Tom Phillips made his career in the computer business, but he also loved to fly.
“He described flying like you imagine an engineer would — with precision, care, and a deep awareness and respect of what could go wrong,” remembers Kurt Kolb, who worked with Phillips at Microsoft before launching a startup with him.
“You also got this sense of pure joy emanating from each and every word, though. He could say, ‘I’ve had a really tough week and I need to spend some time in the air,’ in the same way that athletes say they need to run a few miles.”
Phillips, 52, a longtime Microsoft manager who joined Amazon.com almost a year ago, died Saturday in a single-engine plane crash in Michigan along with 29-year-old Joe Pann, according to Michigan State Police. Phillips had his pilot’s license, but Pann is described by authorities as the pilot of the plane.
In his 18-year Microsoft career, Phillips was no pushover, and he wasn’t afraid to step on toes if necessary to do things the way he believed was right. He displayed a unique combination of prowess and insight across business and technology, former colleagues say.
“You could find people at Microsoft with more technical knowledge or more business knowledge, but very few possessed the combined depth that he had in those two areas,” says Brad Carpenter, a former Microsoft GM who worked for Phillips. “He was always thinking, always pushing us for ideas, always, always pursuing patents. He could be tough, like any good leader and manager should, but he also always had a smile on his face.”
From his Microsoft career, Phillips is listed as an inventor on dozens of patents, in areas including computer hardware, security and storage.
He was “a good leader, a real innovator and an all-around great guy,” says Bryan Mistele, the INRIX CEO, who worked with him at Microsoft.
Michael Cherry, now an industry analyst at Kirkland-based Directions on Microsoft, also worked with Phillips during his time at the company, and says he “was truly one of the good guys, a straight shooter whose word was his bond.”
As a young man, Phillips went to school at University of Michigan before heading up IT and telecommunications for First Federal bank in the state.
He lived in Kirkland but also had a home on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, to which he was traveling when the crash took place. Cars aren’t allowed on the small island, which helps explain why Phillips knew so much about horses, colleagues say.
In the Seattle region, Phillips was active in the Catholic church, at Sacred Heart Parish in Clyde Hill and on the board of the Fulcrum Foundation, which supports Catholic schools in the Seattle Archdiocese.
Phillips started at Microsoft in 1992, working his way up to general manager for Windows Hardware a decade ago — overseeing the company’s strategic collaborations with PC makers as Windows XP took hold. He later focused on improving Microsoft’s foothold in developing nations, before leading the company’s Automotive Business Unit, an initiative that has led Microsoft to strike major technology deals with automakers.
“In nearly two decades at Microsoft, he was a respected leader across many different businesses,” said Lou Gellos, a Microsoft spokesman.
At a midyear business review at Microsoft a few years back, Kolb remembers sharing his “sinking realization” that sales to whitebox PC makers were under serious threat from low-cost PCs — warning that the company would lose a large portion of its revenue from this business unless it made major changes.
“This is pretty obvious now that it’s happened but at the time it was an incredibly controversial projection, with a lot of intractable sentiment around it, so there wasn’t a ton of career upside to propose change. But we both felt it was the right thing to do even if it resulted in a meltdown,” Kolb says. “Tom not only didn’t back away from the discussion, his team provided industry data that confirmed our suspicions and allowed us to model the revenue declines with incredible precision.”
Phillips left Microsoft to work on enterprise technology startup iTegris with Kolb in January 2010, and later joined Amazon.com, where he was general manager for the Windows Elastic Compute Cloud service inside Amazon Web Services.
“Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to Tom’s family,” said Amazon.com spokeswoman Mary Osako. “Tom was a wonderful person and will be dearly missed by all of us.”
Carpenter, recently named CEO at Newline Software, remembers Phillips in particular for his role as a mentor, saying he went out of his way to help people.
“Even after he left Microsoft, he and I would get together for coffee. He was always available if I had a question. I last saw him about 2 months ago. I thought of sending him email last week on an issue, but then I realized what he would suggest, so I didn’t,” Carpenter says. “I so wish I had now.”