J Allard: Class Act Edition
There are far to many "role models" in the world and too few people to really admire. Every sports figure or actor is inevitably held up as a role model and they never fail to disappoint. While their effort to get to their position is admirable, the likelihood of emulating their role is slightly smaller than winning the supper lotto - twice. In the bright glow of these superstars we miss the ordinary guy who makes an ordinary gesture extraordinary. The guy you can really be if you just try hard enough. You have to be born Superman, but anyone can be Batman.
Anyone who has spent time with J Allard knows he is not an ordinary guy, but the act of leaving employment is pretty ordinary these days and exit emails are not often inspiring love letters worthy of publication next to Steve Jobs' famous commencement speech. Actually, I've never seen one. Many compare J to Jobs and in an alternate world where he sat a couple seats high in the organization he may have been him. J is the guy who fought to move the borg onto the internet and envisioned Xbox as the connected box long before anyone thought of game consoles as connected. The connection is what drove Microsoft to the front of this console generation.
With everyone from ZDNET to the Wall Street Journal speculating on his departure, J knew he had access to the world press and he did what so few people do. He used it well. Here is the entire email as stolen from Gizmodo:
Congratulations J. Thank you for your time and I wish you the best in your future endeavors.
From: J Allard
Date: May 25, 2010 8:56:08 AM PDT
To: "Robert (Robbie) Bach", Entertainment & Devices Division FTE
Cc: Senior Leadership Team
Subject: Decide. Change. Reinvent.
My first job out of college 19 years ago was really something.
The receptionist typed out my visitor badge on an IBM Selectric typewriter at my interview – a reassuringly "high-tech" welcome in 1991. On my first day, I was ushered to an office that I would share with a co-worker and a spare-no-expense, beige Compaq 386sx computer. I fired it up, and my first dialog with this quasi-32-bit powerhouse went something like this:
Bad command or filename
Bad command or filename
Bad command or filename
Bad command or filename
I was obviously flustered; my new officemate taught me the magical incantation – "wzmail" – which launched an amazing program. Some would describe it as an email client with text editing disabled, but it was actually a time machine that was hardwired to "1982 BBS messaging systems." It connected me via the tangle of wires at my feet to the rest of our world via a protocol called "XNS." XNS, like Latin, I had learned a little about in college but hadn't ever actually experienced it in the real world.
In my first week, I would be asked to do a presentation covering the architecture, milestones and to state my "confidence interval" of the first commercial software project that I would oversee. My command performance was powered by a 3M overhead projector and transparencies I had prepared on the Xerox copier. I was subjected to intense "technical" questioning from the head of my division (a former marketing chief from 80's Apple) in a room filled with dormitory-grade oak furnishings. After surviving this rite of passage, I stopped by my I/O mailbox and was thrilled to receive 200 black and white business cards, which included our corporate Telex number and my very own Compuserve e-mail address. It was apparent after my first week that I was well equipped to set the world on fire.
My first post-college employer? Microsoft.
It was a complete fluke that I even interviewed. The idea of joining a company with more than 100 people seemed terrifyingly stifling to me. My networking, graphics, Unix and Internet passions and background suggested we didn't have a lot in common. The mission of "A computer on every desk and in every home" was ambitious, but ambitious circa 1985. By 1991, it was an assumed inevitability for those versed in technology and its adoption rate.
The ~30 million PCs in the world were dominantly powered by DOS, Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect and applications compiled by Borland tools. If you were on a network at the office, it was Novell Netware; if you were connected to the "net," your choice would have been Compuserve over your roaring 1200-baud modem. You'd buy your floppy discs and printer ribbons at a store called Egghead, and a program called TurboTax would have consumers lined up every April. MS-DOS 5.0 had just launched and we were deep in collaboration with the #1 PC maker – IBM - on a powerful new operating system called OS/2 intended to succeed it. I had joined a small team building a Netware alternative on DOS and OS/2 called "LAN Manager."
In spite of all of these warning signs and patterns, I still took the interview. At minimum the experience would serve as good practice for future interviews by more compatible employers. However, my interview experience turned all of my assumptions upside-down and drew me toward this place I've called home ever since.
During every interview, I'd challenge, "‘A computer on every desk and in every home' is quaint, but why stop there?" and the typical response would be along the lines of, "That's just our ante." I liked that... +1 Microsoft.
I'd push a little further and say something like "Don't you see the force multiplier in connecting all of those desks and homes and people together across the Internet?" and they'd say something like "Internet? Is that like Compuserve?" However it was said, these responses activated my flight instinct.
My speedball would be, "Well, why in the hell should I join this company that doesn't have a clue about the Internet when that's the next big thing? It's going to completely change the world! It's what I was put on earth to do! You guys don't get it!" and the calm response would be, "You're right. We don't get it, but it seems that maybe you do. That's exactly why you should come here. Come here and make it happen. Write the job description!"
I couldn't believe it, but it was impossible to dismiss the similarity and authenticity I felt in every conversation. On the flight home, I contemplated these discussions, the passion and IQ of the people I had encountered and their invitation to create my own space to drive a bigger agenda alongside them. It clicked. The "computer on every desk..." rhetoric was a ruse, the real purpose and ambition of these people was much, much broader: "Make the world a better place through technology."
