The Laboratorium
September 1997

Here Be Dragons


At 21, Microsoft is acting its age. It still pulses with the supremely cocky energy of a hyperactive youngster, but it's too big to be called a kid any longer. Its life is a mixture combining the arrogance of youth, the responsibilities of maturity, and the loopiness of those somewhere in between. As it grapples with the notion that its founder's wet dreams of hegemony are closer to fruition than most such fantasies, Microsoft is going through some interesting crises of identity. Am I ready for corporate adulthood? Do I know my own strength? Will I be able to accept my limits, my own mortality?

Explaining what Microsoft is really like--and why anyone should care--is something of a cottage industry these days. Business writers have written themselves silly dissecting its corporate culture and organizational structures. Journalists, playing the part of the invited fly on the wall, have returned with portraits ranging from a madhouse dominated by overgrown adolescents to the ultimate pressure cooker to a veritable paradise of luxury, flexibility, and free soda. Douglas Coupland's fictional portrait of the company's eponymous Microserfs, despite its outrageous exaggerations (one character goes insane, locks himself in his office, and refuses to eat any food too thick to be slipped under his door. This is, of course, an utter lie. The office doors here don't lock.), when it was excerpted in Wired, managed to convince a great many readers that it was fact. Microsoft's own recruiting paraphernalia once featured the slogan, "Wild rumors abound. Find out which are true."

The answer, as I've discovered, is "almost all of them." Just about everything you hear has some basis in fact or factoid. The key is to remember that almost nothing that is true of some part of Microsoft generalizes to the rest. Buttoned-down suits setting corporate policy, development teams of hyperthyroidal goofballs, shuttles with eternally placid drivers and baskets of candy--take every personality type imaginable, combine in a quixotic Seattle suburb, and stir well. It takes all sorts. Oil and water. Chocolate and peanut butter. Nitro and glycerin.

Devs and PMs: The Two Major Food Groups

The basic indivisible unit of the Microsoft programming beast is the "dev." This is short for "developer," which is, of course, the preferred one-word form of "Software Design Engineer." It's the hordes of developers who write the huge volumes of code Microsoft pumps out continuously--even allowing for traditional MS code bloat, the quantity is breathtaking. Word is several million lines long. (I have it on reliable authority that at least four or five of those lines actually do something, rather than implementing the talking paperclip.) So there are a heck of a lot of coders. So?

It's the way Microsoft organizes them into a structure that can (gasp) cooperate on getting products out the door that has drawn most of the attention from the business-fanfic world. In all the commotion about Microsoft's meteoric rise to monopoly, it's been often overlooked that its methods aren't actually all that different from those of most of its competitors (with the exception of the hopelessly stodgy, like IBM). In a nutshell, this new organizational model is built around one basic fact: programmers have big egos. They like to point to something and say "I did that." They think everyone else is, by comparison, clueless. Programmers don't like to share.

Microsoft responds to this fact by giving its developers plenty of authority when it comes to their own tiny plots of turf. Split into small, relatively autonomous teams, they need generally negotiate directly only with a small, well-known set of buddies. Given "ownership" of their own parts of the code, they can feel the thrill of victory (and the agony of defeat) as their part moves from segfaulting to working now and then. With other developers (rather than pointy-haired managers akin to the one from Dilbert) as their bosses (and their bosses' bosses, and so on, all the way up to Bill, who used to challenge computer magazine writers to programming contests as a publicity stunt), they don't need to explain design decisions to those who don't understand the nuts and bolts of programming and their particular product. To encourage their self-image as swinging kings and queens of energetic talent in demand wherever they go, Microsoft strongly encourages lateral internal transfers between groups. Bounded in a nutshell, Microsoft's developers count themselves kings of infinite space.

