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


Make a DonationOrder Printed CopiesChapter Eleven

Name, Fame, and Guru Game

 

"What is the best part about writing a book?" In the wake of Inside OLE 2's stunning success I was frequently asked this question.

"Fame," I replied.

"And what is the worst part about writing a book?"

"Fame!"

* * * * *

In Microsoft's Developer Relations Group, we often referred to ourselves—jokingly, but with some truth—as Microsoft Lackeys. When we spoke at conferences, visited other companies, and interacted with the press, it was not as individuals but rather as a breed of interchangeable victrolas for The Microsoft Gospel. It didn't matter who you were, personally, so long as you fit the right mold, behaved according to expectations, and wore—literally at times!—the same standard-issue logo shirt.

Public exposure in this capacity was part and parcel of almost every position within DRG. It certainly was true for me through the first eighteen months of my tenure there. Being of the cookie-cutter variety of young-and-reasonably-intelligent Microsoft representatives, my early invitations to speak at conferences came not through any special merit of my own but only because the organizers wanted A Microsoft Person. And since it was DRG who generally chose an appropriate Lackey, it occasionally fell upon my shoulders to play the role.[*]

People thus came to these early talks of mine only because of what I symbolized: an understanding of our technologies from the inside-out. People knew that spending an hour or so listening to my techno-babble could actually spell the difference between failure and success. And they knew that a few minutes of my personal attention could help solve a baffling problem that might otherwise demand days or weeks of grueling anguish. Beyond that, however, everything else about me—name, personality, hair color, whatever—was quite irrelevant and not particularly special (except, perhaps, for my head of red hair). I was treated like Any Other Microsoft Person and people were just as likely to give me a wide berth as they were to peg me with a question. Certainly no one ever bothered to ask for an autograph.

Being somewhat shy and introverted by nature I was happy to draw attention to Microsoft's technologies and not to myself. I wanted to help people understand and use those technologies to their fullest capacities. As my manager Friedrich had said, "The purpose of your job is to make yourself obsolete." I figured that the more I helped others develop their understanding—and even exceed my own—the less they would depend on me, in particular, for anything. I could then retire to my comfortable little office in Redmond and pursue other projects without pain or inconvenience to anyone.

With Friedrich's guidance I sought to avoid the common pitfalls of many "experts" who pride themselves on their experience, who accept and even desire undeserved adulation, and who protect their position as the "ideal" toward which others should aspire. We knew that such attitudes would only lead, in the end, to stagnation and—indeed!—true obsolescence. So I sought instead to place myself in a position of service to others, sharing with them everything I learned and developed. In this way I had nothing left to protect and would find myself surrounded by many appreciative friends rather than a "following" that I'd be ever fearful of losing.

It was a fairly straightforward process. I first spent a few weeks or months developing an expertise with some particular technology. Then I only needed to write a paper or two, give a few talks, publish an article and viola! it seemed that people caught on and took care of themselves. And while I sometimes gained a bit of public recognition along the way as an expert in these things, it was only temporary. People soon forgot about me and got on with the task of creating interesting and innovative software.

Then came my work with OLE version 2, a much more extensive project, to say the least. In DRG we promoted this technology far more than most others so it was attracting a great deal of attention. People clamored to learn everything they could and I was there to provide it. This time, however, there was a new dynamic: throughout most of 1993 I was, in all honesty, the only public person who really understood OLE as a whole, as the two architects designing the thing were safely hidden in their comfortable little offices in Redmond. So if you wanted to learn about OLE, you came to my talks and read my writings: there simply wasn't anything else available save the heady tome of the design spec. Indeed, the draft chapters of Inside OLE 2, which Microsoft Press magnanimously allowed me to disseminate prior to publication, were simply the source of digestible information on the new technology.

In the utter absence of alternatives, then, my name and image soon became a virtual synonym for OLE itself. I was, in the public eye, the "OLE guru." While I didn't care about such a title, I was grateful that this notoriety gave me all the more opportunity to share my understanding with increasingly large audiences. I was equally pleased that as 1993 wore on, people who came to my talks really seemed to "get it." Never once did I feel that they were paying all that much attention to me, personally, even as the OLE figurehead.

