Patty Stonesifer: Smart, Successful, And Outta There

Why Microsoft's highest-ranking woman decided to log off

One year ago, Patty Stonesifer was mapping out Microsoft Corp.'s assault on the CD-ROM market, Internet games, and online content. Her division, now called Interactive Media, had mushroomed to $800 million in revenues, making it the nation's largest multimedia company, and she had capped her success by negotiating Microsoft's joint venture with Hollywood studio DreamWorks SKG. Said Stonesifer at the time: "I have the very best job in the industry."

On Oct. 29, Stonesifer announced she would be leaving that job. One of the highest-profile female executives in high tech says she wants more balance in her life. She says she wants to spend more time with her two teenagers and her husband of 19 years. And when it comes to work, she is interested in smaller projects where she can be more "hands-on"--a luxury she says she could not afford while managing a 2,000-person division. Says Stonesifer: "It is all-absorbing here. I want to switch gears and put more into my personal life."

Stonesifer's departure shouldn't hurt Microsoft's various online ventures. Her responsibilities will be assumed by her boss, Pete Higgins, a 13-year Microsoft veteran and group vice-president. Still, she clearly was "an up-and-comer," says analyst Peter Rogers of Bear, Stearns & Co. After joining the software maker in 1988, she turned around its service and support operation and is credited with engineering the revamp of Microsoft Network, an Internet online service.

Her loss is one in a short but growing string of defections by Microsoft executives. Russell Siegelman, who masterminded MSN, left in July to become a venture capitalist. Jonathan Lazarus, vice-president for strategic relations, retired in June at age 44. Mike Maples, who headed software development, retired at age 52 in mid-1995. "Senior people are burning out and going off to do other things," says Jeffrey Lill, an MSN development manager who left in January with enough cash to launch OpenSpace, an Internet news and delivery company.

It's not that there's widespread disaffection at Microsoft. To the contrary, the turnover rate is just 6% to 8%, on the low end for technology companies. The rate for senior execs is even lower, says Mike Murray, vice-president for human resources. Says Marketing Director Ruthann Lorentzen: "It's hard to leave here. It feels like you're running with a pack of thoroughbreds. That's an incredible adrenalin rush."

Still, Microsoft's granting of stock options in lieu of rich salaries has created some 1,000 millionaires among 20,500 employees. "I actually expected that with the wealth we'd created there would have been more turnover," says Chairman Bill Gates. Stonesifer has cashed in stock worth millions in the past three years and still holds shares worth more than $800,000. Concedes Stonesifer: "The first and foremost thing is, I do have the fiscal opportunity to leave."

TWO FACTORS. Stonesifer says she knew a year ago she wanted to scale back, but Gates persuaded her to stay for two projects--launching MSNBC, a cable TV and Internet news venture with NBC, and reworking MSN for the Internet. "It was take the hill and then wind it down," she says.

Two factors spurred her decision. First, she turned 40 last May. She took stock, realized she had been in the business 20 years, and asked herself what she wanted to do with the next two decades. The answer wasn't staying at Microsoft. Plus, she and her husband, Rob, had a long list of things they wanted to do with their two teenage kids, including trips to Europe and Africa.

Already, she has some work lined up, consulting to DreamWorks. She will spend a couple of days a week helping to run two DreamWorks businesses: DreamWorks Interactive, the joint venture with Microsoft, and Pacific Data Images, a 40% DreamWorks-owned company currently creating the computer-animated film Ants, due in late 1998. Says Jeffrey Katzenberg, a DreamWorks partner: "We have not met an executive that has impressed us more in their talent, creativity, and leadership than Patty Stonesifer. In her field, she has blown us away."

So Stonesifer isn't exactly kicking back. "I'm just chasing a different path," she says. "This isn't out of exhaustion." She has the money and, now, the time, to seek something different--perhaps, the very best job in another industry.

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