Thirteen years ago, I put in a six-month stint as a member of a Microsoft design team. (For history buffs: we were working on features that became part of Word XP.) I agreed with Microsoft that I wouldn't tell any tales, name any names, or discuss any secret aspects of what I had seen -- but that I could describe general lessons, surprises, impressions, and discoveries of the experience after it was over.
I did so in an Atlantic article called "Inside the Leviathan," published in early 2000. Among my list of surprising discoveries was one I described this way:
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....
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....
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.
But even the oddest people seemed generally to have a sense of humor about themselves, and at least as large a group seemed happy, well balanced, normally proportioned, and so on.
I liked Steve Ballmer at the top of the company, I liked the testers and interns at the bottom -- and also the program managers and developers I worked with, people I ran into from other divisions, and in general most of those I encountered. Then I said that there was one unfortunate exception:
I got into a little psychological cold war with one manager, who considered me a spy and wouldn't talk to me. I took every opportunity to glower at him in the halls. But I was in good spirits during the forty-minute drive from Seattle to Redmond each morning, because I looked forward to spending time with everyone else.
In related news, I note this week's reports that Steve Sinofsky, who as it happens was a fast-rising manager during my time at Microsoft and recently the second-most-powerful figure at the company, has been forced out because people found him so unpleasant and difficult to work with. The New York Times report quotes Michael Cusumano, a professor at MIT, about Sinofsky (in company photo at right) and the trail he left:
But while Mr. Sinofsky was effective, Mr. Cusumano said, he could be secretive and difficult to get along with, as he learned while dealing with Mr. Sinofsky while Mr. Cusumano was writing a book on Microsoft in the early 1990s. "I could imagine that he burned a lot of bridges and created a bunch of enemies," he said.
Yes. I could imagine that too.