Tim Stuart on the SPU Voices podcast

Tim Stuart ’02 received a degree in business finance from SPU. While at SPU, Tim started as an intern at Microsoft, and after various promotions and 19 years is now the CFO of XBOX. Under Tim’s supervision, XBOX released the XBOX series X and S, acquired gaming titan Bethesda, and re-imagined the way video games are purchased through their game pass system.

Amanda Stubbert: What drew you to Microsoft in the first place? I hear you started at Microsoft before you even finished college.

Tim Stuart: Yeah, that’s right. It was a sort of fortuitous event, I suppose, back in, if we can imagine, all the way back in 2001. My joke is everyone was going to the heralded dot coms of pets.com and otherwise, and I was looking here in Seattle and of course where the big tech behemoths were back then. And it was your Microsofts. Amazon was just getting going and believe it or not things like Spotify, TikTok, Zoom hadn’t even been invented yet.

So we were down to some big titans back then. But that being said, I love the tech around Microsoft. I love the excitement that it had and it was just across the pond there, Lake Washington. So it wasn’t too far away from SPU.

Amanda: And so you decided to get an internship and just see what it had to offer, or did you already have a game plan in mind of where you were going to end up?

Tim: No, no game plan for sure. Other than I knew I wanted to get into corporate finance back then with a finance degree. I was in the zone of, do you go corporate, or do you go more maybe personal finance or investment banking or something like that?

So, for me it was, I wanted to get into corporate finance. That was always interesting to me. I’d always played stock market games with my dad or my brother growing up. So that was a place I wanted to be, but within Microsoft, I didn’t really have a specific direction. It was, let’s just go in there, see what experiences I can learn, meet some new people and just kind of continue to grow my network, which is really what I was working on. Get to know more people in the area and people that had good business degrees or business backgrounds, or more mindset like that.

Amanda: So when you decided corporate was the place for you, what about that role feeds your soul? I know a lot of people would be right with you. Yes. Corporate finance, so exciting, but I think a lot of the gamers who will be listening to this because they’re so into X-Box might think corporate finance, how is that exciting? Like what about that actually feeds your soul?

Tim: Yeah, that’s interesting. The X-Box angle is a good one. When I interned, I wasn’t actually in the X-Box group. I interviewed in more of a corporate-type function, supporting some other groups in Microsoft. And after my internship, as with any internship in theory, if you do a good job, hopefully you get an offer out of that. But for me, it was in 2001, where I’d met some folks and sort of, “Hey Tim, we’re starting this X-Box group, we haven’t launched our console yet. We’re still kind of getting it off the ground. Do you want to join?”

And I was like, “Video games? Cool. Finance? Cool.” So of course then, hopefully any college kid back then, it’s sort of like, “Yeah, I like video games. I’ll join that.”

But I had been a gamer kind of growing up and played various systems, Nintendo or otherwise in high school and even early PlayStation stuff. So it was interesting to me. And to your point, what I liked about it was the business side of the house. How you think about growing revenue, how you think about doing new deals, new acquisitions?

Early in my career, wasn’t all about the kind of the things I work on today, but it was really kind of a “numbers don’t lie.” Numbers tell the story of how businesses are doing. And that’s what really kind of gets me excited about being in finance for so long. It’s just kind of that truth of the P and L, which I really like.

Amanda: Yeah. That makes sense. I mean, we all have to see a story in something, right. That’s how we’re wired as human beings. And I love that there are people like you that see a story in the numbers. And I think my brain can work like that sometimes, but mostly I want to talk about people. But then you think of a video game itself, you’re playing a story and yet there’s so much code and math going on behind the scenes. So, that makes so much sense.

Tim: There’s so much that, and this is a broader conversation for later, I’m sure. But yeah, there’s so much that goes into a building a game, whether it’s code or art or storytelling, we hire writers, we hire artists, we hire the best tech people in the business to go build amazing worlds. So, for broader discussion about teamwork, I think video games is kind of at the top of the list.

Amanda: I do a lot of project management when we’re producing videos or podcasts or whatever. And I find, I think of myself as a translator, sometimes. That you’re in a room with all these different people with very different skill sets, but they have to work together for highest, best use of the product. Right? How to translate each other’s language back and forth. And I would imagine, coming from the finance perspective, that you do a lot of that to the artists and the coders, explaining the reasons for different decisions.

