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Mid-life crisis

 Recently, I put a significant deposit down on a sports car—a two-seat Tesla Roadster convertible that goes from 0 to 60 in four seconds. It’s an electric vehicle that travels over 200 miles on a 3.5 hour charge. A couple of months from now, I’m taking my sabbatical to travel abroad. I know what you are thinking. You’re guessing I’m in my mid-forties.

Eric AsideYou can read more about the Tesla Roadster at I took delivery in 2009 (model year 2008). I’ve now driven the car every day to work for the past two years. It’s the easiest, most economical, most environmentally sustainable, and most fun car in the world to drive. It also requires almost no maintenance. You can read more about my experience on the blog I wrote for Tesla:

Yes, I’m having a mid-life crisis, or as I like to call it, the time of my life. Still, my wife and I are happy together; I love my kids and have no intention of leaving them; my job is great and I’m as passionate as ever about Microsoft. I’m just preparing to travel the world and buying a hot electric sports car. What gives, and more importantly, why should you care?

What gives is that my situation has changed, providing new opportunities and new pitfalls. Why you should care is that Microsoft is in the same situation.

Eric AsideI also used my sabbatical to assemble the first edition of this book. At Microsoft, your vice president can award you a sabbatical after a certain number of years of consistently excellent contributions to the company.

You’ve changed

Up to this point in my life, a sports car was unthinkable. Before I had kids, I couldn’t afford such a thing. Once I had kids, a two-seat roadster wasn’t practical. Now my kids have grown, as well as my savings, so for the first time a sports car is feasible.

Of course, just because it’s feasible doesn’t mean I want a sports car. But this is an electric, blow-your-doors-off, twist-your-neck-loose car. Such a car didn’t even exist till last year. The technology has improved, the business climate among other things has changed, and I put down a deposit.

Likewise, before now, taking a sabbatical didn’t make sense. It took me a while to earn the sabbatical. Once I did, between my kids and my job, taking that much time off was unthinkable. Now, my kids don’t need me as much and I’ve grown my staff to the point where they can cover for me. So taking the sabbatical is viable.

Microsoft has grown up too. We used to be struggling to establish ourselves. Even once we were successful, we had to work diligently for years to be taken seriously. Now we hold a leadership position, have money in the bank, and find ourselves at a crossroads.

Just another tricky day

So is this a crisis? Not for my personal life. My job and relationships are stable. My finances aren’t in jeopardy. There are people willing and able to cover for me. All this “crisis” amounts to is an opportunity to indulge myself.

What about Microsoft? People describe our situation as a crisis. They say we’ve forgotten how to ship; that we are bogged down in process “taxes”; that our approach to managing people and projects is antiquated; and that our competitors are more nimble and relevant in today’s market for talent, products, and services. They are right. What went wrong? We’re crawling when we should be cruising.

Eric AsideI don’t think it’s as bad as some critics say, but their concerns are valid.

How bad is Microsoft’s mid-life crisis? I’d say it’s worse than mine, but better than the one an old officemate went through. He divorced his wife, left his kids, and remarried a woman half his age. IBM’s mid-life crisis was kind of like my officemate’s mid-life crisis. Apple’s mid-life crisis involved two divorces before returning to their first spouse. While both IBM and Apple pulled through, they definitely suffered.

How does Microsoft avoid suffering through this time of transition? We don’t avoid it; and, as it turns out, we haven’t. We are suffering, and we’ll continue to suffer. Transitions are hard. However, there are things we can do to minimize the pain and maximize enjoying the opportunities that change brings us.

Leave little to chance

Let’s take the conversation back to me. Remember, I’m the one taking a long vacation and then returning to a cool electric sports car and the family and job I love. Why isn’t my wife leaving me? Why are people willing and able to cover for me? I’ve had my share of good fortune, no doubt, but my situation isn’t an accident, nor is it assumed.

Had I bought a speedy two-seater years ago, my wife probably would have tolerated it, but it would have caused my family grief. The costs to buy, insure, and maintain it would have put stress on our finances. I wouldn’t have covered half the driving duties after work because the kids couldn’t safely sit in the front seat. What’s worse, I would have missed opportunities to connect with my kids.

But I didn’t buy the sports car earlier. As a result, my relationships with my wife and kids are stronger, and our finances are more secure. Thus, getting one now isn’t a big deal. As an added bonus, new technology has provided an electric alternative.

