The Luckiest Bad Luck?

A few days ago I was speaking with a friend of mine who works at Microsoft. He joined direct from college; Microsoft is the only employer he’s ever known. He has now spent nearly ten years at one company. He confided that the recent cutbacks and layoffs were terrifying. For the first time in his ten-year career, he was forced to accept that nothing is forever. In his words, it felt like a “gut punch to the stomach.”

I’ve experienced a similar “gut punch to the stomach,” but it happened only a few months after I graduated from college. At the time, it seemed like terrible fortune. But it occurs to me now that perhaps this is the single luckiest thing that’s happened to me in my career.

After college, I joined Silicon Graphics as a full-time employee. My initial exposure to SGI dated back to a high-school internship at the Navy Research Labs in Washington, DC. Ever since then, I knew that SGI was the coolest computer company on the planet and I knew that I was going to work there someday. When I was a junior in college, I worked hard to get an internship at SGI; it was a fantastic summer in California. When I was a senior, SGI turned around and offered me a full-time position. This was my dream job! I signed and moved out to the bay area shortly after graduation.

It was 1999, and SGI was in dire shape. Not three months after I joined, nearly my entire division — all the way up to Rick Belluzzo, then the CEO — was axed. I was spared, as was another friend who joined at the same time, because we were recent college hires and HR didn’t want to piss off our university’s computer science department. Of course, our comrades vanished, as did our teams and products.

It was a miserable time. I was somewhere far away from home and far away from many of my friends. My dream job had fallen apart before I even got a chance to really dig in. What was I going to do next? Certainly, staying at SGI seemed like a mistake.

In retrospect, I think SGI’s downfall was just the sort of lesson I needed from the world of work. I’m lucky it happened ten years ago, not two weeks ago. It seemed like crazy times, so I decided to make a crazy decision. A few friends of mine were forming a little startup in San Francisco and wanted an engineer to join them. Given my recent experience, it seemed that working at a startup was about as sure a thing as working for an established company. I had enough money to last a few months and no real desire to go through another round of big corporate interviews. So, why the heck not join?

The rest, as they say, is history. EQuill became an exciting organization full of brilliant people and lots of forward motion. Microsoft acquired EQuill in late 2001 and in January 2002 I moved up to Seattle to join Microsoft as a full-time employee. Not a bad outcome at all.

Most importantly, I think SGI’s kick in the pants nearly a decade ago granted me the ability to leave Microsoft in 2008 and strike out on my own. The last nine months as a consultant have been an exciting ride full of new people, technologies, and possibilities. They’ve been a little scary, of course, what with the wintry economic climate. But as my friend recently discovered, safety is never a guarantee — not even at Microsoft. I’m excited to see if I can put together a long-term-sustainable consultancy on my own, and I believe I owe it all to the luckiest bad luck in my career.