Amid the decor on Mark Olson’s office walls – logos, ad campaigns, and other design work highlights – hangs a framed print bearing a not-so-subtle message: “Screw Microsoft.”
It’s more of a conversation starter than a declaration of war. After all, Olson spent nearly two decades with Great Plains Software and Microsoft and credits both for his professional development. And as a substantial shareholder in the latter, he isn’t interested in seeing Microsoft crash and burn.
But it’s also a window into why the longtime brand manager stepped away from the corporation of 90,000-plus employees to go into business for himself.
Olson is a member of the informal club that shares perhaps the most common resume bullet point in Fargo-Moorhead: Microsoft and Great Plains.
It’s a group that populates the leadership ranks of a number of regional firms – Brent Teiken, chief executive of Sundog, Spider Johnk of Spider and Company, and Lighthouse1 chief executive Jeff Young all have roots in the company.
They’re all tied together by Kevin Bacon-style degrees: Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who worked for Microsoft.
And most everybody knows somebody who moved on, whether spurred by new opportunities or in pursuit of a change of scenery.
For Olson, the move came after 18 years with the company. He helped stamp the Great Plains brand into the public imagination, and eventually become Doug Burgum’s go-to communications executive and speechwriter.
But he didn’t care for the red tape at Microsoft. Managing a brand message through multiple layers of corporate approval “would really take the edge off a sharp idea,” he said. And Olson never liked going from a brand built on trust to one that was under investigation from the antitrust division of the US Department of Justice.
By the time Burgum left in 2007, “I got to a place where I was happy to step off and work for myself,” he said. So Olson downsized from a corporate titan to one-man brand consulting firm in downtown Fargo called Mojo – it’s his nickname, derived from a sloppy signature of his initials, “MGO.”
“I never liked large. I always liked small,” Olson said. “When I got done with my Microsoft career, I went about as small as you can – one guy.”
For Andy Westby, a 10-year Microsoft veteran who left this year to head the fledgling Fargo office of medical tech firm Preventice, the move was an opportunity to play a more direct role in a company’s success.
“Your ability to have an impact is muted at a larger company,” he said. “You break free from some of the process and bureaucracy that comes from a larger organization.”
Or as Shane Kvalevog – one of Westby’s first hires at the Preventice office – put it: “No more meetings to plan meetings.”
Kvalevog, a 14-year Great Plains and Microsoft employee himself, left in part because he felt he was nearing the apex of his career opportunities in Fargo as a web designer. To find new challenges, he said, “you’d have to move to Seattle.”
When Kvalevog came to Preventice, Westby wasn’t the only familiar face in his new office: The landlady was a Great Plains expatriate herself.
Not everyone takes on that designation by choice. Diana Wilberscheid’s 21-year career with the company came to an abrupt end in 2009 when her position was eliminated along with about 20 others.
But the network of former employees has a way of taking care of its own: After doing independent consulting for a year (some of it for Microsoft), Wilberscheid landed at Burgum’s Kilbourne Group.
Burgum himself ran out of room to advance, at least in Fargo.
“At the level that I came in at, there really wasn’t any place to go unless Steve (Ballmer) was going to leave, and Steve wasn’t leaving,” he said.
There might have been new opportunities if he’d moved to Redmond, but staying in Fargo was a priority – and ultimately one of the reasons he’s now a Microsoft expat too.
The grind of commuting to Redmond on a regular basis, which wore on Burgum in his tenure as Microsoft vice president, is another factor that inspires some to look elsewhere. For some employees, spending one week a month at corporate headquarters is common. Tracy Faleide, a manager who was with the company from 1986 to 2005, said she “lived out of a suitcase” for stretches.
“You turn 40 and you’re like, ‘Really, is this the deal? Is this the way I want to continue?’ ” she said.
Now, she runs Bellwether Works, her own communications and professional coaching firm in Fargo. In spite of the challenges, she credits the company for valuable opportunities, from travel to professional development to figuring out how to cope with a major merger – a common refrain among former employees.
“People will ask me, ‘I know you just left, are things that bad?’” said Westby. “There isn’t a person out there that I would tell, ‘Don’t go work out at Microsoft in Fargo.’”
Even Mark Olson – he of the provocative wall signs and posts on his Mojo blog that rail against the “collective arrogance and ignorance” of a certain corporate giant – isn’t all doom and gloom about his former employer.
“I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing if I hadn’t had the opportunity to grow in both of those companies,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502