Flying a Desk

My wife is a genius. Of course, what loving (or at least savvy) husband wouldn’t say that about his significant other? Still, mine really is. Not long after we started seriously (SERIOUSLY!) dating the love of my life noticed that I was less than completely fulfilled at my job. Yes, I was working for one of the greatest (then not-so-great then great once again) technology companies on the planet but my role was, how to put this…like being the late-night host on QVC. Yes, I was getting paid but I knew my soul was slowly being syphoned off to feed a future real estate mogul’s run for President.

Being keenly in tune to my mental state she asked a question that, in retrospect, was both genius and obvious: “Is there anything that Microsoft does that you would want to be a part of?” Well, duh! Of course there is but, geez, I mean, it seems like such a long shot. Everybody and their brother (or sister!) would want to work there and who am I?

I don’t remember if she physically “whacked me up side the head” or just made her reaction know with the patented “wife stare” but she was having none of it. She instructed me to “mop up what’s left of your ego” and go find out if they were hiring. Fortunately for me Microsoft has a pretty robust email address book and I quickly found the email for, let’s just call him Andy (because that’s his name), and I dashed off a quick message about whether they were hiring, or not, and, if not, that’s okay because I understand you must get a lot of email and, er, I’m sorry, what? You are looking to hire a Scenery Program Manager? Okay! Not sure what that is but, yes, I’d love to talk to you about it.

I spent the next week or so preparing for the interview. This consisted of two distinct activities. In the first, I went through the myriad of potential interview questions I thought I might be asked. This includes classics like, “why are manhole covers round?” to “describe the universe in 20 words or less and cite 3 examples.” The second activity involved, whenever I had the opportunity (in the car, doing dishes, shopping with my girlfriend), blasting Foo Fighters “Learning to Fly” in my headphones. (I am seriously not making this up.)

Now, perhaps you have had the experience of not knowing exactly what you did to achieve something that you really, really wanted. I don’t recall what I was thinking after the interview but I do remember–thanks in part to the ability to look up my own employment history–that I was, in fact, offered the job. I was the newest addition to the Microsoft Flight Simulator team…doing scenery…or something.

GREEN AND GRAY. SOOOO MUCH GREEN AND GRAY.

As it turned out, “scenery” was just shorthand for “all the stuff in the game that’s not an airplane”. The thing about a flight simulator is that a simulated aircraft is pretty much useless unless you have things like, say, airports, navigation aids, terrain, obstructions, and so forth. When I joined the team there was a single, external company that provided all of this to Microsoft for inclusion in the game. If the term “single point of failure” makes your heart rate increase then you understand the position that Microsoft was in at that point in time. I was tasked with, generally, to “fix this” by bringing the “scenery” creation workflow back in house.

I would like to say the good thing was that I was an expert in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), map projections, datums, and multi-user databases and knew I could totally nail this. The reality was more nuanced, meaning I had (mostly) no clue what I was doing at first. Yes, I’d done database work before but didn’t know a spheroid from a hemorrhoid. Fortunately we had some talented folks on the team who did know and–better still–could refrain from rolling their eyes when the ‘noob’ would say something stupid (which happened frequently). We also recruited a talented developer named Gene from GIS powerhouse ESRI to help design and build our new system. In the end we pulled off our mission and our new “scenery” management system eventually took flight, though I did ship one version using the existing provider and some high-tech visuals:

MY CONTRIBUTION TO FLIGHTSIM 2002: PUSHPINS AND STAR STICKERS

My wife had been right–I just needed to find a role that nourished my whole self, not just my desire to be a ‘softie. The team that produced Flight Simulator (and it’s sister title, Combat Flight Simulator) was extremely talented and dedicated and included some true franchise veterans–folks who’d been there “in the beginning” (or pretty close to it). I truly enjoyed working with those folks and got to work on some projects that were pretty unique within the software industry, like our dynamic, real-world weather system. (For which I was awarded a patent for realizing people like to pick from lists.) I got to learn a lot about aviation, too. Microsoft partnered with industry players like Boeing, Jeppesen, King Schools and others. In a sense I probably got more exposure to the industry that I would have just flying my Maule around Puget Sound. And that’s not to say there wasn’t real flying. There were several pilots and airplane owners on the team. Our collective stable included a Cessna 206, Bonanza, Extra 300 and, weirdly, 4 Maules.

There were a myriad of other side benefits, too. Microsoft sponsored a booth at EAA Airventure in Oshkosh every year where the public got to demo our products (FS and CFS in alternating years) and you can’t have a booth without people to staff it! I got to go on several occasions and experience the “red carpet” treatment of a premium sponsor–meaning sleeping in a hotel room, meal tickets and getting around the sprawling complex via golf cart. I even flew my Maule there in 2002, alongside the esteemed Bruce Williams in the right seat. My wife flew out commercially and then flew back with me to Seattle (with a stopover in Nebraska at her parents’ farm), a trip notable for turbulence and a wicked crosswind landing in Butte, Montana.

Finding a “home” also benefitted my career. After serving as “scenery guy” I was promoted to Lead Program Manager and led the development effort for a couple of versions. I grew as a leader and a manager–gaining experience I still lean on today. Being project lead also meant I got to spend time promoting our simulation titles to the press and at various tradeshows.

BEING LOCKED IN A WINDOWLESS BOOTH FOR 8 HOURS TALKING TO JOURNALISTS BEGINS TO TAKE A TOLL

This was a mostly fulfilling experience, with the exception of that time when were accused of aiding terrorists (bad time to be the guy in charge of scenery). Or when a helicopter with our logo on it got wrecked…

I retained my lead role through the release of Flight Simulator X (‘X’ for EXTREME! Not.), after which I decided I needed a change of pace and moved over to spearhead the reintroduction of Microsoft Train Simulator. (You may laugh but the first version sold over a million copies!) The first few months on the job were great fun. The team got to go to Vancouver for several days for engineer training at BCIT where, after some classroom work, we each got to try our hand at driving the school’s diesel locomotive. (Seriously, why do people keep trusting us with complex machinery??)

JOSH EXPLAINING TO ME SOME VERY TECHNICAL ASPECT OF A DIESEL LOCOMOTIVE

However, despite the efforts of a very creative team, some very large ambitions (World of Rails, anyone?), and a press junket by yours truly, that product was never to see the light of day. Somehow I saw the writing on the wall (graffiti on the boxcar?) and had started putting the plans in motion for an even bigger change of pace, moving our family (which had grown to include a feisty four-year-old daughter) out of rainy Seattle for the sunny skies of Denver, Colorado. I had learned a great deal, not just about aviation but about myself and I will forever cherish my days working on Flight Sim. But life moves forward and it was time to put my dream back on the shelf for a few more years…

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