“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”
John F. Kennedy
The Internet browser wars were now officially over. Some at the company felt that the hard fight had done more harm than good. Many believed that the flamboyant victory over Netscape inflamed Microsoft’s already arrogant reputation. The Internet Explorer Marketing team I worked on was merged back into the Windows team. Which made sense, given the argument to the DOJ from Microsoft was that Internet Explorer was really just a feature of Windows and Microsoft had every right to add new features into its operating system. So it did not look very good to have an entire Marketing or Development team dedicated to a single feature called Internet Explorer.
Having a separate operating unit didn’t really look all that great, and made even less sense when it was clear the war was over. So the IE team was fully integrated back into the Windows Marketing team. This turned out to be sort of an odd event for me personally because the Windows Marketing team was the group I had left from to go to the Internet Explorer team. We were not given any choice as to if we wanted to go back to the old Windows team. If you wanted to keep your job, you were told that you would be going back to the Windows Marketing team, like it or not. I did not like it – and didn’t want to go back to marketing operating systems again, but I figured a good job at Microsoft was better than a bad job and some other lesser company.
For me personally, Microsoft was becoming a less satisfying place to work. However my life was moving on, I now had a wife and a family to worry about. Even if things were not as fun and lucrative as they once were, Microsoft was still a very generous company to work for and there were still solid jobs available. It was different now, it was more like a regular job at any big fortune 500 company. Probably better than most companies, even with all the new red tape, and problems. Microsoft was still clearly better than most companies to work for.
In the transition back to the Windows Marketing team I was fortunate to have landed into a decent job for me. Prior to the announcement of the IE team being reorganized back into the Windows team, I had already been moved to a new role working in Public Relations for Internet Explorer. I was able to move into the PR team for Windows as those two teams were being merged together.
My specific job was to work with Technical Reviewers who would be writing product reviews for the upcoming release of Windows 2000. This was a stretch for me technically. I was pretty deep on the various browser technologies after spending years working in the browser wars. But I was far less deep on Windows. Particularly the enterprise features of Windows, which I had really never paid a lot of attention to. I jumped in and learned all I could as fast as I could. I took all kinds of training classes to become a certified Windows Administrator, I went and interviewed all the Windows engineers I could to get every last detail of every feature of the product. It was my job to write the Windows 2000 “reviewers guide” which outlined every feature and why it would benefit customers.
This job opened an entirely new world to me on how technology companies position and promote their products to the technical press. Microsoft and its PR agency Waggener Edstrom spent countless hours planning and debating every single detail on how a new release would be messaged to the press. I could write an entire book on all the behind the scenes plans, strategies, antics and drama that played out leading up to a big product launch for Microsoft. Microsoft was really good at doing big promotional launches of their important releases. The pinnacle and blueprint for big launches was the Windows 95 launch, where somehow Microsoft created enough excitement for a new Operating System that people literally camped out overnight at retail stores to get their personal copies! I can’t imagine that kind of excitement for an Operating System today, but those were very different times. I think people mostly loath operating system updates these days, they always seem to drizzle down to your computer overnight and want to be installed right when you are doing something important in the morning.
The core objective of my job was to make sure that every single technical review of Windows 2000 was positive, or what we called a “WIN” review. I probably should have been more intimidated with such a stretch assignment. But I was still young and dumb, and also very lucky to be assigned to one of Microsoft’s best OS releases ever. Windows 2000 was a rock solid OS for that day and age, built on the Windows NT architecture that was designed to be much more reliable and stable than the old DOS-based operating systems, it was designed with Enterprise customers in mind. The product received fantastic reviews; this was a win for Microsoft and a win for continuing my career progression. Winning reviews with a great OS was actually pretty easy, but I ended up getting a lot of credit for being part of the effort, and that was great for my personal fortune. Microsoft has had its share of total flop OS releases. I always felt sorry for whoever had the job of winning reviews for Windows Me, or Windows 8. Those were dogshit OS releases, which no PR person could truly overcome, no matter how good they were at spinning.
