Working with Microsoft

A lot of people want to talk with Microsoft with the hopes of establishing a business relationship. Most of these engagements go nowhere because people don’t know how to have that conversation. I thought I would provide some insight into why these discussions fail and what you need to do to maximize your chances of success. While the advice I provide is critical for any dealings with Microsoft (at least my part of Microsoft), I think it is a best practice and applicable to any business engagement.

The most important thing to understand when dealing with people from Microsoft is this:

We all have ten jobs and our only true job is to figure out which nine we can fail at and not get fired.

Prior to joining Microsoft, I worked in environments where if you pushed hard enough, put in enough hours, and were willing to mess up your work/life balance, you could succeed. That was not the case at Microsoft. The overload was just incredible. At first, I tried to “up my game” so I wouldn’t fail at anything. I learned what everyone that doesn’t burn out and quit learns – that this is a recipe for failing at everything.

The great thing about the Microsoft situation is that it isn’t even remotely possible to succeed at all the things you are responsible for. If you had two or three jobs to do, maybe you could do it but ten? No way. This situation forces you to focus on what really matters and manage the failure of the others. If you pick the right things to focus on, you get to play again next year. Choose poorly and you get to pursue other opportunities.

What that means for potential business partners is that everyone you talk to is juggling way too many things and can’t afford to waste time. Any time they spend with you and your opportunity risks them screwing up the one job they can’t screw up and get fired. Of course if we are always looking for great opportunities so we often take these meetings but what that means is:

You have to do all the work.

Often these discussions have the flavor of “you’re great, we’re great, if we did something together, it would be great “.  Let me explain how someone consciously failing at nine of the ten things they are responsible for, parses a conversation like this. We ask ourselves the question, “does this have the potential to bring in a billion dollars* a year?” (Note – the precise dollar amount varies by the level of the person). If the answer is yes, then this is a conversation worth investing in but they’ll probably delegate it to someone to go figure out the details. An incredibly small number of conversations pass this filter so most of these conversations end with a frustrated smile and a hurried rush to our next meeting. I’ll also note that when someone comes in with something as fuzzy as this, it is generally an indicator that other parts of their business are equally unfocused and are unlikely to be a strong successful partner.

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t interested in smaller opportunities. The vast majority of our engagements are much smaller than that.  What it means is that you have to do all the work. Instead of a fuzzy story about potential synergies, you need to come in with a concrete theory of value amplification. Explain (in qualitative and quantitative terms) what the opportunity is, what you would do and what Microsoft would do and how that would generate value from the marketplace (vs getting money from each other) and how that differs from what others could do. The Geoffrey Moore Value proposition format is a wonderfully concise and precise for articulating this:

For <target customer> who <qualifying characteristic>, <joint offering> <value proposition>.
Unlike <competitor>, <joint offering> <differentiator>

A good example of this can be found in Section 10 of my Monad Manifesto.

When you present a story like that, it allows us to very quickly understand and evaluate the opportunity and can decide whether this is something worth pursing or not. I’ve had  lots of conversations where afterwards the Microsoft folks would huddle and ask each other “what they heck was that about?” and no one has a clue.  That doesn’t put you in the “I’d love to partner with them” category.

I sometimes wonder whether people are afraid of coming off as too bold or aggressive and want to take the slow walk the conversation. They spend so much time on the “your great, we’re great” portion that they never get to the ask before the meeting ends.  They wasted their time and they wasted our time and the odds are that the next conversation won’t happen.  At Microsoft we have a phrase:

Go big or go home.

If you are too timid to come out and make the your case, then do everyone a favor and stay home.

Successful engagements almost never end up the way anything starts off thinking about them.  The process is about exploring ways to amplify value based upon the strengths and limitations of both parties.  Presenting a clear theory of value amplification starts the conversation off on the right foot.  So remember:

If you don’t look like a $billion/year opportunity – you need to do all the work,

I hope that helps.


4 thoughts on “Working with Microsoft

  1. I’m wondering how this squares with your huge efforts to push PowerShell into every nook and crany of Microsoft Windows? Surely a hiding to nothing to for the first several years, whilst not providing much help in your regular 10 jobs…

    • Don’t understimate the appeal that PowerShell has for people who want to leverage Microsoft operating systems in a DevOps culture, or at cloud scale. The Windows automation story prior to PowerShell was pretty shaky, at best.

      I would not be surprised to learn that Microsoft has assigned a value to this additional enthusiasm for Windows Server (from increased Azure adoption, and increased OS licenses for on-premises environments), and that this number easily justifies the investment in PowerShell / DSC development.

    • Until 2.0 I wasn’t a PowerShell user but since then I am SOOO happy that this has become a push at Microsoft.

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