Inside the Leviathan

A short and stimulating brush with Microsoft's corporate culture

During the first six months of last year I worked at Microsoft's headquarters, in Redmond, Washington, on a team designing the next release of Microsoft Word. Photographs by Bruno DebasFor me this started out as the midlife fulfillment of a fantasy. I'd been intrigued by software design since 1979, when I started using my first word-processing program, The Electric Pencil, on a prehistoric computer called the Processor Technology SOL-20. As programs became bigger, fatter, stronger, and more fully controlled by Microsoft, I found myself drawing up increasingly elaborate wish lists of the features that a really great piece of software for writers would include. So I made a proposal to try to persuade Microsoft designers to see things my way. The terms were that I'd work at the company as a consultant for a fixed period of time. Any of "my" features they decided were worthwhile could be included as part of Word or Office, but anything they decided not to use would remain my intellectual property, so that in some theoretical other life I could start a company and sell my own little word processor in competition with theirs.

The terms also covered what I could say about the experience when it was over. Naturally, I had to promise to protect Microsoft's trade secrets. I also volunteered not to publish a memoir or an "inside Microsoft" confessional—or not to do so without allowing the company to read and approve it ahead of time, which is the same thing as agreeing not to do it. In exchange Microsoft allowed me to "draw on my experience" at the company in future writing about technology. It is a hazy distinction, but I think we understood each other. I didn't want to make it less likely that another interested outsider would be taken seriously by the company, but I also couldn't accept a blanket prohibition against ever saying anything about the interaction.

My contacts at Microsoft knew that through the 1990s I'd written warnings about the company's growing monopoly power. So why did I want to work there? Because Microsoft had eliminated the competition. If you want to affect the program people use for writing, you have to deal with Word. We agreed to disagree about the antitrust trial, which was under way while I worked there; I kept my views about it to myself unless asked.

Under these terms I spent an almost entirely enjoyable, and more or less productive, six months in Redmond, working mainly on Word but also on features that might be used in some other parts of the Microsoft Office "suite" of programs (which includes Word, PowerPoint, the spreadsheet program Excel, the e-mail and scheduling program Outlook, and others). Some of the features I was most excited about may well survive to appear in the next release of Word, which is supposed to go on sale sometime next year. Others were killed off early in the process. Sorry, no details! This is life in the world of trade secrets. You'll know that my features prevailed if you find me grabbing strangers next year, saying, "Hey, look how cool this program is! Wonder where they got the idea for it?" Until then what I can try to convey, in a form that matches the "generalities only" spirit of my agreement with Microsoft, is the instructive surprise of the experience. Having read about software design and Microsoft culture for many years, I found a few things that exactly matched my expectations. But many more things did not. Just before leaving Microsoft, I gave a talk "on campus" about what I'd learned. These are the things that I told them had surprised me:

The people are nice. Okay, this sounds like a high school bromide. The reason it's worth mentioning is that it is a surprise, given both the public's and the software industry's impressions of the company. At Redmond the prevailing view is that Microsoft has prospered strictly because it builds great software, and that Americans can't help being proud that their dynamic national culture has spawned such entrepreneurs. That strikes me as being years out of sync with the real national attitude. Polls indicate that people still admire Bill Gates—who will, after all, probably rank as the greatest American business strategist of the twentieth century. But the devastating "findings of fact" in the antitrust case last November said that the company had gone out of its way to squash competitors, which in effect reduced the rate of innovation in mainstream software products to whatever Microsoft chose to do. This is the view the software industry has held for a long time—with the added twist that Microsoft employees are thought to be haughty, sharp-tongued, and prickly to deal with.

Perhaps my standards were skewed. After all, before working at Microsoft I'd been hanging out with journalists and political types in Washington, D.C. And I never had to face Microsoft's intensity as a competitor. Viewed from within, though, this was about as collegial and nonbackbiting an environment as I've ever been part of. What people considered a sharp exchange about features or strategy (they call such a disagreement "pushback") was nothing compared with the way lawyers, journalists, or politicians snap at one another.

A small but noticeable group within the Redmond work force would have to be considered geeks: grossly over- or under-weight, weirdo hair and clothes, various hygienic oddities. One guy appeared to have a boa constrictor living in his office (it was in a cage). Another office contained several thousand empty soft-drink cans. A man who befriended me when I arrived had rigged up a way to see what his cats were doing at home in Seattle while he was at work in Redmond.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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