Saluting a Mentor


Heikki Kanerva, Right.
(At left is Juha Niemisto, a Programmer from the Excel Team and Mutual Friend)

Taking a bit of a break today from “technical” posts and doing that whole “professional observations slash storytelling” thing.

My first real mentor at Microsoft was a guy named Heikki Kanerva.  I learned many, many things from that man, but the way in which he cared about his people, and PROTECTED his people, will always eclipse even those things.  I wouldn’t have had the time or the space to learn had I not lived in the Heikki-created “safe zone” for those crucial early years of 1997-1998.

And the charisma.  The leadership.  You know those fantasy stories about barbarian clans in the frozen wastelands of the North, where the clans have perpetually been at war with each other, but now a New and Evil Threat looms from the South, and the clans must set aside their pride and biases and band together, or face certain extermination?

In those stories, there’s always a charismatic leader who emerges to unite said clans, the Strong Leader who possesses brains, brawn, and charisma in just the right proportions.

And Heikki was pretty much the real-life embodiment of that character, in every way.  He played that role every day for the entire Office organization, and I have never seen anything like his powers since.

A Mentor’s Parting Lesson

Years later, when I no longer worked for Heikki, he passed away suddenly under tragic circumstances – a story that I may someday tell here, but not the focus for today.

But leave it to Heikki to still manage to teach AFTER departing this world.


At his memorial service at Microsoft, a number of his former colleagues got up and told stories about him. 

Brad Weed’s observation will always be the one that sticks with me the most.  Something like:

“What always impressed me about Heikki was that he was always PREPARED.  No matter how many consecutive meetings he had in a day, Heikki never walked into a conversation ‘cold’ – he was always ready.  He was the most ‘together’ person at the start of every discussion, already had pre-digested the issue at hand and was ready with this initial thoughts and/or crucial questions.  Without exception, always prepared.”

Sounds obvious doesn’t it?  Just being prepared?  Of course we should strive for that, yes?  But the way Brad emphasized that word – prepared.  The way he said it repeatedly throughout his remarks.  It was so clearly a reflection of long-term admiration of something truly exceptional.  It made an impression on me.

And so I thought about it for a long time afterward, replaying all my meetings with Heikki, and “seeing,” for the first time, one of the hidden secrets of the master’s magic.  Brad was 100% right. 

That changed me, ever so slightly, but forever.

It’s Not Very Difficult.  In Fact It’s Easy (Else I Wouldn’t Do It).

I’m not what you would call a Disciplined Worker.  I’m the guy who skipped more classes than he attended in college, for instance.  And while I have improved remarkably since then on the discipline front, you still shouldn’t expect me to be the person who spends four hours every night preparing for the next day’s meetings.

Nope, no way.

The thing that changed about my behavior, after Brad’s remarks, was actually quite small.  I started preparing for my meetings, yes – no more walking in “cold,” ever.

But my “prep” was always measured in minutes.  Typically very few, actually – like 2-3 minutes.  Walking in the hallways between meetings was usually enough, actually.  Simulating and previewing the discussion to come.  “Pre-thinking” my stances and questions.

2-3 minutes at most.  But the results were (and are!) QUITE noticeable.  Not quite dramatic, but bordering on dramatic.  A close neighbor, let’s say.

Why this Comes Up

I am telling this story today because I told it last night to a client who is in town visiting us.  He remarked, at dinner, about one aspect of working with me during the day – an aspect that I immediately attributed to that simple little habit of Heikki’s Minimalist Flavor of Being Prepared.

I didn’t tell him that my prep only took ten minutes for our full day of work – a quick email to someone from the client’s home country (to ascertain the pronunciation of the client’s first name, actually), and a quick browse of the client’s website, followed by a few minutes of pre-thought.  Of course, since he’s probably reading this today, my 10-minute secret is out.  No sweat – it’s not an important secret to keep.

Now, maybe you already knew this lesson, and you already ARE following the Low-Cost Be Prepared philosophy.  Perhaps I am the only person who needed a Great Viking Mentor to convey this from beyond the grave.  In which case, hey, good for you.  But I’m not that guy.  I do everything the wrong way, repeatedly, until stumbling upon a better way.  My gift, if we can call it that, is that I DO recognize the “betterness” of the things I occasionally trip on.

But just in case you’re like me, give this one some thought.  Never do your first few minutes of thinking, for a meeting, when you are IN the meeting.  Always do it beforehand.  It’s so simple, even Rob Collie does it.

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Rob Collie

One of the founding engineers behind Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, and creator of the world’s first cloud Power Pivot service, Rob is one of the foremost authorities on self-service business intelligence and next-generation spreadsheet technology. 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Very good reminder of how we should be thinking about things – Thanks Rob, and let’s hear it again for Heikki – nice job, well done!

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