Mystic Microsoft: A Journey of Transformation in the Halls of High Technology


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"You should look into the Cooperative Education Program. It's just the thing for a student like yourself."

It was October 1987 and I was visiting an undergraduate advisor at the University of Washington. I had just begun my sophomore year in Computer Engineering and it was time to start looking for relevant summer work.

The University of Washington, among a number of schools, had teamed up with various technology companies to create the Cooperative Education or "Co-op" Program. This was designed to help engineering students—whose experience is, by definition, quite limited—to find some sort of meaningful entry-level work in the industry. The companies created three- to nine- month internships that they would only fill with co-op students. Entry requirements were, of course, kept low, as were the salaries! To a student's mind, though, the pay was way better than most other summer options.

The colleges, for their part, would allow students to miss one or two terms without the usual penalties reserved for the academically lazy. At the UW we even got a few course credits to boot. As for the companies, they got to draw on a bountiful pool of eager students who were thrilled to do those "special projects" that most full-timers find insulting, and were equally thrilled to do it for half the pay and half the benefits. The co-op program also gave these companies an effective way to scout out and even train future employees without having to make any binding commitments in the process.

This arrangement found no argument from me. I made my way to the top floor of Lowe Hall (where the program was administered) and surveyed the list of companies that would be doing on-campus interviews that fall.

I was specifically looking for a place where my computer skills would eventually get me up into orbit. Really. Space exploration was my childhood fascination and I had nurtured dreams of space travel for years. Historically, of course, off-planet adventures were exclusively reserved for crack Navy pilots with perfect vision and entirely closed to only moderately coordinated civilian myopics like myself. But then the Space Shuttle came along and NASA began to toss up "mission specialists" who were needed more for their minds than for their eyes. There was hope!

I came to college, then, to develop those talents of mine that might someday lead to a window seat on the shuttle. As for my chosen major, I first considered mathematics—a subject in which I'd been rather precocious since birth. But early in my freshman year I sat in on the end of a graduate-level math course after which I had a meeting with the professor. For twenty minutes I understood nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I mean it—I didn't understand a single word! What I did understand was that I wasn't at all interested in whatever he was talking about. Thus ended any aspiration of following in the footsteps of Leibniz, Gauss, or Poincaré.

I then shifted my thoughts to astronomy which seemed better suited to my purposes anyway. I was particularly attracted to the field of astrophysics not only because it was more technical but because it also sounded more impressive. The only problem was that finding a job in this field was about as easy as becoming a starting NFL quarterback. Not very promising to someone who was already engaged to be married and talking about houses and families...

That left computers, a field in which opportunities were plentiful and the one in which I already had the most practical experience. My father, you see, had bought me a computer when I was eleven but adamantly refused to buy any software. "That," he told me, "is something you'll have to write yourself." So I did. In high school I even sold some of it. I also wrote articles for a couple of computer magazines and had a regular column in one of them.[*] By the time I got to college, then, I figured I had the programming end of things pretty well in hand and should learn something about the hardware. Thus I finally settled on Computer Engineering.

As I looked over the list of companies that were scheduling interviews for computer engineers, two of them caught my immediate attention. The first was Boeing, the venerable aerospace pioneer that was taking a leading role in America's space station efforts and also happened to be the career employer of both my father and my father-in-law to be. Certainly a good choice. The second was NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL). I quickly signed up with both..

Then there was this young upstart called Microsoft.

Offhand there was little here to interest me. The company was small and its future uncertain; the ink was still somewhat wet on its nasdaq IPO. All they did was sell floppy disks full of stuff like MS-DOS (yippee!) and this mildly-interesting thing called Microsoft Windows. Sure, it could be fun to work for a small computer company, but as a place to nurture my extraterrestrial ambitions Microsoft left something to be desired.

I signed up for an interview anyway. I'm not really sure why. There was just this little sense of attraction toward the company, a little inner nudge that said, "why not?" Besides, it just felt better for some reason to have three interviews lined up instead of only two...

 

My interviews began a couple of weeks later. The first, with Boeing, was a very calm and cordial affair as one would expect from an established institution. I did well answering all those questions about why I had chosen my particular degree and so forth, and left the room feeling confident that an offer would be forthcoming. All I had to do was wait for their call and my orbit-bound career would be launched, so to speak.

