Welcome Microsoftlings, We Love You

A job applicant just told me Thursday that “Everybody knows you don’t like Microsoft or Amazon people.” Just last week, a board member heard the same thing.

Which came as news to our chief technology officer, our Seattle-based engineering leaders, three star product managers and our hyper-productive lone marketing director, all of whom worked at Microsoft.

And it came as news to me, since I grew up in Redmond, adore Microsoft’s pass-the-bong video ads, and defend to the death the relevance of desktop applications (see comment 107). The first business book I ever read was Microsoft Secrets. My new favorite marketing campaign is Microsoft’s “I’m A PC” campaign

So it’s probably fair to say that no CEO from Silicon Valley has a higher opinion of Microsoft than I do. I learn from Microsoft every day. And I’m intensely grateful that so many Microsoft and Amazon folks have thrown their hat into the Redfin ring.

“This Was Discussed at the Highest Levels Within Microsoft”
The trouble started because of one line in a Redfin job description: You don’t need big money to do something big. Don’t apply if you’ve worked too long at Microsoft, Amazon or an agency.

“This was discussed,” one applicant explained over a slice of pizza at a mall food court, “at the highest levels within Microsoft.”

What kind of “pompous ass,” one angry Microsoft veteran asked us, would write this job description? The people at Microsoft and Amazon, he continued, “know exactly what it takes to run in a start up environment, we were doing it when whoever wrote this ridiculous JD [job description] was probably in diapers.”

Of course, I’m the pompous ass. We agree that 30 years ago, Microsoft could still fairly be called a startup, though by that time I had graduated to underwear.

We probably disagree over whether someone who has not worked in a startup for 30 years is still a startup-type of person. And we disagree too, over whether any disrespect was intended to Microsoft, a company more successful than we’ll likely ever be.

Different Horses for Different Courses
My point wasn’t that any 15-year veteran at Microsoft has less talent or skill than the driven maniacs who tend to thrive at Redfin. Microsoft is a gladiator academy for brainiacs. But no one can honestly tell me that marketing Windows is remotely similar to persuading someone to ditch her Realtor-friend and buy a house through a website. We have no no budget, no agencies, three people.

We have to win by delighting consumers, juicing the Google index, having Octopus sex with the blogosphere, fighting like a trapped squirrel, moving super-fast. There’s just no way a company the size of Microsoft or Amazon — or Google (after complaining that we never saw Google candidates, we have seen a few) or Apple — could remain as desperate and impatient and unrealistic as we are.

Plenty of Microsoft folks thrive at Redfin and other startups, but their point of departure is how different a startup is from Microsoft.

“How Long is Too Long?”
Our best employees left Microsoft because they were squirrels and octopuses, juicers and speed-freaks. Some had been there two years. Some five. Some longer. But none had been there “too long” which was supposed to mean past the point of being passionate about what they do.

When we wrote this job description, we’d interviewed plenty of Microsofties who talk about staying “too long.” They’d say Redfin is a way to rekindle their passion for software or business. It makes us feel like a red sports car, or an extramarital affair.

Of Microsoft, But Unlike Microsoft
The truth is that many of the people at Redfin are of Microsoft, but they all say Redfin’s not like Microsoft. Marcelo Calbucci explained the difference.

The way I think about it is that our left brain (analysis, discipline, brilliance) comes from Microsoft, and our right brain (speed-lust, techno-promiscuity, the Internet’s goofiness and freedom as a cult) comes from Silicon Valley; nearly half of Redfin engineering is based in San Francisco.

It’s a good balance. What we’ve learned from Microsoft employees has made us better in engineering, product management & HR, where Microsoft folks excel. In marketing, Microsoft has taught us how to think in different dimensions than just public relations, social networks or search engine optimization.

What Do You Think?
We thought we’d ask other startups what your experience has been hiring from Microsoft and Amazon? And we’d like to know what to do about the job description. If it has offended others, we’ll change it. If there are any folks from Microsoft or Amazon reading this blog, please, tell us what you think (and if you haven’t worked there “too long,” apply for a job!)

(Photocredit: sexy octopus, jrixunderwater; speed dog, WisDoc )

Discussion

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/rob_mcgarty/ Rob McGarty

    I think our Product Managers are more like Five-Star Product Managers…you were probably pointing out that three of our Product Managers are from Microsoft.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Yes, we have three product managers who are stars.

    This is an excellent “eats-shoots-and-leaves” example of hyphen usage.

    If we had said “we have three-star product managers” this would have meant that we have an indeterminate number of product managers with a three-star rating.

    But the absence of a hyphen clarifies the meaning…

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/rob_mcgarty/ Rob McGarty

    Good thing I used the hyphen…already implementing the lesson I learned yesterday.

    Just to further clarify, we have three product managers from Microsoft that are stars. I still contend that we have other product managers not from Microsoft who are also stars.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Absolutely. Jim & John are rock stars! And product management is definitely an area of institutional expertise for Microsoft.

    • http://www.newhomesteps.com New home building guru

      You guys are rock stars. Keep it up.

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  • NG

    “Extramarital… octopus sex”?

    Glenn — you never fail to delight.

  • John Moe

    Man, I’ve been out of tech too long. I missed the introduction of “octopus sex” into the vernacular. Maybe I got out at the right time, actually.

  • http://www.rescuetime.com Tony Wright

    Amen and well said.

