Christian Heilmann

Four years at Microsoft

LinkedIn this week reminded me that I am now four years at Microsoft. Technically, my first day in a meeting on a company machine was the 5th of February (as Rey Bango reminded me). It’s been quite a ride and I am still happy to work here.

When I started, I was curious if that works out. Coming from a fiercely open company like Mozilla back to a large corporate felt odd. I wanted to make a change where it matters. Internet Explorer was the boogeyman of the web development world, so I wanted to help phase it out. This, to a degree, worked out. More importantly though, during my journey I learned a lot of things I hadn’t before about large companies.

Here are a few things that kept me humble and interested over all these years. Some were a surprise, others shouldn’t be, but I think it is worth while mentioning them.

The sheer size of Microsoft is staggering

I was more or less told to spend my first few months in the company to get my bearing, to get to know the structure and network internally. This sounds like overkill or bad organisation, but it is not. It is pretty straightforward to find people you need to know on the Intranet and in Teams. But, to forge some meaningful connections, it is important to put more effort in. It surprised me to get this opportunity, but it helped a lot with my career. Far more companies should allow people to do so. In the long run, this can help with employee retention.

That said, I still have no clue what some departments in the company are doing. Microsoft has its fingers in many pies, and works with a lot of different customers. We do hardware, write software, provide connectivity and hosting, education, research and consulting services. Some departments are around for a long time and can’t change without annoying their customers. Others are on the bleeding edge and it is OK to build something that will never be a commercial success. And then there is the whole entertainment and gaming part that I have no clue whatsoever about.

The great thing about this is that it helps with diversity and it brings a grown-up attitude to work. When you walk around the company you find all kind of people.

There is no shortage of creative work and releases of products. But there is a lack of “work yourself to death because it is cool” attitude we often see as a great sign of an up and coming company. Meetings are short and to the point. Work hours aren’t quite fixed, but it is rare to see people late in the office. You are encouraged to take breaks and vacation. It pretty much feels like a company that invests in you for the long run. Some people have been here for dozens of years.

This diversity of options also means that there is always an option to move sideways to other departments of the company. Of all the “I am leaving” emails I got in the last years, only 2% were people leaving the company. The others were all people moving to a different department. Often doing something completely different, but without having to start new. They keep their contract, compensation, shares and bonuses that accumulate over time.

I like this as it is relaxing. You know there are other options when you are annoyed with what you do now.

Microsoft reaches where I never could before

The amount of day to day operations of our world that Microsoft works in is ridiculous. When I thought that in my little “web world” the company is not that important any longer I was wrong. I learned that a lot of what we consider as innovative and success is not having much impact. The cool tech praised on hacker news today can quickly be forgotten.

There is a vast world of software developers and systems out there that we as people who want the web to be the platform never heard about or reach. People who build amazing and important things and do not keep up to date like we do. People who see this as a job and spend time outside the office with their families and hobbies. People not falling for the “side hustle” we proclaim to be oh so important. People whose products customers rely on to work without knowing or caring how they work.

This size and impact multiplies with the third party companies that resell and use Microsoft technology. I’ve been to internal conferences where everybody around me was an expert in our technologies. All these people were working for small companies or freelance consultants. I had no idea what most of them talked about and wondered how I never thought that could be a career for me. You can have a decent living creating with Microsoft products without ever having to code much yourself. Same with Amazon, IBM, Oracle or Google. A sobering fact to me were the training materials these developers can use to learn how to use product XYZ. They are outstanding and blow away anything I’ve seen for web technologies. Maybe we can learn something there. You don’t need to be an expert and work all the magic when the products you use are reliably supported and explained well.

Working remote is fun – and hard

I work remote, my office is my sofa or my kitchen table and my only local colleague a deaf, 14 year old cocker spaniel. I also work in the Berlin time zone, whereas most of my colleagues work in Washington. I could go to one of the offices here, and sometimes I need to – f.e. to set up new hardware or fix VPN issues. I’m lucky in that regard, not many people in Microsoft work from home, but the number is increasing.

I like this freedom, but I also realise that it can be a burden on my colleagues. That’s why I try to be flexible with my work hours and sometimes start in the early afternoon and end at midnight. That way I can attend meetings (on Teams) with my colleagues and work on what they created during their day until they come back.

I found out though that it is important to meet face to face every few months and I am flexible to fly over to do so. That way I realise that when people are late for a meeting at 7pm my time there are reasons. They don’t consider me unimportant – they are stuck in horrible traffic on the way to work. It is also important to be in the office from time to time to see how people work there. The Microsoft campus is overwhelming at first. You need a car or take buses or company owned taxis to get around and in between buildings. You realise why sometimes your requests aren’t handled immediately when you need to navigate it yourself.

Anyone working remote needs to put some more effort in to make it work for the others. That’s my opinion – not a company policy. Remote workers should be a calming agent in the interplay of colleagues, not someone who has lots of demands. Often I found myself being able to give advice to colleagues about their career as I am not in the middle of the office hustle.

Education is paramount

One of the things I want to do more is to take advantage of our internal training tools. There is a ridiculous amount of courses and video content you can consume to learn new skills. Not only Microsoft ones, but including subscriptions to Pluralsight, Lynda.com and the likes. In our quarterly reviews you are always asked to challenge yourself to learn more and things you haven’t done before. You get time to do so, but you also need to prove that you took the classes and did something with it. I should do a lot more of that.

Our internal trainings are great. This sounds odd as you hardly ever hear people having a great time learning about corporate security standards, code of conduct or legal requirements for working with clients. But our materials are outstanding. They are professionally produced video series with transcripts, captions and actually good acting. Instead of telling you what not to do in a hypothetical scenario many are based on real happenings in the past. So you learn how someone almost lost their job and went to jail because he didn’t think something was bad that actually is. Think of a Netflix mini series with tests at the end.

Things that didn’t happen

All in all, I’ve had a great time so far at Microsoft. Of course, there are office politics, re-organisations and sometimes odd paperwork to do. But I found that there is a place for an out-spoken open source, open web person here. I was never asked to only promote Microsoft products. I am not forced to use Windows only. I am allowed to keep my personal channels like this blog and my crazy Twitter account. I don’t need to wear company attire. And I don’t need to apply for a patent for all my code or release it behind closed doors. There is a lot of open source work happening here, and I am happy about that.

Right now, there is a lot of change happening and the times ahead are interesting indeed. I am looking forward to these challenges. And we are hiring a lot, soon. AMA :)