Never, that is, until the big Microsoft Professional Developer's Conference in mid-December. This event, which coincided with the publication of Inside OLE 2, was held at the cavernous Anaheim Convention Center in southern California—directly across the street from Disneyland. It was the largest conference that DRG had ever put on and probably the most intense. Our central theme at this veritable circus was simple, clear, and direct: "Win32 and OLE 2! Win32 and OLE 2!"[†] With this slogan we vivaciously promoted Windows NT and OLE, hyping the crowd of over 8,000 engineers, analysts, and managers to heights heretofore unrealized. And as the OLE guru—as the author of what had already become the essential holy writ of the technology—I was asked (along with another Microsoft trainer, Cathy Linn) to give an all-day pre-conference tutorial to explain the details.

Now while I was fully accustomed to giving presentations by this time, having long since shed any lingering remnants of stage fright, I still wasn't quite prepared for this one. As I took my place at the podium, each of the fifty some-odd spotlights that illuminated the stage seemed intent on being hotter than a Saharan sun. Massive thirty-foot projector screens magnified my talking head to proportions literally, way literally, larger-than-life. And beyond the first few rows of people, which were all my acutely contracted pupils could resolve, a dark, heaving mass of techno-geeks, numbering close to six thousand, filled every square foot of floor space in the hall and considerable areas of the adjoining passageways.

Of course I was delighted with this whole opportunity—I had spent the better part of a year trying to impart my understanding through the pages of my book. Through my talks I strove also to pass on the inspiration and joy I had experienced while writing it. To now have such an enormous audience for this purpose was simply magical. It gave me the energy and enthusiasm to present the finest in-depth talk I ever gave on the subject.

This aspect of fame—the ability to share one's joy with so many receptive souls—was indeed the best part about writing a book. I was in a position to give away absolutely everything I knew to everyone that mattered. And once I did so I figured they could all carry on without me. I could then withdraw from the public eye and retire, again, to my comfortable little office in Redmond.

Minutes into my talk, however, I discovered that my fanciful dreams of obscurity were utterly naΓ―ve. There were these three guys sitting in the front row. Each of them watched my every move with glazed eyes and the peculiar smile of infatuation. To my absolute horror I suddenly realized that these same three men had sat in the same three seats with the exact same smiles at no fewer than three talks I had given during the past three monthsin three different cities! And going on the assumption that they weren't attending this one to learn more about OLE, I was left with only one inescapably nauseating conclusion: I had groupies! Yuuugh.

It got worse. After my talk I was besieged by an unsought throng of admirers. All the hype, all the spotlights, all the big screens, the huge lecture hall, and my own enthusiasm succeeded in making me the star of the show. Sure, I had been famous before, but, you know, not famous-famous! And now anybody and everybody who cared about OLE knew who I was, knew what I looked like, and knew where to corner me.

I was hard to miss: besides having a distinguishing head of red hair I was also wearing this fabulously ugly standard-issue red shirt. It was once Microsoft's practice at developer conferences to identify the "technical" folk—that is, those who were suitable targets for the unceasing barrage of questions—with flaming red shirts. I always thought it had something to do with the old 1960's episodes of Star Trek in which the expendable security officers, the ones who were always getting shot if anyone was getting shot, wore red shirts. In any case, I despised my GI apparel—for one, I look awful in bright red, and two, it left me nowhere to hide. I couldn't go anywhere near the convention halls without getting mobbed; not just by those who simply had honest questions but by those who wanted to meet me, touch me, breathe the same air, or in some way come into contact with my guru-aura of fame and glory.

It wouldn't have bothered me quite so much if people hadn't somehow lost the ability to relate to me as a human being. Good God! All I did was write a book and give a decent lecture for a change. Nothing else about me was different! But now people weren't even willing to acknowledge, for example, that I too was human and that I too, on occasion, needed to use the bathroom. At one point, after fighting my way to the entrance of a facility, I had to say "Look, you can come in and watch if you want, but I have got to go!" Others weren't willing to acknowlege that I actually slept at night—I was awoken one morning at 3am in my hotel room by an obnoxiously loud telephone. The man on the other end immediately demanded that I answer some obtuse technical question. "But it's three o'clock in the morning!" I protested. But he persisted. I finally decided that the quickest way to get rid of this clod was to just answer his blasted query. After that I learned to always disconnect the phone before going to bed.

