Mystic Microsoft: A Journey of Transformation in the Halls of High Technology

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Leap of Faith


"Would you trust OS/2 to run a nuclear power plant?"¯

A man whom I will call Ken Johnson, a program manager in Microsoft's OS/2 product team, was interviewing me for a similar position in late July 1990. It was only one or two weeks after I'd been released from the Laser team (which had by this time been officially reduced to Slingshot) and I was graduating from college within a month. Thus I was exploring, with some anxiety no doubt, the available opportunities for a full-time technical position within Microsoft.

Bob Taniguchi, ever solicitous of my welfare, came to my rescue. Knowing that I wanted to stay at Microsoft if at all possible, he suggested two possibilities: one, a position in Developer Support where I worked with him as a co-op student; and two, a position as Program Manager in one of Microsoft's many product development teams.

This latter idea intrigued me. Program managers are deeply involved with creating new products. Though the work isn't as technical as programming, it's just as creative. This was especially true for an opening in the group working on a revolutionary new operating system called OS/2. Microsoft's strategy was for this technologically superior system to supplant Windows and MS-DOS while maintaining compatibility with both. To that end, OS/2 was designed to look and feel like Windows, even down to the group of accessory programs to which my Calculator belonged. The OS/2 team was looking for a program manager to head up this exact aspect of the project and decide which new features to add.

On the strength of my experience with the Windows 3.0 accessories and Bob's recommendation (he was actually on the OS/2 team himself at the time), I was granted an interview. To my relief, the whole process was somewhat less intense than my previous experience: only three one-hour sessions this time, none of which were all that grueling. What's more, I seemed a relatively good fit for the work in question. So I felt increasing sure that I would get the job"...and just think, I'd finally get to put that damn italic font into Clock!

That is, until Ken Johnson asked me about nuclear power plants. While I knew that OS/2 was already in the hands of real-world customers, I didn't yet trust the system enough to offer a qualified "yes." So I instead offered a tentative "no."¯

Oops. The sudden change in Ken's facial expression—and his revealing that two such facilities were already online with OS/2—instantly told me that I'd said the wrong thing. And not just wrong, mind you—I clearly did not have the necessary "faith," a character flaw tantamount to blasphemy. For at that time especially, Microsoft program managers really had to be believers. They had to believe not just in the company's overall goals but in their groups' product. And they had to believe, irrespective of any and all supporting evidence, that those particular projects were the most important things in technoĀ­logical history, important enough to inspire personal sacrifice—even martyrdom—when circumstances demanded it.

It hardly needs mention that I didn't get the job. But believe me, I was deeply grateful: in that group, martyrdom soon became almost mandatory!

OS/2 was a so-called "cooperative" effort between Microsoft and IBM, both of whom were interested in retiring MS-DOS.[*] On this the two companies could agree. As for everything else? Well, let's just say that the partnership was a far cry from wedded bliss—the software development philosophies of the two just weren't compatible. Still, the two somehow managed to maintain the relationship long enough to produce offspring in the first version of OS/2. But that was all: during the development of version 2—and only weeks after my interview—the relationship ruptured. In what was a harsh divorce, IBM got full custody of the system and Microsoft's OS/2 team was left in shambles. So I was very grateful for having been rejected, especially as The Great Schism, as it was called, officially happened on the exact day, August 20th, 1990, that I would have started full-time work with that group!

I was even more grateful when I saw what happened next. Given this volatile relationship with IBM, Microsoft had secretly prepared for the inevitable. Even while Microsoft was working with IBM on OS/2 2.0, a small team hidden off in some lonely corner of Building 2 was quietly working on certain "new technologies" for what they ostensibly called OS/2 version 3. In reality the project had nothing to do with OS/2: it was rather the foundation for an entirely separate operating system designed to go head-to-head with OS/2 and win. When Microsoft and IBM broke up, then, Microsoft simply put its full energy behind this new system: everyone who had been working on OS/2 suddenly found themselves working on "Windows, New Technology," or, simply, Windows NT.

Windows NT (now the core of current versions of Windows) quickly became the most intense project in Microsoft history, demanding the heart and soul of everyone involved.[†] People neglected their families, destroyed their marriages, and wrecked their health in sacrifice for the cause. I don't know what would have happened had I been involved myself. Without the necessary degree of unquestioning commitment to the project, I'm not sure I would have survived. All I can say is that I'm really, really glad that I wasn't given that job!