Windows 2000 and Windows 2000 Server launched together at the same time. So this was a really important release for Microsoft because it was really the first time they simultaneously released both a new desktop and server release. There was a LOT riding on this for the company, so we worked very hard on a massive PR blitz to win reviews. We held a huge reviewers workshop conference where we brought in the press from all around the world for three days of intensive education sessions on the product. The PR team I was on traveled all over the country visiting technical reviewers wherever they lived or worked to sit down and walk them through updates of the product and discuss any concerns they might have. The idea was to get reviewers so bought into the product prior to it launching that they would actually feel bad about saying anything negative in their reviews. We made them part of the process and fully and deliberately brought them into the tent. It was not unusual for the product team to change a feature, or remove something that was highly disliked by a technical reviewer. If a reviewer experienced a certain problem they could not work through when testing the product we would fly a swat team out to help them through it, and if necessary we would again change the product to satisfy them. It was an intense job, and I was always on the go for many months on end.
After Windows 2000 shipped, I was able to take a bit of a break from the hectic pace of working on PR campaign for a big OS release. Back in those times, it was common for employees to run as hard and fast as they could up until a product launch. It was a huge part of the culture of the company. After a big launch, employees would be exhausted and want to take time off to recover. It was not unusual that people would quit the company altogether after a launch, or want to move onto a new job within the company.
It was typical that divisional or full company reorganizations would be planned soon after a big product launch. In some ways this was becoming problematic for Microsoft, the Internet was staring to take over and other companies were moving faster using agile development where features were released daily onto the Internet. The old model of doing big monolithic releases of Windows and Office every couple of years with a huge marketing launch event was becoming more and more outdated. An internal debate on the topic had started to take hold.
Recognizing these changes, and missing the fast moving days of working on the Browser Wars, I was eager to move to a new role. Many of my best colleagues and friends from the Windows group had already moved on to Microsoft’s online division – MSN. Brad Chase, a great marketer who had led the Windows 95 launch, along with Yusuf Mehdi, Lora Shiner, Christophe Daligault, and many others were now preparing to fight a new battle for the company.
In January of 2000, AOL stunned the business world and announced plans to acquire Time Warner for $184 Billion in stock and debt. It was an announcement that sent shockwaves through Microsoft. At the executive ranks in Microsoft, AOL was already considered a credible threat to Microsoft’s dominance of the PC Desktop. AOL was the undisputed leader in connecting consumers to the Internet and they were building out a broad set of Internet services and media properties. With more than 23 million paying subscribers and growing quickly, the service was generating billions in revenue. The success at AOL had poked the Microsoft bear.
A fear gripped Microsoft that AOL combined with the resources of Time Warner could eventually make Microsoft and their Operating System irrelevant. AOL was the dominant entry point for mainstream consumers to go online, do email, instant message, chat boards and browse and consume content. Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (known as FUD in the business) was palpable inside Microsoft at the time. Steve Ballmer had taken a strong personal interest in the problem, he even setup camp with an office in the RedWest campus (which was fully off the main campus at the time on the other side of the 520 Freeway) where the online services division was located. It was feared that if AOL could convince consumers to consistently pay them $23.99 a month in subscriptions fees, and be the gatekeeper to the Internet, Microsoft might lose relevance and the control of the Personal Computer experience.
Microsoft was getting ready for another war, and it had a huge cash war chest to play with. I knew from my Internet Explorer and the browser war experience, if you want to advance your career, it is better to go where the action is. So I started making haste to find a role in the new battle. That ended up being a wise move. The next few years got very interesting.
Learning Lesson #9 – Corporate Fear Can Deliver Big Opportunities. This lesson takes a little bit of explaining, but if you start to understand it you can likely play this to your own benefit.