In the face of "greatness," whether real or imaginary, most of us have a tendency to start acting really stupid. I say this from experience on both sides of the equation. The first (and only) time I personally met Bill Gates, for instance, I was a complete dolt. It was at a party for summer interns held at Bill's house back in 1989. When Bill came in I happened to be talking with this brilliant Ph.D. candidate from M.I.T. We were the first people that Bill came to greet and, as a young college undergraduate doing what was, relative to my companion, entirely inconsequential work, and standing now in front of the world's wealthiest man with a reputation as one of the greatest technical geniuses of the modern era, I was at an utter loss for words. I think I managed to croak out a "Hello" before he got into some profound theoretical discourse with the M.I.T. issue involving words that I couldn't have found in a dictionary were it embedded in my brain.

Buh"...buh"...buh"...buh"...holding Bill in such high esteem simply left me speechless. I didn't want to look like a fool, nor did I want to be a jerk. So paralysis set in and I just seized up. At least this was the decent thing to do. Had I been unable to maintain silence, I'm sure I would have opened my mouth only to stick my foot in it: presuming, for instance, to be his equal, or worse yet, acting like I somehow owned him by trying to monopolize his attention. I'm sure that would've gone over with Bill about as well as deposition-hungry lawyers.

The other option (besides paralysis), and an even worse one in my mind, would have been to start gushing—that is, to curry favor through outright flattery. As it's been said, imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but flattery is the most useless form of praise. Somehow we get it in our minds to set people up on a pedestal and virtually worship them for their accomplishments, exclaiming over and over again how "wonderful" and "marvelous" they are compared with our untalented, uninteresting, and unimportant selves. The reason for this, I think, is very simple: gushing betrays the sad fact that many of us are actually threatened by greatness even if we're also, to some extent, inspired by it. Greatness of any kind in another human being—especially one who isn't all that different from us—is a reminder of what we could ourselves accomplish if we but invest the necessary time and energy in the appropriate direction. "Why haven't you, then?" That's the uncomfortable and even embarrassing challenge that we're not always ready and willing to meet. So what's the alternative? Put them high on pedestal: if something can be exalted beyond reach it ceases to threaten our complacency and self-satisfaction![§]

Unfortunately, many teachers, experts, and other celebrities are all too happy to go along with such nonsense and make themselves the focal point of people's devotion, however poorly placed. Playing the "guru game," they enjoy for a time their place in the limelight and in the hearts of their following. Sadly, though, this game has no winners. Destructive cults aside, I'm particularly referring to a less dramatic but more insidious effect: if we are unwilling to come up to or even exceed the level of someone we admire, we lose a precious opportunity to learn from them and grow. Similarly, we actually prevent them from growing and changing as well. From whom can they learn if no one is willing to excel further and set an even higher example? How can they branch out into new directions if we enslave them by our expectations?

Yes, this was the worst part about writing a book! Whereas I sought to lift people up, they wanted—even subconsciously, perhaps—to lift me instead, giving me far more credit than I actually deserved. Despite my best efforts to help people develop their own understanding, I found myself standing on the very pedestal I sought to destroy.

I don't know what would have happened if I had been left to face all this on my own; at some point I might have succumbed to the pressures of the game. But by God's grace I wasn't alone: in early 1992, when I first began making public appearances, I had somehow become instant friends with a couple of the other computer industry "gurus." The first was Richard Hale Shaw, widely recognized for his expertise in programming languages and development tools. The other man was the veritable patron saint of our profession, Charles Petzold, whose perennial best-seller Programming Windows (first published in 1987) was our Bible. For more than a decade, anyone who knew how to write a Windows program learned it from Charles. Indeed, the book remains in print to this day and is still going strong.

