Life After Microsoft


Author Norman Swan

There are not many people who walk away from a job as Vice President at Microsoft. But Daniel Petre did. And now he’s left Microsoft for good. In this edited interview, recorded in September 1996, Norman Swan presenter of the ABC’s Radio National program "Life Matters" talks to Daniel Petre about work, life, death and family
Norman Swan: Today we talk to Daniel Petre who’s only one of two non-Americans to be made a Vice President of Microsoft – the multi-billion dollar software corporation based in Seattle and run by Bill Gates. Like Bill Gates, Daniel made his first run very early and became Managing Director of Microsoft Australia when he was only 29. He then went to Seattle only to return to Australia to run Microsoft’s regional operation and tomorrow he leaves Microsoft altogether to devote himself to his family, his wife and two daughters, a PhD in Behavioural Sciences and, of course, his Harley Davidson.

Tell me about this career that led you to Seattle.

Daniel Petre: I did a Computer Science Degree, majored in statistics and Computer Science and then did an MBA . I worked at a computer company called Burroughs for a few years as a system analyst then went to NEC as marketing manager. I left there and joined Microsoft as MD.

Norman Swan: Took NEC PC to number one in the market.

Daniel Petre: Yes that’s right, it’s the only place in the world we did that – actually NEC did that – and it was quite a fun time.

Norman Swan: And at the age of 29 you went to Microsoft.

Daniel Petre: Yeah, in about 1987 I figured that the hardware market would be a really hard place to be in the computer industry, it would become commoditised quite quickly. I thought that the place for differentiation would be software so that’s why I started thinking about software and at the same time I was approached about the Microsoft job so it was quite fortuitous.

Norman Swan: What did you do at Microsoft, what was the challenge there?

Daniel Petre: Well, in those days, I mean it’s hard to remember those days, but nobody knew who Microsoft was. I remember my wife saying "I don’t really know where you are working. What’s Microsoft?" Of course, we were quite small in those days. In Australia, we had about 20 people, our revenues were around $17 million so it was quite small. So the challenge was really just to grow. I really shared the vision of where we could take the company and grow it, and so we spent the next three years growing it quite dramatically. We tripled revenues in three years, grew staff numbers to over 100. It was a fun time. About two years into that three-year period Bill approached me to come to Seattle and I said, "Look, no, I’m enjoying my time here. I’ve still got a lot more to learn, thanks very much." And then he continued to approach me to come and in the end he pulled sort of a bit of a guilt trip. "We need you to come to Seattle, you’d be a great asset. Can you come and work on this particular division?"

Norman Swan: What did your wife think about that?

Daniel Petre: She was supportive. She wanted to live outside of Australia for some period; I mean the chances were we’d spend the rest of our life in Sydney so it was nice to have the opportunity to go.

Norman Swan: But had you had a life in Sydney for those three years? I mean, you say it was a fun time but did she see much of you?

Daniel Petre: No, I’d worked very, very hard. In fact, I only really realised that when our first daughter was born in 1989, when I first started to think about this whole "there’s more to life."

Norman Swan: Let’s just hold that back for a bit, so you went to Seattle. You were made Vice President of the company. Now, the statistics of this company just boggle me. Tell me about what you call "the campus" in Seattle. It’s called Redmond, isn’t it?

Daniel Petre: Yes, Redmond is sort of a suburb city of Seattle.

Norman Swan: Describe to me the working environment – what you went into, what you saw there.

Daniel Petre: The Redmond Campus of Microsoft is the headquarters. It’s mainly made up of software developers. Most of the salespeople are, as you’d expect them to be, in the country and in the regions. There’s about , well I’m guessing about 9,000 people on campus in Redmond now, across about 27 buildings. There were nine buildings when I first went there and this is an environment that is called a campus because it embodied a lot of the characteristics of a university campus: low level buildings; people wear what they want; they work weird hours – a very much collegiate atmosphere and a very frenetic environment, very exciting if you like to work hard, very, very exciting but also very demanding, very obsessive.