Tim: I’d say there’s a big piece of, there’s a great skill in translating business or finance to a broader creative industry, to a broader tech industry, which I think is a good skill that I always work on.

I’d also say that I spend a lot of my time talking to institutional investors and analysts that follow Microsoft from major banks, or they happen to be large shareholders, and really telling the story of gaming and where we’re going as a business and where the industry is going across Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, Facebook, Google, what have you, there’s a real skill needed that I always work on, which is how do you translate that gaming narrative back into a business language that investors and analysts follow as well?

Because they’re looking at the numbers, they’re looking at revenue growth, and they think about gross margin percentages. And I’m talking to them about Minecraft blocky, chopping wood down in games and building resources. And that’s what derives a big piece of our business.

Amanda: I wonder, the culture that you have experienced at Microsoft and growing into the position that you have now, I think a lot of companies these days do not expect someone to stay with them for 19 years. Can you talk about the culture at Microsoft that allowed you to grow from intern all the way into the role that you’re in now?

Tim: That’s a good question. And setting out, my goal was not to necessarily stay at Microsoft 20 years. It wasn’t not, not to be there, but I didn’t really have a 20-year vision of what I wanted to do when I grew up. But the culture of Microsoft and X-Box especially, is really, it’s inclusive. It’s allowing people to have voices. It’s allowing people to have perspective and hearing what they have to say. It’s listening to new ideas.

And that’s really Microsoft at its core. It’s the, let’s have a smart discussion around what we want to be five years from now as a business. Who’s gotten good ideas and how we drive those businesses? I think for me, that was always a very attractive part of the company, just that ability to have a voice and grow.

And Microsoft really invests in their people, whether it’s training, whether it’s the ability to move roles within the company. Now, my role is a bit, or my experience on the career side, is a bit different than others. Most would probably not be, that I can tell, most probably are in the same group or division for almost 20 years. That for me has been very fortuitous to be an industry I love, which is gaming combined with a job I love, which is finance.

And it’s created this sort of amazing … I tell people I have the best job in the world right now. And that’s been one of the things that excites me so much about being at Microsoft.

But it’s the ability for Microsoft to invest in people and be willing to take risks, willing to allow me to do a lot of different roles, even within finance in X-Box. There’s a lot of opportunity there, depending on what you’re interested in. So I’ve loved the flexibility of the company to sort of let you chase your dreams and what gets you excited, because at the end, it’s always about if you’re excited and you’re challenged, that’s what creates the best work output for people.

Amanda: Oh, absolutely. When you’re doing it because you love it and you’re also allowed to move in a new direction because you have an idea. It may not really come to fruition, but just being allowed to explore it, I feel like it just lets us be our own selves as human beings, which is a good thing.

So now that you’re in a leadership role, how have you been able to translate that culture to the people who report to you?

Tim: I think for me, I try to take a lot of experiences that I had growing up in the company, whether that’s new things and failing at those things or trying new ideas and being successful. So I encourage my team and those around me to be willing to take those risks, and it’s sort of, you can be protected while taking risks as well, as long as the risk is a good idea. Like we don’t like take crazy ideas necessarily that may not work, but being able to take risks is a big piece of it. Again, being able to hear those voices is a big piece of that.

And I always encourage my team to have a recommendation for working through an issue. It’s easy to point out a problem. It’s harder to come up with a recommendation. And that requires that kind of extra step of thinking or creativity or how do we get ourselves out of something if we’re in a sticky situation?

So I always encourage recommendations and then I always encourage growth, what are we going to do to make this business grow? That’s fundamentally what Microsoft and what publicly traded companies are about, is how do we keep growing the business? And so I really make sure that from an X-Box side, we’re always generating those ideas.

And what that does is kind of do the career point that you mentioned. It allows people to find things that excite them. It allows people to chase ideas that they have, and in our gaming space and the video game side, it’s fun because we get to not only chase those fun ideas, but sometimes see the fruition of those ideas. And I end up getting to play Minecraft or I’d play a Bethesda Game, which is a company we just purchased, like you mentioned. So that that’s kind of additional excitement for me: I get to tangibly see some of the output there.

Amanda: Oh yeah. And you have children as well. So I’m guessing you spend some time gaming with them.

Tim: It’s funny. It’s one thing when my son’s 14, my daughter’s 12, and it’s one thing when I have access to 3,000 X-Box games for free, the entire catalog of the X-Box ecosystem. It tends to be a pretty cool job for my son and my daughter. No, it’s great to have them come along with me and my journey, whether it’s, we bought Minecraft, that was the first acquisition I did six or seven years ago, or leading up to that. And my kids play Minecraft a lot. And so it’s been fun to be on the journey of, I remember when we started buying this company, and participating in that whole work stream.

But yeah, it’s great to be able to come home and share that sort of gaming excitement with my kids. They play a decent amount of games. And it’s funny to have to try to limit screen time with school or otherwise. And they walk into my office here while we’re at home and I’m playing video games while I’m on a meeting. And for some reason it’s career research and again, I have a controller in my hand while I’m on a call or something.

Amanda: Must be a little bit harder to say to your kids, you can’t play video games all day. You have to invest in your future, when both of those has worked out pretty well for you.

Tim: Somehow there’s a future in games. And I would say too, that it’s been a great sort of learning experience, especially for my son who likes some of the coding stuff and building video games, because I can introduce him to a lot of the great game creators out there, and you can learn different coding techniques. You can learn how video games are made and that’s something he’s interested in. So it’s been a nice relationship builder with me and my son.

Amanda: Yeah. It must be fun to have access to the entire system because I think we just interviewed a couple of people, a doctor, and a nurse, and several people in the health care field. And just because you want to help people, right? There’s a million ways you can do that within the health care field. And I think gaming is kind of the same thing. You may love video games, but you think of everything from your role all the way through to the museum of pop culture, which has this huge interactive display right now about Minecraft, and how the technicians and event planners, even that made that happen.

And so, again, there’s a million ways you can interact with video games that aren’t necessarily actually doing the code or being a tester. And I just think that’s good for all of us that may want to change. What do you love to do? Just because you may not be able to code, and maybe you can, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of that world.

Tim: I would say that the gaming industry, it’s a $200 billion-a-year industry growing at double digits. And so just massive and growing, which has been super exciting, especially in my role, but you’re absolutely right. Whether you’re a lawyer or an HR or finance or an event planner or into code, or IT, script writing, we have comms people, we have operations people, gaming is an ecosystem and an industry unto itself.

And frankly, I would say we don’t hire doctors necessarily. Maybe that’s the one or two roles that don’t exist, but for the most part, there’s a huge opportunity for really many, many job types to be a part of that industry. And it’s exciting. And it’s I think very rewarding.

We don’t talk, we try to make it too existential, but gaming in itself, we always talk about it being like the great unifier. Doesn’t matter what you look like, how old you are, what you prefer, what you do in life. You can get online and you can play games with other people and you can make great friends through that sort of that landscape. And that’s one of the things we really strive for at X-Box is that notion of inclusive gaming and really accepting people, and being who you are.

And I know I’m making a little bit of a jump there, but there are friendships that have been made. It’s how I stay in touch with my friends that I don’t live near anymore. But I think you can bring in a lot of people that way.

Amanda: Well, and especially at this time in history, as we’re coming out, let’s hope, fingers crossed, coming out of a pandemic, finding ways to stay connected, no matter what is so much more important. And yeah, I think we all need to find what works for us. What tells that human story for us and keeps us connected to each other, for sure.

Tim: That’s absolutely right. We all need those mental breaks. We all need those connection points with other people. And I think that’s just, as you say, so important right now during this pandemic time.

Amanda: Well, that just makes me curious. What do you do outside of gaming? There’s got to be a time where even gaming itself becomes work that day and you need to do something different.

Tim: You’d be surprised how many hours you can pump into video games. Maybe not. Yeah. Outside of work, I do, I really enjoy, actually I do play video games quite a bit outside of work. It’s funny, Phil Spencer who runs X-Box, we tend to play probably three or four nights a week. And we talk about work. We talk about life and it’s a good way to, for me, to have a one-on-one with someone I work for every single day.

