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

No comments: