Nov 16, 2020
In this episode of The IoT Unicorn Podcast, independent civic engineer and former Chief Xbox Officer at Microsoft, Robbie Bach, discusses teamwork and leadership in the tech space.
00:00 Pete Bernard: Welcome to the IoT unicorn podcast. This is Pete Bernard from Microsoft. And this podcast is for anyone interested in the long-term technology trends in the IoT space and the journey from here to there. So let's get started.
00:23 PB: On this episode of the IoT unicorn, I chat with Robbie Bach, former Microsoft executive. He was there for about 22 years, he was the chief Xbox officer and drove that program for a long, long time. We talk about Xbox, Xbox Revisited the new book he wrote, we also talk about some other projects like Zoom and Microsoft Kin or what we call Project Pink, and just in general leadership principles and techniques for leading through ambiguity with a ton of technology, especially in the IoT space. So great Robbie, thanks a lot for taking the time to join us here on the IoT unicorn. First off, kind of disclaimer, the topics typically are IoT-oriented, [chuckle] but we're gonna take a little diversion today, but I think it's still gonna be germane and... So anyway, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to join us.
01:20 Robbie Bach: Happy to do it.
01:22 PB: Good, good. I don't know if there's a phone ringing there or something...
01:24 RB: Yeah, that's mine. [chuckle] We can start over if you like, that's a phone that I have no control over, it's actually the house phone ringing in my office.
01:34 PB: Oh, okay. That's alright. Don't worry about it we'll... It's part of a sincere authentic nature of the conversation, [chuckle] but I think one of the things... And I read your book, Xbox Revisited, which is cool, and I thought for today, one of the things that I thought was really germane was just talking about technology and leadership, or just leadership in general, and it was really fascinating to kinda read through your journey with leadership and the pluses and minuses and what you've learned about it. And I think in the IoT space, we're sort of like awash in technology. Before we started recording, I was explaining how I was futzing with my system and just too many pieces of tech, and a lot of companies, they have a tons of technology, there's no shortage, now we got 5G and LPWA and all these AI. But how do you take that ambiguous technologies swamp and actually provide some kind of leadership and guidance and structure or framework around thinking about things, so you can get things done and you can get organizations, especially big organizations, you can imagine, moving in the right direction. And I thought there was a lot in your book around Xbox Revisited that resonated with probably what a lot of companies are thinking about today, is like how do we navigate through some of the tech?
03:01 RB: The thing I always respond... I talk a lot about innovation, and I talk somewhat about that in Xbox Revisited, but I do a lot of it in the public speaking I do. And I talk about creativity and how do you come up with new ideas, and technology ends up being third on my list of things not first. And the things that come first are ironically, business model, because it turns out a huge portion of innovation actually happens in business models, and the second thing is experience and sort of how people interact with the technology, and then comes technology. And when something is technically lead, maybe it has a good sustainable business model and maybe it has a good experience, but maybe it doesn't, and that's why the first person to market with the technology doesn't always win. And my experience has been that a sustainable business with a great customer experience will beat somebody who has a great technology without a good experience, and so we tend to focus on those first two, first.
04:14 PB: Yeah, so when you... Probably you were going through this with the Xbox, was like, talking about the purpose, principles and priorities. I think I got that right?
04:27 RB: Yeah.
04:28 PB: So you manifested that with Xbox, are there other example you've seen where companies have been able to snap to a framework like that and get them moving in the right direction?
04:37 RB: Well, think about... One of the other companies I work with, is a company called Sonos, and they're really a great company, and they have amazing technology, they've got one of the best IP portfolios in the industry, they've done some very cool tech things, but they do not lead with technology, they absolutely don't. They lead with the experience, if you have somebody who has a Sonos system, they don't talk about the cool networking architecture that it has or how it makes sure to sync audio on a big TV screen and do surround sound easily. They talk about, "Oh God, it was so easy to set up and the music played and it sounded great." That's all experience-focused work. And it's super powerful, and they have their own business model which is fairly traditional, but when you think about somebody like Spotify and the access you get to the world's music and the experience you have in accessing that music, and they have a business model, which I think is challenging, but it's subscription-based, so that's been an innovation over the last 10 years or so, and those are the types of things people end up migrating to. And there are people in the world who have, there's higher-end sound systems than Sonos for sure, they love their sound quality, but if you wanna spend money, you can get higher-end sound systems, but they're hard to use, difficult to set up, and Sonos has this incredibly simple model and it just works.
06:13 PB: Yeah, one of the frameworks we've been using is the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework, I think you're familiar with that, but that's another way of really titrating down to what are the outcomes you want to accomplish, and then how do you get those jobs done?