The actual day-to-day management structure--made up of "Program Managers" ("PM" for short)--exists in a parallel org chart. The PM's can't actually tell the programmers at their level quite what to do. The developers just know to listen when the PMs talk, since it's the PM who has to go out and make the other PMs have their developers cooperate with our first PM's group. Getting tools built well in advance, coordinating with other groups who'll need to merge features into one finished product, setting overall directions and release dates, and managing the evolution of projects--these and a thousand others are the tasks of the PM. They manage the information flows so that the developers don't have to. Microsoft insists on technically aware PMs--generally, they have reasonable coding experience of their own--so that its management is properly plugged into technical reality. The ultimate form of this is the "Bill review." Every product goes through at least one: usually several, at different stages of its development cycle. And you'd better hope Bill likes it, or it might be canceled on the spot. Gates has been known to ask questions that groups have no answers for. The man is aware of everything being worked on at his company. Everything. Data structures deep within Microsoft code are named after him, or after utterances which have issued from his mouth.

The Cult of Bill and Corporate Culture

His presence is oddly pervasive. When people here refer to him as "God," the tone is only half-joking. And when people talk about word "coming down from above," their voices betray complete ignorance of the irony in their words. Somehow, news about Microsoft's top executives, especially Gates, is always considered relevant to the Microsoft community. That doesn't stop them from doing things like voting against Paul Allen's buy-a-referendum, but everyone does pay attention to the comings and goings of Fearless Leader.

In part, this may be because he's been leading Microsoft so far so fast. The signs are everywhere, not just at the traditionally peppy annual company meetings (top executives arriving onstage by motorcycle is par for the course). Microsoft spends lavishly on employee morale the way only a company that has never really seen hard times can. Family night at the Science Museum. Microsoft day at the ballgame. Product group trips to see the strangely Gates-like Austin Powers. Enough T-shirts to clothe a small nation for years.

Physically, the suggestively-named Campus mirrors this bubble-economy opulence. Six buildings are currently going up to supplement the forty or so already in existence--there are more on the drawing board, no doubt. Every office--and it's one to an office, of course, none of this cubicle nonsense, 'cause we're Microsoft and you're not--either has windows along one entire wall or is across the hall from a window office. Glass walls facing the hallways and skylights in the newer buildings enhance the level of natural light.

Building Services will extensively customize your selection of prefab desk components, file drawers, and shelves, and most employees extensively decorate their offices. When crunch time comes, you're going to be in there fifteen hours a day (or straight through all twenty-four if you've brought in a futon), so you might as well get comfortable. Along with the cafeterias all over the place, the general level of immaturity, the sometimes impossible "assignments," and the general level of autonomy, the similarities to a college campus can be frightening. This resemblance, of course, is deliberate.

Just down every corridor is a petty thief's dream: a copy room generously stocked with an insane assortment of office supplies (eight colors of paper in endless shapes, sizes, and rules, several brands of computer disks, more kinds of pens than Bob Slate, and mechanical pencils, for crying out loud). Across the hall from each copy room is the kitchen, home of the free soda. On one side sits the cooler with the Coke products, on the other side the Pepsi drinks. Both free in whatever quantities you can consume.

The fellow two doors down from me has consumed several thousand Mountain Dews in the last few years: he keeps the empties in neat stacks in his office. One can perform a crude form of geologic analysis on the strata by noting the seasonal changes in the packaging. This band here is composed of the Christmas cans from two years ago. That layer was laid down during a heavily-hyped free stuff giveaway. The mountains of cans rise to the ceiling now, giving the room the feel of a child's jury-rigged fort, but still he keeps chugging away, his conspicuous consumption a monument to the incongruous, intriguingly socialist ways of this capitalist juggernaut.

Work Hard, Play Dead

Roger's powerful thirst is a good example of another Microsoft phenomenon: making a second job out of recreation. Everyone here has some all-consuming passion, something to do in the off-hours. My manager went to Vegas for a programming language conference and dropped a "rack of red" (a box of a hundred five-dollar chips) at the poker tables in under an hour. The basketball courts and athletic fields set in the open areas of the Campus are usually packed with employees engaging in some fairly intense pick-up games. One of the highlights of the company picnic each year is when all the amateur hang-glider enthusiasts arrive--from above, of course.

