What I Learned About Life … While Working at Microsoft

Recently, I did a talk at the Bay Path College Women’s Leadership Conference on their Career Development Track. When I announced this to my email list, it led to a conversation with a former college professor about how the topic would be of interest to the community at my alma mater, Mount Holyoke … particularly to the senior class.

He offered to connect me to the “right people” at the school to set something up and asked for some background info he could pass on:

  1. About me,
  2. About the talk, and
  3. About how my experience in college led me to where I am today.


I want to share my reflections, since they feel the most interesting for me to reflect on almost 20 years later.

In college, I was a Comp Sci major, Spanish minor. Late in my time at MHC, I discovered a Five College grad level course called Advanced 3D Computer Animation. I could take as an undergrad, though I had to compete with about 50 others who wanted in to get one of 12 spots available). I learned to use 3D software to create “scenes” and animation. Turns out I had a knack for it.

It was here that I learned that I loved USING cool software more than I loved WRITING code for software. I still loved understanding the programming side, but I wanted to get to creative production.

With a job offer at Microsoft right after College, (as a software test engineer), I put those dreams of integrating design, art, and computer stuff on hold for a while. At Microsoft, I learned:

  • A lot about software development on a large scale
  • That it can be inspiring and intimidating to work in environment where EVERYONE is an over achiever and really smart.
  • That I didn’t love 10 months of grey skies over a 12-month period (Seattle).
  • That I didn’t love the narrowly defined role I have at a big corporation… I like more hats to wear, more creativity… This feeds into what I now call “Xtine’s Law of Perpetual Energy.”
  • I learned that in life sometimes I will find myself doing things that I don’t love to do. Sometimes it makes sense to stick it out (and LEARN!). Sometimes it makes sense to bail (AND NO SHAME IN THAT!).
  • No matter where you are, you can embrace life experience in all its many forms.
  • That the Pacific Northwest has some of the most breathtaking outdoor spaces that I’ve ever experienced.

I decided to stay at MS through the end of the project cycle I was on (about a year and a half). And I also decided that while I was doing this, I was going to make damned sure I was LEARNING as much as possible, and DOING things that I might only be able to do while I was there.

For me, this meant:

  • Really owning my job and kicking ass at it;
  • Meeting new people even when as an introvert, I might prefer to stay home;
  • Though I had no theatre experience and only very minimal training in voice/music, it meant I auditioned for a musical (and I surprised myself by getting one of the leads — comfort zone push there for sure).
  • Hiking Mt. St. Helens, the South Sister and others.
  • Experiencing Seattle, the Olympic Mountains, Skiing in the Cascade Mountains and sleeping on the hard desert ground of Eastern Washington after staying up most of the night to watch the meteor showers. (In a desert the air is crisp and clear, the sky is BIG, and the star gazing is profound.)

After 1.5 years at MS, I moved back to the happy valley and helped co-found Gravity Switch. Our business has changed and evolved by leaps and bounds in our almost 20 years of biz. But the core stays the same: To make a living doing what I love, working with and for people that I respect and care about, and getting a chance to do what I do best, every single day.


My “6 List” – Focusing on What’s Important

Being effective and productive in your work means focusing on the right things and saying “no” to a lot more things than you’d think. Of late, I’ve been using a tool I call my “6 List” — it’s an an approach that I grabbed from the book, The Ultimate Sales Machine, by Chet Holmes.


One common problem for the working professional, is having a daily to do list that’s just not achievable. We list out the important things that need to be done. Sounds great! But if we added up the time it’d take to do them all, it’s about 4 days of work we expect to pack into one day.

Even if we haven’t done the math, subconsciously we know we’ll never finish it all. Often, we give up before we start or get mired into doing the things “in front of us” versus what’s most important. Then, when the end of the day comes, we haven’t even made a dent in our priorities.


In his book, Holmes talks about how in an 9 – 10 hour work day, we should identify the top 6 things that must get done. We should expect that our actions on them for today will total about 6 hours. If the 6 things total more than 6 hours, then some management of expectations (yours, your team’s, a client’s) should replace one of the 6 things, so your 6 List is achievable.