That left me with the opening in Developer Support. Since I'd worked there before and already knew many of the staff, my interview was mostly a time of renewing old friendships and catching up with the scene. There was a stout fellow named Dave Edson, for instance, who had been a co-op student at the same time as myself; we even shared an office for a few weeks. He had written a Windows version of the popular video game Tetris that was being included in Microsoft's first Windows Entertainment Pack. When I came to Dave's office for my half-hour interview he was just putting the finishing touches on a two-player mode. Under the pretext of helping him test this new feature, Dave proceeded to throttle me one game after another for a good twenty minutes. With time running short, Dave finally bothered to ask a few no-brainer questions to give the interview some semblance of formality; everyone knew I was perfect for the job.

A few days later I was offered a full-time position with a modest starting salary. Modest? Ha! Some would have said insulting. Given my experience I might have held out for twice as much at other software companies and demanded stock options to boot. I probably could have found a design engineer position as well. My sense of responsibility, then, demanded that I investigate such options before making any decision about Microsoft. But in my heart I still knew that Microsoft was my home. Regardless of the role that they were able to offer me—and the salary—I just couldn't imagine being anywhere else. Perhaps I intuitively knew that most of those other companies would also be gone in a year or two! Whatever the case, I just wasn't interested in shopping around for another employer any more than I thought to shop around for another spouse. It wasn't necessary: I had been given what I needed, and it was now up to me to make the most of it.

Myself on the day I graduated from the University of Washington, August 1990;
my wife and mother-in-law decorated our apartment with many home-made banners.

I thus made what seemed an entirely impractical decision: without hesitation, regret, or concern for the low-rung nature of the job and its meager salary, I accepted Microsoft's offer.[‡]

Foolish? Perhaps. Irresponsible? Definitely. But based on what followed in its wake, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. For one thing, the pain of my failure to become a Big Important Software Engineer simply vanished. In its place blossomed that same joy in helping others that I'd felt during my first months at Microsoft, a joy that had been absent for nearly two years. Every week I seemed to learn more than I had in my whole fourteen-month stint as a programmer. And my self-confidence, so recently shattered, both recovered and was growing stronger by the day.

This was also a time when I was blessed with a number of new and lasting friendships. The one that holds a special place in my heart was with another new-hire named Charlie Kindel. Charlie and I started within a couple weeks of each other and shared an office for the first few months of our parallel careers before a departmental reorganization put us in different teams. Later on, however, we worked together again, then were separated, reunited, separated, and reunited at least three more times. In fact, Charlie and I worked together in every group of which I was part until I left Microsoft six years later.

In my work itself I made rapid progress: within only two or three months I was considered one of the best support engineers in our whole department. I seemed to have a certain knack for our particular métier—not only was I able to understand a wide range of technical details and apply them to specific problems, but I was especially adept at the more difficult task of clearly communicating those solutions. On top of this I seemed to have an innate ability to quickly generalize a very particular solution and apply it to an much broader range of questions. Written up as short articles, these generalizations were especially valuable as part of our electronic Knowledge Base, one of the central resources in our support work.[§]

Best of all, I found a special joy in working with the people who called in for assistance: I solved problems to help people, not just to solve problems. Helping others succeed gave me a satisfaction that no strictly technical work really could. It was so satisfying, in fact, that it became the cornerstone of all my remaining years at Microsoft.

All this stands in marked contrast to what I probably would have experienced as part of the Windows NT project. I suspect that the role for which I'd interviewed would have been pulled out from under me—God only knows what my new assignment would've been! But I can tell you this for certain: I would have very likely been quite resistant to the whole upheaval, especially when it became clear that Windows NT was ready to consume every ounce of energy that one was willing to give, and then some. As a result, I would've held part of myself back and kept my eyes open for an escape. This, in turn, would have limited my effectiveness even as the project made ever-increasing demands on my life.