Rock climbing is big. No, huge: one Microsoft employee built a climbing wall in her garage immediately after acquiring her own home. Tales are told of other climbers whose marriages just couldn't survive that three-month separation imposed by his need to go climbing in Eastern France. The phrase "work hard, play hard" doesn't quite capture the attitude. If one observes these Microserfs engaged in their obsessive recreation, the word "play" does not spring to mind. The frenetic way they fill their leisure time is reminiscent of . . . the frenetic way they fill their working time. Working on the weekends is occasionally considered a way to relax--after all, it's slower paced.

At a certain level of exertion, muscle tissue becomes incapable of relaxing. At a certain level of caffeination, sleep is impossible. At a certain level of stress, it becomes impossible to unclench one's mind. There is only one real option open to the twitchy, the wired, and the frotzed who spend their days in Microsoft's hallways absorbing tension: spend the rest of their time trying their frantic best to dissipate the dangerous quantities of energy stored up in their over-tightened internal clocksprings. Exercise and other draining activities which can work the body into a state of exhaustion to match one's mental exhaustion are greatly treasured. Microsoft has sports fields and a sweetheart deal with the sports club for a reason: how else could everyone get to sleep at night?

Offices are filled with posters and toys. People bike to work. There are group-wide parties, at company expense, monthly. Friday Wine-Down. Hot summer afternoons with Microsoft-issue water pistols. Self-deprecating banter hurled across the hallways. Everyone programs to the accompaniment of music--the renaissance of the 8X CD-ROM drive as a glorified tape-deck. The employees who compulsively collect old cabinet arcade machines set them out in the halls for their colleagues to play on for free during breaks. All of these features do not, as the observer first seeing them might expect, make the place Heaven to work at. They keep it from being Hell.

The ridiculous, almost counter-productive, pace and pressure are inextricably part of the Microsoft corporate culture. Everything must be done sooner, with more features, with more innovation, more bells and whistles, more more more. Power programming, power tools, power power. Of course products ship with bugs--there's never enough time to get them out, and besides, everyone is too tired to care. Of course dumb design decisions get locked in to future versions--the next cycle has already started by the time the current version is anywhere close to getting out the door, and there's no time to consider things in perspective. The group down the hall wants your resources and wants you to conform to their model. You want them out of the picture entirely. You both want more hours in the day, more days in the week.

A claim occasionally heard around the hallways is that Microsoft does in one year what it would take other companies seven to do. This is absurd. Microsoft is among the best in the business in getting large quantities of stuff done quickly, but no way is it seven times better. It only feels like each year here requires seven years worth of work.

Warning: Contents Under Pressure

Microsoft has thrived by creating a climate in which particular results are less important than the intensity of the environment which produces them. It doesn't win by being better than the competition, or even by being bigger. It wins by attrition, not of market share but of energy. When it enters a market, Microsoft is making a bet that eventually the competition will see bankruptcy as less painful than continuing to fight.

Consider its Internet "strategy," perhaps the first truly postmodern corporate game-plan ever. Microsoft has no Internet strategy, other than to win. There is no overarching company vision, no "big picture." Nathan Myhrvold, the closest thing Microsoft has to a guru, goes around denigrating the guru profession. Microsoft does not pretend to have the slightest clue what form Gozer will take. Instead, it is throwing billions of dollars at every possible opening at once. The operating system people are barely managing to keep in touch with the browser people. In theory, they both talk to the Office people. In theory. The programming language people are plowing ahead with their own direction, which represents a completely different philosophy from that of the web authoring people. Internet Gaming Zone. MSN(BC). Comcast. Slate. FrontPage. Servers, clients, networks, services, apps, commerce, multimedia. It's one gargantuan mess. But the executives in Building 8 know that something has to succeed (if not, let another million flowers bloom. Repeat as needed.). And when it does, they stand ready to pour a king's ransom and a small army of programmers into the breach.

