Improving, not just doing, the key for Microsoft exec DeVaan

Update, Jan. 24: We’ve added the video from the event at the end of the post.

Microsoft's Jon DeVaan Speaking at Oregon State

Jon DeVaan said while he was working on the initial release of Excel, the current Microsoft corporate vice president didn’t know the program would become an omnipresent part of work life.

“The focus was ‘We think this will help people a lot, and everything will flow,’” DeVaan told the audience at Wednesday’s College of Business Dean’s Distinguished Lecture at the LaSells Stewart Center.

DeVaan has been at Microsoft since graduating from OSU in 1982, starting with his work on Excel and most recently helping to design the new Windows 8 operating system. DeVaan ran his presentation from a Microsoft Surface, the company’s new tablet computer.

The theme of the talk was how individuals and organizations must focus on improving, or risk falling behind by simply continuing to do what brought them success in the past.

In his own experience, DeVaan recounted how when he started with Excel, Lotus 1-2-3 was the dominant spreadsheet program. But while Lotus saw only a professional market for its product, Microsoft wanted to make a product that could be used by anyone.

“Our motto was a computer on every desk, in every home,” DeVaan said.

A quarter century later, that initial goal has helped make computing accessible for many more people than even DeVaan imagined at the time. He remembers sitting on a plane and being grabbed by the person next to him after mentioning he worked on Excel.

“He said he hated his boss, but he didn’t need him anymore because he had a PC and could start out on his own,” DeVaan remembered.

DeVaan counseled the audience to always confront hard truths and set aside time to fix them. To work smarter, not harder, which can be difficult when that sometimes hurts efficiency in the short term.

He noted that the initial release of Word, the popular text editor, was delayed for two years and Access, a database management program, was cancelled twice.

DeVaan said at Microsoft the company has built in time for “renewal activities,” reviewing how the company is working, not just what it’s producing.

“No one ever gets credit for fixing problems that never happen,” DeVaan said,  borrowing a favorite quotation.

Instead, he pointed out “everything real has problems,” and the key to good leadership is knowing which problems have to be fixed and which are OK to live with, for now.

As long as you take time to focus on improving the process, and not just trying to fix every issue as it comes up, you’ll find things get better in the long run.

“You don’t know where new ideas will come from, but renewal activities create the space where that’s possible,” DeVaan said.

Video Part I
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Video Part II
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Panda Express co-CEO discusses how to create a culture

Peggy Cherng speaking at the Dean's Distinguished Lecture Series
Peggy Cherng speaking at the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series

Panda Express co-CEO and Oregon State alumna Peggy Cherng let the crowd at the Oregon State College of Business Dean’s Distinguished Lecture in on a little secret Wednesday.

“I happen to be good in math, good in engineering, but I don’t really know how to cook,” Cherng said.

Cherng discussed how the Panda Restaurant group, which operates the popular Panda Express chain, focuses on creating an atmosphere where associates can grow and better serve guests.

“We don’t call them employees but associates, because they’re our partners,” Cherng explained. “We want to build an organization where people are inspired to better their lives.”

Panda focuses on fostering a culture that creates happy associates, which becomes happy guests.

“The judges out there are you, and we will work very hard to be loved by you,” Cherng said. “But first we have to work on ourselves and love ourselves.”

The chain has more than 1,500 locations, opening 100 new stores this past year. With such a wide network, the company encourages decentralized learning, where associates take initiative to learn on their own with resources from Panda.

Peggy Cherng speaking at the Dean's Distinguished Lecture Series
Peggy Cherng speaking at the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series

After her talk, Cherng sat down for a question and answer session with OSU associate professor of management Pauline Schilpzand and then took questions from the audience.

Schilpzand asked why those of us in Oregon haven’t seen many Panda Express television commercials.

Cherng explained Oregon is still an emerging market for Panda, and the company focuses larger ad buys in their core markets, such as California.

“We do do advertising in the core market because we can leverage the cost more effectively,” she said. “But in the emerging market the cost prohibits TV.”

Schilpzand also asked Cherng about what she’s used from her academic background in her career. Cherng earned a B.S. in applied mathematics from OSU and an M.S. in Computer Science and doctoral degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri.

Cherng mentioned that while she never learned much about food herself — husband Andrew Cherng started the original Panda Inn with his father and now serves as co-CEO with his wife — she has a passion for systems, honed by her training as an engineer.

“You first have to find out your passion,” she said. “If you have passion you’re really able to make a difference.”

She stressed that passion is a key for all entrepreneurs, no matter what industry one may be entering.

“If you just want to make money, if a hard time comes you’re not able to pull yourself up,” Cherng said. “But if you have passion you can overcome.”