Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Microsoft Paradox

As a former employee of the software behemoth, I’m often faced with the question, “What is it like to work for Microsoft?” I usually utter some sort of sound, such as “Well…” and then stall so that I can figure out how best to personalize the answer to the person asking the question. After dealing with this for a few years, it eventually dawned on me why I felt I had to make this effort, and why it was such an impossible question to answer. I’ve come to call it…

The Microsoft Paradox: Every generalization about Microsoft is simultaneously true and false.

First, some quick examples:

-- Microsoft employs somewhere in the range of 90,000 people. However, many of these people work in small, and sometimes largely autonomous, teams. so working at MS can feel like being a small cog in a big machine, or you can--as you might expect more from a small company--feel like you have direct influence on Microsoft’s bottom line.

-- Microsoft obviously brings in tremendous revenue, but if you happen to be affected by any of the cutbacks (or even the layoffs) then you’re not going to feel like you’re working for a company that probably has the largest war chest in business.

-- While MS tries to maintain similar benefits across their offices (e.g., free soda for all), working as a developer in Redmond is a completely different experience to working in Microsoft Consulting Services, Microsoft Research, or one of the support offices. (BTW -- they get free cappuccino in Paris, but don't tell anyone)

-- I’ve heard MS staff say (read: boast) publicly that there aren’t any cubicles in Redmond. I used to work in Building 1 in Redmond and walked by a room of cubicles on the way to the cafeteria.

-- An MS employee told me that he could expense anything under $1000 as long as it was for work. But I once received a phone call and had to explain why I needed a Windows 2000 Server DVD. (Note: Almost all installs are done over the network, so my request was not common. However, it still didn’t cost the company very much.)

So what about all those Microsoft stereotypes? Do any of those apply to the whole company? Probably not.

"Microsoft products are slow and unstable because they just stuff them with features."

To refute this as an empty stereotype, I refer you to the "marching red ants" sparkle text feature in Microsoft Word XP. I used to use this very feature as my example of the "code on code" dilemma that faces any software company (i.e., you have to create new features to sell new versions, but working on new features means less time to make the existing ones better). This feature, and others, have been removed. Whatever the reason--and I'm willing to guess that it wasn't being used enough--taking this out will probably be good for Word and its customers.

"Microsoft doesn't care about security."

I was working for Microsoft when billg's famous "Trustworthy Computing" e-mail was sent to every employee. If anyone questioned Microsoft's commitment to security, you just need to refer them to that initiative. For example, they aimed to have every developer go through security training and the Windows team took a month off just for security reviews.

"Microsoft doesn't invent anything."

Just check out some of the things Microsoft Research is doing. I've seen a few things at MS first and then witnessed other companies getting the credit for "inventing" them.

- Lake Bill

So it's possible to say that there is bloated code in Microsoft products and security issues, but you can't point to a team in Microsoft and say that every stereotype refers to them. How each decision is made at Microsoft is largely a function of individuals.

I've been inside, so I know that Microsoft generally isn’t interested in being evil—they’d rather sell great software. So when you hear about some screw up in Redmond, it’s best to stay away from the conspiracy theories and put it down to good old human error.

- More Canadians on the Microsoft campus

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Proudly Breaking Wired's New Rules

When I found a front page story in Wired about digital manners (How to Behave: New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans), I was happy to see that some of the niceties of new media were being highlighted. Many of these matters of manners--such as "Provide subjects for all emails"--are being ignored simply because they're not well understood.

However, when I read the article, I was surprised to find how many of Wired's "rules" I disagree with--yes, I understand that some are jokes. It doesn't matter how many funny images of Brad Pitt and Quintin Tarantino you fit in, I still won't be following these:

- Turn off "Sent from my iPhone" email signatures -- I understand what they're getting at here. No one cares if you have an iPhone or not. However, unless you write messages on your phone exactly the same way as your do on your PC, then having some sort of indication that the message came from a phone is a good thing. When people first started mailing from their phones, I can remember hearing lots of "oh, that's why your message was so short" stories. I don't write which phone I have, but I do let people know why I don't have spellcheck.

- Leave your WI-FI open -- I've read this one a few times, trying to find the sarcasm, but I can't read it any other way than Wired is advocating turning off network security. It's not a question of messing over your neighbours--as the article suggests--it's about your privacy. Anyone can download network monitoring software and use it on your insecure network. Want your e-mail public? Go ahead... be an "altruist," leave your network open.

- Never BCC anyone -- This is just a dumb one. Blind Carbon Copy has been around since, well... since carbon paper, and obviously there's a reason that it survived into the era of e-mail. I don't have to come up with a philosophical argument for it, I can give you an actual one. When a support rep at Metalogix sends an e-mail to a customer, he or she will BCC an internal support alias and thereby give every support rep in the company access to every conversation with each customer. Incidentally, (read: shameless plug) the Metalogix Exchange archiving software allows there to only be one copy of each message in our network. CC isn't appropriate because the internal address isn't for public use. BCC is just right.

- Don't type BRB -- Why not exactly? If you get caught up for a few mins, the person you're chatting with will understand exactly what has happened. I believe one of the new rules missed in this article is to try to keep your online status accurate. If you're not there, I don't want to be waiting for you with the chat window on top. I want to go back to work.

- Don't follow more people than follow you -- By way of disclosure, I should mention that I currently have more followers than people I'm following (which is a small number), so this isn't affecting me personally. Somehow, I just can't imagine a scenario where I ask someone to follow me because I don't have enough followers to add Cheryl Ladd to my list. If I want to follow Cheryl's tweets or every actor who appeared in a John Hughes film, then that's what I'll do.

- yes you should follow all of Charlie's Angels (even the new ones)

- Don't send ecards -- I can only imagine that the Wired manners instructor feels that ecards are somehow insulting or valueless because they are more convenient than going to a brick and mortar store, buying a card (and a stamp, or course) and then mailing it. The problem here is that new media have reached out in many other ways that would be stuffed into the same category. E-mail, video messages, even twitter updates have all changed the way people send messages of consolation or congratulation. Sure, I love the fact that my sister sends me actual postcards when she travels--yes, she is one of the few left of my generation who do this. But the fact is that everyone can decide how they want to communicate and, oh ya, my sister loves to get ecards.

Evidently, the Wired 'new rule' I'll be following the most is "Sometimes you have to break the rules."

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Twitter is down, good for Twitter?

Can you imagine how many people are trying to tweet that Twitter is down?

I think the current interruption in service may have a positive benefit to Twitter. As the old adage--and the Cinderella song--goes, "you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone." Not to mention the media coverage--a few hours without Twitter was on the national news in Canada. I wonder how many people watching that broadcast started to wonder if they should try Twitter?

There are still plenty of Twitter haters out there, but I expect quite a few "tweeps" will realize that just a few hours without the service is actually quite annoying.