And what of the groups that fail, the ones whose products are less Philosopher's Stone than doorstop? Well, they'll be terrified and looking to atone for blowing it. In just the right position for the company to turn their insecurity and guilt into another round of flirtation with burnout. And it's not just the failures. Fred Moody, in I Sing the Body Electronic, made a particularly astute point: everything about the institutional culture of Microsoft is designed to make employees feel that they have done less well than they could have, to make successful products feel like failures to those who have worked on them. All the stress, all the slipped deadlines, all the little bugs that slip through--it sold ten million units but you'll need to do better next time. The company as a whole is soaring (feel that pride!), but it could all go down the tubes if you, yes you in 9-north 1312, don't give 110%.

By your work for Microsoft alone shall you be judged. There can be no relaxation, for the fate of the entire company depends upon you. In the privacy of your performance review, confess your weaknesses to your manager. Be austere and be not profligate in your ways, lest your sins feed the cost beast. And always, always, bring in new converts--new employees for the Recruiting office to bring aboard. If Gates is a god, these are the strict and unforgiving tenets of his religion.

Salvation, in this scheme of things, takes the form of stock options. Microsoft hands them out generously to its employees, buying them back on the open market explicitly for this purpose. They vest in annual installments for five years from the date of issue--one is always looking to the future and seeing how much longer one can hold out, since the instant you leave Microsoft, the options are worthless. The business term is "golden handcuffs." And how much are they worth? Well, that's where the element of faith comes in.

The Hermeneutics of Microsoft

Microsoft is the most ridiculously over-capitalized company in existence today. The value of its extant stock far exceeds that of companies orders of magnitude larger. Its price is far above what any traditional stock-market formula predicts. There is no truly rational reason to buy Microsoft at this price. One can only have faith that someday it will own the entire world and it's best to buy it up now and be part of the new ruling class (the prospect isn't completely out of the question)--or else one is playing the speculation game. Cash in and get out while the party's still going on. It can't go on--there are thermodynamic limits, after all--but a year ago, it couldn't go on, either, and two years ago, and so on back, but it's kept going on this far, so why should tomorrow be any different?

Such worries probably don't keep Bill up at night. As heavily invested in Microsoft as he and the other early founders are (it's the stock that's made them fabulously rich), the stock price doesn't really affect his future with the company. Paul Allen and the others who were interested in retirement at middle age or before are all pretty much gone now: the ones who remain are those, like Gates and Ballmer, who have an emotional as well as financial investment in their company, and those, like Charles Simonyi, who've tentatively tried retirement and nearly gone insane from the lack of stimuli.

For those a little lower down the food chain, such longevity of service is a different matter entirely. There are, as there are at any technology firm, a few local gurus who have fused on a molecular level with their surroundings and couldn't be pried loose with heavy machinery. But surprisingly few here, when they think about the long term, think about it with Microsoft. In the course of the summer I interned at Bell Labs in a group of thirty, we celebrated one thirtieth service anniversary and several twenties and twenty-fives. Microsoft itself is only twenty-one. Even ten years seems an almost unimaginable amount of time to remain here.

Between the competitive salaries and the stock options (both an absolute necessity if Microsoft is to continue growing in this time of severe labor shortage in the industry), Microsoft makes it possible for its employees to desert it. Want to sink some cash and a crazy idea into a start-up in hopes of owning the next Netscape? Want to take a break from the whole working thing and sail around the world? Want to take some underpaid dream job that you'd barely be able to support yourself by working at? After a few years in the mines here, you can. Microsoft can't do a heck of a lot, beyond pushing the vesting date on its options a few years into the future, to keep you around. And in another sense, it probably doesn't need to.

