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Duane Campbell in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood last week.

Duane Campbell is retiring from Microsoft today, after 28 years as a software developer with the company. Chances are you’ve never heard of him, even if you follow the company closely, and that’s one of the best parts of his story. Rather than following the traditional management and executive path that put some of his former peers into the spotlight, Campbell understood what he loved to do, and he had the courage to stick with it.

He loves to code — and he does it extremely well.

Microsoft Office Flag 1996
Duane Campbell, far left, with his Office colleagues in the mid-1990s.

Steven Sinofsky, the former Microsoft Windows and Office chief, said in an email this week: “Duane is one of the most talented and amazing programmers in our entire industry — working across original PCs, early Windows, modern Windows, from CUI to GUI to browser based, Duane simply wrote the best code imaginable.”

One of Campbell’s former colleagues, Mike Koss, had this to say: “If I were to counsel young developers looking forward to a long career as a software developer, I think the best advice I could give would be to try to ‘be like Duane’; love and care about your work, be respectful and kind to those around you and don’t let the internal politics of your company be too distracting to you or your team.”

So who is this quiet legend, and what can the next generation of developers learn from him? I sat down with Campbell over coffee in Seattle last week, and these are a few of the key takeaways from my questions about his career.

Randomly try new things: Campbell grew up in rural Tennessee. He’s the son of a truck driver and the first person from his family to go to college. A music major at the University of Tennessee at Martin, he got married when he was 20, before his senior year. (He and his wife Anita will celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary later this year.)

His wife was a biology major, and when her brother encouraged her to take a computer class, Campbell offered to take the class along with her. “I had no idea what programming was, I didn’t take any math in college up to that point, but I loved it,” he says. And soon he started getting the best grades in the class.

Suddenly, he realized, “I can make a living at this.”

Campbell and his daughter Sara at their home in Kirkland in 1985, the year he joined Microsoft.

Look for small things that can scale: Campbell has spent the bulk of his Microsoft career on the Office team, concentrating largely on Microsoft Excel, and focusing in particular on performance — making sure that the code is optimized to be as fast and efficient as possible.

Progress in this area is measured in split-seconds, but Campbell thinks of it in much bigger terms.

“If you save a second off boot, I always think, that’s millions and millions of seconds you’re saving around the world. I always thought of it that way. ‘Boy I could make things better for somebody,’ ” he says. “Yeah, it’s small, but when you compound it over all these people who boot every day, it’s a big deal. That’s the kind of stuff I really like.”

Stand out by being yourself: Microsoft’s aggressive culture is legendary, especially dating back to the early days of the company, but Campbell was able to stay true to his level-headed personality.

His former colleague, Koss, remembers being in key management meetings leading up to a major Office release, where Campbell was the antithesis of the stereotypical Microsoft “hot head.” He wouldn’t yell or get agitated. Koss says Campbell had a calming influence while earning the respect of the group overall.

Campbell was a contrast to others “whose ego and personality often got in the way of doing their best work at Microsoft,” he says. Duane was almost always calm, with a smile on his face; and treated others with respect and dignity. Yet he was one of the most passionate defenders of creating high-quality products that I ever worked with at Microsoft.”

Campbell’s LinkedIn profile is remarkable for its simplicity.

Know what you’re good at, and do what you love: Campbell was overseeing Office development in the late 1990s when he found himself gravitating back toward the code.

“I would make sure I had a really good team, when I was in management, and I would farm out all of my job to all of those people, and I would be doing stuff that was down there” in the code, he says. “I just found that’s what I liked to do.”

So he talked with one of his colleagues, Antoine Leblond, about taking over his job. Then he went to Sinofsky, who gave his blessing to the move. “He said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go find a spot and do it,’ ” Campbell recalled.

Know the code, and always strive to make it better: Campbell thinks of himself in part as an archeologist. Oftentimes he’ll end up using Microsoft’s tools to dig into the history of a piece of code, to understand why it was written in a particular way. It’s not uncommon to realize that it was for a feature that didn’t ship, or for something that isn’t needed anymore.

“I actually love to fix code, and make it better, by deleting code, and making it cleaner,” he says. “One of the big things that I’ve always liked to work on is where you make some change to a piece of code, and now where it used to only work in the U.S., it works over the whole world. But yet the code is cleaner. I really like that kind of stuff.”

He compares it to polishing an engine under the hood — making something better even if the end users can’t see it.

Duane Campbell 1999
Duane Campbell at Microsoft in 1999.

In his earlier days at the company, he remembers seeing colleagues doing unrelated side projects in their spare time at work.

“For me, if I’ve got an hour of free time, and I was going to be doing something like that, it was always about, ‘Can I make Word a little bit faster, or can I make this work a little better?’ I’ve just always been about the work.”

So what makes a good developer? “Learning to write code is not very hard if you’ve got it,” he says. “I don’t know how you know when you’ve got it or not. But people who have it, they just have it. It’s almost more of an art.”

Appreciate the scale and pace of change: Campbell remembers one of the most eye-opening experiences in his early days at Microsoft. “There was a company meeting about two weeks after I started,” he says. “I was blown away at that meeting — they showed us the CD-ROM.”

Today he carries a Lumia 920 Windows Phone, and marvels at how far the industry has come in such a short time. “It blows me away to think about where we were 28 years ago and where we are today,” he says.

And he’s loyal to his longtime employer. “I’m a Microsoft guy,” he says.

Know when to call it a career: At 53 years old, Campbell is still a long way from traditional retirement age. His son Ben is getting married at Campbell’s house this summer, and his daughter, Sara, is due to have a baby this summer, so he’ll have have some major family milestones to occupy him on the horizon.

He and his wife are thinking about traveling. (They still have family back in Tennessee.) He has been involved in philanthropy for many years through the United Way. But beyond that, he doesn’t have concrete plans.

“I still really like my job. I still love to be there. I love talking with everybody — I love working with the young guys, and working with the old guys,” he says. “I think it’s just time for me to do something different.”

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