If you are a Senior Executive at a huge company, like Microsoft, your biggest fear is being made irrelevant. In the technology sector, this fear is massive. You need to only read one of many business books like “Only the Paranoid Survive” by Andy Grove of Intel fame to understand this phenomena. Grove describes “strategic inflection points” that can either be an executives worst nightmare, or an opportunity to win a major new marketplace.
The stress of being made irrelevant very quickly in tech is profound because in the business of tech, pretty much all the spoils (money, power, future…) go to the 1st place player. There is almost no profit in being a 2nd place player, and 3rd place is worse than not playing at all. As an example, Facebook will make almost all the money in Social Media, Google in Search, Microsoft in desktop OS & Office Productivity Suites, Intel in x86 processing chips, Apple in phones, Uber in rides etc. It is for the most part a winner takes all type of game in big tech. I can’t even think of a significant third place player who has made any money in a big tech market.
Owning the platform for the hottest tech spaces is where all the riches are harvested. This is the way the economics work in technology. If you win the platform, you will have all the best developers, if you have all the best developers they will increase the value of your platform with new applications and hardware to support your platform. The ecosystem reinforces itself, and it quickly locks out other players.
Executives at all big tech companies know this, and they always fear that something will somehow disrupt their dominant share position, and will bring on competition, or even worse, relegate their position to being irrelevant in the latest most important trend. You want to be at the center of where these battles take place. You want to make money from this fear. So for example, if you work at Microsoft today, you absolutely want to be working on a cloud, but more specifically, you want to be working in highly competitive areas where Amazon’s AWS battle directly against Microsoft’s Azure. Both companies will be fighting like mad for talent in these areas, and both companies will pay top dollar to talented engineers and marketers for their efforts. This book is about learning how to thrive in these environments. But it is also how to be in the right environment in the first place. You want to be right where these companies are spending their war chests to compete. Just being at Microsoft or Amazon in a random role is NOT GOOD ENOUGH! To make the big money, you need to be in the exact right area where the battle is taking place. As recently as April of this year Microsoft gave special bonuses to employees working in the most coveted areas of cloud development. Up to $100,000 dollars in stock, just to make sure employees would not walk away. I have seen this time and time again throughout my career at Microsoft, and I know other companies play the exact same game when competing for talent.
Even if your company does not stand a chance in hell of winning the battle, it is better to be working wherever the hot battle is happening. Executives will spend crazy amounts of money to fend off potential threats, they will build big teams, create huge marketing budgets, and they will spend like drunken sailors to fight off the fear of falling behind. This is where careers get a real boost! When teams are building fast, and money is being spent like wildfire, that rising tide is good for all the boats (people) who are lucky enough to be in that division. You don’t have to necessarily be the best, (but it helps) you just have to be there.
I saw plenty of overpaid middle managers get pushed upward with money and responsibility as these manic buildups took place. These things are easy to spot. Look for the new strategic imperative spelled out by management. The press will be squawking about the companies coming doom or possible glory because of some new company or trend wiping them out or being harvested. Sometimes it is real, sometimes it is hype. It is hard to know, but it really doesn’t matter all that much for your own personal growth. You just want to be in the center of it, and rise with the tide.
From a career perspective, if you are a lower to middle level executive at a huge company, it actually doesn’t matter that much if your company wins or loses in these battles. It feels a lot better if you win, and it is more fun for sure. But from the perspective of moving your career forward, it is better to be in the battle, even if you lose. I saw a lot of great people sit on the sidelines at Microsoft in boring jobs, making OK money in a “OK” division while the people in the big battle divisions where raking in the new responsibilities and the money to go with it. Those people in the OK divisions did fine, but they got nowhere near the career acceleration vs. people who moved to the strategic hot spots. And my bet is that they probably didn’t have as much fun either. There is money where there is fear. Don’t be afraid. The company will reward you, win or lose.
That said, if you are at the top of the leadership team and you lose, watch out, you will probably get canned, and it is much harder for senior and midlevel executives to regain their footing from. If you are early in your career, take the risk and seize the opportunity!