How did you begin your career?
I was at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, pursuing a degree in African Studies. I heard this amazing guest lecture from one of the most respected, and somewhat controversial, development economists working in Africa. At the end of his lecture, he pointed to a large map of Africa and said, “Now, I’ve just started this consulting firm and I’m looking for cheap labor to exploit.”
I said, “Pick me, pick me!” I soon found myself working in Africa doing a lot of economic development policy and information processing consulting. Believe it or not, I had no starting salary; I was actually working in Africa for free! After about three weeks, the owner's wife pulled him aside and said, "This is embarrassing, this kid is adding so much value, we gotta pay him something."
How did you get your Microsoft job?
I continued to do some consulting on a variety of projects. As an independent contractor, I found myself predominantly in West Africa. I had some fun bumps along the road in pay and got very interested in computer mapping, computer software, geographic information systems, and that's what led to my hiring at Microsoft.
I was at the University of Washington, working on my thesis for my Masters degree. This little announcement went up in the hallway and it said that Microsoft was recruiting a digital cartographer to make maps for the first-ever digital encyclopedia, Encarta. We were all going to change the world back then, it was very exciting. Microsoft was (and still is) in the latest news about computer software.
What was your starting salary at Microsoft?
I think my starting salary at Microsoft at the time was only about $40,000. I was much less focused on salary at that time. Stock options appeared be a much more interesting means of pay to me. My wife and I didn’t have any children at the time and we could live quite frugally. I actually didn’t negotiate my starting salary at Microsoft at all; I just negotiated my options, which proved to be a worthwhile approach.
How long you work for Microsoft?
I was at Microsoft for 5 years, total; which, at the time, was longer than any of my previous jobs. After I helped ship the first Encarta Encyclopedia, I became very excited about what we might do with all this amazing technology, computer software, access to all this data and beautiful graphics. It could become a great addition to Microsoft office software.
I had a vision to create a world atlas that would sort of be the armchair traveler’s dream scenario - fly around the planet, learn about different people and cultures, all from the comfort of your living room. The computer software that we built for the Encarta Atlas is still used today in a lot of Microsoft mapping capabilities, I am very proud of that.
What was your next career change?
In 1997, I left Microsoft and took a little time off. I was kicking around some internet ideas. Richard Tait left his Microsoft job about the same time that I did. So Richard called me up one day and said, “Whit, what would you say if I told you that we should do a board game - Cranium - where everyone could shine.”
I co-founded Cranium without a starting salary. We went from zero to "product in the market," nationwide, in less than 12 months. A big part of that success was marketing the cranium board game through Starbucks stores. The market trends of Starbucks Coffee were consistent with our demographic for Cranium.
I had a tremendous run of close to 9 years, helping to build up Cranium. I am still very involved at the Cranium board level and contractor level, but I was recently able to make the personal decision to pull back and explore another career change.
What do you love about your career?
I have been called the “founder of the career of the month club,” sometimes to my parents’ dismay. I tend to move around a fair amount, have held a number of jobs, have had more than one career change, but it’s always worked out. I have always tried to follow my passion and take positions that I love and care about.
What is the secret to success?
I really encourage people to follow their passion. I think if you’re having fun and learning, then you’re probably in the right place. And if you’re spinning your wheels and thinking, “What I really want to do is something different," then you need to think about a career change and how to get there. There’s a path from where you are now to where you want to go. And you’ve got to believe in yourself, take that initiative and push forward to the next thing.
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Seattle Times Article on Whit Alexander
Inc Magazine's article on Whit Alexander