It’s 2012, and a group of us are in a conference room on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. We’re talking about Internet Explorer. I’m there because I’m the design lead in charge of apps on Windows Phone, including the mobile version of Internet Explorer. Dan (not his real name) is there because he’s a product manager on Windows Phone. And there are three white haired, wealthy, intimidating developers scowling at us.
These guys were part of the old guard that helped make Microsoft the biggest company in the world, and have gained a lot of respect from their peers as a result. Some are what Microsoft call “Microsoft Technical Fellows,” the others are on their way. They don’t have to work. These guys are powerful and they act accordingly.
So we’re in the meeting room, and Dan, who is young, has a question. He’s curious to know why Microsoft Internet Explorer is still using the Trident engine. And he has an idea.
“Can we use WebKit to power Internet Explorer, the same way Chrome does?”
This is not a new question. It comes up a lot on campus and around the world. IE’s market share has plummeted over time, sites increasingly don’t bother to test for it, developers don’t have motivation to code to it, and IE is falling behind as a result. (And that’s before you factor in the losing battle Microsoft is waging against iOS and Android, which is making the desktop situation even more precarious)
Dan’s thinking, like many before him, is that by shifting Internet Explorer to WebKit, the technology that powers Chrome, all those issues can be sidestepped. It’s worth discussion, and I believe the idea has some merit. But soon we’re going to realise that step one is going to be getting Dan out of this room alive.
I don’t remember exactly what was said, but it was angry and dismissive. They tell Dan he has no idea what he’s talking about, because even if Chrome is new and shiny, corporate America’s intranets run on custom IE installations. Dan gamely tries to argue with them – he’s not saying it could happen overnight, but maybe it could happen over time? No. The room’s energy is angry, proud, and dark.
After all, they imply, this is mighty Microsoft we’re talking about. This is Internet Explorer. I had a thought strike me: I was sitting with the very types of people that were going to crash the company into the ground. I resented how they were talking to Dan, and I resented their short-sightedness. So my temper flared up. It was time to say something.
I have run the mental tape of what I said and did hundreds of times. I wish I had footage to know where my memory differs from the reality, but here’s what I remember. It came straight from my heart, a mixture of frustration and prediction. I said:
“When I look forward five years, I see a really successful Microsoft. It’s why we’re here, and it’s why I joined. But if I look forward five years and see that Microsoft has stalled? It’s because of this. This fight right here. This defensiveness. This defensive attitude could kill Microsoft.”
They didn’t appreciate my analysis. The formal complaint lodged with my manager — which she ignored outright for months — said that I had said I hate working at Microsoft. I didn’t, but I understand that in the heat of the moment everyone’s memory and intentions get a bit fuzzy and overheated, mine included. I was challenging them directly, and they saw me as a traitor to their product and way of doing things. I get it.
In telling their story, they left out the part where they said “Shut up and sit the fuck down because you have no fucking clue what you’re talking about.” After a short and unhappy yelling match, I managed to escape the room. Dan thanked me for sticking up for him, and I returned to my desk shaken.
I ended up having a sit-down with one of them months later. He insisted I said I hated working at the company, which is why he flipped out. I insisted I did not, but I understood that if he thought I said that, his response was more understandable. We were at an impasse. We agreed to an uneasy truce and moved on. But that defensiveness stuck with me. It seemed very … Ballmer.
I left Microsoft two years later, right as Satya Nadella became CEO. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to overlap with him more. He had a pristine reputation internally, and in the last 5 years I’ve marvelled at the moves he’s made. I often tell my wife “I can’t think of a single decision of his that I disagree with.”
He’s moved Microsoft forward in some areas that haven’t been easy. There are lots of examples, but one is his approach to Internet Explorer. First, a modern browser called Edge replaced Internet Explorer a year later in 2015. And today, Edge announced it will base its rendering engine on Chromium, which is the engine that powers Chrome. Which makes a lot of sense.
A company, team, product, or person can’t do a good job powered by pride and backward-oriented thinking. It was clear for years that Microsoft wasn’t going to be able to compete in mobile. It just took courage to finally admit it. It was clear for years that Microsoft wasn’t going to compete against Chrome. It just took courage to finally admit it. But they’re getting better and better every year. They’re getting more courage and more Dans. It’s exciting to see.