Reflecting back on the 90’s

As I continue my journey into the next decade at Microsoft it is probably worth while to look back at just how far we had come and what it meant.  It had been a magical journey, something that may rekindle thoughts of other industries, like the great railroads that were constructed in the mid to latter 1800’s (check out Stephen Ambrose’s book “Nothing Like it in the World”).  Or the start of the automotive industry.  I had been in the game at the start of something huge, something that will define the 21st century.  Like so many things in history it all started so innocently. 

When I joined the company on November 4th, 1991 the company was only 7500 employees and the organizational structure was very flat with almost every employee only 3-4 jumps away from Bill Gates.  The product line was about two things; Windows and Office.  The industry was adopting desktop PC’s and they were also making their way into the home.  By 2000 things had changed as Microsoft had entered the networking arena with a lot of Server technology being pushed out the  pipe and the game changing force of the Internet had started to build momentum.

What I remember early on is a lot of good people came through telesales, where I started and many of those people had no technology exposure.  In fact many did not have college degrees.  But many of those people developed a passion for technology and became stalwart employees.  Everyone was young and having a lot fo fun, from the product managers who came over and presented the latest and greatest products to the new rep taking their first call on the phone and not having a clue what the person on the other end was talking about.  The sad downside of explosive growth and bitter competition is those people will never have the opportunity to work at todays Microsoft.  Finding the diamond in the rough is not in the cards anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not bitter about this.  When companies become large they just have more processes in place, they become more systematic, and they are far less willing to take risk, because they do not have to. 

There seemed to be a party for everything.  A new product release?  We need a party? Christmas?  A big party.  Global Sales Summit? A bigger party.  Because it was a young organization with many employees single and in their late 20’s people hung out a lot together after work.  It could be drinking beer or doing co-ed sports after work like soccer or baseball.  Early on it seemed every time I saw a product demo I got a T-Shirt, so I had stacks of t-shirts for Microsoft Test, MASM, FORTRAN, Visual C++, DOS  etc. Microsoft in those days was an extension of college, except I got paid.  Like everything else in life you hit milestones, you get married, you have kids and the dynamics of your life changes. 

When Microsoft failed in those days it was not as big a deal.  A classic case was Microsoft Bob.  A simple idea really related to simplifying and humanizing the user interface for Windows I had first seen it in San Diego as a demo for something code-named “Utopia”, it seemed a bit clunky to me.  The graphical UI in Bob which allowed you to look at files like you were literally in a library, was at best described as veneer you would put over your Windows Operating system..  But I thought maybe it was something the new PC user might gravitate towards.  They did not. It was a risk and in the end a complete flop.  But Bill netted a wife out of it so it could not be all bad.  

The PC was new to the general public so many were naturally intimidated by this technological paradigm shift. This was the era of “the geek”.  They could come out of their closet and join the human race.  They could attend parties and talk technical and people were interested in what they would say.  They were also young and rich.  Microsoft was in its element at a societal level that no engineer had ever experienced before.  A vivid memory of this time I had when went to the company store one day and out came four technical geeks with their copies of Visual C++ (a big, big box…with lots of books, remember the CD for the PC was still early on at this point) and they all hopped into a shiny Rolls-Royce.  Nice.

As the decade started to come to a close things started to change very quickly.  The internet was going to solve everything.  What is interesting to look back on is that though the internet was cool and seemed to be making Microsoft irrelevant, the reality was that was not happening.  In order to connect to the internet people needed software they trusted.  Apple was still very expensive and Linux, though free, required a PHd to install.  So people bought PC’s.  In many ways the internet brought the grand vision of a “A PC on every desktop and in every home” to its conclusion.  I think the fact that Microsoft achieved a vision is pretty significant, how many people work for companies and never know what the mission statement is?  The beauty of the statement is nowhere does it mention the business that Microsoft is in.  We did not make PC’s we made software.  Billg always would say, “Software, that is where the magic happens”.

As I sat in the audience in September 2000 for the annual Microsoft company meeting, I listened to Bill talk about the upcoming decade.  He called the new decade the “Software decade”.  As he is so often when talking about the future he was right.  It would seem this would be the era that Microsoft would be come even bigger and more glorious. After all we were the largest software company on the planet.   Microsoft certainly has become much larger but the glory has not followed.  The software decade meant that software would become pervasive in many of the things we do.  As digital convergence happened the expectation is that the software would just work and tha Mr. end customer would not need to call his “geek” friend.  With the rebirth of Apple, the rise of mobile phones and pretty much everything in color, technology was cool and becoming part of fashion  The geek world was gone, geek’s don’t do Armani.  But the decade while it lasted was one greatest periods of my professional career.

Good night and good luck,

Hans Hoffmann

February 17, 2010

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