But yeah, I enjoy getting outside. I enjoy golfing, golfing with friends and family. I really like, especially being here in the Northwest, there’s just so much to offer there. I spend a fair amount of time doing board work as well. I’m on the board of First Tee of Greater Seattle, which is a youth golf program. And then another board called GameChanger, which is all about taking video games into hospitals and how they can use that for, we’ll call it distraction therapy, but really giving them something to do while they’re in the hospital.

So I spend some, a fair amount of time doing both of those. I enjoy leveraging that sort of role that I have to be able to bring whether it’s golf to kids or video games to hospitals. I think those for me have been really rewarding activities.

Amanda: That’s amazing. I know having had a child be in the hospital more than once, that distraction is everything. I think we all know you just, you feel pain more when there’s nothing taking your mind off of it. That sounds like a wonderful pursuit. What’s your favorite game? Your favorite thing to play?

Tim: I’ll say there are a couple of different lenses. My favorite game as the CFO of X-Box is Minecraft just because of the ability for it to reach millions and millions of people with a great modernization engine in there. As a finance person, I love Minecraft. And it’s close to my heart because again, it’s one of the first acquisitions I ever did. So that was great.

I actually play a game called Destiny Two the most. And I would be scared to look at the number of hours on the Xbox hours tracker, but Destiny’s a game made by a company called Bungee. They’re actually here in Bellevue and I just love that game. It’s how I play with my friends. We get on all the time and it just warms my heart to get on and blast around some levels.

Amanda: When you think about what’s next and where, you talk about Minecraft being your first acquisition and just look what that has done. I have a ten-year-old nephew who is going to be so excited that I spoke with you, but what’s the big dream, what’s next? What would you like to say your next big mountain to climb would be?

Tim: There are probably a couple of lenses there. There’s the professional Xbox side. What do we do in my job. And then there’s maybe a personal answer. Professionally, when you think about X-Box, our goal really is to think about how we reach the two billion gamers that exist in the world.

Today we’re primarily a console-based business. So you think the X-Box console and the console markets, two or 300 million people worldwide, the PC gaming market is about two or 300 million people worldwide. And then you think about the mobile market, people playing Candy Crush or Clash of Clans on their phones or Minecraft on their phone or Roadblocks, that’s another billion gamers. So for X-Box, our goal really is how do you reach those two billion gamers that exist outside of the console industry?

And we’re doing things like game streaming through a program we have called X Cloud, which is how do you take games streaming to any end point, whether it’s a smart TV or an iPad or a tablet. We’ve got our subscription service called Game Pass. And if we want to go be as big as Netflix someday. How do you have subscriptions running on PC and mobile devices in addition to the console?

And we’ve got a lot of activity around our core console business. As you mentioned at the start, we just launched X-Box series X and series S and the start of a console generation is just so exciting. It’s just new games come out, new technology, games look amazing. You’ve got new business models and new, cool video games that just wow me every single time I look at them or we preview them.

So from an Xbox standpoint, there’s a lot of growth to be had. And I think that even as X-Box reaches its 20-year mark, I think we’re just getting started. I think that there’s a lot of gaming momentum right now. As you mentioned before, during the pandemic, a lot of people turned to gaming and we’re seeing record engagement, unlike anything we’ve seen in the past, but that’s setting the stage for the next decade of what X-Box can be when we grow up. So I’m excited about where we can take the business.

I would say on a personal standpoint, for me, it’s the, how do I just keep working hard and helping the business grow? I love what I do. And I’m not out looking to go be anybody different than I am today. And like I said before, I think I have the most perfect job in the world. So for me, it’s just keep investing in the people around me, keep investing in the business with my time and make sure I’m having fun while I do it all.

Amanda: I feel like there are a lot of people listening who would also think you have the best job in the world. So I’m wondering, it seems like you almost have kind of one foot in each camp, you’re working with this very large, established corporation. And yet you almost are working with this entrepreneurial spirit, right? Because you’re inventing new business models as you’re inventing new access and new consoles and new games.

What do you think prepared you, whether in life or in college or along the way, what prepared you to be able to move in a constant field of change and growth?