Like every idealistic college hire, this was the unicorn I was looking for. I wanted to do something bigger than me – "change the world!" – with a bunch of people who respected and could augment my superpowers. I had visited the Justice League of Geeks and they had invited me in and had shown me the secret handshake.
The next day, I joined "The Tribe" – a group diverse in perspective, similar in skills and completely, totally galvanized around one central purpose.
It felt uncomfortably perfect (apart from the awful office décor), so I protected my youthful optimism by mentally deciding I would give it two years and revisit everything then. The almanac reassured me of the NW's snow quality, the traffic was nothing compared to Boston or New York and the promise of free soda, lame-but-subsidized cafeteria pizza, $32k/year and an MS-DOS t-shirt were hard to beat.
At my two year checkpoint, things were going along "better than expected." It was simple to extend my commitment - I was charged up by the progress we were making, the friends I had made, the plans we had made together and the culture and purpose that bound us. I even was allowed to expense copies of Snow Crash as a pre-read for team offsites… The unicorn was real!
Then one day it happened.
Someone ruined it all and shattered the fantasy. When no one was looking, some clown had somehow slipped into The Tribe and brought all of the walls crashing down. They shredded our slice of the vision, they scoffed at my offer to collaborate, they committed to a lifetime of obstructionist behavior and to do everything in their power to stop everything our team had worked so hard to do. The gauntlet was laid, "Read my lips, we will never ship TCP/IP in Windows 95." I was shocked. I was shattered.
I stormed out.
I walked out the front door in disgust and went to an 11am movie at Crossroads (the aptly titled, Point of No Return). About 30 minutes in I realized what a whiner and victim I was being and that in a company of 8,000 there were bound to be some misses.
I thought about how I stormed out the front door to my car and how the thought of leaving my cardkey at reception had actually crossed my mind. I walked out of the movie and I sat in my car. I took my cardkey out of my wallet and after concluding that I should lose the ponytail, I told myself, "You idiot. This is your invitation to change the world." I went back to the office and got right back to it.
[In truth, I cranked the Descendents really loud ("You can only be a victim if you… admit defeat") and flamed Herr Clownshoes to a crisp in wzmail, and then I promptly got back to it.]
Since that crappy day 17 years ago, every.single.time I've swiped that damned cardkey I've reminded myself of that invitation from The Tribe and our shared purpose.
I repeat the phrase silently in my head and I take it seriously. It's not about me, it's not about my career, it's not about the project or the product or the profit – it's about the central purpose and obligation we share to change the world and to build stuff that allows our customers and partners to do the same.
With that initial 2 year landscape it would have been very hard to predict what we would accomplish and how we would evolve over the next 2 decades. The 2nd place productivity and DOS company talking about "GUI" I had joined became the unquestioned driver of the PC industry, a networking company, an enterprise company, a communications company, an Internet company, a hardware company, a server company, an entertainment company and true to its heritage, it fuels each of these businesses with amazing software tools.
More important than any of the products, businesses, scale or profit that we've built together, we've helped redefine how people work, how they communicate, how they manage their lives and how they play. That's why I joined The Tribe.
Nineteen years later some things remain the same - the pizza still sucks, the wayfinding/signage in the buildings is hopeless and our business cards continue to lack any sense of expression. But most importantly, that common purpose to use technology to make the world better is still alive and well. That simple little "beep" we experience every day when we swipe our cards remains a reminder for all of us.
If you've been following along, you probably understand just how difficult it was for me to decide to leave the tribe and explore new territory, but the time has come.
My passion for our cause combined with my obsessive nature has put many of my other interests on hold for a long time. I don't know exactly what tomorrow looks like – but if my focus has been 95% MSFT, 5% life until now, I know that the first step is to flip that ratio around. After wrapping some projects up, I will shift to 95% life and 5% MSFT. With that 5% I'll be working for SteveB on a couple of projects beginning this fall.
In response to the curiosity, no chairs were thrown, no ultimatums served, I am not moving to Cupertino or Mountain View, I did not take a courier job and I require no assistance finding the door. I do know that I'm going to help a couple of friends get their startups going (e.g. The Clymb), I'm planning some races (by foot, bike and off-road trucks), and I'm going to put some energy into my passion for design, the arts and philanthropy. For those of you reporting into one of my organizations, I am committed to working through all of the transition issues and assure you that The Tribe remains committed to the work you are doing and our purpose going forward.
If, at the next juncture, I decide to join a corporate tribe again, this place will definitely top my list. There are a lot of great companies out there doing terrific and meaningful work with better pizza, nicer décor and great implementations of "ls" on the desktops, but The Tribe? No one can touch our talent, our impact or our ambition. We're the only high-tech company with the track record and self-confidence to reinvent ourselves as we have. If you want to change the world with technology, this is still the best tribe out there.
Please, put my headcount and that cardkey "invitation" to good use. Find a college student that claims we don't get it and blogs tirelessly about our lack of agility. Track down an EE that has been focusing on fuel cells and has radical thoughts about power management. Or a social networking whiz who is tired of building little islands that go hot and cold and can't break the mainstream. Hire a designer who's given shape to 2 decades of beautiful automobiles and thinks we can sculpt technology to better connect to users. Infuse them with our purpose. Give them the tools. Give them lots of rope. Learn from them. Support where they take you. Invite them to redefine The Tribe.
Decide. Change. Reinvent.