Being a Program Manager at Microsoft

My awesome friend Christopher also works at Microsoft, but his career and mine have taken different paths since we joined. Here we are together back in 2008, before either one of us worked at Microsoft. He’s the one not wearing a Manowar t-shirt.

No, no, the other one.

Our backgrounds are remarkably similar. We each spent years before joining Microsoft as Microsoft Certified Trainers, with an emphasis on software development rather than systems administration. We each became involved in the MCT community, and in the broader technical community, and to one extent or another this helped us find our first positions at Microsoft.

These days Christopher is working with student developers – I’ve seen him tweeting a lot recently about Django on Twitch, which probably means that he’s still teaching people about software development… or may be watching Quentin Tarantino movies while drinking too much coffee. Honestly, either one is possible.

Anyway… Christopher reached out to me last month and asked if I’d be interested in talking to college students about to graduate about what it’s like being a program manager at Microsoft. I said yes[1], then I said this:

I’ll let the video speak for itself. I tell my story for the first 15 minutes or so, and around the 14:50 mark I talk with Will Thompson and Tessa Hurr from the Power BI team and ask them to share their experiences as well. But there are a few things that I want to add that didn’t really fit well into the video.

First of all, every team has a need for many types of program managers. I’ve blogged about diversity enough that you probably know how I feel about the value of diverse teams, and this applies to PM teams at Microsoft as well. Since this video is targeted at college students and recent college graduates, I’d like to focus briefly on the career diversity dimension.

What does “career diversity dimension” mean? Looking at most PM teams I see program managers falling into three broad groups:

  1. New to career – program managers who are starting their careers after college, or after switching from a non-IT discipline.[2]
  2. Industry hires – program managers who are new to Microsoft, but who have an established career in a related field.[3] This is often someone who has been a consultant, developer or administrator who works hands-on with Microsoft or competitive tools and technologies.
  3. Veterans – program managers who have been at Microsoft long enough to succeed a few times, fail a few times, and understand what PM success can look like on multiple teams.[4]

Reading this list it may be easy to think that there is a progression of value implied, but this is not the case. A successful team will find ways to get from each group the things that only they can contribute. A PM in one group will be able to see things and do things that a PM in other groups will not, and an experienced team leader will be able to direct each PM to the problems that they are best suited to solve, and can add the most value.

The second thing I wanted to add to the video is that each team is different. I said this in the video, but I want to elaborate here. Each team will have its own culture, and some teams will be a better fit than others for a given PM. I’ve worked on multiple teams where I didn’t think I was contributing effectively, or where I felt that my contributions weren’t valued[5]. At one point this culture mismatch almost led me to leave Microsoft, but with the support of my manager at the time I instead found another team in another org where I could thrive.

And this leads me to the the final point I wanted to add: Microsoft is huge. I’ve been a PM at Microsoft since October 2008, but I’ve had 4 or 5 major career changes since then, with very different responsibilities after each change, requiring very different contributions from me.

When I was interviewing for my first position in 2008, the hiring manager asked me why I wanted to work for Microsoft. I already had a successful career as a data warehousing and ETL consultant, and becoming a Microsoft employee would include a reduction in income, at least in the short term. Why give up what I’d built?

I hadn’t expected this question, and my answer was authentic and unscripted, and I’ve thought a lot about it over the past 11+ years. I told him that I wanted to join Microsoft because Microsoft had bigger and more challenging problems to solve than I would ever see as a consultant, and would never run out of new problems for me to help solve. If I joined Microsoft, I would never be bored.

I wanted to join Microsoft because Microsoft had bigger and more challenging problems to solve than I would ever see as a consultant, and would never run out of new problems for me to help solve. If I joined Microsoft, I would never be bored.

And I was right.

If you’re a PM at Microsoft, please share your thoughts and experiences.

If you’re thinking about becoming a PM at Microsoft, please share your questions.

If you’ve joined Microsoft as a PM after watching this video and reading this blog, please send me an email, because I would love to say hi.

[1] It’s a good thing he asked when he did. I haven’t had a haircut since late February, and I don’t know when I’ll let anyone point a camera at my head again…

[2] This was kind of me when I first applied for a position at Microsoft in the 90s, although I already had a few years’ experience. I was not hired.

[3] This was me in 2008 when I was hired.

[4] This is me in 2020. I tend to talk about the successes more, but it’s the failures I think about the most, and where I learned the most along the way. Success is awesome, but it’s a lousy teacher.

[5] Yes, this sucked as much as you could imagine.

15 thoughts on “Being a Program Manager at Microsoft

  1. I will say that working with Matthew is awesome! And, not just because of his cooking ability.

    I’ve been at Microsoft for about 15 years and I’m in my first PM role (on the same team as Matthew). Although , I’d say it’s not a traditional PM role. That’s the beauty of it, and what Matthew talks about. There are different needs at a PM level.

