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


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Esprit de Corps

 

"Excuse me"...do you know you're moving today to Building Four?" A burly gorilla of a man stood in the doorway of my office. He sported the uniform of Graebel Van Lines, Microsoft's more-or-less resident moving contractor.

I had no idea I was being moved, so I called our group assistant. "Oh! Um, yes"..." she replied, a little embarrassed, "I forgot to tell you about that. Sorry!" Well, there wasn't much left for me to do but pack up everything as quickly as possible and take the rest of the afternoon off.

Experiences like this one, which took place somewhere in 1992 if I remember correctly, were not at all uncommon. Office moves—both expected and unexpected—were just a fact of life. We called it The Microsoft Shuffle.

Microsoft began its corporate existence in 1975 with two employees—Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Microsoft was initially centered in the Sundowner Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, close to a company called MITS for whom Bill and Paul were writing a version of the basic programming language. Within three years, Microsoft had grown to fifteen employees and now included a brilliant software architect by the name of Gordon Letwin.

Around 1980 or so, with a few dozen more employees in the ranks, Microsoft moved its operations to the Seattle area; Bill's original stomping ground. They settled nicely into an office building situated at the intersection of Interstate 405 and State Highway 520, in the city of Bellevue. It was here that both Microsoft Word and Microsoft Windows were born.[*]

As the company continued to expand, Microsoft soon filled the entire building and Gordon Letwin was becoming, so the story goes, more and more nervous. He was apparently concerned that a large earthquake—the "big one" area seismologists continue to predict—would level the five-story structure and produce, in his words, "techie pancakes."

So when Microsoft began to build its Corporate Campus in the nearby town of Redmond, its expansion went primarily horizontal: the six original X-shaped buildings, each designed to maximize the number of window offices, were only two stories tall and built like fortresses. The massive pillars in the single-story underground parking garages gave unmistakable testimony to this fact. The only pancakes to be found at Microsoft were those in the cafeterias!

Of course, within a few more years Microsoft was again bursting at the seams. When I joined the company in 1988, many employees were doubled up in what were designed to be comfortable one-person offices. Thus construction began on buildings 8, 9, and 10. Microsoft also purchased a number of other adjacent lots that were already home to what became buildings 11 through 15.[] In addition, a number of the more self-contained divisions were moved off campus entirely, including the whole of Product Support. But still, no Microsoft building was more than two stories tall.[]


Microsoft's corporate campus around 1990; Building 1 is in the upper center (X shaped);
Buildings 8 and 9 are on the left with Building 10 under construction.
The forested area in the lower right is where Building 7 would have gone.
The buildings in the upper left became 11 to 15.

Then Gordon Letwin retired and Microsoft's planners were finally free, so it seems, to go vertical. Starting with Building 16, three stories was the minimum. By Building 28 it had crept upwards to four. Last time I visited Microsoft the ceiling had obviously (and literally) been pushed to five. And somewhere back in 1991 Product Support took over a number of floors in a downtown Bellevue high-rise. Today, I believe, Microsoft has taken over the entire building and part of the one next door.

As you can imagine, Microsoft's endless expansion meant that we were always moving, moving, and moving again—into new buildings, into old buildings, within the same buildings"...anywhere and everywhere. And by "we" I mean yes—entire departments and even entire divisions! The capable folks at Graebel Van Lines, in fact—who were and still remain literally a fixture on campus—developed the ability to shuffle well over a thousand offices in a single weekend. Their moving trucks are a constant hazard in Microsoft's serpentine parking lots (a.k.a. The Microsoft Speedway), and piles of their moving boxes and rolls of packing tape ubiquitously adorn every floor of every Microsoft building. They just never disappear.

During my eight-and-a-half years at Microsoft I occupied no fewer than thirty-three separate offices, both on and off the main campus. No joke! That's an average of one move every thirteen weeks. The longest I ever stayed in one place was sixteen months; the shortest, two days. In that instance I had just finished unpacking when I was told I'd been moved into the wrong office!

Most moves, of course, were flawless: we knew well ahead of time when and where we were moving. On occasion, though, as I related at the beginning of this chapter, you didn't find out about a move until the Graebel Gorillas showed up to haul everything away. It's times like this when packing is most effectively accomplished with a shovel.