Norman Swan: Tell me about the demanding aspects. Tell me about how collegiate it really is because those American corporate environments can really be quite deadly.

Daniel Petre: Well, as a company it’s a very open company. Anyone can say anything to anybody. Management is very flat management. But, it works on a few fundamentals – there’s a joke that goes in Seattle about you only work half a day at Microsoft, you just decide which 12-hour period you work. It is very much about that. It’s very much about hours spent. People will often sleep in their offices at night to get up the next morning to continue work on a project. Those sort of aspects which are fine when you are young and in your 20s if you’re into wanting to work very hard, aren’t really family friendly.

Norman Swan: There is that Japanese phenomenon where you’re looking over your shoulder and if you’re not putting in the hours that the women or man next door to you is putting in, that you’re not going to get on.

Daniel Petre: No, it’s actually more self-directed. It’s not one where people feel the pressure of others. It’s more you get caught up in the energy and the excitement. You want to do that. From my experience on campus it wasn’t an example of you thought you had to be there. It was more you wanted to be there, you wanted to be part of this exciting adventure.

Norman Swan: Presumably in that environment there were a lot of internal relationships people, because they don’t have a life outside, they created families for themselves within Microsoft.

Daniel Petre: Absolutely, I mean there were a wide number of people who have married Microsoft people and only socialise with Microsoft people.

Norman Swan: Leave their wives for Microsoft people or leave their husbands for Microsoft people?

Daniel Petre: Probably, I didn’t see a lot of that but probably yes. It’s very closed in that sense.

Norman Swan: Now you went into an environment where you were working with Bill Gates quite closely.

Daniel Petre: Yes. I ran what was in those days called a five prod division, that made all the products for companies. Bill is very focused on the products of the company in a sense that is the company, the products we produce. So, yes I did spend a lot of time with him. A time in my life I will always treasure because he is one of the smartest people I think I will ever have the fortune to meet and one of the business geniuses of the 20th and 21st Century. Someone with amazing intellect, incredible drive and also a certain degree of emotion and human aspect as well. But very much in a strong work environment. The thing you should remember with Bill is that’s his hobby. He loves the computer industry and software so it’s not just a job to him, it is a life to him.

Norman Swan: And did you get on with him because you were the same at that time?

Daniel Petre: I was less obsessed than he was. He says what he liked about me was that I could see how we could make the ideas successful and he would say in fact that he and I shared a lot of common ideas.

Norman Swan: Did you relate to each other as people outside the work environment?

Daniel Petre: No, I couldn’t. At that stage, my youngest daughter was well over two and I couldn’t get this business about working six days a week. We’d have a regular meeting called for 10 a.m. Sunday morning or 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon. I was the first Vice President who actually said "Sorry, can’t be there. I’m not doing that." So I couldn’t relate to him in that sense.

Norman Swan: Before you got to that point what sort of person did you have to be to get where you were, to get where you got to?

Daniel Petre: Very driven, you had to be very driven in the sense of your near total mind and body dedicated to trying to make the thing successful.

Norman Swan: Were you aware of being driven?

Daniel Petre: No, no. I’m not sure that you really realise what you are doing. It’s only when you get outside influences that you perhaps realise what’s going on.

Norman Swan: The other issue, of course, that’s related to being driven, I suppose, is that you’ve got a good degree in Computing Science but you went on to run an advanced product development group, I think, which grew to about 450 people in Seattle. You then went on to run and today you are still running, until tomorrow, the Advanced Technology Group. Yet you haven’t gone into academia. Your level of knowledge and of the real intricacies of software development presumably isn’t huge but you’re running these advance technology groups. Did you ever have self-doubt about that?

Daniel Petre: Sure, I would never take on some of the best PhDs in Australia or in Microsoft. I would never try to take them on in any of their specialities. But it’s not so much that that’s where I try to add value. It’s more in the process by which they formulate their ideas and they can become products and that’s where the value-add that I would bring as a manager, not someone who could argue a fine point about coding of certain parts of the program.

