Microsoft Alums Just Starting To Make Their Mark
"Think Big," the sign prods.
"Promise Big. Deliver Big."
It's a mantra that seems straight out of the pages of Microsoft's employee manual.
But these words are found on the walls of ConnectSoft, an 8-year-old Bellevue company which, based on the number of employees, is less than 1 percent the size of Microsoft.
The words jump out at you inside the software company's lobby and in the recreation room, where they're mounted over a pool table opposite a cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley.
"It's our motto," said Mitchell London, a soft-spoken 30-year-old who founded the thriving start-up company after working as a programmer for Microsoft in the late 1980s.
The words convey a high-energy attitude that many in the region hope signals the emergence of Microsoft's next generation and represents a sign of things to come.
While the software world has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Windows 95, Microsoft's new operating system for personal computers, the region has been eagerly anticipating the coming of age of the sons and daughters of Microsoft.
They are among the nation's best and brightest - powered by experience, bundled with self-confidence, and in many cases preloaded with a large cache of money based on generous stock options that appreciated far beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
Now in their 30s and early 40s, they cut their teeth on DOS, Microsoft's first software that ran personal computers, grew up with the more sophisticated Windows software, and matured alongside the world's most successful and precocious entrepreneur - Bill Gates - before moving on.
Many - some say as many as 3,000 - are millionaires as a result of their stock options (and the five stock splits since Microsoft began trading in 1986).
Many have the cash, along with the intellectual capacity, to start big companies or to establish foundations - to truly think big, to promise big and to deliver big.
Yet despite the positions they seem destined to inherit in the region's business, civic and philanthropic communities, Microsoft alums, by and large, have yet to deliver in a truly "big" way.
To be sure, this is an extremely young bunch, with at least two-thirds of their lives still in front of them. Many haven't settled down yet, or considered what to do with the rest of their lives.
Bear in mind also that "many of them don't come from wealthy families and aren't aware of all the avenues of giving," said John Christianson, vice president of the Portola Group, an investment firm which counts several former and current Microsoft employees as clients.
Unlike other successful companies - where only a handful of people in the executive suites became rich from company stock - Microsoft distributed its wealth down several layers, even to middle managers and to the technical staff, creating a new class of wealth in the region.
"While they were working at Microsoft, there wasn't that much time to join (nonprofit) boards," said Christianson, whose Menlo Park, Calif., firm set up offices in Kirkland four years ago, in part to handle the growing wealth coming out of Microsoft.
"Now they're learning that they have tremendous amounts of wealth," he said. "And they're (becoming) philanthropically involved. They're just doing it without fanfare."
The region has already seen that potential realized in a handful of well-known former Microsoft employees.
Consider the contributions of Seattle Sounders owner Scott Oki, a University of Washington regent and one of Children's Hospital's largest benefactors. Or Ida Cole, Microsoft's first female vice president, who recently saved the historic Paramount Theatre. Chris Larson, a former Microsoft executive, helped keep the Mariners in Seattle three years ago by contributing $30 million to the acquisition of the team. And there's Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who recently purchased the Portland Trail Blazers, donated $20 million to the Seattle Commons project, put up at least another $20 million to build the Jimi Hendrix museum, and started a number of companies including Bellevue-based Asymetrix.
But aside from these well-known alums, Microsoft's retired millionaires have tended to avoid the public spotlight thus far, often contributing in smaller, quieter ways.
"It's obvious to everyone that what they've done is won the lottery," said Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft product manager who was one of the original designers for Excel and the PC version of Works. "There is some sense of `I don't really deserve this,' of `If I do, it was totally good fortune and I should share that.' "
Many express their wealth in less than ostentatious ways, a sort of '90s version of noblesse oblige.
Blumenthal is a classic example.
He started his career at Microsoft in 1982, just after the company erected its first office building in Bellevue. He was fresh out of the Lakeside School and Yale, with little knowledge of programming.
By the time he left last August, the company had grown from 200 to 17,000 employees and he had helped make Excel the most popular spreadsheet program in the world.
