One bus ride at a time: a novel approach to career and creativity

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The ‘Softie in question: Sam Landstrom

Job title: Senior Content Publishing Lead on Silverlight, Phone, and Windows Presentation.

Working at Microsoft is as much a lifestyle as it is a career. Among other things, we provide a unique commute service called the Connector – some 55 private buses that make sure employees get to and from work without having to touch a gas pedal or jockey for a city bus seat.

Yes, the Connector has Wi-Fi. Yes, it has convenient pick-ups throughout the Greater Seattle-area. And, yes, it’s even good for the environment (with some 200,000 less car trips, employees reduce overall carbon emissions by a cool 5.5 tons per year).

But what would you do if you could replace your commute with a smooth, stress-free ride? Would you catch up on your sleep? Call mom? Or, how about write a sci-fi novel?

One ‘Softie did just that and we tracked him down to get the inside scoop.

Sam, did you come up with the idea to write a book while commuting or did the Connector give you the opportunity to write an existing idea?

I’m a programmer and writer here at Microsoft, so I’d been kicking around the idea for the book before the Connector started [in 2007]. I already had a private blog where I was building up a future sci-fi world and developing certain aspects of a fictional society. But I wasn’t finding a whole lot of time to work on the book.

When the Connector came along, I thought: I’m all over that. Lo and behold, I had time to write. I put on my headphones, and the result is my novel, MetaGame.

And how was the book received?

It did better than I could have hoped. Kindle was good to me. I got lots of downloads, lots of reviews on Amazon and was picked up by Amazon Encore—their new publishing division. Amazon’s going to fly me and some of the other Encore authors out to BookExpo in New York next month. And, MetaGame has even been optioned as a possible TV series on the new 3D cable channel 3net.

Was it tricky to flip back and forth between Microsoft mindset and novelist mindset every day?

There is a little bit of a walk between the campus bus station and my office. For me, it was nice to switch gears. When I am working, I am thinking in a linear way, with logic. Sci-fi writing has its fair share of logic but you move to a different part of the brain.

That said, I had a great balance: after my 45-minute Connector ride, I was ready to get into my office and start working. By the time I left work at night, I was ready to return to la-la land again.

Did you tap into your coworkers for ideas and influence for MetaGame?

At Microsoft, you have an incredible direct access to people working in all realms of cutting-edge technology, from all different angles. But it was actually one coworker who helped me the most by sitting down and reading the whole manuscript before I even published it. He gave great feedback that evolved the book significantly. Others have helped with proofreading and answering questions at later stages.

Are you a writer who works at Microsoft or a ‘Softie who wrote a book?

Luckily, you don’t have to choose. People here are very multidimensional. I mean, I majored in molecular biology and started my career as a deck hand on a ship in Alaska. I was then doing DNA sequencing when I decided to teach myself about programming.

You taught yourself about programming?

Yeah, I had no computer knowledge, so I started at the beginning. I picked up a “what’s a computer” book and learned basics like: What is a hard drive? What is RAM? After that I picked up a C++ primer and taught myself the basics of programming. Now, I am a Programmer Writer: writing about software development.

So you taught yourself creative writing too?

Yep. Not only did I have to learn how to write a novel, but I learned all about self-publishing online and even about negotiating and contracting book rights with TV studios. It’s been quite an adventure and now I’m working on a fantasy novel and discovering that whole universe.

Do you have any advice for others who want to draw out their “inner book” or dream project?

If you want to take on a massive project outside of work, you need to have a framework for putting in time on a regular basis. The Connector provided that for me. Keep at it every day, and eventually it’ll come.

It also helps to work in a supportive environment that nurtures creative thinking.

Find your place at Microsoft

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