A class of their own
Ben Slivka
Ben Slivka spent a recent morning reading Charlotte's Web to his daughter's kindergarten class, and he'd be happy to remain a stay-at-home dad for the next decade or so.

"I'll be 53 when my youngest child graduates from high school," said the 41-year-old Seattle resident, a former project leader in Microsoft's systems division and lead developer on Internet Explorer. "At that point, I'll do some gonzo something-or-other, maybe go back to work."

"Gonzo" is a good way to describe Slivka's career to this point. His first job, in high school, had him crunching salary and career numbers for Seattle Symphony musicians--including those of his tympani-playing father. He wrote a Fortran program to estimate the musicians' financial needs in retirement, earning $1,500 for the effort.

After studying computer science at Northwestern University, Slivka sent a letter to any "sir or madam" at Microsoft who would hire him in 1984. After an interview the following year, then-operations chief Steve Ballmer offered him a $31,000 annual salary and 1,500 shares of Microsoft stock at $3 a share.

By 1999, that original round of options was worth $17.5 million--and Slivka received many more rounds during his 14-year tenure. But he couldn't tolerate working for a company whose business strategy diverged from what he thought it should be.

"I no longer had faith in Bill's vision of the company," he said. "Bill is a supersmart guy. But my view is that he was too beholden to Windows and Office, and he couldn't think of a way to do things that weren't Windows and Office. Because of that, the leaders who were the most successful in terms of delivering great products were getting squeezed out."

His last year at Microsoft was bittersweet.

"I was living for a long time under this view that Microsoft was a meritocracy and the best ideas would win," Slivka said. "To a certain extent, as I got more senior, I figured out that it's Bill's company, and if he has the right ideas, great. If he doesn't, too bad. It was sad. In a way, I lost some innocence in all that."

Before he quit, Slivka lined up a job as information technology director for Amazon.com. He left Amazon after nine months.

"I had many disagreements with (Amazon.com CEO Jeff) Bezos about his priorities and how he was running the company," Slivka said. "I saw this before with Bill Gates, and I knew how this story ended. I thought they had hired me because of my experience...Jeff didn't want to listen. So I said, 'You know, I could be having a lot more fun with my family.'"

He now spends his time learning to ski, hanging out with his family, and, as a Northwestern trustee, overseeing completion of a new dorm for science and engineering majors on the Evanston, Ill., campus: Slivka Hall.

—R.K.

Ben Slivka