My little chat with Microsoft was scheduled for the following morning. I actually thought about giving it a miss since Boeing's pending offer would downgrade my interest in the small software firm from "slimly marginal" to "wholly superfluous." But I figured I might as well go through with it just in case something unexpected came up. No harm either with getting a little more interviewing experience.

Well, something unexpected did come up: I was offered a job before I even sat down! Bob Taniguchi, the man who greeted me, simply said "Good to meet you. I'm happy you'll be working for me this spring."

Say what?

Giving me no chance at all to think about what he had just said, Bob galloped off into what felt like a first day's orientation session rather than an interview. He fired me up (though we were seated now) for working in his Developer Support Group where I would learn so much about programming Microsoft Windows that I could help outside software engineers tackle their most daunting problems. He then painted a vivid picture about rubbing elbows with all the great people at Microsoft[] and highlighted all the special perks that "we employees" enjoyed, including the free T-shirts and soft drinks. Then to wrap everything up (after a few obligatory technical questions), Bob flat-out offered me the job again. "I'm looking forward," he said, "to working with you next spring."

As you might expect, I was quite surprised by this rather unorthodox recruiting method. I was even more surprised by my response to it all! Instead of writing off Bob as some slicked-over marketing weasel making a low-rung job in some new-kid-on-the-block company sound glamorous—as my cynical nature of the time should have demanded—I had absorbed everything he said like the proverbial sponge. Scarcely five minutes into our half-hour session I felt as if I had rediscovered a long-forgotten family. Everything Bob described about Microsoft and its people resonated with me on some deep level. Something was just so very right about all this; my whole being thrilled in a way I'd seldom felt before. And if my answers to Boeing's questions were fairly well in tune with that firm, my answers to Bob's questions—when he finally bothered to ask them—were exacting.

I learned later, when asked to conduct interviews myself, that this was somewhat typical of the Microsoft screening process. We didn't necessarily care about your career goals nor did we care all that much about any specific job experience. What we wanted to know, more than anything, was how well you "fit"—in a kind of vibrational way—with Microsoft's unique corporate culture. To that end, we threw you all kinds of challenges, surprises, and apparently insoluble technical problems just to see how you would respond. This told us, with a fair degree of accuracy, what would happen when you were exposed to the intensity of The Microsoft Way.

In my case I don't think there was any doubt. Both my outer and inner responses to Bob's presentation proved that I was true Microsoft Material.

Back then, at least, when Microsoft saw something it wanted, whether it was an individual or an entire company, it went right after it. This was due, I think, to the fact that decision-making power for this sort of thing (during my time there) was usually given to whomever had the most riding on the acquisition in question. A vice-president, for example, could go out and buy another company without even notifying the president or CEO; after all, it was his or her division that had to absorb the costs. As for hiring new employees, that power was pretty much given to the person's would-be manager who could often make a decision on the spot.

As a result, hirings sometimes happened with dizzying immediacy. In early 1992, for instance, one of Microsoft's primary competitors fell on hard times and eventually had to send out the pink slips. Sixteen hours later (as the story goes), the company was horrified to discover that—OOPS!—they'd accidentally canned one of their top software architects. They immediately called him to apologize and make amends, but in that small window of time Microsoft's programming languages group somehow tracked down this newly available "free-agent" and signed him. Indeed, when his now-former employer called he was already packing for the move!

In Bob's eyes I must have been similarly attractive: the official job offer came at eight-thirty the next morning, only twenty-one hours after my interview. (I can't be too proud—if I had been really hot they would've called the same day.)

I was, of course, ecstatic to get my first real, honest-to-God offer, especially one with so much energy around it. But when I was only given forty-eight hours to say yes or no, I plunged into inner turmoil. I didn't want to just jump at the first thing that came my way. I wanted to see what Boeing had to offer. I wanted to see what kind of work I might find at JPL. And I still wasn't quite sure about this adolescent software company that had nothing whatsoever to do with my astronautical fantasies. Would Microsoft really give me the experience I needed? Would that experience be valued by other future employers? Was Microsoft even a good short-term prospect? Or were they destined to go the way of so many other software startups that had a nasty tendency (well before the dot-com bust) to fall into bankrupt obscurity?

