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Saying No To Microsoft

June 3, 2013

Back in the 1990’s a Harvard MBA professor asked his class:

How does a company make money in the software industry?

Accept Microsoft’s first offer.

The alternative can be pretty frightening. The companies that dominated their industry and later were crushed by Microsoft was pretty dramatic.

eMail – cc:Mail
Languages – Borland
Browsers – Netscape
Spreadsheets – Lotus 123
Networks – Novell NetWare
Graphic User Interface – Apple
Word Processors – WordPerfect

In 1993, I was at WordPerfect and we felt like we were in a war with the Evil Empire in Redmond. WordPerfect still had major marketshare, but Microsoft was making inroads. Even though I supported the email program, we all understood that the company lived and died with the word processor. It was our bread-and-butter.

So, why was I on my way to Microsoft for an interview?

Well, I didn’t want a job. Really. It was to appease my mother.

I grew up in Olympia, Washington, about 40 miles south of Seattle, and if you take the I405 freeway instead of the I5, it was also about 40 miles south of Redmond, home of Microsoft. My mother lived (and still lives) in Olympia. One brother and his family were back east, the other one didn’t have any kids. I had two. Mom really wanted some grandkids close.

Why don’t you go to work for Microsoft?

Mom. I’m happy here.

One of my clients is a manager at Microsoft. Would it hurt to just come and talk to them?

(Actually it did, A LOT, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) So, I sent a resume to mom who passed it on to her friend, who passed it on to HR. No way were they going to call me. This was MICROSOFT! They were Google, before there was a Google. I was a glorified support engineer. No way would they call.

They called.

Well, this was awkward. Remember the war analogy? Some people really believed it. And I’m going to go talk to the enemy? And I didn’t even want the job.

Thanks, Mom.

I decided that I wasn’t going to tell anyone. And I mean ANYONE. I had family working at WordPerfect and I didn’t want to put them in an awkward situation. I told Mom, of course. And that was a problem. But, I didn’t know it until later.

I was flying out Thursday night for a full day of interviews on Friday. Thursday afternoon we got an email saying that our team had an emergency MANDATORY meeting. This was after I Saved The EPA, and we had the full SWAT team set up. The meeting was to inform us that we needed to sign new employment agreements, and we had 24 hours to sign them.

The only agreement any of us had signed was the non-disclosure when we were hired. For some of us that was 4 or 5 years earlier.

Why do we need to sign new agreements?

Just a new HR policy.

What if we don’t sign them in the next 24 hours?

You’ll be terminated.

What? There must have been more to this meeting than we were getting.

It says here that if we quit we can’t go to work for any other software company for 6 months.

That’s right.

That seems a little extreme. What are we supposed to do during that 6 months? We’re software guys!

Look, if any of you come to us and say, “I want to go to work for Microsoft” we’ll let you out of this.

No, I didn’t clue in at that point. The document said we’d had a chance to talk it over with an attorney. None of us had an attorney. And certainly not one we could call on 24 hours notice. So we signed. I didn’t want to go to work for Microsoft anyway. I was just doing a favor for my Mom anyway. But, just in case, I made a copy of the agreement and wrote down my notes from the meeting. You can never be too careful.

So, that night I flew to Seattle.

Microsoft interviews take all day long, generally five or six hours. By the end of the day they know if they want to hire you or not. They wanted me. They offered me the insane salary of $35,000 and a few hundred things called stock options to come and be a Technical Account Manager.

I appreciate the offer, but I’m going to have to pass.

Mind if we ask why?

Well, WordPerfect is a private company. I think they’re going to go public within the next year. I’ve got 5 years and my wife has been there 4. I think my options are better staying there.

Okay. Well, thanks for coming and talking to us.

And that was the end of that. I spent the weekend with my parents in Olympia and flew home to Utah Sunday night. I quickly forgot the whole mandatory meeting thing and slipped back into my regular routine.

What I didn’t know was that nothing would ever be the same.

(This is the first of a five part series on Leaving Utah: How I left WordPerfect and Went to Microsoft. Part two will discuss how WordPerfect wasn’t as strong as we thought. And later I’ll discover my secret recruiting trip wasn’t as secret as I thought.)

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