December 10, 2009

Chris Pratley

By Barbara Travers


Firm: Microsoft

Position: General manager, Office Labs

Chris Pratley has been at Microsoft since 1994. He co-founded the OneNote team in 2001 and has been part of its success and innovation ever since. From 1995 to 2006, he was also a part of the Word team, starting on Japanese Word95 and growing to be the group manager for the Word program management team.

For Office 2007, Pratley was the group program manager for Office “Authoring Services” where he managed the program management teams that designed Word, Publisher and OneNote. His latest assignment has him at the helm of innovation where the work of his team is setting the course of future technologies from Microsoft.

The Chris Pratley 411
1. If you could launch one futuristic product today, what would it be?

Personal 3-D printers — how cool is it to make any real world object you can imagine just by designing it and then “printing” it into existence?

2. What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

I got paid $5 an hour to strip varnish from doors in the hot sun. (Note to self: Be the guy paying the $5, not the one making it.)

3. What do you do to decompress?

Old fashioned stuff — reading mostly because I don’t get to do it often enough. And of course Xbox 360!

4. What’s on your Zune?

NPR podcasts mainly, and recently the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. What can I say? I’m a geek.

5. What one thing about you would surprise people?

I’m not a technophile or gadget junkie. New things need to reduce complexity for me, not add to it, so they need to work well and be easy or I won’t touch them.

Give us a brief background on Chris Pratley.

I grew up in Montréal, Canada. I started playing with computers when I was 13, teaching myself machine language to get the most out of those early home machines. My engineering degree is from the University of Waterloo, outside Toronto. I was an exchange student in Japan, then returned there for my first full-time job in the tech industry, along with many adventures. Three years later I heard that Microsoft was looking for someone to work on Excel who could speak Japanese and had software design capability. I took the leap. I met my wife, Seiko, in Japan and we have two little boys who are a constant source of happiness and amazement to me.

Who are your mentors and why?

I’ve never really identified with particular individuals much as mentors. I’ve learned a lot from many different people in different situations. Leading significant efforts and numbers of people through uncertainty toward a difficult goal is a great challenge, so I am filled with respect and deeply inspired when I see others step up to the task and do it well. I know the stress they must face internally.

How does the exploration process develop at Microsoft?

There are lots of ideas out there about how to best experiment with software. I find that rather than picking a dogma, it pays to be open to what is working and what is not. Some projects need a lot of deep thought before experimentation starts. Others need input from potential users/customers before we know enough about what to make.

The more innovative an idea is, the more likely it is to attract scorn. If it were clearly brilliant, someone would likely have already developed it. Usually the concept hasn’t been developed because it wasn’t viewed as worth doing, or had been tried and failed in an earlier incarnation. That’s not to say that plenty of ideas are not worthy of scorn — just that with hindsight we all know which ideas were good. Telling them apart beforehand is what’s hard, so the experience for the innovator is that you get a lot of push-back. You need conviction and passion to get a worthwhile idea past that.

Were you inquisitive as a child? Any creative inventions you care to share with us?

I was fascinated with my first home computer, an Atari 400. Figuring out how to program it was a real challenge since in 1980 there were just a few hobbyist magazines and no Internet. I really liked graphics and role-playing games, so on the school’s Apple II I figured out how to program a dungeon adventure game that many of my classmates loved. It even spread virally to other grades in our school (via floppy disk copying — early software piracy!). Back on the Atari I went on to build a music program with a graphical display of bars and notes; a chemistry simulation; and a spaceflight simulator where you had to blast off and successfully reach orbit. These were fun challenges and resulted in my first all-nighters.

How do you spot the next big thing?

I think the “next big thing” is a myth. The first misconception is that there is a particular moment when a big thing is created. Innovation nearly always comes as the result of incremental changes over time. What we tend to do culturally is mythologize it by picking a certain moment in a chain of innovations to declare the birth of the big thing. All the shoulders of giants that were stood on to get there become a footnote and we eulogize the “innovator” who popularized the “invention.”

Instead, I think clichés are largely true. Edison said invention is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Linus Pauling said the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

The words “gaming” and “productivity” are rarely used in the same sentence, but you’ve alluded that there may be something there. Any hints?

A major shift in the last 20 years is that the kids who grew up playing video games never stopped playing them. For these adults, many now in their 40s, video games are normal and not just for kids. We know from research and our own experience that if you make something fun, people will spend time on it. And if you measure their performance by giving them scores, they will try to do better. Games that teach you to type by connecting typing with game play like Tetris or Space Invaders were early attempts.

We’ve all “wasted” a few minutes (or more!) playing games at work to recharge mentally — often simple games like Solitaire or Minesweeper. With pervasive social networks we now have the ability to make such efforts social, which is a key element for extended and deeper game play.

With this combination we can design games that help you learn how to perform tasks better, or use tools more effectively. Done right these would actually be fun and you wouldn’t realize you were being trained. What would happen if it were fun to learn about what Office can do, and entertaining to compare your “score” with friends and colleagues?

Now that Generation Y is assuming rank, it’s clear that what divides generations is technology, not just music. How can we bridge that gap?

Every generation grows up with a new normal, while the older folks need to adapt. In the early days of the technological revolution, the focus was so strong on technology that you had to be committed (or young) to adopt it. Products were functional, but hard to use, and required you to meet them on their terms, which was difficult for many people not weaned on them. Now we find new technologies start out accessible, or at least the cycle time to reach mass accessibility is shorter. Technologists know that design and “human factors” are key aspects of any successful product.

Another challenge in bridging generational divides is behavior, and that will probably be with us forever. Some of it is life-stage related, more than generational. We’ll know better when Gen Y’s replacement shows up in force. For example, many people remark that Gen Y seems more social and less concerned with privacy than preceding generations. Is this due to the Internet, mobile devices, Twitter, etc., or just a function of youth wanting to get out there as has been the case for eons? I think it’s more the latter.

Ask a 50-year-old what they do with a cell phone and they’ll say they make calls and maybe read e-mail — it’s a tool to perform a task and to reach people they know. Ask a 20-year-old and they will tell you they text, tweet or update status. The first lets them communicate and move on quickly without monopolizing them the way voice does. The latter two work better for reaching larger groups, and lets others keep up to date on their activities. For the 20-year-old, tools like cell phones serve to meet new people.

Looking back, what project makes you smile every time?

I have to say OneNote. The day we went public with the project was such a blast. I did one-on-one media interviews all day that started out with each journalist pretty jaded about a new doohickey from Microsoft. It ended with them jumping out of their seats and asking how soon they could get it. What a trip! It took me 17 minutes to get that reaction in the first interview, and by the last one I had it down to three minutes. Since then whenever I need a pick-me-up I just look at the Twitter stream for OneNote — the love people have for it is humbling and rewarding.

If you ran into a 22-year-old Chris Pratley today, what advice would you give him?

Other than buy Microsoft stock options? I’d tell him to go for it — have confidence in your abilities, and don’t limit yourself. As Henry Ford said, “whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”

You’re a futurist — what will be your next career?

The one I have is pretty darn good. Any job defined as “make new stuff” never gets old.

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