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Turning Points In Life

The TwinsThis is a post about little things having huge impacts.

It’s hard to have a macro perspective on life when you have a short frame of reference against which to measure it, so what happened 20 years ago was harder to understand than it is today. Things can happen in your life that you know, in some form or fashion, will have long term impacts on your life, both personally and professionally, but you really can’t grasp the magnitude of what those changes may be. We all hope for positive influences in our lives, and for each year to be better than the one that came before it. These ephemeral occurrences come and go, some are nothing more than daily life happening, and some are the cause of people or persons. Malice can certainly be a part of the equation, as can Dickensian benevolence. These are not the topics on my mind today.

In a day full of jokes and internet memes which continue to bore, I reflect on a seemingly innocuous decision 20 years ago today that completely & unquestionably altered the direction of my life. One person made one decision.

As was related to me by others who were in the room when the decision was made, it was five words that made this difference. Life can sometimes be that simple. One person. Five words. 20 years. It’s time to back up.

In the late winter of 1994, I was wandering the halls one of the engineering buildings on campus at UPenn. I never went into this building, but had to do so for some office hours. As fate would have it, I saw a sign that said something along the lines of “Do you want to have your college tuition paid for?” Well duh.

Turns out that Microsoft was sponsoring a national minority engineering scholarship. Their search was targeted on 10 schools, of which Penn was one. At that point in my college career, I had not as of yet selected my engineering major. I was pretty certain it wasn’t going to be computer science, but the requirements of scholarship were merely that I be working toward an engineering degree. Score.

After the application process, and some phone interviews, I found myself flying out to Seattle for the very first time. I didn’t really know much about Microsoft. I had learned how to program in Visual Basic the previous summer working for a mortgage bank, but that’s all I knew about the company. The day I landed is still quite vivid in my mind. I was driving north on I405 in a rented car, amazed by the beauty of the place. I was bummed that I was going to miss Penn playing UF in the NCAA tournament, but it seemed a fair trade for a full day of interviews for a potential shot at a full scholarship.

The interview process at MSFT is legendary, and in 1994 it was far less humane that it is today. I remember walking out of the 6 hours of torture feeling completely rattled and drained. As a 19 year old, I had never experienced that kind of mental taxation. In reality, it was all a blur. These days, I don’t remember much about that day, but there were two questions which I do remember from two different interviewers. One was “design Bill Gate’s bathroom.” The other was “explain calculus to me.”

I remember thinking that this was a very odd question. Odd and quite unfair. I had never had to teach anything before. I just remember staring at the interviewer and thinking “well, I’m f@cked.” But I answered. In talking to the interviewer many years later about it, this was the answer that sealed it for me. I honestly have no recollection of what I said, and if asked to repeat that today, not a chance I do anything resembling an adequate job.

The interviewer was J. Forrest Tucker. He’s the guy on the left in the photo at the top of the post. Jay is the person to whom I referred at the top of this post. I am not sure I would have pursued hi-tech as a field had it not been for his decision. I would have likely followed the herd from my class and joined an investment bank or a consulting firm. In all likelihood, I would not have pursued product management as a vocation. I am an entrepreneur at heart, but given my upbringing, it would likely have taken me a lot longer to decide that it was better to not play it safe; to believe in myself and venture out on my own, or find entrepreneurial ventures to which I could align myself. I would not have ended up in Seattle. I would not have become best friends with Alex, roommate and non-blood Uncle to my children. I would not have met my wife. There’s so much that came from 1 man, with 5 words, 20 years ago.

J. was just a guy doing his job. It’s unlikely he woke up the morning of April 1st, and thought to himself, “I am going to dramatically alter the life course of someone today.” As it turns out, 4/1/1994 was the day that we were supposed to hear from Microsoft about the status of our interview and application for the full scholarship. It was Spring Fling on Penn’s campus, and I was trying to not think about this thing hanging over my head, but couldn’t do it. I remember calling MSFT at 5pm EST, as I hadn’t heard anything. I was told that they hadn’t had their debrief yet, and that I had to wait. So I did what any sensible college age kid does when the biggest parties of the year are going on just outside his door, with young college kids drinking and reveling. I fell asleep. I’m not sure how or why, I just did. And I awoke to the piercing sound of my phone ringing. Not the fun gentle tones we have on our mobiles; this was the banshee shriek of a wall plugged radio shack clanger.

“Is Brandon there?”
“This is.”
“Hey, it’s J. from Microsoft.”
“How’s it going?”
“Well, I have good news and bad news.”
[internal thought: fuck] “Ok…”
“The good news is we would like to offer you a position for the summer at Microsoft.”
…silence for eons…
“The bad news?”
“Looks like it’s going to cost us a little over $30,000 to get you here.”

What I didn’t know, and only found out many, many years later was the role J. played in making this happen. You see, it turns out the scholarship was designed for technical talent. As a business minded individual with strong technical skills, the likely position for me was assistant product manager. The other 3 recipients that year all took SDE or QAE positions. I was best suited for a decidedly non-technical role. So there was debate in the room about what to do with me. When it came time to vote, as it was relayed to me, J. started and ended the voting with 5 words. “He gets it. Next candidate.” And with that. My. Life. Changed.

The Fellas

It was a pretty remarkable summer that followed, and the 5 gentlemen in this photo on the left are all still friends. We made up the bulk of the African American interns that summer at MSFT. Keith is at Google now. Adam is over at Chef (aka OpsCode). Alex is here with me at Amazon. Leon moved back to Michigan a few years back and we miss him, but that’s what Facebook is for I guess. Ian is still over at MSFT. It’s hard to believe that this photo is 20 years old.

The message in all of this is really aimed at the younger readers of this blog. Those who may find their way from Hacker News, or perhaps from the tweets, or maybe even if this gets shared on Facebook. You never know where your life will take you. You never know what impacts anyone will have. But when you do find out that someone has helped you, and this is especially true if they did it knowing full well that you may never know they were your benefactor, you thank them. You thank them when you find out. You thank them when you share stories about how you got to where you are. Then you make sure you are worthy of the faith that person put in you and live up to those expectations. And finally, you perform service to others as a way of paying it forward.  Like I said, I am pretty sure J. didn’t wake up thinking he would be single pivot point around which much of my life would hinge, but he was. Yes, he was in control of a rather substantial outcome, but even small acts can have hugely positive outcomes.

If you know someone who has done a J. for you, pick up the phone and call them. Thank them.

Thank you J. You brought Adam, Alex, Leon and I together with a Knicks game, and you brought me to Microsoft because of an explanation of calculus.

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More Stories By Brandon Watson

Brandon Watson is Director for Windows Phone 7. He specifically focuses on developers and the developer platform. He rejoined Microsoft in 2008 after nearly a decade on Wall Street and running successful start-ups. He has both an engineering degree and an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an MBA from The Wharton School of Business, and blogs at www.manyniches.com.