Part 1: You Don’t Learn This At Microsoft

This is a series of 8 blog posts that will describe more about my experiences building Sampa, my mistakes and what would I have done differently. I already wrote from a personal point of view and now I’m writing from a business POV.

I spent seven years at Microsoft learning how to build large scale software. And by large scale software I mean millions of lines of code and software that’s used by hundreds of millions of people. There are just a dozen or so companies on the planet where you can have that kind of experience. It’s priceless.

The more Microsoft grew and the more the group I was in grew as well, the smaller my scope of ownership, control and influence was. I’ve always been curious about more than the engineering part of building a product. I wanted to learn about Marketing, running a business, user experience, strategy, M&A, PR, Focus Groups, etc. I couldn’t do it at Microsoft. The few times I tried to get out of my “zone” I was either reprimanded or shunt.

The first thing you don’t learn at Microsoft is Customer Focus

Then I went to do a startup to feel like I had a purpose in life. You think after 15+ years building software, that building a tech startup wouldn’t be hard. I know the hardware I need, I know the software, I can build whatever people throw at me. I felt like I understood pretty well customer focus.

The reality is that Microsoft is not a customer-centric company. It’s an engineering-centric company. Most people inside Microsoft doesn’t even know that. Actually, they probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. They will argue they are customer-centric because they do focus groups, they interview customers, they listen to support and to feedback on the Internet, yada, yada yada.

The second thing you don’t learn at Microsoft is Customer Acquisition

Between Jul/2000 and Apr/2001 I worked on a project called MSN SmartTags. For those that don’t remember, it was a web augmentation plug-in that every time certain words would appear on a web page a squiggly line (like the Word spell correction line) would appear under that word. Once you passed the mouse over it, a menu would appear with contextual links. For example, if the word was “Seattle”, you could see “Weather in Seattle”, “Travel to Seattle”, etc. The project never shipped, but it was supposed to come integrated with Internet Explorer 6 and Windows XP. The day IE6 and XP shipped, this product I built would be on the hands of tens of millions of users. In a few months being used by hundreds of millions and in a few years by about 1 billion people.

Let me give another example: Products at Microsoft which fail to reach millions or tens of millions of people on the first few weeks are considered a complete failure. No one, not a single soul at Microsoft thinks anything out of the ordinary about that.

Microsoft (and Google, and Yahoo, and IBM…) has its foot on the door of so many people and so many companies that it just a matter of embedding, integrating, adding, up-selling a product to another to guarantee customer acquisition. Contrary to the Federal government, I believe that Microsoft earned this right and it’s good for them. But it shields anyone at Microsoft at understanding the fundamentals of customer acquisition.

Even upper management at Microsoft doesn’t get it. They are probably still scratching their heads trying to figure out why Windows Live Spaces is not as popular as MySpace or Facebook.

My Plea To People Leaving Microsoft

If you leave Microsoft today I suggest you have a deep and long conversation with people building startups to ask them what they consider customer focus, how they decide to build what they’ve built and how they go about acquiring customers. There is a lot out there to learn.

Next post: Early Mistakes at Sampa

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.