First 6 months at Microsoft
Time flows fast, and I was reminded a few days ago I have now been working at Microsoft for 6 months. To answer the questions of those who might want to know how I have been doing during this time, I decided to write this blog post.
What I have been up to
In the past six months, I have been working on a broad variety topics. Indeed, one of the nice things about my current role is that I have had the flexibility to work on many of the aspects of the software lifecycle. This includes things like managing a project, specifying new features, designing software & cloud architectures, writing code, and even performing large-scale data-mining. I enjoy each of these things; being able to juggle between them is really a delight.
Another cool thing is that I can expect the set of things I am working on to change over time as I grow in the company and find out what is the best balance for me and my team. That being said, two things in particular currently take a large proportion of my time: improving our internal tooling, and working on understanding the issues of our layout engine. I have also got the chance to work on web standards and write specifications that will shape the web’s future.
The way I am collaborating with my colleagues is also a varying factor. I joined some projects managed by my awesome colleagues, like data.microsoftedge.com or the accessibility efforts, but also got the chance to start my own project, for which I am entirely free to manage how to best spend my time, choose my goals and feature set, and drive results by coordinating with the amazing people I work with here at Microsoft.
I am incredibly grateful for the trust and everyday support I get from my coworkers, and all the opportunities to grow they provided me with.
I am also likely to start having more direct impact on the set of features we ship in Edge itself, as we are slowly approaching the end of the current release cycle, -- with the Anniversary Update scheduled to be released sometime around this summer, -- and move towards the planning of our next release. I can’t wait to start collaborating more with our amazing developers.
I wish I could tell you more about it, but I don’t want to have to get LCA approval to publish this blog post, so I will limit myself with those things; I think you got the big picture if you followed me down here already ;-)
The work environment
The office, the building’s amenities or the city where they work would probably be considered as the main contributors to our work environment by many, but this is hardly the most defining factor of an actual work environment according to me. Beside, while I have had no complain to make about those things, I don’t think those are a major differentiator between most tech companies in the US, as they all strive to provide the most enjoyable work experience. We are certainly very lucky compared to many in the United States or Europe, but nothing stands out particularly that I want to pinpoint. Which leads us to what I really care about…
What makes Microsoft strives compared to other companies is the level of care employees feel and apply every day to their peers. The mutual support between us is really strong, and we make our best possible to strive as teams of individuals, and not just as single persons. This has an impact on many different things, including the flexibility in how you deal with your work and work schedules, the mutual support we offer each other in case of incident, or the extensive health care protection we receive. Microsoft really built a nice company culture, exceeding by far my expectations in that regard.
In addition to this, I was lucky enough to work with amazing colleagues. First and foremost, I cannot not skip mentioning my manager (Bogdan Brinza) and my direct colleague (Greg Whitworth). Both of them are really awesome personalities.
I have had a bunch of managers in the past -- some very good and some less -- but I never had the chance to work with a manager like Bogdan before. The first thing I really enjoy about him is is incredible active altruism. Like any great manager, he was always prompt to take my side when someone argued with my decisions, and shield me from potential issues by taking proactive actions when necessary; but unlike many of them he also never missed an opportunity to give me chances to shine, actively advising me when my expertise or opinion would be beneficial (and giving me insight on how to shed the best light possible on the work I achieved), all that while never trying to get credit for the things I did.
In addition, thanks to his acute sense of understanding of both technical and non-technical matters, communicating my thoughts or asking a question and get a useful reply has never been so smooth and easy.
Another thing I appreciate is his ability to make the tough calls (apparently effortlessly at first glance, but with the same difficulty as anyone else if you dig a little more) and defend calmly tradeoffs made rationally. All these things lead me to build a huge respect for him.
That being said, don’t tell him but I hate it when he speaks Russian with his developer friend and the only thing I get from the conversation are some people’s name coming seemingly out of nowhere in this sea of nonsense ;-) I spent years learning Dutch to avoid this and now here comes this issue again. Damnit there are too many languages in this world :-D
Back to awesomeness! I wanna say how much of a pleasure working with Greg has been. Things just happen when you work with him, for some magic reason that has everything to do with his empathy, passion, excitement and scheduling skills. Greg is profoundly human, deeply engaged in what he does, and does such a good job at showing things under their bright side. In short, he has the caliber of a great program manager.
Polyvalent and able to provide support wherever he could be necessary, he makes good use of his technical skills to help the people he works with achieve great things.
Sometimes I have the impression he would benefit from trusting himself and its judgment more than he currently does, because he really deserves it. It probably isn’t necessary to go full-blown overconfident like I have to admit I tend to be, but somewhat more confidence wouldn’t hurt ;-)
The United States
Of course I can’t speak about my six months here without talking at least a little about the country I relocated in… Trust me, I wish I could, though. The USA is not really my cup of tea. I can get used to it, but I doubt I will ever be able to love it, or at least not in a foreseeable future.
