The Wheel of Karma, Microsoft Division

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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.

Sinofsky.jpegThe surprise, then, was that of many hundreds of tech- world hotshots I worked with and got to know there, I liked all of them -- except one.

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.

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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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