Becoming a Microsoft Millionaire

Posted on April 19, 2013 by TheSaint in DirectXFiles
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Microsoft Ferrari parking space

There was a time long ago when Microsoft was minting millionaires by the thousands.  When I joined Microsoft in 1992 the company employed roughly 6000 of them.  I didn’t know what stock options were when they gave them to me but my co-workers told me that Microsoft’s rapid growth days were over so it wasn’t likely that they would be worth all that much anyway.  Consequently I didn’t really pay attention to it; the only evidence at work that everybody around me was wealthy was the company parking lot, which looked like a luxury sports car dealership on most days.  Microsoft employed a lot of kids’ right out of college many of whom had never had another job in their lives.  They had become overnight millionaires and seemingly just assumed that their success was something they were entitled to and had earned through some great achievement of their own.  Getting rich was easy for them and of course one of the first things they did when they became stock option millionaires was to run out and buy the teenage boy fantasy car of their dreams… usually a lime green, cherry red or banana yellow Ferrari.  These cars were the most precious things these kids owned.  They were always meticulously waxed to a bright sheen.  The nerd owner would always roar into work around 10:30 am wearing his Ray Ban’s and screech into the parking lot with their version of Tom Cruise panache.  They would invariably park straddling two parking spaces to prevent anybody from parking near them that and risking a scratch or ding from another car door.

Ken Fowles in his youth

Ken Fowles in his youth

I never paid much attention to them but there was a co-worker that Microsoft’s spoiled elite really seemed to annoy.   Ken Fowles, who I have introduced in previous blogs, really hated these kids.  Ken had worked hard his entire career and run struggling startups, he knew that money and good times were rare and precious occasions for a company and was not shy about expressing his disdain for Microsoft’s extravagant culture in that era.  Ken was known for roaring into work on his old beat-up Harley wearing an “FYIV” (F**k You I’m Vested) t-shirt and triggering all off of the car alarms in the parking garage.  Ken would watch the spoiled kids run from their offices in a panic to check on their precious new cars and then bask in the subsequent angry email rants about Ken’s Harley disrupting their “productivity”.

At the time I never thought that a day might arrive when it would be… my turn… three years after joining Microsoft, at the age of 28, I became a “Microsoft Millionaire” on paper.  The stock had split five times since I had joined the company.  I had never noticed that it had happened because my wife had taken the kids for a “visit” to her parents in Maine and never returned with them.  The long hours and stress had apparently taken their toll on our marriage.  Of course I was devastated and struggling to deal with it, which had not gone without notice.  Ken, ever the good friend, suggested that I join him and a German evangelist named Viktor Grabner on their annual road trip to Sturgis.  After a great deal of cajoling he persuaded me to accompany him on a visit to the local Harley dealership to help HIM shop for a new Harley.  I had not ridden a motorcycle since I was 18 and had never seen anything as beautiful as the inside of a Harley dealership with giant motorcycles stretching across the show floor as far as the eye could see.  Ken took me from bike to bike explaining the features and properties of each and telling me stories about the great rides he had been on in the area.  I looked at the price tags and immediately dismissed the notion that I could afford one.  “Ken, these bikes are like 25 grand each, I’ve never paid that much for a car!”

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True wealth

I recall vividly the moment that I realized I had become a Microsoft Millionaire.  Ken took me to the front of the show room and waved his hand across the expanse of bikes… “Think about it Alex, how many of those bikes could your stock options buy?”  I did the mental math and felt a cold chill run down my spine when I realized that the answer was ALL of them.  “Why don’t you just buy one today on impulse Alex, it will make you feel better.”

I bought a red 1995 Harley Davidson Ultra Glide touring bike and, barely able to ride the thing, wobbled home on it.  Ken was right, it DID make me feel better… nearly got me killed a dozen times over… but I FELT better.  It wasn’t long before I too experienced the joy of roaring through the Microsoft parking garages and triggering all of the lime green Ferrari car alarms. The trip to Sturgis with Ken, Viktor and two other nerdy evangelists that Ken also talked into buying Harley’s and joining us was an adventure in itself that I may recount on another occasion.

I totaled that first Harley a year later coming out of Seattle on the 520 bridge.  It happened so quickly I don’t even know what caused the accident. One minute I was cruising along in stop-and-go traffic, the next moment I was sliding along the ground in my biker leathers watching my beautiful new red Ultra Glide tumbling end over end in slow motion along the freeway behind me.  After everything came to a stop and all the debris had finished raining down around me I recall thinking.  “Oh damn… today I’M that asshole who always blocks all of the traffic on 520 during rush hour.”  I was injured but able to fish my cell phone out of my jacket pocket and call 911.

911: “911 Operator, what’s your emergency?”

