Q&A: Members of Microsoft’s “20-Year Club” Reflect on the Past and the Future

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 21, 2005 — Microsoft celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, a milestone that gives pause to many of the company’s seasoned employees and inspires them to reflect on their careers and on the events and technology achievements that defined Microsoft’s history. To mark the occasion, PressPass spoke to a group of employees who share the distinction of working at Microsoft for two decades or longer. They represent a group known informally as the 20-Year Club. The group has no charter or official standing at Microsoft, but its 71 members – who grow in number each year – wear the badge of longevity with pride.

The five Microsoft veterans are:

  • Christine Betts, senior director of IT Professional Audience Marketing. Betts started as an accountant in Microsoft’s United Kingdom subsidiary in July 1983, moving from that role to controller to director of finance and administration. Her career has spanned positions in Europe and Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, including management roles in the company’s IT, product support and customer service organizations.

  • Sandra Jacobson, a senior program manager in the Partner Sales and Marketing Group, who joined Microsoft in May 1983. Currently the company’s longest-tenured female employee, Jacobson started out working on XENIX (Microsoft’s version of UNIX), but her varied career has also encompassed developer tools, systems languages, ISV relations and Windows (she remembers when it was still called “Interface Manager.”) Among her proudest accomplishments: starting the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) program and helping it grow worldwide.

  • David Pritchard, senior director and chief of staff in the Advanced Strategy and Policy Group, who’s been with Microsoft since November 1981. Pritchard started out in the PR, Corporate Communications and Technical Publications Group, then worked in operating systems, IT, human resources and product development organizations before assuming his current role, which involves worldwide policy issues such as intellectual property protection, security and technology neutrality.

  • Tandy Trower, general manager for a product incubation project, whose Microsoft career began in October 1981, when Microsoft had just 90 employees. His initial responsibility was the company’s dozen or so BASIC products, but it soon came to include Microsoft’s entire family of programming languages, as well as games and education software. In Trower’s 24-year career, he has also managed the first two releases of Windows, helped to launch Microsoft’s eHome division and helped foster the company’s overall focus on user-interface design, including the founding of its first usability labs.

  • Mark Zbikowski, an architect with the Core File Systems team, who started at Microsoft in January 1981. Zbikowski has served in a technical capacity for all of his nearly 25 years at Microsoft, helping to drive the development of such signature products as MS/DOS, CP/M, XENIX, OS/2 and Windows NT.

PressPass: Based on your 20-plus years at Microsoft, what do you believe has contributed most to the company’s success?

Tandy Trower

Trower: I think five things have helped Microsoft achieve success: hiring great people, a devotion and commitment to continual improvement, an ability to focus on solving some very hard problems, passion and vision – and the fact that all those are so richly instilled in the corporate philosophy and work ethic.

Pritchard: The real key for me is the people. From the very beginning, everyone here realized we were nothing unless we had great people. So Microsoft focused on hiring the best and brightest talent. Granted, some of that talent was very raw, myself included. But Microsoft took risks on people and placed bets on people and hired people who were not just smart, but also inquisitive and passionate about what they do. That’s still true today. Whether someone’s from Portland, Ore., or Portugal or Poland, Microsoft attracts and hires people from all over the world who are driven and smart and who want to have a big impact on changing the world and improving the way people use technology.

Mark Zbikowski

Zbikowski: I think Microsoft’s success has also had a lot to do with agility – being quick to plan and quick to execute. And, of course, the company’s customer focus from day one.

PressPass: In your mind, what was the most important technology breakthrough to occur at Microsoft during your tenure?

Trower: In the early days, it was Microsoft BASIC. In developing BASIC, Microsoft provided a lingua franca for the PC industry that made the PC accessible for the first time to people who were not computer gurus. Other major breakthroughs were our strong early support and software development for both the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh platforms, our development of Windows and, in parallel, our development of strong productivity applications.

Jacobson: To me, the most important breakthrough has been the advancement of the Internet and the work Microsoft is doing on our products supporting the Internet, including Internet Explorer and mobility products. Building products that allow people to have easier access to information makes the world smaller. You can see the effects of that in terms of what’s happening with the Hurricane Katrina disaster today in New Orleans. The strides that we’ve made in terms of better infrastructure, the Internet, communications, databases and other technology tools are helping reunite families.

Pritchard: I would answer that question a little differently, because I think the breakthrough is not a single product or technology. It’s the concept of taking technology to the people. Microsoft’s biggest breakthrough is not DOS or Windows. It’s the fact that we’ve combined software with hardware and given huge amounts of computing power to individuals, whether it be on their cell phone, their desktop, their laptop or in their automobile. We’ve put technology in places and empowered people in ways

Sandra Jacobson

that no one could have imagined 30 years ago. And in doing so, we’ve provided consumers and businesses with powerful technologies and tools that enable them to be more productive, creative and innovative.

PressPass: Considering some of the technology breakthroughs you’ve worked on, which was the most personally satisfying?

Trower: It’s so hard to pick. That’s like asking me which of my children I love the most! I love them all for different reasons. Seriously, though, I took great pride in managing BASIC, which was one of Microsoft’s flagship products. And Windows, obviously, because it had a dramatic effect on the industry. But some of the most fun I’ve had was managing the first release of Microsoft Flight Simulator. And I’m having a good time with the new incubation project I’ve just started working on.

Betts: My breakthroughs were not specifically about technology but had to do with the people, processes, and systems that supported the technology. I’m proud of helping the company adapt to both use our technologies — and in doing so, make them better by our experiences (what we call “eating our own dog food”) — and to sell, service and support our technologies, for example, through outsourcing, centralizing, creating license models, pricing and promotional plans, new services and so on.