I was horribly confused, even terrified. The universe was inviting me to take a step I didn't really understand at all. I knew I was standing on the brink of a decision that would affect the entire direction of my life. "What should I do? What should I do?" My thoughts kept swinging like a pendulum between rationality and the full gamut of emotions. For every good reason that came to mind for choosing one way or the other I was mercilessly besieged by the forces of attachment, fear, insecurity, worry, and yes, even excitement!

I desperately wanted more time. I wanted time to sift my way through every possibility. But of course, I didn't get that luxury. There must be a universal law somewhere that says the amount of time you get to make a decision is inversely proportional to its importance. We typically get months to select just the right towels to match the tile highlights in the master bathroom, whereas we only get a few days to choose between two life-paths that lead to radically different destinations. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower put it (reported in Eisenhower and Churchill by James C. Humes), "A meeting whose main item was corner windows for heads of departments took almost five hours where the decision on D-Day five minutes."

Fortunately for me, I couldn't just sit there and churn on it: I had my usual classes to attend, homework to complete, and a paper or two to write. So I just had to let go for a while. After all, I did have forty-eight hours, not forty-eight minutes! Plus, I told myself, working for any of the three companies would both help my budding career and be great fun. What mattered, then, where I ended up? Eventually I found myself able to calmly accept whatever outcome was waiting for me.

This was the best thing I could have possibly done. In pulling away from both emotional and rational extremes of the pendulum and just giving myself into whatever possibilities awaited me, I found myself resting—pretty much by accident!—at that one point in the very center where motion ceases entirely. In that stillness, where the inner guidance of soul intuition has a chance to speak, I absolutely knew that choosing Microsoft was the right thing to do. I couldn't have told you why it was right, I just knew that it was. Microsoft was where I belonged, let come what will. The next morning I called Microsoft to accept the offer and cancelled my interview with JPL. I was that certain.[]

The following spring I thus entered the halls of Microsoft for the very first time. As if celebrating this new beginning, it just happened to fall on the Vernal Equinox: March 21st, 1988.

After a few hours of entertaining company orientation and all that not-so-entertaining legal paperwork, I met up once again with Bob Taniguchi. Wasting no time, he immediately showed me my new desk in one corner of a double-size office in Building Six, already home to three other co-op students who were busy answering technical support calls. On top of my desk squatted a 10-megahertz "286" computer (a true boat-anchor by today's standards) along with my personal copy of Windows (version 2, for those who remember it), all the necessary programming tools for the system, and a book called Programming Windows by one Charles Petzold. Though I was utterly thrilled, I was also a little nervous: I had worked on an IBM-compatible computer only briefly, I knew next to nothing about Windows, and I had never even heard of the particular programming language (called "C") that I now needed to learn. Bob was fully aware of these shortcomings. Yet in the truest tradition of The Microsoft Way he simply said, "You're on the phone in two weeks!"

That being the case, I dove into my work wholeheartedly. Living alone in an apartment less than a mile from Microsoft (our wedding wasn't until July), I spent each night devouring books and programming manuals until sleep won over. At work during the day I wrote experimental programs and listened in on other support calls. And two weeks later, when I was figuratively kicked out of the nest, I managed to fly pretty well on my own. In fact, it wasn't long before I was truly enjoying every day's work more than I thought possible, so much so that from my first day on I never once thought about the opportunities I might have missed elsewhere. Whatever dreams I had once nurtured vanished in the deep inner knowing that I was exactly where I belonged, where I would find exactly what I needed regardless of what I thought I wanted.

For like a newborn child, I had come home into the family with whom I would share my next phase of growth. And here I would stay and serve until Microsoft had fulfilled its purpose in my life.


Microsoft's Corporate Campus as it looked when I first started at the company.


[*] The magazines were Rainbow (the largest), Spectrogram (a short-lived, low-budget kind), and CoCo Clipboard (in which I had the column). These focused on the Tandy/Radio Shack Color Computer, a little box with a 1-MHz Motorola 6809 CPU and 64K total memory (K as in kilo- not megabytes). Fiddling with this machine was my primary hobby and my software sales only ever made me enough to buy a new piece of hardware now and then. Nevertheless, it was great fun to share my ideas and creations with others. [Return to text]

[] As a Microsoft recruiting brochure of the time put it, "If you want to know something about MS-DOS or Microsoft Word, just walk down the hall: the people who wrote it are probably there!" [Return to text]

[] I did get an offer from Boeing, by the way, two weeks after I had accepted the position at Microsoft. [Return to text]

 

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