Like so many others, I would only have been motivated by the hope of some future reward that makes present suffering bearable—that same kind of unquestioning "faith" that we commonly hear about, especially in religion. Such faith, however, is based solely on the fear of losing the reward. While it might inspire one to heroic (or stupid) degrees of self-sacrifice, there is little love or joy to be had along the way. For myself, I can't go on very long without that love and joy. In the end, I probably would have become one of the many unfortunate casualties left in the wake of Windows NT.

In Developer Support—with my meager salary, no stock options, and an unspeakably minor role in Microsoft's overall success—there were no such promised rewards. I truly had nothing to lose, nothing to fear, and no need to look for an escape. The only fulfillment to be had was in the present, and the only motivation was simply the love I felt for the work itself. With nothing to hold back, my effectiveness was extraordinary.

In this came another opportunity, one that would eventually play a very important role in my inner transformation. Unlike most positions in product development, which had this annoying habit of making martyrs, my sort of job in Developer Support demanded little more than the usual forty hours a week. This left me with far more free time to invest in other pursuits than most software engineers and program managers could hope for.

And what were those pursuits? Among various interests and hobbies (such as creating or playing in some Dungeons & Dragons campaigns) I essentially spent much of that time—oddly enough—preparing myself to one day leave Microsoft.

You see, though I was totally committed to Microsoft and knew that it was where I belonged at the moment, I also knew deep within myself that I wouldn't be there my whole life. I had only entered the computer field, you might recall, because it offered the best opportunities—not because it was my true passion. What really interested me were things like astronomy, history, cosmology, music, psychology, photography, and even certain elements of spirituality. To these interests I someday hoped to devote more, indeed, all, of my energy. But I didn't want to become a starving artist who was forced to accept any old commission out of desperation, nor did I want to become a starving scientist who was similarly forced to work for ignoble ends. No, whenever I was ready to explore a new direction I wanted to do so with a certain degree of financial independence. My primary purpose in being at Microsoft, then, besides having fun with computers, was to save up enough money to make it all possible.

Until then, I could read. With so much time on my hands, including the hour or so each day that I commuted by bus, I began diving into all kinds of books. It was only now, in fact, that I really began to read seriously. I hadn't been much of a reader in my youth, and during college I rarely got to crack a book that wasn't the pet favorite of some professor with a penchant for the abstruse. Since high school, however, I had collected a number of attractive titles "to be read later." It was now "later."¯

I thus began a literary adventure that would pass through several hundred books over the next five years. What exhilaration I found in the free air of new ideas! Without the pressure of homework or the looming specter of an exam, I was finally able to read what I wanted at whatever pace I wanted and actually think about it in ways that were personally rather than academically meaningful. Ah! Such joy, such joy!

My journey began with Mathematics and the Imagination by Edward Kasner and James R. Newman, which deeply inspired me with its far-reaching examination of concepts like time, dimension, and infinity. Then I launched into a nine-month expedition through the fascinating tapestry of humanity, guided by H. G. Wells' monumental opus, The Outline of History.

Written to be concise but complete, The Outline of History offers many profound insights into the development of government, warfare, science, and religion, to name a few. With Wells' rather universal approach to the latter, especially, I began to understand not only religion's outer differences (over which most of the wars in the book were fought!), but also its inner unity. Here I began to see that certain spiritual principles exist independently of particular religious forms. Here I began to glimpse a Truth that transcends both religious dogmas and the institutions built to promogulate them. And here, for perhaps the first time in my life, I discovered the freedom to ask questions and explore lines of thought that were all but forbidden in my parochial upbringing. In short, The Outline of Historyawakened my spiritual search—a search for Truth. Almost every paragraph in the book sparked new questions in my mind that demanded answers. In fact, just to work through those questions I once considered writing a commentary on the book itself—a labor of decades! Somewhere in all this history, I thought, there must be some kind of true wisdom, some guidance as to how one should not just think, but how one should really live.

But it was not the time to attempt a synthesis—it was the time to just discover ideas and collect my thoughts about them, most of which I scribbled in the margins of each and every book I read. Someday I'd be ready to pull all of them back together into some kind of coherent picture. Then, I felt, Truth would reveal itself.

