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. For 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.