At 34, he was wealthy enough to start his own company or to retire (he declines to say how much he is worth, but he was fully vested by the mid '80s and has seen his shares split five times)..
Instead, Blumenthal traded in his office at Microsoft's Redmond campus for one at Lakeside, where he now teaches ninth-grade intermediate algebra and honors math to high school seniors on a part-time basis.
He also coaches the school's math team, at least on the days he's not paragliding, kind of a hybrid of hang-gliding and parachuting, off Tiger Mountain in Issaquah.
"One of the cool things about working for Microsoft is that whatever you do, it will probably go out to millions of people," said Blumenthal, sporting a tied-dyed yellow T-shirt and Teva sandals. "I guess if I wanted to, I could go back to Microsoft and have a much broader impact on teaching" by working at its software and education research team.
"But I ultimately decided to be a classroom teacher because it's more meaningful that I know (students') names, that I have a big impact on smaller groups than a moderate impact on a larger group."
Blumenthal's decision comes as no surprise to Oki, a former Microsoft vice president for U.S. sales, who left in 1992 to pursue, among other things, the creation of a baby blanket company.
"Microsoft gave many young people, a number of whom joined the company straight out of college, tremendous amounts of responsibility and autonomy," said Oki, one of the most prominent Microsoft alums, who started the Oki Foundation with his wife and who sits on a number of nonprofit boards.
As a result, many Microsoft alums feel they've already done important things on a large scale, Oki said.
So they contribute at a different level.
Blumenthal's wife is another example.
Julie Edsforth came to Microsoft to work in its recruiting and marketing divisions in 1988, right out of Whitman College.
But shortly thereafter, she realized she needed to "feel connected to the mission of the company I work for." And that wasn't happening at Microsoft. She left in 1991, 1 1/2 years before she was to have been fully vested.
Edsforth now works as a counselor in Seattle, after having earned her master's degree in social work. Recently, she and three colleagues launched the nonprofit Seattle Women's Resource Project, and they are talking about starting a transitional center for women recently released from prison.
Examples like this are heartening, said Pat Fearey, a board member and former president of PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations).
"Civic contributions aren't just about giving money, they're about giving time and giving of one's self," she said.
Still, Fearey worries that the message isn't getting out to enough Microsoft alums.
"Quite frankly, they're a big mystery," she said. "One of the real problems this community has is making better contact with Microsoft people in general. Thus far, we haven't been able to reach enough of them."
Part of it has to do with the youth of the company and the people who are leaving.
"I don't think it's part of the Microsoft culture yet to look outside the company," she said. "They've been bent over their computers, and they've been so busy that there's little time for outside considerations."
That's likely to change, though, as this generation matures (the average Microsoft employee is barely 32), rears families and starts life after Microsoft.
Many are still in a transitional phase, said Tony Adino, who recently established Microsoft AlumNet, a Bellevue-based alumni association for former employees.
"Once they leave, they tend to go through a decompression," said Adino, a former director of marketing for MS-DOS who left the company in March 1994. "In looking at our (questionnaires), a lot of people say they're just taking a break before starting their own companies or moving on to other things, which isn't surprising."
Eric Dawes, a former senior program manager at Microsoft, said he didn't do the "Let's go to Bangladesh and put up our feet routine" when he left in 1991. But he did spend a year going down a shopping list of ideas about what to do next.
"Stepping out of that culture, that pace, is kind of a shock to your system," said Dawes, who in 1992 founded the Center for Multimedia in Bellevue, which develops interactive media for a number of regional companies.
Microsoft alums are teaching, coaching, writing music, becoming actors and starting their own companies. Some of the better known companies include Midisoft, now a stockholder-owned software company founded by former Microsoft programmer Raymond Bily, and Medio Multimedia, founded by Steve Podradchik, who left Microsoft in 1993 as a product manager for Visual Basic.
Paul Travis, a member of the Word development team who went on to work at Connectsoft, just opened a chain of health-conscious fast-food restaurants called SunSpot.