    I’ve found Microsoft to always be supportive in how we engage with customers. There are still core things in your day to day job that take priority, but you have the ability to explore things as well – blogging, speaking, helping students, etc…

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Hey, this is cool and insightful for non college folk (incl Power BI devs) to watch too! Loved hearing from Tessa and Will….thanks for widening the net. I didn’t really know what a PM did before watching this. This helps set the scene a little.

    While watching it, I wondered how hard it must be for a PM to single out that “customer” that they are then being the voice/championing of out of the weird and wonderful continuum of “customers”. For a product with as many moving parts as Power BI, it must be fiendishly hard to decide how you might prioritise the voice of say the ‘back end’ enterprise customer (maybe someone dealing with data governance) or the ‘front end’ enterprise customer (which I guess might very well might be an end user who doesn’t even work for that enterprise), or some cog in between – say a PBI report dev like me.

    I know Powe rBI Ideas helps there somewhat for prioritising the non-enterprise voice. But given that a lot of your engineering resource is assigned based on this non-homogeneous “enterprise” category, how do you determine who’s voice to listen to?

    Lovely to hear Will talking about empathy. You guys show us end users more empathy than we could ever possibly know. We don’t exactly return the favour at times. That must be a brutal part of the job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jeff!

      For enterprise customers, we follow practices that are loosely based on the Lean Customer Development practices you can learn in this book:

      For a platform like Power BI that targets such a wide range of people and capabilities, it’s a real challenge understanding both what needs to be done, and how to prioritize one effort over another.

      There are many dimensions and factors that can make it difficult to compare one against another, and it’s common to have team members executing on a plan that doesn’t include everything that would have chosen if it were up to them alone. This was part of the context I had in mind when I wrote this post a few months back:

      If it were easy, it would be done already.

      If it were simple, no one would write (or read) a blog post about it. 😉


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  5. Matthew great post! I hope I can share a few thoughts that are helpful 🙂

    I’ve been a PM at Microsoft for many years now. I actually came straight from college after being lucky enough to get a PM internship at Microsoft and realizing that PM’ing was my dream job.

    I think there’s are several other attributes worth talking about the really make PMs successful.

    The first is drive for results. If I look back on my career I can point to times where I was hyper focused and others where I just couldn’t be consistent. The most successful periods have been when I was able to put myself in a drive for result attitude and in a balanced way where I don’t burn out.

    Drive for results is critical because as the video says, and as a quick trip to Microsoft’s website shows, MICROSOFT IS HUGE. There are so many smart people. They’re all doing amazing things. Even worse, there are so many customer, each with their own take on what the problem and what the solutions need to be. The clarifying question I end up asking myself every single day is this: What can I do today that will make a difference in someone’s life when it releases to market? If you bring this kind of approach and display empathy and communicate (especially **listen** to others), you’ll find the allies you need to make things happen. Shipping valuable things that make lives better is the reward, and it’s powerful.

    The second is a combination of curiosity and creativity. Often the most successful program managers, faced with the same mortal enemies of resources, time, and scope, find a way to ask the right questions that lead everyone to be open to some variation of the solution that seemingly by magic resolves the problem. This doesn’t happen by luck. It happens because the PM has listened, asked questions, identified and challenged assumptions, clarified how people are thinking about a problem and what are the valid solutions. Then through that inquisitive process they refined the problem until it is readily solvable, for most customers.

    The third is to emphasize what Will said about empathy, but perhaps in a different way. We often talk about “feeling the customer pain” as a way to say that we must understand the challenges customers face. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. However, I think there’s a key critical aspect of listening to the customer’s unmet or un-stated needs. No one comes out and tells you that your feature made them miss dinner with the family or not sleep to fix some issues before someone at work notices. They instead tell you your product is ‘hard to use’, ‘frustrating’, ‘missing features’, or ‘buggy’. Remember that customers are people — humans, who have frailties, have stresses, and are imperfect in many ways. At the same time they’re smart, driven, and accomplished. Whenever I ask myself “how can I make this work in few steps, with fewer things to remember? I’m setting my feature on a path to delight a customer somewhere out there. Said another way: How can I make my customer appear like a superhero to their colleagues?

    The last additional attribute of successful PMs is giving themselves permission to fail. I can’t tell you how important that is. The number of people you’re designing features for, the number of stakeholders whose requirements you need to satisfy, the amount of considerations and teams that need to sign-off on a feature before it ships is really staggering at first glance. You will inevitably miss something. It won’t be perfect the first time. You’ll get feedback from customers or colleagues. Whatever happens, know that everyone around you, us so called ‘successful’ PMs have all had our moments of challenge, found a way to persevere, and came out wiser, smarter and happier for it.

    Liked by 1 person

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