06:26 RB: Well, in particular, if the jobs done reflect back on customer issues, to me, so much of what happens in the IoT space has to be, "Okay, what problem are we trying to solve? And if we're trying to solve a customer problem, okay, I get that." And so let's focus on solving the customer problem. Well, like turning on lights, not actually a customer problem, right?
06:54 PB: Right. [chuckle]
06:54 RB: Unless you wanna turn on the light. Now, if you say, "Oh, customers want controlled settings and they wanna make... " There's other issues with lighting that customers can relate to and wanna fix. Okay. Great, let's get after those. Customers knew how to set their heat, it turns out, but now solve some other issues around heating that were actually real customer problem. And so if the jobs done relate to customers, I'm all in.
07:22 PB: Right, right. Yeah, no it's true. At the end of the day, if you cannot solve a customer problem. I thought what actually was interesting in your book, they had a couple of things that caught my eye. First of all, I didn't realize you were a tennis player.
07:33 RB: Right.
07:34 PB: So, I'm a tennis player.
07:35 RB: Oh, cool.
07:36 PB: But you were in the top 50 in the US, so you'd probably kick my butt, but I thought that was cool. Are you still playing tennis by the way?
07:45 RB: I play a little bit of tennis, I don't play as much. I have a shoulder that has hit about 300 and too many serves.
07:53 PB: Okay. Yeah. That's a tough one.
07:54 RB: So I'm trying to avoid shoulder surgery. If I really wanted to keep playing competitively, I would have to have some work done.
08:00 PB: Yeah. Okay. Yeah, no, I was good. Actually, I got back into it, kind of a funny anecdote. I'd played for a long time back in the... When I was a kid, back in the '80s, and took a long time off and got back into it a few years ago and actually stepped on to the court at the pro club here. And I had my Donnay racket with me and the pro is like, "They went out of business like 10 years ago." So the first thing was, "You need to get your gear in shape." And so I learned a lot. But yeah, I play a few times a week, that was fun. That's good.
08:35 RB: I had the same experience I went to... I had some mid-size rackets, which were old and I went to upgrade them, which was fine, and then I went to go get them strung, and the guy asked me what tension I wanted them strung at and I was, "Oh, I don't know, 58 pounds." He said, "Well, is that for the horizontal strings or the vertical strings?" I was like, "Oh, well, that's a new idea." And, "Dude, what kind of strings do you want?" Oh, different for horizontal and vertical strings, I mean, these are all new ideas when you had a small face Donnay, none of that mattered. Now with these big surfaces. Again, the thing we're talking about, the technology, the solution you're solving is tennis players can keep the ball on the strings for a long time. And that would be a lot of control.
09:18 PB: I know. It's amazing I mean, how the sport's evolved, but like many things. The other thing that kinda popped out, I love this phrase, seagull management. Maybe you can talk a little bit about seagull management, that is something I will use over and over again, but can you give me like a...
09:35 RB: Yeah, look, I think there's lots of people who as leaders think their job is to dive in, evaluate something, poop on it and then leave, and so those are the seagulls. And in fact, as a manager, your job is actually quite different than that. Your job is to put a framework in place, to work with your employees to establish the set of priorities and things that they're gonna focus on, and they'll come back to you and say, "Hey, here's how it's going." And you'll give them ideas and thoughts on how to improve or make progress and answer questions, and, oh by the way, facilitate solutions where you can actually help. But the idea in your job is to sort of occasionally fly in and spot check their work, and then tell them they're doing the wrong thing. It's just not super helpful, and by the way, you have no context, you don't know what's going on, and it's the way a lot of... There's a lot of seagulls in the tech space. It's a problem.
10:46 PB: Yeah, definitely resonated for me. I think another thing that toward later in the book, is you take some of the lessons around Xbox and leadership into more of the civic area, which I guess is a super trimming it today, since it's the day before Election Day.
11:04 RB: That's right.
11:04 PB: But that's a whole other podcast, we won't get into it. About leadership, and I totally subscribe to this too, I think at Microsoft, just like other companies, leadership is not for just for people in power. Leadership is for everybody to sort of be a leader in their own space and about what they're passionate about.