I was never exactly sure why they took me in as a friend. It was really quite extraordinary. Why did such revered veterans pay any attention to a 23-year-old Microsoft poster-boy like myself? Why did they essentially accept me as their equal after I'd written all of one or two articles and given maybe three real lectures? And why did I continue to find myself in their company in the months and years ahead? I can only think that they could see where I was headed. They knew from personal experience that the apparently rare ability to both learn about technologies and explain them clearly to others would pull me into the public eye and into the spotlight of public expectations. It can only be from a deep sense of love and caring that Richard and Charles took it upon themselves to guide me through these treacherous waters and show me the proper attitudes for one in their position. Both of them demonstrated that lovingly humble spirit that is so very essential to teaching and sharing; with a genuine concern for the needs of others they offered themselves to the misunderstandings of popular fancy. They became experts that they might make more experts; they suffered that others might be spared the many miseries of our profession.

In their company I was able to develop these attitudes, avoid the popularity trap, and simply be myself.[**] Good thing, too, because for me, the Anaheim conference was only the beginning! The immediate success of Inside OLE 2 and its continued success through all of 1994 managed to elevate my status to ever-new heights, beyond even the ostensibly serviceful role of "OLE guru." A few months later, for instance, during one of the many conference trips that had me away from home for a total of nineteen weeks that year, I was sitting in the lobby of the San Jose Marriott having a pleasant conversation with Charles Petzold. We were actually talking about how nice it was that we, with whatever trifling fame we had acquired, weren't so famous that we could still walk out in the street without being accosted by paparazzi. Just then one of the conference attendees walked by and about fainted. "Ohmigod," he cried, "Wow! Seeing both of you together at once! The OLE god and the Windows god! Oh! Oh! Oh!" My only cause for cheer at that point was that I hadn't eaten recently"...yuuugh!

Then there were the so-called "book" signings. Besides adding a scribble or two to plenty of my own, I was also asked to autograph other people's books. And the backs of business cards. And nametags, napkins, envelopes, random slips of paper, and one fellow's forearm.[††] A few people even wanted to take photographs with me! I hope to God those pictures didn't end up in some kind of shrine.

Then there were all the other titles that got attached to my name. Because there was (still) no other public figure associated with OLE, it wasn't enough to simply be someone who could explain the stuff: I was given credit for actually inventing it! Since the brilliant minds who had really created OLE remained safely anonymous, per Microsoft policy, in their comfortable little offices in Redmond,[‡‡] I was left as the only possible target for a host of creative but wholly bogus honorifics. Several magazines referred to me as "the creator of OLE" or "one of the original developers"; to highlight an interview I gave, a European magazine described me on their cover as "The Mind Behind OLE"; and in an ad for my book, Microsoft Press even saw fit to crown me "one of the great programming minds" of the modern software industry.

Sigh. What could I do? I had little choice but to let people indulge their fantasies. To refuse praise, to refuse the courtesy of an autograph (even on a forearm), and to continually counter every undeserved label would be rude, hurtful, and obnoxious. I simply had to accept it all as part of the role. After all, people were being helped by my efforts and needed some way to express their gratitude, even if those expressions sometimes bordered on the ridiculous.

At the same time, I didn't have to accept it all for my own ego: I knew I was only a channel for something greater than myself, for the powerful inspiration that carried me through the production of Inside OLE 2 and indeed through everything that followed in its wake. So when people came to me with praise I tried to inwardly pass their gratitude on to the source of that inspiration, though I did not as yet even have a name for it. To further emphasize the thought that people's praises were expressions of gratitude, I also trained myself to habitually say not "thank you" but "you're welcome" in return. And they were welcome: I was ever ready to give others as much as I possibly could for their continued benefit and growth.

In the end, it's important to understand that any teacher or guru worthy of the title is never interested in showing off themselves or their special talents. They are only interested in the upliftment of others. The very term, guru, in fact, comes from the Sanskrit word gur meaning "to raise or uplift." So forget about fame! Forget about glory! Forget about praise! If we would show them our gratitude—and truly relate to them as they would have us do—then we should offer our friendship, our support, and our sincere willingness to become as they are, to fulfill our inner potential as channels through which love and joy and understanding can be shared with a world that desperately needs it. This, above all, is what any true teacher, a true spiritual teacher especially, wants us to discover.