I don't really remember anyone ever being upset by a move. For one thing, you always got a Friday afternoon off without having to dip into your vacation hours; when a really big move happened you got all of Friday plus half of Thursday. Moving offices also offered a much-needed opportunity to sort through piles of accumulated papers, product specs, outdated software, and outright trash. For some, the first day after a move was the only time they actually saw the surface of their desks.

More importantly, I think all of us understood that The Microsoft Shuffle was an important part of a deeper and more fundamental fluidity. In the fast-changing world of personal computer software, Microsoft had to be able to stop on a dime (or at least a few million dollars) and launch off in some new direction. Throughout its history, Microsoft's complete willingness to rearrange its internal structures has been vital to its continued prosperity.

And Lord, were we willing! Reorganizations had to count as one of Microsoft's favorite corporate pastimes. Sometimes they happened so often that we referred to the latest instance as the "reorg du jour." But we were glad to have them—they kept Microsoft from becoming too fixed in its ways. (Isn't it fitting that many old companies are referred to as "firms"?) Microsoft's directors clearly understood that corporate structures and a well-tuned management chain are only of secondary importance to creativity, innovation, and service. You could, in fact, work for years at Microsoft without ever being aware of your position in the corporate hierarchy—or, as we called it, your Distance from Bill. Even when you were aware, it had little, if anything, to do with your actual responsibilities.[]

Microsoft discovered long ago that the whole purpose of organizational structure, as with any structure in one's personal life, is merely to facilitate the flow of energy and creativity toward one's highest goals. If structures were found to block this flow of energy they got thrown out and replaced with something else. Those that did work often got a makeover just to see if they could be made to work even better. It even happened to development teams that were only months away from shipping a product! Truly, no structure was sacred.

The same was true about how we worked: methodologies seemed to change with the seasons as we constantly tried new and hopefully better ways to fulfill our various responsibilities. Development teams, for example, were always trying out new programming disciplines (or non-disciplines as the case may be), not to mention new ways to manage increasing complexity. Marketing groups, for their part, tried out sometimes vastly different presentation styles. They even once launched an operating system, Windows for Workgroups version 3.11, with a full-fledged Broadway musical comedy. Note the word once.

In Developer Support we were always looking for ways to answer questions more accurately and more efficiently. And just as often we up-ended how those questions came to us. At first, programmers could call us for free to ask questions. Then we eliminated the direct phone lines and required that every question be sent through a fee-based electronic service. Then we opened up the phone lines again for companies that signed large support contracts. Then we had a complete restructuring where the whole of Developer Support went back to the phones with yet another kind of fee structure.

For a long time I never understood why Product Support's upper managers couldn't just make up their minds and figure out the best way to do things. Just when our work seemed to be forming a comfortable groove, they'd up and change it again! Finally I came to see that there was no "best" way that could be firmly set in concrete: the volatile nature of the software market simply demanded that we be as fluid as the rest of the company. The directors of Product Support were thus always shuffling us around in anticipation of the next storm.

In fact, keeping the energy fresh and dynamic was perhaps the real job of Microsoft's middle and upper managers. On some level they each understood an important principle: when energy is flowing in the right way, the necessary structures will naturally follow. I don't recall a single instance in my whole career when anyone—from Bill on down—talked about the importance of how things were organized; instead, they constantly encouraged us to work intelligently and energetically, with an incessant focus on our core mission: improving people's lives through technology.

This strong flow of positive energy toward a single, high purpose has been, to my mind, the most important factor in Microsoft's stunning success. As long as Microsoft can keep the energy flowing upwards, it will continue to succeed—regardless of whatever competitors or lawsuits come forth to challenge it.

To understand why a strong flow of energy leads to the kind of success Microsoft has enjoyed, whether applied personally or professionally, consider the fundamental principle of electromagnetism: an electrical current flowing in a wire generates a magnetic field around that wire in direct proportion to the strength of the current. That magnetism has the power to draw to itself those materials that resonate with its field and to repel those that are its polar opposites. What the field attracts and what is repels is entirely a function of the intensity and the direction of the electrical current.

Similarly, the flow of energy within an individual also generates a kind of magnetism. But instead of attracting lumps of iron and such, that magnetism attracts those thoughts and inspirations that resonate with the direction of the flow, similarly repelling their opposites. Think about it for a moment—isn't it true that when you feel "down in the dumps" your inner energy, in the spine especially, is literally flowing downward? Isn't it true that such a state of mind attracts almost nothing but negative thoughts? Now consider the opposite feeling: when you feel "up" or "high" or "positively buoyant"—when energy is flowing up the spine—it's hard to think anything but the most joyful thoughts! You can even see the effect of that flow in the body: a depressed person hangs his head, hunches over, and looks at the ground; a happy, uplifted person holds his head high and looks to the very vaults of heaven.