The moral: Don’t prematurely commit to exciting new areas just because they’re there—make sure you establish your dependents and can manage the risks. You might even find that technology improvements by then are far more favorable.

Eric AsideBy the way, this is no judgment on people with sports cars. Each person’s family and job situation is different. This is more about how a certain approach has helped my family, how it has helped my job, how I successfully weather the changes life has presented, and how that approach could help Microsoft do the same.

I don’t think the boy can handle it

Had I taken my sabbatical when it was awarded years ago, I would have compromised my family, my team, and even the quality of my vacation. The family aspect is simple. Today, my kids are older and more independent. This means less work for my wife and less guidance needed from me. As an added bonus, we have more flexibility for where and how long we travel.

The impact on work is even greater. Years ago, my team was new. I hadn’t had the time to hire the right people and develop them sufficiently to step into my role. I also hadn’t established the practices and guidelines we needed to provide reliable results. Today, while the situation isn’t perfect, I’ve got a strong, experienced team behind me who are eager and able to cover my duties.

The moral: When you invest in developing good people, practices, and guidelines, it gives you the freedom to explore new areas without worry or compromise, while giving your people the chance to continue your work and make it their own.

Not getting any younger

By now, many of my readers are seeing how this relates to Microsoft, but in case you are living in a state of blissful ignorance or denial, allow me to elaborate.

Microsoft is entering middle age:

  • Our market has matured. We are taken more seriously by customers, partners, and governments. This is good for us, but it also raises expectations for what we deliver and how and when we deliver it. We can’t afford to be careless or impetuous.
  • We carry around tons of legacy baggage. Without the extra weight, our competitors can be more nimble, taking advantage of new technology and revenue models faster than we can.
  • Our senior management, middle management, and college recruits all come from different generations. This generation gap is quite serious. Senior management never had to ship software with a thousand engineers. Middle management doesn’t know agile from fragile. And college recruits haven’t a clue about production-quality, world-ready code. This leads to conflicting expectations of development time and engineering approach, as well as to poor decisions based on misinformation.

Don’t panic

What do we do? First off, don’t panic. We are rich, famous, and darn good looking (from a portfolio perspective). There are worse situations.

Second, remember we’re not a human being. We’re a company. We only get old and decrepit if we get set in our ways, preventing innovation and keeping the next generation from taking our place. We can learn and renew ourselves if we just choose to do so.

Applying the first moral, we must establish our dependents and manage our risks before we commit. We’re too old to be screwing around with unstable base components, like we did with Windows Vista. Aggressively investigate new technologies and innovate our products, but don’t commit till dependencies are solid and the risks can be mitigated.

Eric AsideWe ended up cutting back some new technologies in Windows Vista because they weren’t stable enough to ship with high quality. That’s more than a shame. It cost us time trying to put them in, and it cost us more time removing them later.

Applying the second moral, we must invest in developing good people, practices, and guidelines. We’re too old to be devastating and demoralizing our staff with death marches (which you can read more about in Marching to death). We must be patient, allowing folks to learn and grow on their own, while teaching them the lessons we’ve already experienced. This means letting go and trusting our next generation to prove themselves, but having the right guidelines in place to prevent a catastrophe.

Nobody’s perfect

We’ve been less than perfect in establishing our dependencies, managing our risks, developing our people, and having the right practices and guidelines in place. Transitions are hard, and there’s no getting around it.

What helps is maturity at all levels. In other words, acting our age:

  • No responsible adult drives around in a car with bald tires or builds a house on a fault line. That’s foolish. We need to stabilize our dependencies before we depend on them. We can’t compromise on quality.
  • No decent parent still tells their grown kids what to do. That’s childish. Management needs to provide engineers with knowledge, experience, and guidelines; clearly explain the expected results; supply feedback that warns of danger; and then trust engineers to make it happen however those engineers see fit.

Taking these simple steps will do more than make us act our age. We’ll develop new leaders to step up when the old generation steps down. While the younger generation continues our work and makes it their own, we can explore new areas without worry or compromise.

Getting older as a company doesn’t mean getting old. We stay young and agile by growing, protecting, and trusting our youth to keep us young. I can’t wait to take delivery of that electric sports car.

Eric AsideIf current actions are any indication, we have learned many lessons well. We’ve avoided telling engineers how to work; instead, we have focused on the results we expect. We’ve changed our approach to dependencies and shipping, making ourselves more lean, agile, and reliable. Sure, Microsoft still has work to do, and I love being part of the solution.

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