  Though he didn’t ask, I told Charlie that he needed to decide… he needed to choose to be Jesus Christ or James Bond.  Either your career dies on the proverbial cross or you use a broader (perhaps ethically questionable) set of influencing techniques to move the company in the direction that benefits the industry. And be clear with yourself about the consequences of being Jesus Christ.

Charlie created a Twitter account named “HeavyJesus” and left the company. To this day, Charlie is special to me – not because he is a technical giant.  I love and respect Charlie because he is a decent human being that is true to his values – I strive to be like him every day.

Though the Jesus Chris/James Bond analogy does not completely fit as I have told it in this post, it does put a fine point on the concept of being intentional about your motivations for doing your job.  For those of you that start work at 9:00am, clock out at 5:00pm and leave your job behind at the end of the day- god bless you Fred Flintstone.  For folks that work at their job because they love their industry, there is always a tension between your fiduciary responsibilities to your organization and your higher responsibilities to the greater good.  To all of the latter, I remind you that you are in a relationship that you will need to seek constant comprise.

Perhaps Kissinger fits snugly between Christ and Bond.



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