There was no kneeling and no sword, but when Tim Brookins was named a Microsoft Distinguished Engineer five years ago by none other than Bill Gates, the experience was “almost like you were knighted.”
The honor – an elite distinction held by just 38 people across a company of 90,000 – came years ago, and marked a high point in a long and adventuresome career with Great Plains Software and Microsoft.
Brookins joined Great Plains in 1990. The West Fargo native and North Dakota State University graduate was looking for work, and “figured he’d get a job at McDonald’s.” Whether the technologically gifted Brookins actually figured as much is another matter, but it never came to that – he instead interviewed for an accounting job at Great Plains.
“I thought to myself, ‘That sounds boring, but it sounds better than McDonalds,’” he said.
It turned out it wasn’t as boring as he feared – in part because he became an all-purpose fixer of sorts for Doug Burgum.
If there was a big sale pending, “Doug figured out that I could talk, so he’d grab me and drag me into the sales room,” Brookins said. If there was a technological crisis to be solved, “I got put on an airplane with less than four hours notice.”
A born tinkerer – he used to modify cars with his father, and schemed on a robot dressed in a cap and gown as a college graduation prank – Brookins’ claim to fame at Great Plains was a breakthrough in the accounting software that allowed the product to be customized without changing the source code.
The development earned him the title of the company’s first Technical Fellow.
The jack-of-all-trades work in the Great Plains growth years kept Brookins on his toes, though perhaps not to the same extent as the occasions at Microsoft on which he’d find himself in make-or-break sessions with Gates.
“Meetings with Bill were so critical,” Brookins said. “If he gives you the thumbs up, hundreds of millions of dollars of budget were going to flow you’re way. If he gives you the thumbs down, you might get whacked” (metaphorically, of course).
Brookins describes those meetings as high-powered affairs. There were sometimes spectators – NASCAR fans, he calls them, because “they always came to see the wrecks.” And the person seated next to Gates was responsible for what Brookins calls “Bill Control” – keeping the meeting rolling should the executive overwhelm the presenter with questions.
“If Bill gets worked up and starts peppering the presenter with hard questions, then it’s the job of the guy sitting next to Bill to distract him. You just have to distract him long enough for the presenter to get back to their question,” Brookins said. “Basically, that person is a matador in a bullfight.”
In spite of the intensity, Brookins wears the experiences as a badge of honor.
“If you’re going to be sitting across from Bill, he’s going to expect you to be really, really smart,” he said, calling his work with Gates “something I’ll take with me.”
Today, Brookins’ team works on the Windows Phone, smoothing out what he calls “the –ilities – scalability, reliability.” He spends about a week a month in Redmond, but still marvels at the career he’s forged here without packing up and leaving.
“I never moved, right?,” he said. “From my strange perspective, it’s like, ‘Hey, Microsoft came to me.’”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502