The interesting thing about this kind of magnetism is that it depends on the kind of energy expressed, as well as its direction. Its operative field is consciousness. Actions and attitudes that seek prosperity will attract prosperity. Looking upon everyone as your friend will attract friendship. And a focused search for solutions will simply attract solutions. One time in my later career, for example, I was working on a conference presentation in which I had to talk about certain aspects of "object-oriented software design." To finish the presentation I only needed to describe the steps of a certain design process, but all I really knew of that process was the mere fact of its existence. Under normal circumstances, then, I should have done a little research into the matter by skimming a few books in the corporate library and finding someone within Microsoft who was in the know. Unfortunately, with only an hour or two before the overnight mail went out (tell me you never procrastinate!) I had to try another approach. I went for a short walk on the forest trails behind Microsoft and did my best to attune myself mentally to the process and to the people who understood it. Within ten or fifteen minutes I had what I needed: all the steps became perfectly clear in my mind. I returned to my office, finished up my presentation, and sent it off.

Rather cheeky of me, wasn't it? I had no logical reason to know what I was talking about. At the same time, I did know—not by virtue of experience or study, but by attunement of consciousness. I felt it intuitively. And this feeling was justified when I gave the talk a month later: people afterwards told me that those steps were both correct and that I had articulated them very clearly.

In more recent years, I've found this same approach very helpful in a wide variety of other activities, from wiring circuit breaker panels and cooking to composing music and working with school children. A great deal can be accomplished with energy, intuition, and sensitive attunement to the task. Time and time again I've been positively amazed by the results.

Even more amazing, perhaps, is that this same principle also holds true for an organization, that is, for groups of people. Great things are possible when individuals come together and direct their energies toward a common purpose.

Case in point: not long after I started my full-time job in Developer Support, The Microsoft Shuffle moved our whole group to a new office building about a mile away. Up to that time, all groups within Microsoft's Product Support Division were housed together in a cluster of three buildings called Lincoln Plaza. Our move to Ridgewood F, as it was called, only involved those of us who supported programmers. In this new building, well away from the concerns of end-user support both physically and psychically, we were able to focus more clearly on the unique issues of software development. This step alone immediately drew to us a deeper understanding of our work and new inspirations about serving the needs of programmers.

Of course, the move couldn't happen without the requisite reorganization! My department, which dealt specifically with Windows programming, originally had three separate teams corresponding to the three main architectural divisions of the operating system. Many problems spanned those boundaries, however, meaning that they could only be partially answered within any one team before being passed to another. It was a great source of inefficiency and delays: even simple problems could take days to answer. The more complex ones languished within our system for weeks.

Our teams were thus re-designed to operate independently from one another: each contained the necessary expertise to answer just about any question. As a result, we provided far better and timelier support and also developed, as individuals, a deeper understanding of the whole. Before, whenever I had encountered a question I couldn't answer, I simply punted it (according to standard procedure) to the team that could. It got questions answered, but I never saw the solutions and thus developed little knowledge of those other areas. Under our new arrangement, I took these problems to another teammate who could explain the solution to me. It was then my responsibility to work through that solution myself and write up the answer for the customer.

This way our individual teams (and individual engineers) each grew stronger in themselves. Our new efficiency also gave us time and energy to develop more extensive specialties—user interface, multimedia, and so forth—as well as unique personalities! My group specialized in user interface and became famous for its toys and widgets—you had to be careful walking through our area lest you make a friendly acquaintance with a stuffed animal gone airborne or with one of the Nerf Rockets that were occasionally launched from my desk. We also sponsored office sports like Nerf Baseball and carpet bowling (using whiteboard pens and the omnipresent rolls of packing tape) in the still empty parts of our new building. The team that specialized in multimedia, on the other hand, became known as The Jungle: besides spending a good portion of their budget on fancy new audio and video hardware, they set aside generous funds for large, tropical office plants. Accordingly, they set up their computers to generate a wide variety of bird song amidst a soft Amazon rainfall.