Still, Dawes said, "There's not as many (spinoffs) as you'd think."
When Microsoft alums do get involved in philanthropic projects, they often do so anonymously, according to Carol Pencke, executive director of A Territory Resource (ATR).
ATR is a Seattle-based public foundation that raises money for a number of progressive, nonprofit organizations - such as the Feminist Women's Health Center in Yakima and the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition in Seattle - which tend to appeal to some of the younger Microsoft alums.
At present, ATR counts 12 former and current Microsoft employees among its 200 major donors.
You have to remember that these are very private people, said Sue Anne Simmons, AlumNet's administrative director and former Microsoftie, who served as an executive assistant to the vice president for worldwide operations.
"A lot of them get cold calls from stock brokers, from charitable foundations, from a whole variety of people," she said.
Not surprisingly, when AlumNet was established three months ago, one of the biggest concerns was confidentiality. AlumNet has agreed not to disclose or sell its list of names and phone numbers. In the future, it could serve as an intermediary for outsiders who want to approach Microsoft alums, officials said.
It takes time to build that tradition of giving, said Alan Rabinowitz, a local author and expert on philanthropy. "You have to consider where they come from and what kind of philanthropy they come from."
The same goes for the business side of things, said Gary Schweikhardt, a venture capitalist in the local biotechnology industry.
"People at the highest levels of the company are by nature entrepreneurial," Schweikhardt said. "But with people lower down on the ladder, it's not going to be as strong. So it's not surprising that (a number of them) might be more reluctant to invest in risky ventures right now.
"As these people mature more, and as their nest egg grows, they'll become more confident in their ability to invest and venture out and be very active in providing seed capital," he said.
Adino said he hopes AlumNet can provide that social infrastructure to involve Microsoft alums in the business and philanthropic communities.
"Imagine dropping a pebble in a lake and seeing the rings go out," he said. Well, in time, the introduction of this much wealth and talent into the community will be "like dropping a boulder into a lake."
"The repercussions, the number of people and ability and resources - I think you'll undoubtedly see something that no other community has ever seen before," Adino said.
Already, there are signs that this Microsoft bunch is getting ready to peek out.
For instance, Microsoft employees and alums - among them Steven Hazlerig, a former program designer who worked on Multiplan, Excel and Access; Melinda French, a former manager and now Bill Gates' wife, and Bill Pope, former Microsoft corporate secretary Bill Pope - played a key role in raising $6 million to build a new facility for the Village Theatre in Issaquah.
This year, Tina Podlodowski, 35, became one of the first Microsoft alums to run for public office, seeking the Seattle City Council seat being vacated by Jim Street.
For Podlodowski, the former head of Microsoft University - the company's international training center - this is the latest step in a career that is becoming increasingly public.
It's a process that began when she joined the board of the Pride Foundation - a community funding source for gay and lesbian organizations - upon retiring from Microsoft in 1993 as a so-called "Microsoft millionaire."
Podlodowski said she expects more people to venture out into the public spotlight in time. But not the majority.
For many, like Susan Boeschen, who left the company 18 months ago as one of the highest ranking women there, life after Microsoft is a much-deserved life to herself.
Boeschen had already been a relatively public person at Microsoft as vice president for its consumer division. She was working 14- to 16-hour days, breaking to go home and have dinner with her children, then returning to the office at night - if not to finish work then to make sure her younger employees were going home and getting some rest.
"I enjoyed Microsoft immensely," she said. "But I had no personal time . . . so I decided to get some balance in my life."
Boeschen, who joined Microsoft more than 11 years ago with the notion of staying for just one year, recently returned from a one-month tour of Portugal.
She is busy building a house in Central Oregon and working on several, smaller charitable campaigns.
She politely declines to discuss any of them.
She notes that Microsoft alums have just begun to make their contributions to the region.
"This was a unique one-time opportunity for a group of folks who worked really hard," she adds, "but also got lucky."
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