Norman Swan: Did you ever think very much through all this, through being driven about the nature of leadership, because you watched someone make a business of being a leader like Bill Gates? What are your views on what makes a good leader?

Daniel Petre: Those views have probably changed over time. I would think now and it’s hard to remember what I would have thought maybe five or six years ago but now a leader in a sense has to embody a culture of a company that is holistic. You cannot be someone who just espouses the need to work harder. People in a company look up to the MD in many companies quite excessively for a role model. You need to take that role very seriously and you have to understand that in your role as MD you are impacting the lives of the employees and their families. And so I’d say now a leader has to be very aware of not only the work goals but the family goals for the employees not for themselves, community goals for themselves and employees and that’s probably where I’ve moved over time.

Norman Swan: What made you move?

Daniel Petre: The first chink in the armour, if you can call it that, happened with the birth of our first daughter and then the next most fundamental was when my sister was killed in a car accident in December of 1992.

Norman Swan: What happened?

Daniel Petre: We were in Seattle. We were living there and she was travelling with her husband and six-month-old baby from Canberra to the coast to do cherry-picking, to Young actually, and was hit by a semi trailer. And that was a pretty traumatic time. She was the most wonderful person. The baby was very badly injured and that was what I now refer to it as "the wake-up call". That was the sort of "Wow, what was life all about?" And, it sounds very morbid now, but what did I want on my tombstone? If I was to die tomorrow and it just said he was a vice president of Microsoft Corporation was that going to be enough? And I just knew in a blinding flash that no, it was not enough.

Norman Swan: She was clearly a different person to you.

Daniel Petre: Yeah she was. She worked in government in the Department of Communications. She was more artistic. She did a Masters in Arthurian literature at Cambridge University. So she was the artistic creative one and I was the money-making one in the family. But I guess over time I have tried to embody some of her characteristics and tried to carry forward some of what she was about.

Norman Swan: How did your behaviour change as result of her death?

Daniel Petre: In the most physical sense I decided to come back to Australia. Carol and I talked about that a lot and we decided that was the thing we had to do, to come back to help my parents, and help my brother-in-law and their daughter and just be there and be part of it. So that was the most physical but behind that was a process of me just saying "There’s more to life and there’s more that I want out of life and there’s more I can give to life than being a Microsoft VP." I don’t mean to say just being a Microsoft VP , that’s a very important role, I’m not trying to belittle it at all, but life is more than any job in fact. And so the move back to Australia was the physical thing. No one on campus could understand why you’d give up, how anyone could give up being a Vice president of Microsoft – you’ve lost you mind!

Norman Swan: Did Gates understand?

Daniel Petre: He didn’t understand but he was very supportive, in fact, to the degree that he actually moved the regional headquarters for the Asia Pacific from Seattle to Sydney so I would have a job to come back to. So he was very supportive but I think most people on campus assumed that there would be a period of mourning upon which you would resume. They didn’t see this as a life-changing event, which was what I saw it as.

Norman Swan: Were you under pressure from the family to come back?

Daniel Petre: No, not at all, in fact it was totally our decision – my wife and I. We obviously came back for the funeral and what have you but everyone expected that we’d stay in Seattle on the career track, on the vertical career track.

Norman Swan: So you came back to Australia, but clearly there was a process going on which hasn’t stopped. How did your behaviour change coming back to the same company that you’d really put on the road?

Daniel Petre: I guess part of what I started to detest in Seattle, even before my sister died, in Seattle I’d started to work less hours. Most of the VPs would be doing 60 hours a week minimum and I was doing 50 hours a week and I was actually nicknamed the 9-to-5 vice president, but our division tripled market share in two years, our revenues more than tripled so by any metric we were doing very very well, so I took that home and said well, that’s what I’ll do. I will succeed in the business goals but will live the life I want to live. I will take my children to school every morning or every morning I can. I will do school canteen once a term because I love it. I will never miss a school concert or school event, I will be home in time to have dinner and tuck them into bed and I just work my life around those goals.

