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From Microsoft to Martin Luther, and back

March 1, 2011

From Microsoft to Martin Luther, and back again

In 1994, Mike Halvorson was the first one to write a book about something nobody else cared about. The book? How to use a little-known software program called Microsoft Office. We can guess how that turned out. Halvorson graduated PLU in 1985 with a degree in computer science and a minor in history. That unique combination seemed to help when, soon after graduation, Halvorson found himself working for Microsoft, back in the days when they only had two buildings. He was employee #850.

“Why would a liberal arts degree matter?” he asked, musing on the days after his graduation. “It got me a job!”

The job was at Microsoft Press, the software giant’s in-house book publishing division. He worked there until 1993 and then set off on his own. By 2000, he had authored more than 30 books on how to master various software programs, from Microsoft Office to Visual Basic. He’s sold more than a million copies.

And then, as Halvorson described it, he “pushed the re-set button.”

He decided to earn his master’s – then his Ph.D. – in European history. And soon thereafter, he found himself back at his alma mater teaching about Martin Luther and Reformation Germany (and writing books about the subject, of course).

He realizes it is an odd combination: Not many people are experts in cutting-edge computer programming and 500-year old political and religious history. He’s also aware that some people might suggest that, in studying 16th Century European history, he is again writing books about things nobody cares about.

Hardly. He’s currently working on a book that addresses this “why should I care?” question he sometimes confronts. Tentatively titled “Golden Age: Ten Brilliant Leaps of Imagination,” the book considers some of the ideas that came out of Europe between 1400-1700 that still hold sway today. Inventions like the printing press, discoveries in anatomy and astronomy, and the creation of ideas like humanism and justification by faith.

Or, too, the very Lutheran concept of living a life of faith and interjecting it in the world. “It’s the idea of connecting your morality with your citizenship,” he said. This was, after all, what Martin Luther and the German Reformation was all about.

It’s also what PLU is about. Halvorson knows – he’s seen it from both sides, as a student and a history professor.

“When I first came here, I thought it was the biggest place in the world,” Halvorson said of his days as an undergraduate student. “Now, I see it as pretty small – a place where one person, one teacher, can make a big difference.”