A Test for Whether You Support Innovation, would you promote someone who breaks the rules

When I joined Microsoft an executive spoke at new employee orientation.  There are two stories that come to mind.

First story.  The executive had been a long time developer in Excel and had decided he wanted to get his MBA.  He was accepted into Harvard and was ready to resign.  Given he was employee #105 at Microsoft it is expected he would talk to Bill before leaving.  Bill asked him why he wanted to get his Harvard MBA.  His response is he wanted business experience.  Bill responded if you want business experience, I'll give you business experience.  You are now the General Manager of Microsoft Word.  The executive of course didn't go to Harvard and he eventually became a VP of Office.

Second story.  Same executive.  Same employee orientation.  He starts telling a story.  I'll tell it slightly different than he did.  

He was a senior developer on Excel and was working on a new feature.  As part of the feature being complete he wanted to put it on the toolbar.  Here is an image of Mac Excel 2011's tool bar.


And a bit of early history of Excel.  I remember this history from the Apple side when I worked there and Excel quickly became the standard spreadsheet program.

Microsoft originally marketed a spreadsheet program called Multiplan in 1982. Multiplan became very popular on CP/M systems, but on MS-DOS systems it lost popularity to Lotus 1-2-3. Microsoft released the first version of Excel for the Macintosh on September 30, 1985, and the first Windows version was 2.05 (to synchronize with the Macintosh version 2.2) in November 1987.[61] Lotus was slow to bring 1-2-3 to Windows and by 1988 Excel had started to outsell 1-2-3 and helped Microsoft achieve the position of leading PC software developer. This accomplishment, dethroning the king of the software world, solidified Microsoft as a valid competitor and showed its future of developing GUI software. Microsoft pushed its advantage with regular new releases, every two years or so.

Back to the feature, the developer wanted to put it on the toolbar, so he met with the program managers and product managers to discuss where to put his feature.  They told him no, his feature would be in pull down menu, not on the tool bar, because the tool bar at the time was reserved for formatting features - font, justification, %/$, etc.  After weeks of trying the developer gave up trying to convince the program/product managers to put his feature on the tool bar.  Late one night, he checks in the code for his feature into the build, and he adds code to put his feature in the tool bar.

The next day the build is released to test teams and development, and there is his new feature on the format tool bar.  The program/project managers were of course upset and told him he must remove the feature from the tool bar.  He refuses.  They get more angry.  He tells them he will remove the feature from the tool bar after they run usability tests with end users.  They still insist he remove the feature.  He stands his ground.  Eventually the program/product managers agree to run usability tests.  And, the results show the new feature is the popular feature on the tool bar.  Know which one it is?


Autosum.  The executive/developer is Chris Peters.

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Chris Peters was vice president of Microsoft's Office division, responsible for 400 software developers and more than $4 billion in annual revenue. Last year, he startled his colleagues by taking a leave of absence to train for a new career-pro bowling.

Now, Mr. Peters spends many afternoons at Sun Villa Bowl, an aging bowling alley tucked between a grocery store and a Mormon temple in this eastside Seattle suburb. On a recent weekday, Mr. Peters, 41 years old, is the only bowler present below what used to be called retirement age. He raises a red ball to his side, steps off, slides and releases. The ball skids down the lane, hooks hard to the left and explodes into the pocket. Strike!

"You can tell when it leaves your hand," he says. "It's so satisfying."

More satisfying, for now, than his old job at Microsoft. Mr. Peters says he realized as he neared his 40th birthday that he had lost his passion for the all-consuming, 16-year career that made him rich but led him to neglect almost everything else, including his health and family.

Now to finish the second story.  Chris did warn the audience that his actions getting Autosum is not something that should be done unless you are sure you are right.  If you are right, you should push for doing the right thing.

This may sound OK.  But, you need to take into account that Chris was Microsoft employee #105 with huge credibility in the company, and so valued Bill would give him running Microsoft Word to keep him from leaving the company to get his Harvard MBA.

What Chris did with putting Autosum was innovative and still one of the most valued features on the Excel Tool Bar. Do you think he would be promoted?