ME: “I’d like to report a motorcycle accident on 520 please.”

911: “Where on 520 are you sir?”

ME: “It was on the west side of the bridge just under the overpass.”

911: “Did you see how many vehicles were involved in the accident sir?”

ME: “Just me”

911: “You hit the biker?”

ME: “No, I AM the biker…”

911: <<Pregnant Pause>> “Where are you now sir?”

ME: “Laying on the freeway blocking traffic”

911: “Are YOU injured?”

ME: “Definitely”

911: “We’ve dispatched an emergency vehicle sir”

ME: “Thanks… I’ll just wait right here…”

When the ambulance arrived I got surrounded by diligent paramedics who immediately braced my neck and took me to their vehicle on a stretcher.  There was a commotion as they were examining me for injuries and one of the paramedics approached me grimly holding a completely smashed helmet.  They immediately began scouring my head and neck for indications of a skull or spine injury and asking me complicated questions like; “How many fingers do you see” to determine my state of mental acuity.  It took a few moments for me to get a word in edge wise and point out that they were holding the spare helmet that had been strapped to the bike.  The one I had been wearing was completely intact and scratch free.

At the hospital the doctor informed me that I had a broken hand and that they would need to take a steel brush and scrape the debris out of my road rash with it BUT I would be given an amnesic medication to help me forget the pain… it didn’t work.

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“Prenup!”

Seattle’s divorce lawyers made a lot of money from Microsoft divorces.  During that era Bill Gates himself got married to Melinda French.  During a company meeting which, then Saturday Night Live celebrity, Dana Carvey hosted, Dana brought Gates out on stage and commented that he had been strictly instructed not to make any jokes about Bill’s wedding plans.  He said, “I’ve only got one word for you Bill.”  And he picked up a New York city yellow pages phone book and slamming it down hard on the stage with a loud thud, he said; “Prenup”.  Not everyone laughed heartily… least of all Bill.

A few years later after starting my first company, WildTangent Inc. with what remained of my Microsoft millions; I found a garbage bag while cleaning out my garage with some long forgotten Microsoft stock certificates in it worth around $250,000.  I recall wondering what the hell must have been going on in my mind in that era that I would have accidentally discarded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Microsoft shares.  I was somewhat fortunate in this regard; many of those Ferrari driving millionaires lost their wealth to divorces with the hot eastern European wives they met online and imported to America.  Others squandered it gambling in the dot com era stock market.  Some, imagining that their wealth was the result of their own Bill Gates like genius, squandered it on failed startups.  Very few sailed off to a life of leisure and permanent retirement.

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4 Comments

  1. Cautionary tale of winning lottery. How are those guys today? About Gabe Newell, can you tell us any anecdote or tales about him.

    • Indeed. The young ones often blew their cash thinking it was easy to get rich and later learned the hard way that they could never reproduce that success for themselves. The ones that burned out usually took up weird artsy hobbies. A huge divorce lawyer community grew up around Microsoft as gold-diggers learned to stalk and marry up with young millionaire’s and then clean them out a few years later. If you visit a bar in downtown Kirkland on a Friday night you are likely to run into any number of hot Eastern European thirty-something’s, always blonde, fit and excessively augmented hunting for wealthy husband number three. Some stayed and rose high in Microsoft but they were not always happy to be paid exceedingly well… so well that their wives would never tolerate them leaving and taking a job that paid less that maybe they liked better. It’s hard to say who got a worse deal in retrospect, the guys who got divorced or the ones that stayed married. A few went on to do other great things in the industry and achieved things well beyond their Microsoft careers. Blake Irving, Vik Gundotra and a few others come to mind, Gabe Newell was certainly one of those.

      If you search for Gabe’s name in my search bar you’ll find a few stories about him and Valve.
      http://www.alexstjohn.com/WP/2013/09/24/valve-chronicles/

      For me it was all worth it and I suspect others would say the same without hesitating. We enjoyed careers, experiences and opportunities few people will ever know. It was a rare and privileged time in history and I’m eternally fortunate to have been part of it.

      • Just wanted to thank you for the insight.

        Found your site after reading vox’s tabloid level coverage of the gaming industry’s recent backlash on you. Amazes me how people believe news at face value without looking at the source material.

        • Thank you Chris, just between ourselves, a little controversy is necessary to get the message out. Maybe I poured a little gas on things to make sure that these guys would have something to twist into click-bait for the masses. Shhhh… don’t tell anyone, it’s just our way of getting people to examine their values and work-ethics so that maybe a few will change their attitudes and be more successful in life as a consequence. I can handle a little ire and hate from the angry mob if there are a few who get the memo that maybe their attitude towards work is the problem, not their employer.

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