agency stories: Microsoft

These are first draft stories that touch in some way on my experiences with leading and being led, our conduct, how we act and with what intent.

In my early years at Microsoft as the company lead the way in personal computing, my colleagues would point out how millions of people used the products we were developing and how awesome it was to be contributing solutions. For me at the time, my potential impact felt abstract. Honestly I was just happy to have a job.

It wasn’t until I moved into strategic prototyping that I recognized the importance of our leadership.

On my first day with the prototyping team I followed my new colleague Pam Heath to the copy room. I was like a puppy all gangly with excitement and in awe of my new position. Here I was on a team that often worked closely with senior leadership including Bill Gates. These folks were important, and important people are above certain menial tasks. Or so I thought.

While Pam was making copies the copier ran out of paper. As silly as it may seem, I thought she’d just go to another copier; we were in a hurry to get to a meeting. But instead she took the time to refill the machine. Wow I thought, this is how leaders act. On my own I likely would have switched copiers and let the empty copier be someone else’s problem. This bad attitude with lack of communal responsibility was due in part to the sink or swim culture I had been accustomed to at Microsoft. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t that people didn’t care, it’s just that things were moving so fast in the 90’s, it was not uncommon for new employees to be shown their desk and then left to figure things out on their own.

So this simple act of changing paper impressed upon me Pam’s clarity to of doing the right thing in service to our community regardless of our personal inconvenience (it also showed good manners). I revisit the memory now and again as a reminder of how small actions guide us.

The rest of the team was equally impressive. Even though our ages ranged from 23-43, there was a maturity about the group and they/we always approached work with respect for our positions. On the surface we had cool jobs telling stories about how technology would benefit us 3-15 years out. We were also telling stories of potential real life. The team recognized the platform from which we could influence and the importance of our leadership. We deliberately told positive stories.

Part of our responsibilities included giving tours of the Microsoft Home of the future. We had the opportunity to meet with a wide variety of leaders in business, government and NGO’s. These business guests had come to the Home to be shown a vision of the future. I quickly came to realize the moral imperative associated with our work and it struck a deep meaningful chord. I sought out engagements with government influencers. While guiding the tours, being in alignment with the company’s vision, I also asked guests to be thoughtful about the following:

  1. How quickly technology had changed our lives in recent years and that the pattern would continue; aka it is not business as usual.
  2. The long term implications of every technology choice they make.
  3. Trend traps, with technology and society changing so quickly, the necessity to be thoughtful about how and what we participate in.
  4. Being proactive- Lead

Luckily Microsoft never told me to back off with the moral thing, and the director of government affairs would ask for me to speak to his visitors because of my ability to humanize technology.

One reason I zeroed in on government and those who influenced them is that I saw a huge gap with what was possible and where their focus was. We often had officials coming to Microsoft in response to a new situation/issue enabled by technology. We can only be reactionary for so long before we are overwhelmed. It was clear that old school approaches to business as usual in government were failing us. While we encouraged them to be more proactive and less reactive this is easier said than done.

2000-2011 was a very interesting period of time to be interfacing with governments, to quote William Gibson, “The future is already here- it’s just not very evenly distributed”. There was a lack of understanding what was possible and how/what was being manifested. There was a generation gap in thinking. Most of the visitors we were entertaining were a middle aged male majority who assumed it was business as usual. The evolution of business had been based on a world where a privileged few had global communication. But the world was now virtually flat and they had trouble comprehending what that meant in terms of effect on every day business. New social media brought transparency to organizations that had been shrouded prior. There used to be time to recover and respond, there is no longer any time. The world wants answers now. This transparency threw many folks into a reactive mode that the world has still not recovered from. I would often use an analogy of how their children had a different relationship to technology than they did. Using personal examples; one was of how my daughter would be using a laptop in our car as we were driving and asked why her internet connection was down. She just assumed Wi-Fi was ubiquitous. This they recognized as they had similar experiences, although it hadn’t clicked that this was setting the stage for future business and society and the expectation and transparency of ubiquitous connection were a part of the future.

With constant connection in real-time comes a new model for business and leadership. We no longer have the luxury of time or waiting for what a rule will be. It’s in a sense a free for all and we need to be clear about our own individual values and hope they are in alignment with the organizations we represent.

>>> Blog post April 28, 2010

on my mind…

Of late I’ve been troubled with generational views of technology (the gap) and those making policy around them.  The boomer generation sees tech as a tool, where the younger generations see it as more of an extension of themselves, and are more likely to identify with the possibilities.

Many of the decision makers today are working from conditioned mindsets that aren’t prepared for how technology is empowering and enabling the average person. A perfect example of the generation gap was in an article 4/21/10 “Technical difficulties at the Supreme Court” about our Supreme Court justices and their collective lack of understanding current technology.

Understanding the long term implications of the choices we make today is imperative. We’ve seen significant change in the last 10 years as people, businesses, and governments are now empowered and connected in new ways. This has posed new challenges for us all in staying current; not only with our investments in technologies, but also in our processes and mindset’s in preparing for the future. We’ve moved into an era of extreme agility. Progress is no longer linear on a timeline, it’s fractured and simultaneous.

It’s in our best interest to help our leaders not only build a technology roadmap, but also a vision that includes understanding what we’ve enabled, so they can be proactive in their response and involvement. Enabling them to effectively lead (and react less).

