My So-Called Life

People often ask me what it is I do.  I need to come up with a quick answer because I usually look blankly at them and say, “it’s complicated.’”

I’ve been at Microsoft for nearly 14 years.  That not far from half my lifetime.  Most people stare at me like I’m insane for staying so long.  So I have to explain to them why. 

It’s pretty simple, really.  I need to change the world.  I don’t want to change it, I need to.   And while I know I could have started a company, been CEO and lived the 2.0 lifestyle, the odds that my startup would a) win the funding lottery to allow the team to work on the hard tech problems and b) catch fire in a way that could transform the world were simply too stacked against me.  Hell, I know over 90% of startups fail – often for no good reason.

So where can I go to change the world?  Someplace with a relatively unlimited supply of money.  Someplace that has all the disciplines required to tackle big projects under one roof.  Someplace where my bosses just give me vague direction and let me run.  Someplace that still looks somewhat like a meritocracy – not for any utopian ideal reasons, but because meritocracies often nurture ideas more than people.  And ideas, not a person, are what will change the world.

So I stay. 

I stay because I’ve had at least 10 different jobs within the company.  Developer, program manager, marketing guy, biz dev, evangelist, security wonk, dude who chases hackers in foreign lands – you name it.  And now I have a job which let’s me combine all those experiences into one thing: the unfathomable problem of ‘search’.

I recently looked at my commitments (basically, what we say we’re going to do for the year).  There were a few on there but, as my boss said, there really is only one thing I’m supposed to do: “Move the needle.”

How’s that for ambiguous? 

But that’s what I’m good at.  I’m good at the gray.  I took a look back at my calendar a couple of weeks ago to see what it was I actually did:

* Developed and pitched a potentially nation-changing multi-million dollar initiative around public education reform

* Worked with a dev team in China on our Bing news product

* Prepped for a ‘very famous’ tech journalist’s visit to figure out what we should build and show

* Wrote two speeches – one on social search, the other on the future of information

* Developed and filed a patent…

* …right after I worked with a bunch of Hollywood folks to develop an event to promote educational literacy

* Worked with another dev team to spec out a couple of features for a new search tech

* Flew 3700 miles

* Hosted a dinner with the Silicon Valley angel investor elites.  Got yelled at by Stewart Allsop.  Then we made up.  Because I’m right.

* Flew back, did a radio interview, figured out what we were going to talk about the next two weeks at the four conferences/academic panels we have to be at

* Negotiated another couple of deals with Hollywood folks for other secret stuff

* Went to a dinner with Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas (and an amazing supporter of education).  Got him and the team very excited about it.

* Woke up a couple hours later and headed to LA to help rebuild a school in Compton for a show on NBC. 

That was the 5 days, and I’m leaving out the boring meetings and routine work that we all have to do.

I write this not to show off as I’m sure there are people who have even more varied schedules and experiences than I.  I write it partially so I can laugh at the ridiculousness of my life but also to serve as a story for people who think that simply doing their job is enough.  Those of us who can do have the responsibility to push harder, faster, stronger – every day.  I get so fucking sick of entrepreneurs who have their eye on an exit.  Fine –  good for you.  There is nobility in building something that someone else finds so valuable that they will pay you ridiculous multiples to acquire.

But we all can’t do that.  In fact, most people who have the exit dream will fail miserably.  But that’s because they eye is on the wrong prize.  Everyone who can must focus on what they can do to better the marble. 

So again when people ask why I haven’t left the big-M for greener pastures I have to ask – how do you measure the green?  To me, and maybe I’m just a nutter, greener pastures is doing something that can have a material impact on the world.  People tell me all the time I can do the same thing in a startup, but I have to wonder if they’re just delusional.  There is a difference between the world knowing what you’ve done and feeling the impact of what you’ve done.  I’m lucky that I am a little above average in a number of areas so for me, the latter really is the only choice. 

At the end of our time, we shouldn’t really care if people don’t know our name, but we should want them to live better because of the work.

That’s why I stay.

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