11:23 RB: Well, look, I think whenever I address a room of people, let's say there's 50 people in the room, it's easy for me to say to everybody, "Look, there's 50 leaders in this room. Now, you each have a different leadership superpower, you each have a different leadership skill, and the question for you is, are you self-aware enough to understand what that leadership skill is? And are you capable then of figuring out how to apply it in the environment?" And you can be a leader by being part of the team, you think about a prototypical football team or a soccer team, and you'd say, "Okay, well, who's the leader?" Well, in particular, in football you'd say, "Well, maybe the quarterback." Maybe, but there's leaders who, amongst the wide receivers, there's leaders... The center is the leader of the offense of line, I think that's the middle line backer, sort of the quarterback and the defense, but the safety actually has to manage the secondary. Everybody has to play their role in those things. And so you're challenged regardless of what your role is on a team, is to find how your leadership superpower applies to what the people you're working with need to get done. And I think sometimes people think of themselves as being sort of, "Okay, I'm tagging along, I have a manager, he or she's gonna tell me what to do, and I just do it and keep going." And I don't subscribe to that at all.
12:48 PB: Right. Yeah. Yeah, I know. I've encountered folks like that and I've inherited diverse teams at Microsoft, and inevitably there's somebody that's been there and they've been turning the crank for 20 years on this thing, and I'm always... I remember talking to one person at Microsoft, he'd been there a long time, and I said, "So what level are you? And they were like, "I'm not quite sure." and I'm like, "Are you not even aware of where you're at here?" I mean, so disconnected. Now, interestingly, I worked with this person and within a couple of years, a couple of years of work, they got into a different role, they actually did get promoted, they started to sort of... But I think sometimes we get into this mode where we're just turning the crank. We kinda just lost touch with the fact that we have the ability to be leaders, even if you're an IC and you're doing this thing that seems like a small part of a bigger thing, but you can still be a leader.
13:44 RB: I get asked a lot of times from people, "So when should I do something new? When should I take a new job or leave a company or change organizations?" Or whatever it is. And two of the things that are key on my list of that are: A, are you learning? And B, you really enjoy working with the people around you? Both require real engagement, real awareness, you can't come in and mail it in if you're doing both of those things. And so to me... And then the third thing, which is maybe even more important than the first two in someways is, are you passionate about what you're doing? A combination of being passionate, learning, and enjoying the people you're working with, that defines a great job. And if you can't say yes to all three of those, or you can't say yes to at least two of them, you gotta be thinking, "Hmm, why am I here?"
14:37 PB: Yeah. I think most people that ask like, "Well, should I be doing something different?" They've probably already made up their mind that they should be doing something different, they're looking for some maybe external validation to make that leap.
14:48 RB: Yeah, maybe. Although, I will tell you there's a lot of people early in career, and I think this is a generational thing, I don't like to categorize people in certain generations, but younger workers today think about mobility and changing jobs more frequently than my generation did for sure. And they're trying to find this balance between recognizing that they need to learn and grow, and have some track record with, "Oh my gosh, there's an opportunity in some place else." And in the tech space right now, there's opportunities everywhere. And even in the midst of a recession and a pandemic, there's opportunities everywhere, and some people are constantly looking around, "Oh, am I missing something?" And then giving people the confidence to say, "Hey, if you're passionate, you like the people you work with, and your learning, switching job is not gonna be a big thing for you." If you're missing some of those things, well then, yeah, you should be looking at some of those other things. And so your job doesn't have like an expiration date. Your job should have a natural point in which it becomes time for you to do something.
16:00 PB: Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. My dad used to say, "Don't get comfortable." That was his advice. It's like once you start getting comfortable...
16:04 RB: Another Broadway, I get asked a lot, "Well, why did you leave Microsoft?" or "Do you miss it?" And my comment to people is, "Look, I loved... " I didn't love every day at Microsoft, I can't say that. I was there for 22 and a half, and I've had a bad day. But, I say probably I loved every week or month at Microsoft. And yet, I left at a time when I felt like I wasn't learning as much as I wanted to, I had some people issues, and I had other things that I was passionate about. And so I tell people, "I don't miss Microsoft. I've never looked back, I love the company." I think I got 110% out of the experience, but I kinda... I feel like I left at the right time and that could be different for everybody.
16:54 PB: So let me switch gears a little bit on you, so one of the things, and which we have an interesting connection on that I'd like to talk about. One of your experiences at Microsoft is... I was part of the Project Pink Group.
17:06 RB: Yeah.
17:06 PB: Remember that?
17:07 RB: I do.
17:08 PB: And in fact, I think I presented the pitch deck to you off of my laptop back in 2010 or something like that. We were with Ross and...
17:17 RB: You're gonna laugh, if you give me a chance, can I walk away from the screen for a second?
17:22 PB: Sure. Sure, go ahead. Okay.
17:24 RB: This look familiar? Holding up a kiln.
17:28 PB: Nice. Nice. Mint in Box. Mint in Box.