In the meantime, my creative and analytical energies continued to pour into my daytime work at Microsoft. Month after month my productivity soared above expectations. In one three month period, for example, I wrote nearly a hundred new articles for our Knowledge Base, fully twenty times my group's average. I also typically answered half again as more customer questions than the average. I even began working on articles for our company's popular technical magazine, Microsoft Systems Journal (now MSDN Magazine). [Extra: content guides to past issues of Microsoft Systems Journal can be found on I was first published in the March/April 1992 issue.]

Then, only eight months after I'd started and despite my being the youngest employee in the whole department, I had developed such an expertise that I was one of four engineers chosen to start an elite Premier Support Group. We were entrusted with the task of personally guiding the development of new Windows applications by the other leading software companies of the time—including Microsoft's direct competitors. My most important client was WordPerfect Corporation who was creating the first Windows version of their highly popular word processing program (now owned by Corel Corporation). My dear friend Charlie Kindel, who had also been chosen for the Premier team, was similarly assigned to Lotus Corporation and their legendary spreadsheet 1-2-3 (now part of IBM's Lotus SmartSuite).

Odd as it was to help Microsoft's rivals build products that would challenge our own, it was our deep joy to help other programmers in this way. Ironic, too, was this particular destiny for me. After having so deeply desired some kind of "important" software engineering role within Microsoft, and after being forced to let it go, I suddenly found it fulfilled: the competitors' applications we were helping to create were actually vital to the future success of Windows (which needed a healthy third-party software market) and thus to Microsoft as a whole. One could even argue that our individual work was more valuable to Microsoft than that of most individual product development engineers. Indeed, our upper managers seemed to agree: within a year my scanty starting salary was raised three times (as was Charlie's), once by an astounding 25%; everyone in the Premier team also received a generous grant of stock options equal to what was given out within most product teams.

Thus only months after my great "failure" and what looked like an utterly foolish decision to stay with Microsoft, I found myself with far more than I would have ever expected or been able to find elsewhere. The key was the simple act of complete self-offering—a leap of faith, as it were.

A friend of mine, after he'd completed a major undertaking against countless odds, was asked how he did it. "Faith in God," he replied.

"Well, sure," the interviewer retorted, "but wasn't there a need to be, you know, practical?

"Listen," my friend said, "I've found that faith is the most practical thing of all!"¯

The greatest success in any endeavor comes when we can focus all our energies in one direction. As much as we deify the gods of Reason, Logic, and Due Consideration—as befits our culture's scientific bias—and as well as they seem to work for us, we're always left with some degree of uncertainty. Did we really make the best choice? Was there something we missed? Was there another path we might have explored more fully? These nagging doubts simply drain us of energy that would better be applied to whatever goals we're trying to achieve.

The positive expression of faith—that which is based on love, not fear—overcomes such doubts. True faith brings one's attention to the here and now, never regretting the past, never merely hoping for an uncertain (or unprovable) future, and never wasting any energy looking around for alternate routes. True faith is the conviction that fulfillment will be found by going through whatever Life has set before us, even if we cannot see where the path is going. While we often think it necessary to impress God by our suffering and self-sacrifice in the name of some belief, spiritual growth has nothing to do with convincing God of anything. His blessings and guidance are always there. He wants our happiness! He wants our fulfillment! We just can't be attached to the form of that fulfillment.

Be open, then, to new possibilities; let Life—let God—lead the way, no matter how strange or silly it seems. For with that simple faith we find ourselves guided, step-by-step, over every dark ocean of uncertainty to the shores of new and wondrous worlds.


[*] Also known to IBM as PC-DOS. In the end it took more than another decade for Microsoft to finally shed the old MS-DOS code base. [Return to text]

[†] For the inside story of the inaugural Windows NT effort see Showstopper: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary. [Return to text]

[‡] At the time, Microsoft typically started new hires at a salary level lower than the industry average, sometimes substantially so. However, unlike most companies who were considered generous to offer a raise of 3% every one or two years, Microsoft offered up to 6% twice a year, exceeding that rate when extraordinary circumstances demanded it. On top of that, Microsoft had its stock option program, legendary for creating millionaires by the boatload (see Chapter 15). One eventually had little reason to complain. [Return to text]

[§] This database is publicly available today as the Microsoft Developer Network— A number of my articles from these days still appear there, as well as other articles and papers I produced throughout my career. [Return to text]


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