“It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money… It is the customer who pays the wages.”-
Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company
When I landed the 2nd time at Microsoft, it was first as a contractor. I had made up my mind that I wanted to work for the company fulltime, and I was going to do everything I could to land what they called a “blue badge” job with the company. This terminology originates from the different types of employees who had different color badges depending on their employment status with the company. Blue badges were for fulltime employees. Microsoft has always had different color badges for temps, contractors, service jobs etc. Blue was the gold standard, it meant that you were a full-time employee of Microsoft, with benefits, stock and all the nice, and some not so nice, things that go with it. It took me about a year of hard work, keeping my nose to the grindstone and ears on the phone headset, and kissing a fair amount of ass to finally land my first full-time job.
I came up from the bottom, so I had a chance to see the pros and cons of the perma-temps at Microsoft, and the ever-growing legions of contractors the company employs. Microsoft employs temps and contractors for a few different reasons. Mostly they want the flexibility in their workforce, it is more efficient for them than hiring fulltime people and having to deal with adjusting that workforce up and down. For many of the contracted employees, this works pretty well, you can get a pretty decent paying job working as a contractor for Microsoft, and you can have a lot more flexible schedule. As a contractor you typically can just focus on doing your work, you also don’t have to go to all the bullshit meetings Microsoft has all the time.
A note about meetings and Microsoft. Microsoft is infamous for holding way too many meetings for just about everything, they have team meetings, group meetings, manager meetings, divisional all hands, pre-meetings, post meetings, meetings to plan more meetings and on and on. It is an insane “meeting” culture, I don’t know if this has changed since I left. I can only say that generally if you can’t stand meetings, don’t go to work at Microsoft. You will have far too many of them and more than 50% of them are total and complete waste of time. I regularly sat through meetings where there were 100’s sometimes 1000’s of people. Almost all of them were totally useless and could have been done via a quick email or send a video around.
For me, it turned out that the little bit of experience I had gained in Aerospace doing sales was useful for landing my first “blue badge” fulltime Microsoft job. The group I was working for at Microsoft was looking for somebody who had some sales experience, but also some experience working in the Product Support Services group – which was the group I was doing the contracting job in. That combination of experience landed me in a group that was ramping up a new team to sell a new “paid support” product from Microsoft that they were going to call “Premier Support” at that time. The “premier” part meant that Microsoft was going to charge significant money to the customer to support their products.
As more and more big corporations were installing more of Microsoft’s products, quite a few companies were starting to run important parts of their business on Microsoft, and they wanted Microsoft to have more “skin in the game” when selling their software to them. Believe it or not, back in those days, Microsoft was considered more of a consumer software company, and big enterprise customers did not trust that Microsoft was truly committed to supporting big companies IBM for example was.
Microsoft had previously tried to avoid going deep into servicing customers. It was expensive to service enterprise customers to the level they expected, and it was not considered a core competency of Microsoft. IBM, HP, and a few others were considered more credible players in the service business in those days.
Microsoft was a disrupter offering a lower price more flexible PC solution, while others were offering expensive mainframe solutions with very high priced service contracts. IBM had people inside of all these big fortune 500 companies, and anytime something went wrong they would take the bullet for the CIO who might be in trouble. It made CIO’s very nervous to have a big deployment of Microsoft software and not have somebody at Microsoft who they could choke when things went wrong. These dynamics made for the advent of the TAM – or Technical Account Manager at Microsoft. The TAM was a named technical support expert assigned specifically to a company, or even to a specific department of a larger company. If for example, a big bank had some sort of serious problem happening with any Microsoft product, they could call on their assigned TAM to make sure their problem was solved, even if that meant the problem required an engineering fix from one of Microsoft’s core development teams. And a company could ONLY get access to a TAM if they had paid for a Premier Support contract. It was a brilliant way for Microsoft to charge money to support their products, and customers actually jumped at the chance to get some individualized attention from the fast-growing software company based in the obscure NW corner of the United States.
For me, this meant a new job was born! My job was to sell these Premier Support contracts to some of Microsoft’s largest and most important customers. I was happy and lucky to have a Fulltime spot with the company, many of the young people in the division I was being hired into were already “retiring” as they had enough money in stock options to cash in! They could “call in rich” as they would say. I figured if these lucky bastards could be retiring before they were 30 years old, I would be able to knock out enough stock options to be done before I was 30 as well!
Microsoft was fortunate to have a lot of talent in their support group, they did a good job of working with customers and finding solutions to whatever problems they had. Microsoft acted like an underdog in those earlier days, it tried to continually go above and beyond to make sure customers were getting good service and were happy and satisfied. It was a fun group to be part of, and in that work, I learned a lot about what customers wanted from our products and services. I would hear it first hand from the IT Pros who were doing the actual deployments of Microsoft Software in their environments. These were the people whose jobs were on the line to make our software work at their companies, you learn a TON from these folks.
Learning Lesson #4 When starting out in a big company, get a job where you are working directly with customers. The experience you gain working directly with customers is invaluable for your entire career. You will get more respect from future bosses, co-workers, customers, and partners if you live in the trenches with customers for a decent period of time. It may not be glamorous or even all that fun at times, but the experience is the best thing you can do for your career. I recommend getting the experience as early in your career as possible and stick with it as long as you are progressing in a direction you like. There are TONS of jobs at big companies where you never actually talk directly to customers at all. Avoid these jobs early in career. Jobs that don’t directly touch customers are normally easily replaceable, outsourced, automated and early to be eliminated when times get tough, and they won’t give you the credibility needed to accelerate your career. Companies are nothing without paying customers, every CEO and senior executive knows that. Senior Executives have more trust and rely more on people in their organizations who have had a strong direct connection with customers. And most Senior Executives get their positions because of their focus on customers throughout their careers.