The idea that there's an end in sight is certainly a comfort when you're pulling repeated all-nighters in ship mode. If five years at hard labor is the price of later freedom, well, that's not too bad, now, is it? By the end, you're exhausted but secure, and ready to try something else at a slightly slower pace. Which, from the company's eyes, is fine and dandy. Find some young new hotshots who don't understand the real meaning of stress yet and squeeze the sixteen-hour-days out of them.

The entire process represents a single, closed, system that obeys its own bizarre but oddly compelling logic. The all-enveloping, full-service atmosphere. The rah-rah company-wide events. The weekly newsletter with its focus upon the Microsoft "community." The obsessive watching of the stock price (one dev built a "stock clock" which automatically indicated the price of MSFT in barometer-like fashion). The insane quantities of time worked in support of product cycles equally insane in their brevity. The "dogfood" mentality.

The bargain is simple, and Faustian. For as long as you let it, Microsoft will be your existence. It will encompass your reality with its own, will break down your identity and recreate it as part of the Microsoft Mystique. You will hold raw power in your hands, and be astounded as you push beyond what you thought your limits to be. And then, when you say "enough, I am satisfied," you will walk away, and perhaps your soul will come with you. Perfect and complementary opposites, the work and the quitting are impossible without each other. The Campus, as the cliche goes, is a great place to visit--but you wouldn't want to live there.

Please Check Your Reality at the Door

And this is why the Microsoft future is so hellish from the customer's point of view. It is disorganized, technological in the extreme, a place of quasi-creative ferment and superficial instability, software that does a million things and doesn't crash that often, an entire reality organized under a single banner emblazoned with the Microsoft logo. And for the customer, there is no escape. There is no realm beyond Microsoft, no alternative regime. If you would view the future of the software race, imagine sand dribbling through an hourglass icon forever.

For this is another face of Microsoft, one which has come increasingly to the fore. The company may practice cutthroat capitalism in its actions and it may treat its technical workforce in ways bordering on communism, but insofar as the company possesses a vision, that vision is totalitarian. "A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software," is the company motto. Its goal in every slice of the software market is utter domination. It seeks horizontal and vertical integration.

In the marketplace, these features are well-enough documented. Internally, this vision pops up in stranger ways. Microsoft's Archive and Museum don't exactly rewrite history, but they certainly filter it (don't go to the Archive for a picture of Microsoft Bob. They don't have any.) The standard-issue awards issued for filing a patent or shipping a product are supposed to amount to individual recognition but have a strangely depersonalizing effect. The heroic cult surrounding Gates is a familiar enough political phenomenon--it takes the internalization of a certain kind of ideology to name a Campus pond "Lake Bill" without feeling any jitters. The annual meeting, for which Microsoft rents out the Kingdome, erects a stage, distributes T-shirts proudly announcing one's regim... I mean, product group, and buses in its entire Seattle-area workforce to applaud as its executives make speeches, is profoundly creepy.

Privacy, of course, is non-existent. The non-locking doors to the offices sit next to glass panels facing the hallway. Every packet that crosses the firewall into or out of Microsoft is supposedly logged. The company-issue copy of Outlook on your desktop also records every Office file you open. All this intrusiveness makes for a rather odd fit with the more freewheeling mentality of most of the workforce. The halls are filled with gossip about the scandalous stories behind one or another sleep-inducing press release. Except for a core of true believers, most of the PMs and developers are profoundly cynical about Microsoft in its corporate identity. People have pride in the software, especially their own, but often distrust much of what comes out of the mouths and keyboards of "management," such as it is.

Marx and Microsoft

Simply put, Microsoft is a classed society. At the top are the managerial types, united behind Gates and his all-encompassing goals. They are the marketers, the corporate planners, the financiers, the armies of lawyers and flacks. They are the first image that comes to mind whenever one casually thinks of Microsoft, which is intriguing, since their entire jobs are, at best, one-offs. It is not entirely an exaggeration to say that the company is run for their benefit.