Norman Swan: But what about these bright PhDs you’ve attracted from around Australia to work for you? Did you encourage them to do it, too? 

Daniel Petre: When I got back and even just before I left I would try and make a point in telling people I didn’t want them working weekends. I didn’t want them working nights. If someone was going to do a good strong working week then that’s great or working day but go home, and I did talk about that a lot with the staff about having other parts of your life and so as a leader came back and I spend a lot of my time talking to staff about there is more to life than just the job. It’s a fantastic job. It’s a fantastic company. You are changing the world however there are other parts that make up a full life. 

Norman Swan: But nonetheless in the early days of any career it is competitive, you have got to prove yourself, and you have to prove that little bit extra. 

Daniel Petre: Yes you do. 

Norman Swan: How can you get the balance? 

Daniel Petre: I think in the early parts of the career it’s probably OK to be a little work obsessive, as you say you have to give a bit to get somewhere. What you need is this ability to at some other point stop and say I don’t need to do as much now or I now need to put other priorities into my life. That’s probably when you get married, have children. They are events that should make you start to balance your life.  

Norman Swan: To what extent do you think a company that doesn’t nurture the whole life of its employees has is inherently strong, I mean, is there an inherent weakness in a company? 

Daniel Petre: Absolutely, absolutely I think… 

Norman Swan: It’s easy to say that, yet you have Microsoft which is growing at an enormous rate and my brother works in the computer industry in Southern California and you know you have lots of successful companies built which last for a long time. Built on people who work 70 hours a week.  

Daniel Petre: It depends on how you define success. There’s a great book by a guy called John O’Neill called The Paradox of Success and it’s all about the definition of success. So if you say a company is successful in the numerical stock market terms sure, if you say a company defines success in the way that had help people grow and helped communities grow as well as their financial success I’d think then you’d say the company that doesn’t have a more holistic approach to the creation of their environment will fall over because ultimately people will, good people will ultimately leave. 

Norman Swan: Are you feeling good about yourself just now? 

Daniel Petre: Yeah it’s a strange process. I grew up a lot at Microsoft in a sense from a young smart alec 29-year-old till now. So it’s strange process. 

Norman Swan: Is your wife feeling good about having you home? 

Daniel Petre: I’ve been progressively moving toward this anyway. But between a PhD, I’ve just finished a book with a friend of mine David Harrington called The Clever Country that gets published in a month, I’ll be spending sometime thinking sometimes about the online world in Australia so I don’t think I’ll be home a lot more than I was in the past. 

Norman Swan: So you’re continuing on a self-directed work path rather than one that’s involved in a corporation? 

Daniel Petre: Absolutely, self-directed and diversified and have my priorities in order. 

Norman Swan: What about the income cut you’ll suffer? 

Daniel Petre: Yeah sure, there’s an economic… there’s always this carrot that sits there you know if you stay for the next six months, the next year… but at some point you come back to how you want to define your life and can you live within certain other constraints and if you can then do it. 

Norman Swan: Tell us about the subject of the PhD you are going to be doing? 

Daniel Petre: It’s on senior male executives and work-family balance which obviously I feel passionately about. I do worry about the effective leaders, senior male executives in corporations in particular, because it seems to me that there’s a tremendous imbalance towards work. 

Norman Swan: And how far down the track are you? 

Daniel Petre: Yes, we started it six weeks ago and I’ve just done my first presentation last Monday and I got through that so, so far so good.  

Norman Swan: I can feel a best seller coming on. 

Daniel Petre: Maybe. 

Norman Swan: And a difficult question, do you feel you’ve got over the death of your sister, or that’s still driving you to some extent? 

Daniel Petre: I don’t think I’ll ever get over it in the sense… I think what I feel is a sense of, not that I know because I never got to ask her the question, but I want in some way to try and deliver what she might have wanted to have happened for her daughter and for society. So I think a lot about the things she was interested in and how could I help move those forward. And in that sense she’ll be a legacy that I’ll keep forever. 

Norman Swan: Daniel Petre, thank you very much.

Copyright 1996
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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