PressPass: What significant changes have you observed in your 20-plus years at Microsoft?

David Pritchard

Pritchard: Obviously, we’ve become a much bigger company, and the challenge of doing business as a global citizen can be quite complex. Given the fact that we are a global business leader, we have to think beyond our passion for building great, innovative products and changing the world. We have to give more thought to issues such as development of local software economies, patent harmonization, digital inclusion and making our products more secure and trustworthy.

Jacobson: Microsoft has shifted in other ways as well, and often very quickly. When the move to the Internet came about, the company within about nine months turned around on a dime. We started changing the way we were thinking and how we did development and marketing. This impacted the products, localization, communications, launches and how we worked with employees worldwide. We made sure everyone was working toward the same objectives. At the time, we were already doing development in different areas. How we got everybody to think about doing things in different ways was impressive.

PressPass: What’s the most memorable moment in your history at Microsoft?

Zbikowski: Getting the first protected-mode version of DOS — soon to be OS/2 — to boot.

Trower: Shipping the first version of Windows definitely. It took a tremendous amount of effort and it was a product that was ahead of its time.

Betts: There are so many memorable moments, but the one with the most personal impact was the day Frank Gaudette, our first CFO, taught me my most important lesson. He said “I reserve the right to wake up smarter every day.” In other words, don’t be arrogant enough to think you know it all; don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know it all; and don’t hesitate to change a decision when you know you must. If it’s right, people will understand it. Frank was a huge influence on me and my career. He coached me through tough times and good times, and I still miss him.

PressPass: Can you share any anecdotes that shed light on some of the early years at Microsoft?

Zbikowski: I remember working with a fellow who implemented a tricky piece of code, the comments at the beginning of which read: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” He wasn’t kidding.

Betts: During my 12 years in Microsoft’s U.K. subsidiary, I moved the company into new premises three times and established a facilities organization as we went. It was fun to lease a property called Excel House in the same year that we launched Microsoft Excel. Everyone thought we named the building, but in reality it was the old Excel bowling alley converted for warehouse/office use, and it was just a great coincidence.

PressPass: What inspired you to stay with the company for 20-plus years?

Zbikowski: Four things: One, I work with great people. They’re smart, nice, hard-working and creative, and we always challenge each other to be our best. Two, the work is totally interesting. I don’t know what I’ll be working on in six months’ time, but I know that I’ll find it exciting. Three, I get to see millions of people use what I build. Four, I get to do those first three things and they pay me for it!

Pritchard: It always comes back to our mission and our passion for building great technology. Just look at what we’re doing with cell phones and consumer devices and new operating systems and applications. The future is very bright. Despite what some might say, the opportunities for new technology are exciting. And the place to be to make that technology available to consumers is Microsoft. While our past results have been great, I truly believe the best is yet to come. Given the great people I get to work with, and the diverse areas to have impact in, I can’t think of a better place to be.

PressPass: Do any of you recall any sort of pivotal point in your career, in other words, an “aha!” moment when you felt certain you had chosen the right path for yourself in deciding to join Microsoft?

Jacobson: I’ve been here since 1983, and I knew I’d made the right decision within the first 18 months. Even in my first year, I had a broad and diverse set of positions and experiences at Microsoft, and later I was able to use my computer science degree in terms of applying the logic aspect to product and program management. This company is like the weather in Seattle. You hang around for awhile and it will change. Microsoft offers so many different areas you can move into and so many different roles you can play that you’re constantly challenged. In 22 years, I’ve never been bored.

Betts: Three months into my new job at Microsoft, I went back to my previous place of employment to visit my former colleagues. I was full of energy, I couldn’t stop talking about all the great things I was doing, and I didn’t care that I was working long days. And they were so “flat” by comparison. Also, I remember visiting customers in the early days and discovering that they didn’t have a PC on every desktop. The fact that they weren’t connected to anyone in their business universe by e-mail made the value of our technology so glaringly obvious.

PressPass: How about some projections for the future. Where do you envision the technology industry headed in, say, the next 10 years?

Jacobson: Products and technology will continue to get faster and smaller, and we’ll see more precise technology and architecture. Looking back at the days of going from mainframes to minicomputers to desktops to luggables to laptops to handhelds, each of these devices was so much more powerful than its predecessor. We’ll see more of that in the future, for example, with cell phone technology and mobility. Technology devices will be more integrated into peoples’ daily lives and – assuming we do our jobs right – integrated in ways that enhance and don’t distract from their lives.

Trower: Besides the mobility aspect, I also see a significant change happening in terms of hardware. For example, chip makers are backing away from just building better, faster processors and moving toward developing processors with multiple cores. It’s a change that opens a new dimension on computing architecture, one that we already see with the Internet. Instead of funneling everything through a single processor, a concurrent, distributed processing model offers the potential not only of increased horsepower in terms of what applications can do but also better reliability.

Take the human brain, for example. Each neuron by itself is not very powerful, but because our neural apparatus is a highly connected, massively concurrent system, it supports levels of sophistication of processing that has yet to be equaled. Distributed, parallel processing not only means you can do many things at the same time, if something breaks down, information flow can take alternate routes. This opens significant new frontiers in the evolution of the Internet, applications and even entertainment.

This also will foster breakthroughs in new emergent markets such as robotics, and perhaps even machine intelligence. Just as quantum mechanics created a new way of thinking about physics, the prospect of highly networked, distributed processing opens a new way for us to think about and solve problems.

Related Posts