Over on Twitter today, there’s a trending hashtag #HonoringWebFolk, started by the very honorable Molly E. Holzschlag. My feed is full of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and folks I’ve yet to meet expressing their gratitude to “unsung leaders” for their contributions to the web. Of course, some of the folks being honored aren’t exactly unsung, but even Internet famous tends to rate below a C-list Hollywood celebrity:
The list of people I should thank is long—from the folks who took a chance on me back before I’d really written anything of note, to the colleagues who challenged me and helped me grow. One of the recurring themes developing as I slowly crank out my Microsoft-years memoir is how unbelievably lucky I am to have had the chance to work with so many fantastic people over the years.
However, when I think about the unsung heroes I’ve worked with, the first name that comes to mind is Ed Praitis. Ed was a developer on the IE Fundamentals team who made many contributions over the years; one of his most important tasks in the IE9 timeframe was the grueling work of improving add-on compatibility as we continually ratcheted up the security and reliability of the browser. As we made fundamental architecture changes along the way, add-ons written in the era of single-process, non-Protected Mode browsers blew up, often in spectacular fashion. Many of these add-ons were broadly used and essential to everyday users, especially in countries like South Korea. While we evangelized the HTML5 future as loudly as we could, we know we’d be unable to get these users to even upgrade to browsers with better standards support if their banks and other critical sites didn’t work on Day 1. As if debugging sites and add-ons written in Korean wasn’t hard enough, most of these add-ons were designed with obfuscation and anti-debugging code in an attempt to foil malware. And yet Ed soldiered on and helped ensure IE9 had a smooth launch, unblocking deployments and helping drive toward a HTML5 future.
More personally, Ed provided unexpected and fruitful encouragement at exactly the right time. As we built IE9, I lamented that the dev team couldn’t muster the resources to fix around a dozen performance bugs in the network cache code. As I explained the changes needed and how important they were, he listened thoughtfully and then quietly noted: “It seems like you understand this stuff pretty well. Why don’t you just fix it yourself?”
I chuckled until I saw he was serious. “But I’m a PM!” I protested, “we don’t check-in code. At least, nothing like this.”
“I’ll review it for you if you want,” he offered.
And this was just the push I needed. Within a few weeks, I checked in my fixes, and this was probably the work I’m proudest of in over a decade at the company… helping save hundreds of millions of users untold billions of seconds in downloading pages.
Unfortunately, I never properly thanked Ed for his encouragement.
Two other Microsoft stories come to mind.
Early one morning, the IE PM team was having some sort of internal team-building event in a nearby building. One of the exercises called for us to form two long lines facing one another, and we did so in the entry hallway, one line to each side of the hall. Before the exercise started, a few of the employees who worked in that building arrived for work. They looked confused at what must have looked like a receiving line of some sort, until one of the PMs (I cannot recall who) started clapping and the rest of us joined in, cheering on the arrivals as if they were rockstars who’d arrived at a venue. They were beaming as they walked off to their offices, doubtless still confused, but certainly happier than when they’d come in. It was random and beautiful, and later I often mused that teams ought to consider doing “Rockstar Hellos” as a morale event.
When I left Microsoft, I sent out the typical farewell mail to my immediate coworkers. This mail was circulated more broadly to various folks and I received many extremely kind farewells from all over the company. There’s nothing quite like getting a personal mail thanking you for specific contributions you’ve made from someone you admire, especially when you didn’t expect that person to even know who you are.
Express your appreciation today, and as often as you can. You never know who you might inspire.