Therefore, Send Not To Know For Whom The Bell Tolls, It Tolls For Thee

The title of this blog post may elude some readers, for it is from the English poet John Donne (1572-1631) and I share in its entirety below and it is entitled For Whom The Bell Tolls:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

I am sharing this blog post (and poem) because this week I was made redundant from my job at Microsoft as part of the global restructuring and cutbacks that have been taking place and are well publicised. Over the last six years I have worked with education customers across Asia Pacific in both K-12 and Higher Education and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, regularly blogging about the experience and sharing my learnings here.

A Game Of Two Halves; A Job Of Two Periods

A well-worn cliche in the sports industry in New Zealand is that it was “a game of two halves”; meaning that the momentum/shape of the game changed distinctly at some point. I could say the same about my time at Microsoft; 2017-2020 was a period of almost weekly domestic travel across New Zealand and regular trips around Asia and to the US. From 2020-2023 a mere three trips to the USA, Singapore, Thailand due to the restrictions associated with COVID-19 and the subsequent financial tightening of travel expenses.

This “second half” of my Microsoft career is in fact so distinguished from the first half, that the regular early morning trips to the airport seem like a lifetime ago. Looking over my records from expenses, I see that in 2018 I did 30 trips involving at least one flight, and in 2019 that peaked at 34. These were often multi-day trips around New Zealand or abroad – it was indeed a busy time.

No Man Is An Island

I learnt very early on at Microsoft that to be successful, you needed to learn to navigate the myriad of org structures, put yourself out there, and reach out and grow your internal network of people who have various skills and connections that you can leverage.

Microsoft is huge, with over 220,000 employees (currently being trimmed by around 10,000 according to CEO Satya Nadella) and to that end, it’s similar to what Donne was expressing in his poem:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Microsoft is at its very best when it comes together, focusing diverse talents and experiences into a co-ordinated v-team to solve complex challenges our customers have through innovative uses of cloud computing.

Equally, however, I recognise that as someone leaving the organisations, there are others that remain who will be expected to “pick up the slack” created by my absence (and that of thousands of others who are leaving). This is hard and challenging and stressful for those that remain behind. They, too, are impacted by the departure of their colleagues and I’ve had numerous chats with those colleagues of mine that remain who are stressed and wondering how they will deliver outcomes to customers with less support after the cutbacks. I don’t want to overly dramatize this, but Donne was hinting at this idea of inter-connectedness in his poem:

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.

This could be rewritten for my situation as:

Each teammate’s departure diminishes me,
For I am involved in Microsoft.

This is not a “dig” at Microsoft in any way at all, but rather a recognition that any organisation or collection of people working to move in a common direction are part of a whole – each individual plays a role in this. As the overall numbers diminish, the expectation for those that remain to “do more with less” only grows. I have nothing but respect (and some sympathy) for my colleagues that will remain and do amazing work.

Send Not To Ask For Whom The Bell Tolls

Perhaps the most famous line of the poem, I jokingly referenced this a few weeks back to a friend when they asked me about the rolling nature of cuts at Microsoft. My intention was to infer “sometimes it’s best to not look/ask about the cuts, the next one might be coming for me!”

How prescient that proved to be.

In fact, I thought by early March I had likely survived the most recent round of cuts and was very focused on driving outcomes and impact with the smaller teams we had at that point. To learn my role was cut with no attempt to evaluate my impact / performance / competence / success against targets was disconcerting and prompted all sorts of questions which, I realise now, I’ll never get answers to. Consequently, I’ve adopted a positive mindset of learning from this experience at Microsoft, being grateful for every opportunity I’ve been privileged to be part of and look to the future with hope and excitement.

This Too Shall Pass

A famous quote, the actual origins of the phrase are not conclusively known with references appearing in English as far back as 1848 and 1852, with one source recounting:

a sultan requests of King Solomon a sentence that would always be true in good times or bad; Solomon responds, “This too will pass away”.

I blogged about this nearly three years ago at the outset of the pandemic when I did some reflections on the annual ANZAC memorials that take place in New Zealand as we collectively remember the sacrifices of our armed services in various conflicts they have been involved in. Personally, I take comfort in knowing that “this too shall pass” in terms of widescale cutbacks and redundancies at many large tech companies at the moment and, inevitably, the pendulum will swing back and hiring will take place once more.

Because ultimately, deep industry knowledge matters and customers want to understand how cloud solutions will deliver improved returns for them, whether that is financial savings or as in the case of education, better learning outcomes and greater educator efficiencies.

Satya Nadella and the Microsoft mission statement

I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to have worked in the education team at Microsoft for a variety of reasons, but perhaps central amongst those is that we lived the organisation’s mission statement every single day. When what you do has an impact on the millions of students and educators across Asia Pacific, it demands humility from you and a level of focus and authenticity that matches the task at hand. I am deeply humbled by the knowledge that I’ve helped improve the learning outcomes for students in some small way through an improved education experience.

Not Goodbye; But See You Soon

So as I close this chapter on my working career, I do not see this as a “goodbye” to the Edutech sector, but more of a “see you soon.” I will be back, with a new hat on and a continued passion for operating in that most dynamic of intersections where technology and education meet. Because I simply do not see any organisation or vendor that has “done it perfectly” yet – there is room to improve, grow and strive for even better student and educator experiences.

And I want to be part of that.

I am always keen to discuss what I've written and hear your ideas so leave a reply here...

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