All Work and No Fuss Made John Connors a Success
Microsoft CFO's career is built on old-fashioned values

John Connors became chief information officer for Microsoft despite lacking an IT background. As corporate controller, he had impressed top-line management by building a strong financial information infrastructure, and they had confidence he'd do just as well with IT. The people working below him were a different story.

Interviewed on "Information Technology Leaders," Connors describes initial meetings with engineers. Their glares could've burned holes through him. They seemed to be thinking, "this guy has no chance of making it and we're not going to help him." Those first six months, when Connors woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat, he would read network handbooks and application architecture guides. But by the nine-month mark, his hard work and well-honed management skills were paying off, and he went on to succeed where other CIOs had failed.

"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.

Connors traces his values back to Mile City, Mon., where he grew up around industrious, honest, and optimistic people. He formed his formula for success in the sixth grade, when a nun at his Catholic school chided him for not getting the highest score in the class. "I knew at that point that if I worked hard and stayed focused, good things could happen," he says.

As a pre-law student, Connors took a required accounting course at the University of Montana, which coincidentally had one of the best accounting programs in the country. He liked it so much he changed his major, ditched his plans for law school, and took the CPA exam.

His first job out of college was with Deloitte Haskins and Sells in Seattle, Wash. Connors liked the company's professionalism and viewed the daily experience as an "on-the-job MBA program." The only adjustment for the young man from the "cow capital of the West" was wearing a suit every day. At Deloitte, and in his next jobs at Pip Printing and Safeco, Connors consistently found that his formula rang true: the successful people were those who worked the hardest.

This was valuable preparation for Microsoft, where Connors arrived in 1988. His first few roles were staff positions, but propitious ones. As retail account manager he gained an excellent corporate education through learning about every Microsoft product, in and out. As business manager for the systems division, Connors had the good fortune to be "Steve Ballmer's gofer," which cemented his working relationship with the future CEO. And as director of business operations, Connors had his hands in key corporate ventures, including establishing a consistent, worldwide business measurement model and developing a "solution-provider channel," now a vital asset to the company.

After a stint at Microsoft's office in Paris, France, Connors became general manager of worldwide financial operations, leading 163 people. Managing managers was a challenge. "That balance of knowing when to be involved and when to empower—that's one you only develop from experience," he says. In response to the company's rapid growth in revenue, staff, and geographic presence, he conducted reengineering in leadership and financial operations, which he says made for a "fun and exciting period of time."

Next, Connors became corporate controller, a job he'd held at Pip Printing. The two experiences were similar in process but vastly different in scale. Comparing Pip, with $50 million in income when he left, to Microsoft's $7 billion balance sheet, he says, "It's probably analogous to playing in a small college football [team] vs. the NFL." Connors and his team built up Microsoft's financial organization to rival any multinational's, a triumph that precipitated his appointment to CIO.

"The CIO job is really a lot more about broad, general management skills than technology," says Connors, who admits with regret that he only took only one computer class in college. His previous Microsoft experience was as good a foundation as any IT degree for the complicated role; he knew the product groups well, he figured out the right questions to ask, and he had the support of key corporate giants like Steve Ballmer. Just when he was getting comfortable in the job, he was asked to transition to the worldwide enterprises division as vice president, which gave him an eye-opening perspective into the competitive pressure Microsoft faces in the global high-tech market.

Today, as chief financial officer and senior vice president of finance and administration, Connors' responsibilities span finance, IT, investor relations, operations, and real estate. He admits it's difficult to focus on each area to the extent he'd prefer, but with characteristic optimism he often tells himself, "There's always tomorrow to improve it." He enjoys motivating his people to do their best, and is himself constantly motivated by the sheer thrill of "changing the world through the desktop computer" and working alongside people that will someday rank in the history books among business and technology giants.

Just as Connors figured out in the sixth grade, hard work and strong focus did yield many good things. But when he counts his blessings--his career as well as his wife, four children, good health, and a dog who doesn't give a damn about stock prices--he sounds less like a self-made executive than a lottery winner, exclaiming, "Man, I'm the luckiest person in the world!"

Produced By: Christopher Redner