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Any Noun Can be Verbed

December 17, 2012

Any noun can be verbed.

One of the things I learned in a nearly 10 year career at Microsoft. A friend pointed out the obvious,

“Including the word “verb” apparently.”

That’s what makes it funny. But, it got me thinking about corporate culture and what makes it unique.

I worked for Microsoft from 1994 to 2003 and then again in 2008. The two periods were very different. For those of you who are interested in the history of the computer field, the change happened on April 3, 2000. That was the day US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued his famous ruling authorizing the breakup of Microsoft

If like me, you lost money in the market crash of 2000, you can blame Judge Jackson. His ruling was the pin that popped the Internet stock bubble.

We didn’t really know it at the time. I’d seen the Apple vs Microsoft case adjudicated. We lost that one too. That was the famous “Look and Feel” lawsuit, that claimed that Windows 95 stole Macintosh’s UI or User Interface. The jury decided, “YES, Microsoft stole your look and feel. Here’s $1 in damages.” Apple won the lawsuit and won a dollar. Actually, because of the nature of the challenge, the damages were automatically tripled. I think the Microsoft attorney paid up before he left the courtroom.

So, when Judge Jackson decided we should be split into an Operating side (Windows) and an application side (Microsoft Office) we weren’t too worried. The stock started to head down. Not something that you want to see when the bulk of your employees get stock options. And on a personal level, not something you want to see when you’ve ignored the advice from your mother the financial planner, and you’ve left all your assets in the Microsoft basket.

Sure, we expected a hit, but we also expected a correction to be followed by more growth. It went down like the Titanic.

At a company meeting months later I remember Steve Ballmer, always the high energy company cheerleader asking us if we thought the stock would stay at $40 or it would make it back up into the 80’s where it was before the ruling? We drank the kool-aide. We wanted to believe, and we needed it to come back. It never really did.

That period of Microsoft history is filled with tales of crashed fortunes. But, more than our bank accounts were hit.

It changed the company, and in turn I think it changed the entire industry. During the trial, Ballmer famously said, “We can put a ham sandwich into Windows if we want.” Microsoft was bold. We were brash. We were arrogant. But, we DESERVED to be arrogant. Only the best and brightest got to work in Redmond. Our past was littered with “industry leaders” who’d been either eliminated or neutered.

Borland
WordPerfect
Novell
Lotus
cc:Mail

Many of those names mean nothing to today’s IT employees. But each was once number one in their field. Microsoft had ground each into the dirt. Another Ballmer quote was,

“We may not get it right the first time. Or the second time. But by the time we get the third version we’re unstoppable.”

And Microsoft had the guts and the gold to afford to wait for the success that we all knew was inevitable.

There were setbacks (anyone remember Microsoft Bob?) But, for the most part, we were a machine; a money making machine for those of us on the gravy train, and a perpetual upgrade machine for our customers.

All that changed on that day in April. Some of the best and the brightest took their remaining riches and simply moved on to their next endeavor, whether that was travel, startups, philanthropy, or simply a house overlooking Puget Sound. Others of us lost our fat bank accounts, and realized that we’d just watched the end of something pretty cool.

What I learned was that company success is not inevitable. In fact, you could say that success, especially wildly lucrative success like Microsoft had, was the exception rather than the norm. Judge Jackson didn’t just rein in Microsoft, by taking the air out of the Internet bubble, he brought the entire industry down to earth. We became just another white collar business.

But for a few years, we were kings. Nothing lasts forever. That’s what I learned at Microsoft.

Well, that and the fact that any noun can be verbed.

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