17:34 RB: [chuckle] I have both of them in my office, on my shelf.
17:39 PB: Awesome. Good to hear. Good to hear. Now, that was an experience when you talk about challenging experience, great people to work with, learn a lot of new things. So I am kinda rewinding a little bit back to that experience, what was, from your perspective, interestingly, I know what it was from my perspective, kind of going through that pro... I spent three years on the project. So cradle to grave literally, plug it in, to unplug it, [chuckle] but from your perspective, where did Project Pink fit in to all the stuff that was going on back then 'cause it was a little bit of a maelstrom.
18:14 RB: Yeah. Well I think Pink fit in in a couple of different ways. So Pink was really the first effort to create what, for lack of a better phrase, I'll call a Microsoft phone. And the idea was centered on a really good concept, which is, if you're gonna create these, given our podcast today, I'll call IoT devices, if you're gonna create these devices, they happen at the intersection of hardware and software and service. Those three things have to meld together in a seamless customer experience. And Microsoft, because we didn't do hardware, and we were just starting to do services, would provide software for those experiences and then hope they worked. And unfortunately, what we were discovering in multiple categories is that that wasn't working. The companies who would pick up our firmware or our operating system work or whatever, would inevitably screw it up in the integration with their software and service and produce mediocre devices.
19:13 RB: And our friends down at Cupertino, were getting really good at producing integrated devices that had really nice software, great hardware and a little less on the service at the time, but the service was provided by carriers, and so suddenly we're in this space where Windows Mobile and subsequently, Windows Phone is trying to find its way in the phone space, and the people who we're providing software to are producing mediocre phones. And it was one example, the first of an effort for us to do an integrated experience, and leveraging off some of the work we'd done with Xbox and a little bit, frankly, the work we did with Zune, while we produce integrated experiences. And I talk about Zune a lot, I talk about Pink less because it has less public visibility, but to talk about both of them as having many elements of success and then critical elements of failure, and you have to try to learn from that and then can continue to grow forward.
20:20 PB: Yeah, no, I thought actually too, it was a big service for you. At the time we were trying to do a cloud-powered phone basically, right? If you remember that, it was like a digital twin of the phone in the cloud, and all your stuff was there, and then the phone was just this kind of end point that connected to the cloud that reflected the state of your... From which should be connected to all these social services and whatever, so I love the idea, I mean the idea I feel like we're still executing on the deal with Azure to be honest with you, with digital twins and everything else. We were probably about 10 years ahead of the tech at the time, of course...
20:52 RB: I would say two things. And I think this is really important as you think about consumer and IoT, right? Timing is everything. And in a way, Pink was a project that was both before its time and after its time. When we spec-ed Pink in the beginning, it was timely, social media was catching on on phones, people were starting to use them more aggressively for the beginnings of photo sharing and video sharing and those kinds of things. Still mostly email and text messaging, but things were different. The market was probably the take-off for the pace.
21:35 PB: It like 2007, 2008.
21:36 RB: Unfortunately, for a lot of different reasons, Pink ended up being about 12-18 months late in terms of actually delivering a product to the market, and in that 12-18 months, the market moved. And suddenly you didn't want a special purpose social media device, suddenly every device needed to be a social media device and that left the niche market and that left Pink in a very small niche market, and so in essence, it was too late. Now to your point about replicating everything in the cloud, we were a little early, things... That was starting to happen, you couldn't even talk about the cloud in 2008, people didn't know what you were talking about, and then still timing with these IoT devices is a powerful thing and sort of evolving to match to where the market is, and you wanna be on the cutting edge, but not so far out that you get your head knocked off, and that's a tricky thing, and sometimes we've gotten it right, and sometimes we've gotten it wrong.
22:38 PB: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's like Nicholas Negroponte and Being Digital, it's an old book, I think it's from the '80s, maybe it's the '90s, but he said... One of his quotes was, "We tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run." So we get... We just totally imagine everything's gonna change tomorrow about this tech and of course it doesn't...
23:00 RB: Microsoft started it's auto initiative in 1990, so...
23:05 PB: Oh yeah, I used to drive a Ford Flex, by the way, and I have a V1.
23:09 RB: You think about, it's not that anybody miss out the opportunity.
23:16 PB: Yeah, no, I know that's... I guess getting back to leadership topic, how do we provide that leadership internally in our teams, and when you talk about the purpose, principles and priorities, actually, one of the interesting things there too, I wanted to talk about. I really love the part where you talked about leaving things undone, I actually just had a discussion with my team last week about, can we articulate things that we're not going to do? It was kind of an odd email because you always wanna talk about, "Oh, things are gonna get done," but let's be clear about what we're not doing, or I would say de-prioritizing, but maybe you can speak to that, and how important...
