Dear Mr. Nadella,
I should set expectations that I don’t seriously expect you to read everything that I’ve written as part of this response; I don’t want to seem that presumptuous. You’re an insanely busy billionaire CEO of a very large organization focused on a lot of things right now and I’m assuming most of this will be digested by others but I hope you get the summary.
When you took over at Microsoft (I was then an FTE), I remember you saying you would “ruthlessly remove any obstacles that allow you to innovate”. I’ve detailed at length an obstacle to innovation.
This is not one of those situations where an irate customer makes a foreboding pronouncement about the financial direction of the company; you’re kicking ass. But Microsoft is a 1.1 trillion-dollar company with so diverse a portfolio and so extensive a sales pipeline that I genuinely believe you’ll make record profits no matter what. Any of us could cite a top of mind stumble or misstep, large or small, in past years that might have been fatal for another company but none of them, no matter their size, cost, or how humiliating has detracted from reaching that $1T number. So, I’m not going to pretend that doing the wrong thing here will have any impact nor am I going to assume that your continued success will indicate that the right thing must have happened.
Instead, I’m going to focus this letter on the character of your company, independent of its insane profitability, as it relates to your words. And because I have always been inspired by you since I was an FTE and you were leading Server & Tools (my BU), I’ve been paying attention.
In 2015, you inspiringly revealed that Microsoft’s mission was to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”. It’s a mission I believe in. And in a lot of tech circles for a long time, the name Visual Basic has literally been synonymous with empowerment. Yet, last Wednesday (in the midst of a global pandemic) the VB.NET community was informed specifically that they would not be empowered to achieve anything more at all ever again.
In 2014, you said that a priority for you was “…zeroing in on what [you] can uniquely deliver to customers that is move valuable to them. [Your] goal is to build high value experiences…”. It has been my experience that the choice of programming language is quite possibly the highest value experience to a developer.
I know you care about bringing women and girls into computer science. This month is Women’s History Month (here in the US). This month we should be talking about the rich history of women (including women of color) in many positions of impact, influence, and leadership over the 30-year history of Visual Basic starting from version 1.0 to present and how those women’s participation in building Microsoft’s Developer Tools business should fundamentally alter the stereotype of what the people who create programming languages have and do look like. But that conversation sends a inconvenient mixed message when you’re moth-balling their legacy. Will it be told? These actions are not just about VBs future but in effect are minimalizing and rendering inconvenient a diverse and unique history.
I know you care about racial diversity in tech. I am a 35-year-old African-American male born, raised, educated, and currently residing (by choice) on the South Side of the City of Chicago (yes, that South Side of Chicago). Right now, I should be lining up opportunities to talk to neighborhood high schools (which predominantly serve African-American boys and girls) to talk to them about how the lifetime relationship I built with technology and your company through– and the skills I built from– Visual Basic (4,5,6,.NET) fundamentally changed my life, lifted me out of poverty, enabled me to empower others in my family and community, and led to me ascending to the top of my field as the Lead Language Designer and Program Manger for Visual Basic .NET at Microsoft. That’s the triumphant story I should be preparing to tell students who look like me and haven’t thought about computer science or don’t know if it’s for kids like them and from where they grew up.
But this little announcement, it puts an asterisk on my accomplishments. “I climbed to the top, but don’t get interested in my path too specifically. Maybe look around; don’t try to pick up the product I just told you I helped lead and build because that made you interested. Maybe you can start with it but you can’t go too far”. The one being installed over VB.NET isn’t the glass ceiling I thought I’d have to be talking to Black kids about.
In a time when everyone is trying to attract more people to our industry, to tech, to computer science and no one has really figured it out yet, it should be an all-hands-on-deck moment. Instead, Microsoft is taking players out of the game. Does that make sense?
And not to toot my own horn (I really don’t talk about myself like this much) but I was proud to be one of the few Black language designers of a major programming language let alone the lead one. But technically since the future of language evolution has been unilaterally and universally rejected am I even one anymore since the open source community where I’ve been prototyping and contributing language design proposals in continuance of that rarefied skillset has effectively been shut and myself implicitly disinvited. You can’t be a designer if there’s nothing to design; I think I’m just some guy now.
And I know you care about open source as well, stating in 2018 that Microsoft was “all in on open source”. But even without that quote I know it because I personally know the role you had in open sourcing Roslyn and with it C# and VB.NET. Which is why it is disappointing that this posture of unilateralism from some within Microsoft shows a misunderstanding of the spirit of open source. This “plan” is a violation a fundamental right of the community of an open source programming language to self-determination and is steering one of Microsoft’s earliest high-profile open source projects, the VB.NET language, toward a situation which can only be regarded as a failure of open source.
Is it that it’s a New Microsoft; unless it needs to briefly be the old one again?
So deeply did that statement penetrate my psyche that apparently, I subconsciously extended the spirit of it to a broader mandate that Microsoft wanted to move people from needing Microsoft, to wanting Microsoft, to loving Microsoft, and have remembered it that way since. Fortunately, also in 2015 you said “Customer love” was a better sign of success than revenue or profit so I’m covered.
But why should others seek to love you if we’re now witnessing the natural conclusion of love? If getting people to go from needing Microsoft to wanting Microsoft to loving Microsoft is in fact a goal then right now this plan going in the wrong direction. You have customers who love you already, and they have been wanting you for a while now, but this course of action can only reduce them to a state of resigned need. What comes next?
What’s the value in customer obsession if obsession turns to abuse?
In 2017, you said you came to “… the realization that in many cases, customers have already chosen to work with you and yet you consciously, or unconsciously, abandon them to go work off on the new shiny object is a mistake”. And I have believed that too and I love you for saying that!
But it’s natural for customers to wonder what’s the point in Hitting Refresh when they keep getting the same response.
In 2019, you said success comes from empathy. Customer empathy is a term I’m hearing a lot lately and that’s a great thing!
Having said that, if “The .NET Team” couldn’t see this coming—if they felt that they could make this decision and that the relationship between Microsoft and its VB.NET customers wouldn’t sour, that developer relations would be neutral or somehow improve or just adapt to a new normal, they can’t be said to have customer empathy.
And if they do in fact have customer empathy and did see it coming but then did it anyway, you have a different problem.
And finally, in 2019 you said, “the power law here is all around trust because one of the keys for us, as providers of platforms and tools, trust is everything” and went on to say, “if you have trust, you will have exponential benefit. If you erode trust it will exponentially decay”. Also in 2019 you said, “You can’t claim trust, you have to earn it every day”. You get it—Microsoft Runs on Trust.
But there are a lot of ways customers trust you and it can’t be that trust is just a matter of encryption strength and data privacy policies. Why should customers associate trust with Microsoft when the pervasive narrative that has overshadowed the VB.NET community for 18 years—literally that Microsoft cannot be trusted, that betrayal is coming sooner or later, be afraid, that we should distrust and prepare, is the narrative that’s proving out correct?
So, Mr. Nadella, sir. My only non-rhetorical question to you is this: What are we, the billions of your customers around the world, and your tens of thousands of employees and partners to make of the words; when representatives of your company needlessly and cavalierly undermine the integrity of those words with actions in contravention of everything you and other leaders under you have publicly and internally stated that you value?
With the highest respect and sincerity, and genuine confusion,
–Anthony Diante Green
Former Employee and Current VB.NET Customer