After spending time behind bars, this employee set no bars on his own success
Running (swimming and biking) circles around adversity
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016, and Ed retired from Microsoft in 2017.
Ed Sproull was 27 when he woke in the hospital, disoriented and hung over. He felt a searing pain in his left leg, and suddenly the memory of the motorcycle accident came flooding back to him. He had been racing drunk when the brake line blew out, and he clipped his leg on an oncoming car. His upper leg had been fractured in 80 places, and his lower leg had been severed below the knee.
Flash forward 35 years, and Ed is now celebrating his 16th year as an engineer at Microsoft and training for his fifth Iron Man race—and it never would have happened without his superpower, what Ed calls “stupid optimism.”
But this future was hard won.
A rocky past
Losing a limb was a low point in Ed’s life, but he didn’t hit rock bottom until 10 years later, when he landed in prison on a six-year sentence for drug possession. As he lay on a prison cot that first night, using a toilet paper roll as a pillow, he wondered where his life went off the rails.
Ed couldn’t see a way out of this one; his future felt dim. That’s when he met the professor.
Serving time for tax evasion, Dr. Reed was a lively Jamaican professor with a Ph.D. in math. One day he approached Ed. “Listen man, we can play dominos, or we can learn math,” Ed recounts. “I hated dominos, so I said sure, let’s do math.”
Up to that point, Ed’s education consisted of a narrowly acquired high school diploma. “Here I was, a 37-year-old learning how to add fractions. It was humiliating, but it helped fuel my addiction to learning, plus with someone willing to help me—that’s what kept me going,” says Ed.
Dr. Reed helped Ed finish his education and earn an associate’s degree. Later, when the prison cut the education program, Ed refused to stop learning.
One of his previous test proctors slipped Ed contraband textbooks, telling him to take them to the prison library to study. Ed took the books to the library alright, but not before he had labored over every one of those tomes, teaching himself calculus and physics.
“I was literally smuggling books. But what could happen?” he says, laughing. “I mean, I’m already in prison!”
Slowly, one textbook at a time, Ed was forming a new future.
As Ed’s release from prison approached, he found a Newsweek magazine article that featured the top engineering schools in the country and decided to apply to Case Western University, the school closest to his parents.
“I’m sitting there in a prison cell and told my mom I wanted to go to Case Western. The line went dead. ‘Mom? You there?’ She gently asked me if I knew how prestigious and expensive the school was. I did, but I didn’t care. I guess I believed there was a way,” he recalls.
Ed knew he had to at least give it the old college try.
Future, head on
“I still get choked up when I think about it,” Ed says, remembering when he got the news from his mother, telling him that he’d been accepted to Case Western. He calls it a miracle because he still cannot fully explain how he got in.
“My vision for the future was getting bigger and bigger with each step, but the day I knew I was accepted, I felt like the sky was the limit,” he says.
The hardships were far from over.
When Ed started at Case Western, his leg was infected and he needed surgery—so he spent the first term hobbling around on crutches. He felt small, living with his parents at the age of 44, and he racked up debt to pay for tuition.
But he told himself he wasn’t stopping. Ed’s determination helped him graduate Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor of science in computer engineering and a masters of science in engineering one year later.
Ed landed a job at Rockwell right out of grad school, but it wasn’t his first choice.
“All the kids were going to Microsoft—it was the dot com era and a very exciting time. I wanted to be where it was all happening,” he says.
Ed applied to Microsoft and met with a recruiter. It didn’t go well.
“She looked at me totally deadpan, in total friggin’ disbelief,” he says, laughing. He thought people were put off by his age, lack of experience, and maybe even the outdated suit he was wearing.
“But it was Microsoft,” he says emphatically. “We all come from all over the world and all have a different story about how we got here. Mine is a bit unusual, but when you think about it I’m just another part of the puzzle. We all are.”
The stubbornly optimistic Ed continued to beat down the doors of Microsoft. Ed nailed his third attempt, was hired as a software developer in 2000, and started walking into his future, head on.
‘Screw being right’
Ed sits in his office in Redmond Studio F, chatty and super casual in his gym shorts and running shoes. Ed may be 62 but says he eats like a 14-year-old, as he brushes food crumbs off his lap.
He’s hungry all the time because he’s training all the time. He’s competed in 40 triathlons and several Iron Man competitions (which include a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile run).
But he’ll be the first to say he could never have done it alone. This morning, for example, he and his wife, Linda, got up at 5:30 a.m. to swim in the frigid waters of Lake Sammamish and then lift weights at the gym before work. He’s helping her train for her first half Iron Man.
He’s sold on this kind of buddy system, especially at work, and credits helping others as a reason for his longevity at Microsoft.
“Reviews used to be really scary! I used to see people who got ahead by stepping on someone else,” he says. He opted for a different approach, knowing from his past that he’d be happier making someone else look good.
“Screw being right all the time; I’d rather learn something new.”
After working with the Microsoft Shell team for just over 14 years, he’s now taken on the new challenge of trying to shave hours off the time it takes to push out a Windows build.
He readily offers up that he often doesn’t know what he’s doing before he dives into problems like these. But life and work have taught him that the answer will reveal itself as he works the problem with an open mind and a willingness to be wrong.
Ed absent-mindedly scratches his knee just above his prosthetic leg. “I never want to sit on my hands and say, ‘I’m good enough,'” he says.
In a company that is trying to solve the world’s biggest challenges, Ed hopes we keep moving forward by learning, by slowly knocking away at obstacles, one by one, like a good engineer. Like a good athlete. Like a good human.
“Your situation could be really bad, but you’ve got the ability to move the needle just one tick. If you are running and you think you can’t go on, just walk.”
What’s next for Ed? He laughs away the question, but whatever his future holds, you can bet we’ll find an Ed who believes the best future is still yet to come.