Career Lessons

5 awesome things I learned from my managers at Microsoft

During my 11+ years at Microsoft, I moved between many groups and worked with several of the brightest and coolest managers both in India and the HQ of Microsoft in Redmond. Here are a few things I picked along the way-

On developing skills

My very first manager at Microsoft had an attention to detail and passion for technology and coding that was contagious. We used to pull all-nighters to deliver on our projects, yet we never compromised on the quality of code. Not only did we write the right code, but we also wrote comments for every single part of it including SQL code and objects, and generate help documentation out of that code. We never seemed to care if it was an external, or internal product, or something that we are doing for fun - we just did things right the first time. He inculcated in me a habit that was so important for the rest of my career at Microsoft - write good code no matter what (even if no one is noticing, and take pride in it), and never take shortcuts.

On making money

I was dotted line reporting to someone in my first job after moving to the US. He was an Indian-American who came here in the 90s and established himself quite well socially and financially. When I asked him what his key to success was, he humbly replied that people tend to mix money making and their pursuit of passions, and the sooner you can separate them, the easier it is to be successful. It took a while for me to understand this, but once I acted on some of his advice, it was bliss. In most of the Indian education system, we are taught to excel in studies and that somehow it will help us be successful. Far from the truth. Financial literacy is very different from the kind that enables you to be an expert at something. It took much time for me to realize this, and often, I spent more time finding excuses rather than means, but when I truly believed in it, it helped me take some of the toughest decisions with ease.

On balancing career and life

Early in my job at Microsoft, I was always worried about my career, although I was getting my share of growth on time and often as "exceeding" commitments. During a 1:1 with my skip-level manager once, I went on and on talking about how worried I was about my future at the company. At that point, my job was my life. There was no distinction. He simply went to the whiteboard and drew one thick black line with the marker and said - "Gopi, think of your life as a whiteboard and job as just a small line on it." He then continued to talk about the experiences and aspirations that life has to offer and how job/career was just one of them. There was something about the simplicity of that conversation that drew me into thinking that this was it. The incident did not make me any less ambitious, but it helped me put a check on how much I am going to worry about my career.

On values

One of my managers once gifted each one of her directs a book called "The Four Agreements" that depicted her value system. It is a fantastic book that I recommend that everyone should read at least once in his or her lifetime, preferably sooner than later. However, if you do not get to read it, here's a summary -

These values continued to influence me in every action I ever took since then and turned me into a much better human being than I was, both personally and professionally.

On getting things done

This last one comes from the last manager and the leadership team I worked with before I quit Microsoft. The two years that I spent working in the team were some of the finest years in my career at Microsoft, and for multiple reasons. My manager was a man of few words but offered me incredible mentorship in multiple ways. The most important lesson I learned was to never ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. It doesn't mean that I have to do something that obviously is wrong and then ask for forgiveness - it's quite the contrary. People often hold themselves back in doing great work because they "think" it's not their job or that someone somewhere is going to have to give their "permission". From simple things like launching a new feature to working on something phenomenal that brings in user growth, thinking and acting differently is important but not often exercised. The truth is that it much more important to make mistakes and keep learning and growing rather than playing by the rules. This applies to life in general as well.