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That geek was my boss: a view from inside Microsoft

Updated Thursday 19th June 2008

A ‘heady and exciting time’ to be working for Microsoft in the late 90s – and you could say ‘that geek was my boss’.

One afternoon in the late 1990s, I was sitting in traffic on the mile-long floating Lake Washington Bridge, driving back home to Seattle from my office in suburban Redmond. My flatmate and I, who shared the 12-mile commute, were talking about our respective days at the office. “Do you think,” he asked me suddenly, “that one day, we’ll be telling our kids about how we were a tiny part of one of the most revolutionary movements in American history? That one day we’ll look back and say, ‘You know, I worked at Microsoft in the late 90s’?”

There’s no doubt that it was a heady and exciting time. The Seattle area, where we lived, was home to some of the most impressive names in technology. There was Aldus (later Adobe), who revolutionized desktop publishing; Real Technologies, who created one of the first platforms for streaming audio content; Amazon, who turned the relatively new Web into a marketplace; and hundreds of others. Bill Gates [image © copyright BBC] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC Bill Gates

As a young university graduate in the mid 1990s, I began to hear rumblings about how the Internet, which at that time was still very limited in scope, was changing everything. And the west coast was the place to be. Fortunately, I had family in the Seattle area, so I packed my bags and, like generations of Americans before me, headed west.

Within days I had a job with a large software company at twice what I was making on the east coast, and within a few months I realized the reality of high-tech work in Seattle: sooner or later, almost everyone ends up working for Bill Gates. The company couldn’t grow fast enough and soaked up every talented body that came to town – from computer programmers and math geeks just out of university; to English graduates like me and many of my technical writer and editor colleagues; to people like my flatmate, who had dropped out of seminary on a summer field trip to Seattle and parlayed his technical abilities into a well-paying job formatting and producing technical manuals at Microsoft.

The culture of the company was exciting and new at the time, even if it has now become something of a cliché. We worked hard and it was an exciting intellectual challenge, and late nights and weekend work were common. Holidays – just two weeks per year – had to be taken around the cycle of product releases, and when things went into “ship mode,” usually about four to six months prior to releasing a product, everything in your personal life went on hold. But at the end of the cycle, once the product was released, the company always sponsored a massive party. Sometimes lasting over a few days, they consisted of everything from bouncy castles and a barbecue in the car park to weekend ski trips to Canada.

Known by his email alias (as was almost everyone at Microsoft), billg was always present and active in the company, even as it grew to upwards of 20,000 employees, and it was common to see him around campus. Occasionally, I saw him doing that same cross-lake commute, just like many of his employees. Tough and demanding, he was passionate about the company he created, and he wanted nothing less from all of us who worked for him.

In return, the perks of working for the company were second to none. The health insurance, which is a must in the US, was gold plated; the stock option grants made millionaires of thousands of early employees. Set carefully in stands of evergreens, almost every office in the campus looks out onto the beautiful scenery. And every building featured the necessities: a coffee stand and a café open from early in the morning until late in the evening, so you never need leave the campus (or your work).

When I started working at Microsoft, I was just 25 years old and the Internet revolution was just getting underway. I remember thinking, naive though it was, that it might just be the pinnacle of my working career – it may be the last place I worked. But as I sat with colleagues in the Redwest café one sunny summer afternoon, eating lunch under a section of the Berlin wall (part of the company’s permanent collection of art and historical artifacts), looking out over the evergreens to the stunning snow-capped Cascade mountains, and discussing a new feature for one of the world’s most popular software products…well, maybe I could be forgiven for getting caught up in the moment.

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