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The Year I was Stupid

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Recently, I was reading stories of how Bill Gates handles his meetings:

So you’re in there presenting your product plan to billg, steveb, and mikemap. Billg typically has his eyes closed and he’s rocking back and forth. He could be asleep; he could be thinking about something else; he could be listening intently to everything you’re saying. The trouble is all are possible and you don’t know which. Obviously, you have to present as if he were listening intently even though you know he isn’t looking at the PowerPoint slides you spent so much time on.

At some point in your presentation billg will say “that’s the dumbest f---ing idea I’ve heard since I’ve been at Microsoft.” He looks like he means it. However, since you knew he was going to say this, you can’t really let it faze you. Moreover, you can’t afford to look fazed; remember: he’s a bully.

“What do you disagree with, Bill?” you ask as assertively as you can. He tells you. Maybe it’s the plan for user interface; maybe it’s the product positioning; maybe it’s the technical approach you’re taking to a problem or your evaluation of the enemy (competition). If you see that your dead wrong – you may be, he’s very smart – best to admit it immediately and move on. But, if he’s wrong – which is also often the case – then you CAN’T give in. You will be just as much blamed for doing the wrong thing because billg told you to as you will be if you did it all on your own. This is the moment of truth for a Microsoft manager.

Reminds me of the year I was stupid.

Growing up, I was labeled "gifted" as a child. Gifted kids, I guess, were supposed to have higher than average IQs. I never really paid a lot of attention to it -- the gifted kids didn't do anything unusual for the first few years of school -- until I was in Junior High School. Then it was kind of cool.

Junior High was a tough thing for a 10-14 year-old. There were a lot of changes and stress and you felt awkward all the time. Gifted kids got to bail out of class every now and then and do special gifted stuff, which, aside from making you feel even more awkward, made you feel like you had an inside track on the whole school biz.

We never did much: I asked for a computer to program and I got a Radio Shack electronics kit with a bunch of springs and wires. Somebody tried to teach us Spanish. We had a creative writing teacher, Ms Wooldgride, whom we all called Mrs. Wookie behind her back because she had facial hair. I guess we weren't the nicest kids in the world.

My last year in Junior High, when I was 14, I got quite a surprise when the teachers told me I was not gifted any more. My name was not on the magic list, there would be no more Spanish lessons or writing with Mrs. Wookie.

It was a strange feeling. I didn't feel any different, although obviously I had lost something over the summer. Maybe I could study harder and become more gifted? That didn't make much sense, as I had great comprehension for all of my classes. Looking back, however, I'm sure my grade-point average was the reason they dropped me -- in their mind you couldn't be gifted, obviously, if you didn't get good grades.

I never cared much for grades or homework. I preferred learning and exploring. I still love learning and exploring.

At the end of that year, we all took tests for placement into High School. I scored in the 99th percentile, and I still remember my guidance counselor telling me I already knew everything I needed to know from High School before I even started! Needless to say, I found better things to do with my time in High School than homework. What can I say? I used to be gifted and now I wasn't. Obviously I was on a downhill track. A couple more years, and I could end up riding the short bus around.

But that's not what happened. Instead, on a lark, I went to a state-wide math contest held at the local community college. I think they had free doughnuts or something. When I got the results back, I placed 4th in the state! That was pretty cool!

Suddenly, I was gifted again. The teachers put my name back on the list and I got special notes to get out of classes to go do gifted stuff. Our school finally got a REAL computer, a Commodore PET with 4K of memory in it, and that was all she wrote. I got notes everyday to get out of study hall and program.

There have been several times in my professional career that I went from being a genius to being a malcontent in a short amount of time. Each time, for some reason, I wonder if I could have handled things better. I mean, I'm the same guy!

When Gates listened to his program managers give their pitches, he was substituting himself for the market, just like my teachers were substituting their opinions for how they thought I would fit into the world. As long as Gates knew the market, he could be a proxy. In a perfect world, this would allow Microsoft to react more quickly than competitors. As long as my teachers understood what the kids' capabilities were, they could help kids that had more potential along, which in return would help the rest of society tremenously.

The problem is that there is no such thing as a perfect world. Microsoft isn't the company it was 12 years ago, and nobody has the guts to tell Gates or Ballmer that. One person can't be a proxy for a hundred markets. Nobody is that agile. People had bad days, people have weak spots, the criteria is incorrect, the situation changes, communication is imperfect -- the list goes on and on.

I remember one company I helped save several million dollars by designing a new way to write this system they were working on. I was a genius! So a month later they had me take a look at a problem project. I told them the design was so bad that they had to re-write the system starting immediately. There was no way to code their way out of it. I'll never forget those looks! They had spent something like 20-40 million and were expecting, I don't know, some kind of magic trick from me or something. Now I was an idiot.

These things happen to me a lot. I think you can make this problem a lot better by having better communications skills -- obviously there are people at MS who are able to deal with the "brains on a stick" employee valuation ideals prevalent in top management. There are ways to show people they have lost a load of money on something that isn't working. There are ways to show your teachers your potential. But at the end of the day, if you really care about people and you be yourself and really give them honest advice, you're going to fall short of being able to finesse things. When that happens, I always think of my year of being stupid, and smile.

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel published on May 8, 2007 5:03 PM.

Moving to the Dieting Dark Side was the previous entry in this blog.

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Daniel Markham