* * * * *

Eventually I did find that my job with OLE was complete and that I could retire—not just to my comfortable little office, but from Microsoft altogether (as told in Chapter Sixteen). Today I'm happy to see that the OLE technology has become so pervasive that it's simply a fundamental part of almost every new technology coming out of Microsoft. I'm also happy, believe it or not, to see that my name and writings don't even appear as references in more recent books and articles. I haven't seen any OLE-related email for quite some time now, and it's been many blissful years since I've had to sign an autograph. (I will admit, however, to signing whatever copies I come across in secondhand bookstores!)

And just when I was drafting this very chapter, my paternal uncle, a wedding photographer in Springfield, Illinois, was visiting Seattle. He told me about a man who had come to hire him for his upcoming wedding. To make sure that he could accept the job, my uncle told him about his travel plans.

"That's great!" the man replied. "Where are you going?"

"After visiting my brother in Seattle," said my uncle, "we'll be driving down the coast to San Francisco."

"How about that!" exclaimed the man, "I'm moving out to Seattle shortly after my wedding."

"Oh, how interesting. Did you get a new job?"

"Yes. I'm actually moving to a suburb called Redmond. I'll be working for Microsoft."

As soon as he mentioned Microsoft, the man fell silent for a moment, his mind jumping through a few associations with my uncle's patronymic.

"By the way"..." he said, venturing a further inquiry, "you don't happen to be related to a β€˜Kraig' Brockschmidt, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, yes," my uncle acknowledged. "He's my nephew."

"Well you should tell him that I've read and studied everything he's ever written about OLE. It's thanks to him that I got this position!"

Yes, dear reader, I finally knew for certain that I did my job right. Whatever fame, name, and "guru" status that Inside OLE 2 and its subsequent second edition brought me meant nothing. What mattered was that I was able to help someone take a meaningful step upwards in his career and in his life.

 

And that is the best part about writing a book!

 


[*] Sometimes this process had amusing side effects. One day DRG's director received an email from a group in Honolulu, Hawaii, requesting that someone come out for a week—all expenses paid—and give talks on Windows NT. He forwarded the request to us with the rather unnecessary question, "Anyone want to go?" In instances like this the determining factor was not willingness or competence but reaction time: at least a dozen eager volunteers stepped forward within two minutes—most of whom knew little or nothing about Windows NT but were fully prepared to learn! [Return to text]

[†] Win32 referred to the internal 32-bit architecture of Windows NT (then Windows 95, 98, XP, Vista, etc.) which offered much better performance than previous 16-bit architectures (e.g. Windows 3.1). A 32-bit architecture could manipulate data twice as fast as before but software had to be specifically re-built for that architecture to realize the benefits, hence our big evangelistic push at this conference. [Return to text]

[§] "Do not your scriptures say," Jesus reminded the orthodox religionists of his time, "β€˜ye are Gods'?" Or as he said in the Sermon on the Mount, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Yet how many still persist not in trying to become Christlike themselves, as Saint Francis of Assisi exemplified, but go on and on merely singing praises about God instead of even singing to him! [Return to text]

[**] This was especially true during the PDC when Microsoft rented the whole of Disneyland for our exclusive enjoyment one evening. Finding me alone, Richard pulled me into the little band of celebrity types that he'd gathered together as a kind of mutual defense strategy against the admiring crowds. In this group I also became dear friends with another author/guru, Bruce Eckel, whose companionship in the years ahead I treasure in my heart. [Return to text]

[††] The latter turned into a running joke between Bruce Eckel and myself whenever we sat together for book signings. Knowing of the incident, Bruce loved to tease me by loudly announcing that "if you don't have a book, Kraig will sign your butt!" [Return to text]

[‡‡] Microsoft typically hides their superstar programmers and software architects from the public lest they become harassed by the endless calls from headhunters and the other such annoyances that assaulted my own ears. [Return to text]

 

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