You need the 6 List to account for only 6 hours because you will need the rest of the time in your day to manage the unexpected things that WILL come up. Some of those unexpected things can just get done. Some will need to replace one of your items on your 6 List (re-prioritization). Some can be deferred to a later date. But that deferment takes a little management (to make sure you’re equipped to be reminded to do that other thing at the right time).


Once you’ve got your 6 List, you need to keep it near you to make sure you’re sticking to it and to make sure that the unexpected things aren’t going to keep you finishing your 6.

I’ve been using this technique for a couple of months and I’ve found it quite helpful.

Xtine’s Law of Perpetual Energy

I have this theory and the more I tested it, the more I realized it was not just a theory. I decided to make it a law. (My second law, at that.)

And it’s just this:

You can keep your productivity (and enjoyment of what you’re doing) very high by:

1. Working where you’re inspired

2. Switching gears when your productivity starts to lag. This literally FRESHENS your energy.

Example: I’m a CEO, a door-opener, a designer, a mom, a wife, a writer, an athlete, a dabbler at piano, a person who enjoys mowing lawns, “straightening things” and vacuuming, and more.

When I’m doing a lot of “thought work,” I will find it restful and energizing to write a blog post, or design a marketing flyer. OR, I might enjoy reading a book to my kids.

Often, after a long day of work when I’m tired, the first thing I want to do is go dig into an insane cardio workout. To the outside observer it looks like, “Damn, she’s still going!”

But actually, because the new activity uses DIFFERENT parts of my brain, body and being, it rests my tired parts. And it gives way to the energetic parts of me that are bursting to be used.

I call it Xtine’s Law of Perpetual Energy. And while it does require supplements of good nourishing food and periods of sleep, it’s pretty self-sustaining in all other ways.



Just Smile and You’ll Be Happier

Feelings and actions go hand-in-hand. We often think that actions follow the feelings. When we FEEL happy, we smile. But, because actions and feelings are so closely tied, we can take action to influence our feelings. Start SMILING and we will feel happier.

Try it. It works.

Take it a step further and smile, make eye contact and say “Good morning” (or afternoon or evening) to a person you pass on the street.

This nifty idea is something I was just reading about in Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Despite its smarmy sounding title, this book, written in the 1930’s, concisely delivers timeless advice that a person can apply right away to improve their relationships and their lives.



My “Keep Doing & Stop Doing” List

There are two very key questions I’ve started asking myself on a weekly basis. The answers to them are always very eye-opening, great for focus, and a big boost to my productivity. Here they are:

  1. What is the most effective thing I did last week that I should do more of?
  2. What was the least effective thing I did last week that I should stop doing?

If you keep increasing your top performing activities and zapping your lowest performing activities, there is huge, huge potential.

Parents Helping Kids Isn’t Always Helpful

OK, so we’re a one car family. This week the plan was for me to have the car on Monday. That means that my daughter, Charlie, (who goes to a charter school where there’s no school provided transportation) would need an alternate ride home.

She’s 8-years-old and very capable.

On Sunday, (the day before all of this would go down) my husband told her, “Hey Charlie. Tomorrow you need to find your own ride home from school. So you probably want to make arrangements for that today.” He left it at that.

I felt this stupid need to “help” even though, as I’m reflecting on this now, I know Charlie could totally handle this. Anyway, I reached out to a neighbor whose kids also go to the same school. I arranged for a ride for Charlie. And then,  I forgot to tell Charlie all of this. Nice so far, right?

I remembered on Monday morning and called Charlie (from work) to tell her. She told me she’d already taken care of things herself. She called a friend and explained the situation and set up a playdate where they will pick her up from school. Nice!

So then I got on the phone with the first parent to undo the “help” I’d put into place. Turns out, all I had done was created work for myself and a little “noise” in the mind space of this other parent who no longer needed to give my daughter a lift home.

Sigh. Lesson learned.

Xtine’s Thought of Today: Sometimes you need to work ON your life and not IN it…

One of my favorite bits of advice I ever got from a business mentor is the reminder that I needed to make time to work ON my business and not just IN my business. Anyone in business, knows what this means. And as soon as they hear it, they usually get it. Yes! This is important.

Today I realized, the same is true in life. Sometimes you need to work ON your life. Not just in it.