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Civic Conduct

Government certainly now gets the power of empowering social technologies without necessarily knowing what to do about it and those pesky people who always manage to use tech differently than the purpose it was designed.

One thing I found was that prior to 2010 most people in government were not good at the technology piece of the future and were relying on technology experts. While the experts are sound in their area of expertise, they didn’t necessarily represent the whole picture including the driver of change it was becoming in the social space. Also relating info in a way that lay people could understand still remains an issue.

The significant change in the last 10 years as people, businesses, and governments are now empowered and connected in new ways. This has posed new challenges for us all in staying current; not only with our investments in technologies, but also in our processes and mindset’s in preparing for the future. We’ve moved into an era of extreme agility. Progress is no longer a linear timeline, it’s fractured and simultaneous.

In 2008 I wrote a short white paper asking the question: Are we doing enough to prepare our customers, partners and governments for the future? Stating our constituents may need help in preparing for the future world beyond the technical hurdles. I believed it was in our best interest to help our leaders not only build a technology roadmap, but also a vision that includes understanding what we’ve enabled, so they can be proactive in their response and involvement. Enabling them to effectively lead (and react less). Our demonstrations and prototypes showed positive examples in the social space, but I was restless and wanted more. What I really wanted was governments to wake up and be proactive. There was an opportunity to show some leadership in the social space to help them to prepare for cultural, social, and business changes driven by technology. My interest was to lead by example in ways that show we’re paying attention to the complexities of today and tomorrow.

In retrospect guiding government in the social space wasn’t the company’s responsibility, a gray area similar to infrastructure and the life that happens within, or church and state. I often made these kinds of conflations of responsibilities.


Craig Mundie was our sponsor. He was the companies Chief Research and Strategy Officer. He had both vision and leadership. He was interested in solving society’s biggest problems using technology. These problems included: healthcare, education, transportation, privacy and energy. Our team often created demonstrations with these problems as themes. We delivered examples of technologies role in highlighting the possibilities and challenged current thinking.

>>> Blog post April 27, 2010

proud moment

President Hu Jintao with his wife Liu Yongqing. I'm back in the shadows.
President Hu Jintao with his wife Liu Yongqing. I’m back in the shadows.

4/18/2006 we had the honor of hosting President Hu Jintao at Microsoft. The experience was amazing, especially to work with the Chinese national employees. They worked tirelessly to make the visit perfect. They genuinely cared to give their president the very best experience. Their sense of patriotism was celebratory and refreshing. I still feel high when I think of the event.

We designed a 9 minute tour that introduced the Microsoft Home. We personalized the space including vision prototypes displaying photos of places he had lived throughout his life. He was appreciative of the gesture. The tour was presented by Tim Chen, head of our Chinese efforts at the time. At one point I presented a clothing scenario in the teenagers’ closet as Tim translated. The President bowed to me, twice.

It was my job to make sure the Home visit went smoothly. I purchased a stop watch for our rehearsals to make sure we hit our marks. It’s now attached to my bulletin board as a memento. The tour ended up taking 14 minutes, the president was very interested. During the visit one of his body guards, a woman, (provided by the CIA?) ran defense keeping the press at bay. She bounced back and forth with her arms out stretched creating a barrier all the while manically chewing gum. I wanted to giggle.

Microsoft was the first place President Hu Jintao came to on his US visit.


Speaking of Presidential first visits, in the summer of 2007 we had Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triết on the first presidential visit to the US since the Vietnam War in 1975. Wow. While it was an honor to also be a part of that visit, it didn’t have the same elevated effect.

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>>> Blog post May 2, 2010

inno day 2007

With Manuel Pinho, Portugal's Minister of Economy and Innovation, I'm pointing.
With Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s Minister of Economy and Innovation, I’m pointing.

Innovation Day 2007- Living and building Europe’s digital future

Microsoft’s Innovation Day in 2007 was set in Brussels.  The event demonstrated leadership and innovation to the EU public sector and the media. The focus was on consumer safety and privacy including child safety, fraud, and game addiction. I presented 3 team vision demos and had conversations with key leaders around these topics. Scenarios presented were:

Sharing Personal Info safely A demonstration of an experience hiring a babysitter that showed how a method of reciprocation allowed participants to safely share personal information while protecting their privacy.

Keeping our Children on Track A prototype tablet designed for a child that had parental controls and content management built in. Scenarios showed touched on: safe communications, homework, and a game for which children performed chores in order to earn credits for technology play.

Browsing based on preferences and more Through an online entertainment guide, we displayed content populated by a combination of filters including your preferences, tracking your history and organizations you may subscribe to. The content included: recommendations from the school based on the current curriculum, trips taken and planned, shows based on actors we’ve watched…

It was a fun trip, although spending 3 days in Europe is never enough…

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>>> Blog post January 14, 2012


Pelosi in the Microsoft Home Kitchen

2 years ago, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Jim McDermott came on a tour of the Microsoft Home.

Keeping government officials informed of the possibilities that technology has enabled is in all of our best interests. This provides the opportunity for them to be proactive in their involvement to lead more and react less.

I remember Pelosi as sharp, quickly getting the concepts presented as well as offering kind words for the company saying “Thank you Microsoft for being the job creator that you are, … I thank Microsoft for the lead that they have taken in keeping us number one, and I thank you for the hospitality here to see what is happening and vision for the home of the future.”

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The company has an amazing track record for giving. They encouraged employees to contribute time and money to nonprofit organizations.

Personal conduct stories