Anyway, our new arrangement worked out magnificently. Spirits were high and productivity better than ever—better than anyone expected, in fact. After our reorg, you see, we brought in a number of new engineers for each team. Typically it took four to five months before such new hires could handle a normal workload. But in just about every case they quickly developed an expertise that was totally out of proportion with the time they spent studying. With only moderate effort on their part, and in half the expected time or less, they somehow knew the answers to all kinds of questions, even ones that none of us had ever seen before. It was really quite amazing.

I don't think any of us noticed how extraordinary this phenomenon truly was: we were all so immersed in the magnetismof our group that it just seemed perfectly natural. Then again, it was perfectly natural! When anyone entered into the magnetism of our highly energetic atmosphere, they could not help but be uplifted. And as our energies were directed toward solving every question that came to us, even the newest engineers found their minds literally brimming with solutions. We simply attracted that consciousness.

This kind of uplifting magnetism—the group spirit—is the same that one feels when entering a special meeting, a championship sporting event, or a sacred ceremony. It's real and it's tangible. With openness and receptivity, it only takes a little effort to tune in and absorb the inspiration that permeates the very air. It's what I've always felt at Microsoft and it's what we all felt in Developer Support: the subtle but powerful blessings for those who join together in harmony for a shared ideal. [**]

One day, in fact, we witnessed the effect of this unifying spirit on a group of people who were as likely as anyone to be wholly put off by Microsoft's typically unorthodox ways.

When we moved to Ridgewood F the latest method (du jour) of providing developer support was to accept all questions electronically. Every afternoon at 2 o'clock, all our teams gathered together for "triage" where we divvied up the new requests.

With no conference room large enough for us (we numbered about three dozen), our triage took place on the open floor in an empty part of our new building. Some of us brought our toys and stuffies; in the distance we could hear the soothing sounds of the rainforest. Gathered in a rough circle, some of us would sit cross-legged, others would lean against the walls, and a few would stretch out in comfortable but somewhat undignified positions. Here, also, the utterly casual nature of our attire revealed its full glory: though some were dressed decently, others sported badly torn blue jeans, disintegrating running shorts, or grody old T-shirts that, theoretically at least, had seen better days.

It was during one such triage that a group of very corporate types—you know, real "suits"—came to tour our facility. Their company was considering a fairly extensive support contract and wanted to see us in action. Had we been told of their visit we might have dressed up and behaved ourselves better. As it was, they got to see us sprawled out every which way, papers all over the place, looking patently disgraceful. But what could we do? We had no choice but to continue our meeting as usual, working through all the new service requests with every skill we had.

We later learned that our visitors had signed the contract because they felt our spirit and the depth of our commitment to service.

And they even described our pell-mell triage as "the most professional thing we saw."

 


[*] Up through Windows version 3.11 there was this special tool called "Heapwalker" (a.k.a. Luke Heapwalker) that allowed programmers to look at the way Windows organized the computer's memory (called the "heap"). Heapwalker always showed this one memory segment called "Burgermaster." For years people wondered what this really meant. Finally the software engineer responsible for it fessed up: the contents of the segment itself were so uninteresting that he'd had a hard time coming up with a name for it. For lack of anything better, he christened it after the drive-in hamburger joint that he could see out his window. When the story finally broke, a photograph of the restaurant's distinctive sign, which exists to this day, appeared on the front cover of Microsoft Systems Journal. [Return to text]

[] Since leveled and replaced with Microsoft's Conference Center. [Return to text]

[] You might have noticed an omission here. It was a standard joke to send new hires to an "important meeting" in Building 7, which was never built because of setback restrictions. [Return to text]

[] It was our common amusement to watch our "distance from Bill" change from week to week according to the latest shuffles in upper management. During one three-month period, for instance, I moved from being six spots away, up to only four, down to five, then down to seven, while nothing about my work or my immediate management was affected  in the slightest! [Return to text]

[**] The influence of environment is equally present, it must be noted, when a flow of energy is directed toward negative ends. In a negative environment, great vigilance and will power are necessary to resist being pulled down. You've probably experienced how very easy it is to become cynical when hanging around cynical people or even one exceptionally cynical individual. The same holds true for all other negative influences like anger, restlessness, materialism, lust, selfishness, etc. The influence of media is also very important to consider, especially that of music because it so easily bypasses the rational mind to affect you at the very heart of your being. [Return to text]

 

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