Perfect Partner
Once a Microsoft intern, Luther Carlson now directs Equarius' alliance with the software giant

Back in the 1980s, Luther Carlson worked at Microsoft as a college intern. He witnessed the genesis of Excel 1.0 and Microsoft Works 1.0, when programmers were setting keystroke standards such as "f" for "file," "e" for "edit." But when graduation rolled around, Carlson, a business administration student with an IT minor, didn't want to work for the software company.

Interviewed on "Information Technology Leaders," Carlson explains that he wanted a career beyond computers, blending technology and business. Over the next 16 years, he stayed true to this goal, consulting for both small firms and Fortune 500 companies. Today, he has come almost full-circle: Microsoft is a key partner for Equarius, where Carlson is director of strategic alliances.

"Information Technology Leaders," produced by the University of Washington’s School of Business, presents multi-faceted portraits of the people filling the top IT positions at major corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and AT&T Wireless Services. The revealing interviews show that personal characteristics often play an important role in the unpredictable career trajectories of this industry.

Carlson was an underachiever in high school, but he got serious at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. "I had a hunch back then that if I were to really understand technology first, and then maybe got into the business side, that the transition from technology to business would be easier than vice versa," he says.

Inflation and unemployment were high in 1987, the year Carlson graduated. He spent five months sending out 150 resumes, finally landing a job as a COBAL programmer for Arlington, Wash.-based Bayliner. This was part of the master plan--technology first, then business--but he hated the tedium of coding. "Pounding the keys all day wasn't my cup of tea," he recalls.

Carlson's next job, with the steamship container line Sealand Services, allowed him to shift to a more satisfying role in business development and sales. Four and a half years later, the position ended with a "skiing sabbatical." Three months on the slopes helped him decompress--and left him with an important lesson: Don't live to work.

With a new sense of balance, Carlson decided to try consulting, first on his own, then with a partner whom he'd met at Sealand. The four-year experience was "like grad school," teaching him what it takes to run a business. But eventually he couldn't stomach certain unethical practices. His uncle, a mentor, told him, "If you go against your principles now, you can never get them back." Carlson walked away for the partnership. He spent the next year recovering while working for his uncle's management consulting firm.

After six years in small, entrepreneurial businesses, Carlson felt a pull back to mainstream. He joined Claremont Technology Group, a systems integrator and IT consultancy. He found the corporate culture exciting but realized the firm was trying to do too much for its size. After Claremont was acquired by Complete Business Solutions, Carlson left, taking with him another crucial lesson about the importance of focus.

Carlson's description of focus--"Say what we do and what we don't do, and provide clarity around that"--was something he'd already mastered in his career. Now he'd found it in a work environment: Equarius, a company started by his old college friend Mark Miller, provides integrated technology solutions for businesses. Amid the tech bust of 2000, Equarius re-engineered itself--a painful process demanding layoffs of half the staff, but one that Carlson believes ultimately strengthened the organization and enabled it to maintain profitability.

As director of strategic alliances, Carlson works closely with his earliest employer. "Microsoft is the fabric of the DNA of Equarius," he explains. The Microsoft.Net platform is a key tool for helping businesses solve problems and become "connected enterprises." Carlson's integrity and consistency position him well in this all-important partnership. Knowing that trust is slowly built but easily lost, he works hard to maintain Microsoft's confidence in Equarius. For example, he says, "We do not have a conversation with them unless it's value-added for them."

Carlson is fulfilled in the role he's always wanted, an ideal convergence of technology and business. His future holds exciting challenges as new e-business models--powered by Microsoft.Net--change the landscape. There's a certain symmetry to the way his job has brought him back to the place where his IT career started. Time, experience, and lots of hard-earned lessons have honed the former intern into Microsoft's perfect partner.

Produced By: Christopher Redner