Tim: Yeah, I’d say that maybe for people that know me, I tend not to slow down, I guess, and that’s not like an overwork standpoint. I just like being always on the move and doing something. So maybe there’s an element of that, which fits into my role. I think that I talk a lot about when we’re hiring people onto the team or hiring people on Xbox, there’s a couple of things I focus on and it’s less about people’s background. Resumes are interesting and it’s great to have experience in certain areas. And of course that’s important, but it’s very much more, for me it’s about, are you curious? Do you have curiosity? Do you like learning? Do you like growing in your knowledge or things you’ve done? Are you a hard worker? Do you like putting in the time to, it’s not about hours, you just grind away because I don’t think that’s good for anybody just to always be working.

But do you work hard at the craft you’ve chosen? Do you want to be the best at what you do and you’re not about being the best versus someone else, but just do you want to keep improving? And then I think, do you have that willingness to learn? So the combination of curiosity, willing to learn, and hard work, I think can take you far in any career. And that’s what I look for in my team or even in me personally. I always make sure that I’m learning new things. I’m driving myself hard.

And in gaming, the nice thing is if you’ve got some experience in gaming or you happen to know the gaming industry, that’s a bonus for sure, because we operate in this unique industry of it’s big, but it’s small. It’s a lot of revenue and a lot of people playing, but the industry and key players in it are a relatively small network.

But I think that’s, for me, that’s the big one. That’s what keeps me going. And again, I made the bridge to that’s what I look for in people that we bring onto the team, whether it’s my team or X-Box writ large, but just having that curiosity and ability to work hard and translate that into just being a solid driver of the business. That’s really what I think is that key to success.

Amanda: Well, I’d like to wrap up our time here with the question that we ask all our guests, but I’m especially curious about what you’ll say just from your own perspective and lifestyle. That if everyone in Seattle could do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have each of us do?

Tim: I thought about this. I saw the questions beforehand, and this is what I had like 95 answers to, I think. But I came down to, and I’ll make a little bit of a leap here. I talk a lot about mentorship at work and even outside of work, but who are you mentoring? And do you have mentors?

And there’s a notion of sponsorship. And I think it’s a different word for a number of different reasons. Like I’ve had mentors at Microsoft and they help me navigate my career. They help navigate questions you may have, or, “Hey, I’m thinking about X or Y what should I do?” And that’s a great mentor to have. And then there’s sponsorship, there’s sponsors, which are people that invest in my life and are willing to put my name in the hat or say, “Hey, look, if you take a risk on Tim, I know he can come through. He may not have the experience you’re looking for, but he can do it.”

And they invest in your life and they invest with words of wisdom and they are able to push you positive and negative. They’re willing to speak into your life in ways that may feel uncomfortable. So the roundabout answer that I would have is be a sponsor to someone, find someone to sponsor.

If everybody in Seattle had ability to sponsor someone through support and were willing to stick up for them and find opportunities for them, I think that would go a long way because you’d have this growing network of people who are looking out for each other, a growing network of people who want to see people succeed, a growing network of people who support people, whether it’s financially or through wisdom or through just speaking insight.

So I think that as I’ve learned in my career, the difference between sponsorship and mentorship, if you applied that to everybody, I think you’d have this great support culture and a feeling of we’re all looking out for each other and trying to make the world a better place.

Amanda: Oh, I really love that. And what I hear you saying is that with the mentorship it’s advice, and we can have plenty of people that give us good advice, but we need the sponsors where there’s action, where there’s actual action on our behalf. And we won’t have as many of those, but to look back and say, without that, I wouldn’t be where I am today. And therefore I’m going to decide that I’m going to do that for others. And yeah, that’s something I think we can all put in place in our own lives or at the very least be open to, right?

Tim: Yeah, that’s well said. It takes the extra leap as well on that sponsorship side to either sort of A, get to know someone better and have a personal relationship, or B, if you’re looking for sponsors or have one it’s being willing to be vulnerable and open to what your sponsors speak into your life. So I think it’s an area that is just really, really important to me.

Amanda: Well. I agree. And I think one of the things I’m going to put on the sticky note on my computer for this next month is, who can I be a sponsor for?

Tim: Yeah. That’s great.

Amanda: Well, thank you so much, Tim. This has been such a fun conversation. And let me just end with our prayer of blessing over you. May the Lord bless you with all you put your hands to, may the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May he bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.

Tim: Thanks a lot. It was great talking to you today.


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