On the bright side, I like the work spirit of the united states. It is all about trying new things, doing your best everyday, and recovering from failed attempts to somehow make something bigger next time. People do bold things, allow you to make your own bets, and succeed or recover from them seamlessly.
The building where I live is also awesome. Certainly by its look, but that is not anything important to me. Certainly also by its fast fiber-connected web, but this is also not what I meant (though I enjoy this a lot!). Of course by its easy connection to everywhere in the area thanks to one of the best Transit Center of the Puget Sound, but this still isn’t the most important part.
No, what I really like about it is that it was built and is managed to be a community. The building opened around the same time I arrived in the United States, so most of my neighbors are young, active, vibrant, and really pleasant to live with. We organizes parties, we play board games together, and we talk to each other on a regular basis, which is really super nice!
Now, the dark side. I feel people are so terribly less spontaneous at work than in Belgium. People complain about other people talking (see what I did here? if not, reread the last paragraph about my manager lol!), and overall I feel people are less fluent towards each other than I am used to. You can, at times, have great conversations with most people, but very few people will actually blend adequately work and fun at the same time. The fact I don’t share the same culture doesn’t help because even those who do might do so outside my interests.
Things were better on that front at Adobe in San Francisco, but that still never matched the casual attitude people have back home. From discussing with other Europeans, I am not the only one feeling this. Sometimes I have the impression some people manage their talks the same way I write my work emails. Each medium has its purpose, and I do believe in spontaneous talking.
People also build their houses like they want their workspace: isolated, far from everyone… but close to the market / free food: that is useful! Even in cities, you will find 4-sided houses with fences to hide from each other like if people where going to shoot you if they saw your favorite t-shirt and they didn’t like its color. It is no surprise to people who know me but I never liked “Belgian countryside” which literally maps to any area of the west coast beside city downtowns. And don’t get me started on the overall emptiness of the country, that just makes me sick. I am used to more people per square kilometers, that’s all. The work culture at Microsoft is awesome because it was built that way, I don’t think this is natural to natives.
Another issue: I hate having to care about every single little detail of every single thing. There are so many ways to pay, spare, and invest money and all these things are never made easy for you. You need a calculator close to you at all times, and reevaluate your choices as you go. When can you ever relax and just stop thinking about these things?
Also, units never make sense. You can’t convert a damn thing to another without Bing or Google. Managing healthcare expenses is a mess. Housing is damn expensive. Politics suck to such a level it is barely conceivable. Unlike many places in the world, corruption is not the big issue you will have to deal with; here it is about so terribly stupid politicians it is hard to believe, and this mostly because a lot of people in this country are helplessly inadequate to our modern world. Microsoft and some other tech companies are a sanity island, but the crap is out there.
The banking system is so bad I have no idea how this is even possible in the 21th century in a civilized country. Are we in a civilized country? Everyone seem to be free to do anything which forces you to deal with many stupid and badly designed things. Security is not dealt with by proactively preventing stupid things by Doing-It-Right-Doing-It-Once, but by retroactively punishing abuses or mistakes. This is where the mess comes from, especially since tool-induced mistakes will remain your responsibility. Also, every now and then, some unlucky people get troubles and you have to make sure you don’t become one of those.
As a result, you have to be afraid at every moment of your data and belongings. A simple bank account number or a credit card is sufficient to make payments on your behalf, you have to be cautious about everything, setup alarms, spend energy on things that should just get out of the way. People here seem used to this ambient complexity, but for me that has difficulties with those things, this is too much already.
To add insult to the injury, as a result of your “low credit score” (some kind of astrological bullshit Americans invented to save themselves from idiots, and use as a perfect measurement despite it making no sense in a lot of cases) you are often considered like the one which is going to rob everyone. Companies just ask ridiculous things from you, like paying 400$ upfront as a guarantee to have a phone plan (dude, really?).
Finally, while this has nothing to do with the United States, being far from my friends and family is not an easy thing to deal with. Most of the times you forget about it, but sometimes it bothers you, and you have to remind you how great your job is to counterbalance all these things.
Ultimately, though, I love my life here. Sure, transitioning to adult life sometimes isn’t easy, and doing so far from your family in a country like the USA makes it even more so, but my job is where I spend most of my life, and I really enjoy what I am doing there. A lot.
I am finally surrounded by world-class people who understand what I mean, who strive to shine in what they do, and share my ambition. I am doing the most useful thing I could do with my skills right now, and I am learning a lot from the experience. I definitely don’t want to change any of that :-)
I also got the chance to make new friends, visit new places. The weather up until now has been surprisingly good, allowing us to enjoy most of our weekends. As much as I hate it, the region’s emptiness has its charms, and I intend to try to make the best out of it.
I hope everyone gets to do a job that fulfills them as much as mine does.