Beneath them are the programmers and program managers, the Party rank and file. Microsoft is good to them, but it no longer answers to them. Gates' history as one of them makes him into their respected leader-figure. He can still hold his own against any of them, and often mercilessly makes them aware of it with a typical flame-ridden email, and for this they look up to him. But he is not one of them.

At the bottom are the enormous waves of support staff needed to coddle the programmers and execs. The shuttle drivers, the receptionists, the cafeteria workers. Microsoft is in the process of disenfranchising them entirely. Anything it can outsource--office supply and food preparation--it does. Where this strategy won't work, for example in the case of the receptionists, it has often laid off its employees and then taken them back on as temps, sans benefits. They are not contributors to any of Microsoft's "core competencies," nor does the company particularly depend upon any of their individual skills. Thus, despite billion-dollar profits, it is fighting the "cost beast" by systematically breaking its social contract with them.

Whether they realize it or not, the programmers are probably next. Already, Microsoft uses temporary agencies to supply a significant fraction of its programming needs. Traditionally, these arrangements have been responses to the difficulty of hiring people fast enough (or a gimmick to get a talented high-schooler on to the payroll without feeling any moral qualms), and many contractors have eventually come aboard full-time.

But Microsoft is consolidating its position and making its plans. Every competitor squashed is one less company who must be bid against for talent. The more CS grads the nation's universities pump out, the less severe will be the job glut. Every new clause in the non-disclosure and non-competition arrangements makes it harder for employees to wave around outside job offers. The more internal transfers take place, the less easy it is for employees to stake out turf and hold the company hostage with specialized knowledge. The more effectively Microsoft plays the game of milking employees out of exactly their best years, the faster the pipeline flows through it and the harder it becomes for the serfs to build up long-term relationships with Microsoft, with their troubling expectations of corporate reciprocity.

Programming has done its best to resist any kind of rational management, has remained troublingly infungible and unpredictable, has more or less steadfastly avoided becoming a commodity. Some companies have gone with the flow: the small single-product start-up is an attempt to exploit this distinctive nature of the programming profession.

Others have tried to change this reality. Brooks' Law is the only tangible result of IBM's failure to do so. For perhaps the first time in history, someone may actually stand a chance. What Microsoft is working on, along with the sideline in software, is nothing less than the co-optation of the programmer.

Many people think that the great social effects of the technological changes sweeping the world will be to separate humanity into the information workers and everyone else, to the benefit only of the former. This may be too rosy a picture. Microsoft is engaged in the attempt to prove that no form of work is truly immune to dehumanization, that labor need not be manual to be alienated. The new wealth of the dawning new age requires new forms of business, new forms of software, new forms of exploitation. Microsoft stands ready.

Conclusion: Microsoft and The Nature of Time Itself

"How can you know your future if you don't know your past?" reads a sign hanging in the hallway, a promotional banner for the Microsoft Archive. Microsoft is obsessed with turning the former into the latter--time here can only be understood as an eternal procession of transitions. The official Microsoft past is filled with "first this" and "first that," the innovations by which Microsoft propelled the world from prior backwardness into enlightened futurity. The future is no different: Microsoft looks forward to the day when various annoying defects of reality as we know it shall have been overcome. The "Damn, That's Good Software" advertising campaign gleefully predicts the suspension of several "laws" of physics. This insistence upon being at the cutting edge, upon being squarely astride the intersection of the present and the past has made of Microsoft a frontier town. It is not a physical frontier, but a temporal one.

The frontier is a place of uncertainty, where traditional relations are turned inside out, where anything and everything is in constant state of flux. It is an ephemeral region, a place of life on the margins of reality and sanity. It is the birthplace of future order yet to come. And it is a place of legend and outsized characters.

Charles Simonyi does not, contrary to rumor, own a MIG. He shares ownership of an F-15 with Paul Allen. He does, however, own a helicopter. And some days, if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, you can see it touching down on the lawn outside of Building 10 before Simonyi hops out and heads inside to his office, rolling up his sleeves for a day much like any other at Microsoft.

Welcome to Microsoft. Here be dragons.