Kate Edwards, Microsoft’s first ever Geopolitical Specialist shares her experiences in a Q&A with Living Computers.
Living Computers: How did you end up at Microsoft?
I was in graduate school at the University of Washington, studying geography and cartography and had just completed my master’s degree in 1991 (about using VR/AR for cartography), when Microsoft called our department looking for a cartographer to work on what would become v1.0 of Encarta Encyclopedia. Another grad student and I applied for the role, which he ended up getting, but then he called me in early February 1992 to seek my help to create all the original maps for Encarta. So I started as a contractor on what I thought would be a maximum 6 month stint, but the contract kept getting renewed over and over, and I became the cartography lead for Encarta Encyclopedia and Encarta World Atlas before I finally was offered a headcount role in November 1995.
LCM+L: What’s your Microsoft history? What groups, roles and projects did you work on during your tenure?
KE: My role at Microsoft was rather unique, as I came into the company originally as a cartographer to work only on Encarta Encyclopedia and Encarta World Atlas. But after I received my headcount role as Microsoft’s first ever “Geopolitical Specialist,” my responsibilities started to expand as people around the company found out about my existence and started asking me all kinds of questions related to proper geographical representation, flag usage, and cultural issues like icon design and color appropriateness. Because of my background, I could answer most of those question easily and/or knew where to quickly find the answers. For a while, I was the “go to” person at the company for these issues, using the “DrWhere” alias internally as a sort of geographical and cultural helpdesk.
Then in 1997, we made a grievous map error in Encarta World Atlas that seriously upset the South Korean government. After much negotiation we fixed the problem (and made the map more accurate all around, not just for the Korean perspective). However, a few months later, the original Age of Empires game released in South Korea and it contained some of the same map errors we fixed for Encarta. Understandably, the government was extremely upset but they didn’t understand that Encarta was made in a group completely separated from the games division. This huge disconnect gave me the idea that Microsoft needed a new kind of internal team to manage these kinds of serious geopolitical and cultural risks across the company and provide standard guidance to all.
So I wrote a proposal for what I originally called the “Microsoft Office of International Affairs” and shopped it around to 4 VPs, all of whom thought the idea was interesting but ultimately rejected it. Finally, on 7 April 1998, I met with Paul Maritz and his first comment after my pitch was “I thought we’re already doing this?” Literally within minutes my new team was created – called the “Geopolitical Product Strategy” team, and then later just “Geopolitical Strategy” (known to many within the company as the “geops” team, because “geops” was the internal email alias I created for the group).
And so I managed my team for 7 years until I departed Microsoft in 2005, and literally touched every single product at Microsoft at some point – from Windows and Office, to Internet Explorer and MSN, from all the games to MSNBC, and so on and on. This included a few debriefings of sensitive problems with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer to inform them of what had happened and what we were doing to mitigate. In 2004 I was able to get a “geopolitical check” line item in the master checklist for everything that leaves Microsoft, and at that point I started pondering my exit because my goal of institutionalizing the company’s thinking around these issues had been achieved.
LCM+L: What does Microsoft mean to you?
KE: The funny thing is that growing up as an Apple Computer user, I didn’t have any affinity for Microsoft or its domain. But having found myself working for the company for so long and now in hindsight, Microsoft for me is a laboratory of what’s possible. Even though it was hard fought for, I will always appreciate Microsoft’s willingness to hear me out and let me try to experiment with this new kind of team and see if it could help the company. History proves that their faith was well placed. Despite all the memes and external perception of Microsoft being some kind of monolithic company, at its heart – as with any company or industry – are great people who have confidence in their collective ability to make the impossible happen. I feel that Microsoft has only improved on that level since I departed.
LCM+L: What, in your opinion, pushed Microsoft forward to where it is today?
KE: When I left Microsoft, I did an exit interview with the corporate archive team and they recorded a visual history segment with me. One thing I told them when I left was that “The only real threat to Microsoft is itself;” people need to be diligent in constantly questioning the integrity of the company’s direction, and challenge it when they see it going off path. Let’s be honest, the company made quite a few mistakes in the past for which it paid literally and figuratively. And some of the company culture during my time wasn’t ideal by any means. But over time, people rose to the occasion, especially under fresh new leadership like Satya Nadella, and I feel Microsoft has been somewhat reborn out of the fire of its past and has emerged stronger than ever.
LCM+L: What was your favorite thing you got to do in your role or be a part of?
KE: Out of all the work I was privileged to do in my role as Senior Geopolitical Strategist running my Geopolitical Strategy team, by far my most favorite was working on all the video games. I’m a real gamer at heart and have always had a strong creative side, so when I was able to perform my culturalization work on video games like Halo, Fable, Age of Empires, Forza, and so many others, it was a real joy. It’s actually the reason why I decided to focus primarily on video games after I left the company on 2005, because that work brings me so much joy.
LCM+L: What was one team or project that you followed that you weren’t directly connected to?
KE: Probably my favorite group beyond my own team and the projects on which I was involved was the MS Research group. I always eagerly looked forward to the annual TechFest event in which MSR showed off all their latest findings, gadgets, and progress – it really helped reinforce that Microsoft is incredibly innovative, to the point where many of would ask “Why hasn’t this software/device been made public yet?!” Honestly, some of the things I saw even 15 years ago would still be amazing today, but I guess they’re still working on perfecting them. :)
LCM+L: What’s your favorite Microsoft stat or nugget of information that you think is worth sharing?
KE: I’m not sure about the exact statistic now, but I think on average about 40% of Microsoft’s workforce are outside the United States. That’s a massive global presence! And during my time running the Geopolitical Strategy team, I had to liaison and work closely with many of the subsidiaries around the world, because they were often on the frontline of dealing with geopolitical and cultural mistakes that were made primarily by people back on Redmond (including some of them actually being arrested over some content errors!). So I made a point of developing really good relationships with many subsidiary general managers and staff and many of them remain good friends to this day.
LCM+L: What was your first computer?
KE: The first computer I ever used was a TRS-80 in my math class in junior high. But the first computer I ever owned was an Apple II clone, which was quickly followed by the very first Macintosh in 1984.