    We’re a local Seattle startup in hiring mode (to help us build real live desktop software!) and have danced the same dance.

    At the end of the day, you (and we) are looking for people who still love to create, wear lots of different hats, and get joy from the velocity you find at a startup.

    A long stint at a large company can often indicate comfort with the slower tempo and less reckless approach as well as satisfaction with a very specialized role… But it’s correlation only. Plenty of fresh college superstars aren’t cut out for startups and I imagine plenty of long term Microsofties just need the right environment to shine.

    In this job market, I think it’s bad to discount ANYONE. If the skillset looks good, have a cup of coffee with ‘em. They’ll either light up as you describe how your startup works or they’ll start looking uncomfortable and ask how you can develop software without a carefully considered specifications document.

    (as an aside, I’m buying a house right now with Redfin as our buyer’s agent– and am loving it!)

  • http://blog.findwell.com Kevin Lisota

    I worked at Microsoft for 7.5 years before founding my own real estate startup in Seattle this year. I can’t say whether that is too long, but I actually enjoyed seeing that restriction in your job ad. I think challenging people to take a step out of the comforts of a big company can definitely bring out the potential employees who have a hunger for the challenges and pace of a startup.

    MSFT has transformed into a big company, which in many ways bears no resemblance to a startup anymore. Having been in a startup group at MSFT, there are pockets of startup energy and even a small company atmosphere when new products are incubated, but eventually that atmosphere is absorbed into the larger company as a product is commercialized for the mass market.

    Having tried to market well-established products at MSFT, I’d agree that there is no similarity between marketing Windows and trying to convince people to ditch their Realtor. However, as a pure marketing challenge, it is infinitely easier to move the dial in a real estate business like our own, despite our limited resources. Trying to influence a business as large as Windows to increase revenue, market share or customer satisfaction can be a mind-boggling challenge. If I have the opportunity to hire someone who successfully navigated those mass-market challenges, I would jump at it.

    Ultimately there is a level of comfort and complacency that comes with long-term employment at any large company. In the early phases of companies like our own, we certainly need employees willing to step out of that comfort zone. I think there are plenty with that capability at a Microsoft or Amazon, though certainly a startup is not for everyone.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    @ NG: if I were still an animal-lover, and an octopus could be properly trained to avoid injury…

    @ John Moe: how nice to hear from you! Maybe I should have called this post Microsoftize Me!

    @ Tony Wright: glad you like the service! I would love to meet every applicant — someone once hired me when I was delivering packages on a bicycle, so I’m always on the look out for talent rather than one kind of experience or another — but there have been more than 100 applicants…

    @ Kevin Lisota: it seems like the challenges you describe for someone in Windows marketing are in part internal: getting a business the size of Microsoft to move in one direction must require an enormously forceful personality…

  • http://www.wetpaint.com Ben Elowitz

    I admit it freely: I love Microsoft. I root for Microsoft. Microsoft is a hometown hero to me (now that I’m fully naturalized here in Washington). And Microsoft is an underdog hero to me when it comes to the web and its competition with Google. Every time I meet with Microsoft I get excited. And every time I can think of a way to help Microsoft, I try.

    I’m loyal to Microsoft. My first employer that anyone has ever heard of was Microsoft: they brought me on as an intern and I was awe-wow’d with what a great, supportive, investing environment and company they made.

    Back then, Microsoft was a smaller company, with about 5,000 people. And the Visual Basic group I worked in had some of the feel of a startup: purpose, common destiny, focus, and urgency.

    But Microsoft is a big, established company, and big established companies aren’t startups.

    There’s something magical about how *close* everyone gets to be to, well, everything in a startup. Especially to the impact. Not in a matrix-y sort of way, but in a “think about it today, ship it tomorrow” sort of way. We had some of that in Visual Basic 3.0 (I think that product had a 9-month release cycle), but nowadays I also meet some people from Microsoft who end up in internal interface roles, bridging between multiple groups but not really getting to make that progress every day.

    When I meet those folks from Microsoft who are looking for that kind of impact, they love hearing about a company that ships every few weeks and where we can adapt over days and weeks as we learn from the market. For the most part, they haven’t been able to find those kinds of opportunities at Microsoft. I love those types of Microsoft employees, and they will do great at Microsoft and at startups. For Microsoft’s sake, let’s hope Microsoft has more like that.

    And on the other hand: From what I’ve seen, the ones who have settled into the less dynamic parts of the big company (and every big company has parts like that) really don’t come knocking.

    –Ben

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Very insightful and heartfelt comment Ben. I often find myself wishing I could be as wise and as generous as you…

  • http://www.microsoftstartupzone.com/india Paul Murphy

    Bottom line here – no point in generalizing like this, it won’t help your business and is unnecessary in describing the type of candidates you’re looking for.. your investors and you want to hire the best, and the best are certainly capable of reading the few extra lines required to properly explain the mindset and perspective you want on the team. Microsoft is way too big to generalize. We have brilliant people across the globe that I’d love to work with in any environment, some have been there for 3 months, some for 30 years.

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  • Anonymous

    Hi Glenn:

    You mentioned you’ve seen a few Google applicants. How would you say they compare to the rest?

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  • Mom

    Honestly. What's the big deal about Microsoft people? Amazon reject them left and right. “At the highest levels…” heh.