23:55 RB: Well, I think human nature is, do more. So if you ask somebody who works for you and say, "Hey, tell me your priorities." You'll inevitably get a list of between five and 10 things. That just sort of the human nature, and people will buy it themselves to more rather than less, that's just fact, but if somebody asks me for priorities, telling them I'm gonna do more must be better, right? And the truth is, the human capacity, our brains don't subdivide tasks that well, and so we only have the ability to do... I always pick five, but four or five things, well, at any given point in time, and even that I think requires real energy and real effort. And so the idea that somebody's gonna do seven things, I just go, "No, you're not going to. So tell me the two things you're gonna leave undone, tell me the two things you're just not gonna focus on, and tell me the five things... " 'Cause the problem is, if I give you seven and allow you to have seven, you'll try to do seven and maybe you'll do two or three pretty well. The rest all get done well unfortunately numbers one, two and three might be the ones that get undone, in the list, until...
25:08 PB: Yeah, exactly.
25:11 RB: And so just getting people to... And sometimes the best way to get people to prioritize is to get them to decide what they're not gonna do. And the experience I've had with people is when they do that, and they ultimately accept that it's okay, there's this giant sigh of relief. Thank God you took that off my plate.
25:33 PB: Yeah. Yeah [chuckle]
25:34 RB: Now, I actually have enough time to do what I know needs to be done.
25:39 PB: Xbox Revisited, so that's the book, I do encourage it, I did read it, it is really good. The other book, by the way, I have been reading, sort of interest versus, I guess you put this one down to read yours, but was the new Andrew Cuomo book, I don't know if you've seen that.
25:52 RB: I have not.
25:52 PB: But it's another... Yeah, and I picked it up. It was about his leadership lessons through this COVID crisis and yeah, and it's really fascinating 'cause he goes it day by day and imbues it with his leadership style and lessons learned and things. So I try to always go through a book, I'm always working on a book, and I went through a whole run of dystopian science fiction, which was a mistake 'cause it was very depressing and then I decide to lighten up, and now I'm looking at leadership books, 'cause that feels a little better right now at this point in time, but no, I really appreciated the book and I thought it was really insightful. So, is there any kind of, I guess, topics or thoughts that we have not gotten to yet that you would like to communicate?
26:41 RB: No, I think... Here's the one thing, when I think about IoT, so this won't be a leadership thing, this is an IoT-specific thing. When I think about IoT, I think a lot of people think about the grand unification of life, and they think somehow there's gonna be like a central nervous system for all IoT devices, and I'm gonna have a control panel that's gonna manage my IoT life. I fundamentally am not a believer in that. I am a believer in the fact that people think about systems in their life separately, and they think about their heating system as their heating system, and their music system as their music system, and their alarm system as their alarm system, and they don't think their home has a system. And so thinking about, again, when we come back to experience, thinking about how if you're experience lead, that's the way people experience. So I have... Yeah, it means I have a bunch of apps on my phone. I have a whole folder on my iPhone that's called The House, and it has a bunch of apps.
27:54 PB: Right. It's got like 30 apps in there. [chuckle]
27:55 RB: Yeah, I have a few less than that, but each of them are a little different. But, I know that Sonos is my music system and Nest manages my cameras and heat, and actually I have a Nest Stand where it goes it turns up, and it works. I have an app for automatic water shut off that detects leaks in our house, right? I don't need that to be integrated with anything else. And so I think there is in our tech minds, there's this, "Hey, let's unify because we can." And instead, we should think the way the human mind thinks, which is, "No, I have compartments. I have ways in which I think about things, let my tools think that way with me." And I would hope that the folks who have IoT in their future would think that.
28:49 PB: Yeah, no, and I think it goes back to the meeting customers where they're at, really thinking about what their problems are, what their experience is as a plant operator or healthcare worker and what they're trying to get done and making sure the tech fits into them, and so they don't have to fit into the tech. Cool. Well, Robbie, thanks a lot again for the time and appreciate the book and maybe I'll see you on a tennis court sometime.
29:16 RB: [chuckle] That's great, I appreciate you taking the time.
29:18 PB: Alright, thanks Robbie. Alright.
29:20 RB: Hey, cheers, take care.
29:21 PB: Bye-bye.
29:22 PB: This is Pete Bernard, you've been listening to the IoT unicorn podcast, and thanks for joining us. Stay tuned for the next episode. And feel free to give us some feedback at the IoT unicorn at microsoft.com. Thank you.