Ain't gonna work on Bill G's farm no more

Dodging plastic air-gun projectiles in Microsoft's cubicles, a contractor decides she's had enough.

Published September 25, 1997 4:44PM (EDT)

Last year I moved back to Iowa, the place where I grew up, the place I'd left eight years earlier for graduate school and Seattle. The move raised a lot of eyebrows: It was made clear to me, by both Seattlites and Iowans, that you move to only one of these places and away from the other. Clearly I had it backward.

"Why leave Seattle?" people would ask, and I'd say, "to get away from Microsoft." This always got a laugh, until they realized I was in earnest. I had a near-compulsive, overwhelming need to escape all things Microsoft, to elude the corporation's omnipresence in the Emerald City. Unfortunately for me, the company and the city had become one.

Before actually moving, I first tried quitting my job. I had been a contractor on "the campus" for three years. I worked in four different buildings, had seven offices and contributed to six different products. I'll never know how much of my life was sacrificed to the daily commute across Lake Washington, but a little more than 1,000 hours, or 42 days, is a rough guess. I made at least one and a half times the salary I now make -- which means I went out to eat that much more, bought that many more clothes, put a great deal more into savings and saw a therapist on a regular basis. I also had free beverages and inexpensive, company-subsidized food from the campus's many cafeterias. I weighed about 10 pounds more, and my back felt like it was approaching 70 years old rather than 30.

I had vowed never to work for Microsoft -- having observed the poor effect the company had on the disposition and sleep cycle of a friend who worked there. But after I earned my master's degree in English and a teaching certificate, I needed work, and my friend helped line up a project developing a teacher's guide for a Microsoft product. I worked off-site, was paid well and figured I'd find a regular job in education once it was over. But I didn't foresee the lousy Seattle teaching market. So I signed on for a longer Microsoft haul.

I had a small but telling experience during one of my first weeks on campus. Introduced to a full-timer with relative power whose star would crash and rise again before I left, I stuck my hand out to shake his. He ignored it, gave me a sideways glance and said, "Do I need to know you?" I laughed nervously and returned to my den.

My first on-campus task was to read Encarta, the company's multimedia encyclopedia, from A to Z and find possible cross-reference listings for articles. For instance, "Gerbil" was in the "Mammal" category, but it could also go in the "Pet" category. More complicated were scientists -- should they go only under "People" in the overriding "Science" category, or should they also be placed under their individual disciplines? Weekly meetings with my nervous, overworked supervisor dwelled on questions such as these. It wasn't rocket science, but it paid the bills.

These were the nascent days of multimedia, before the rush to the Web, when everyone was under the illusion that CD-ROMs were the Next Big Thing. The upstairs of Microsoft's Building 10 was still mostly empty when I moved in. (By the time I left, I was in an office with three other people, and even full-timers were having to share their rightful space.) I had an office that reminded me of a subterranean cavern. Although many window offices were available, it would have been against policy to spare one for a temp.

Men -- better described as boy-men clad in shorts and sandals no matter the weather, with pop cans lining their office interiors and college stereo speakers booming -- inhabited the sleepy hallway. I only saw one other woman roaming this vacant wing, and occasionally when I'd meet her in the kitchen or bathroom I'd consider making small talk -- a lost art at Microsoft. Once, about to make some friendly quip regarding our icy surroundings, I hesitated at the sight of the large diamond gracing her hand. I soon found out she was Melinda French, Bill Gates' then-intended.

Across the hall from me was a guy who had five computers in his office. He also had an electric guitar, an espresso maker complete with demitasse set, pictures of his kids and one of those brightly colored plastic air guns that shoots sticky balls. I tried making contact -- hello, a smile -- but he'd have nothing to do with me. After a few weeks of niceties, I gave up and began exchanging glares with him. Then, somewhere between "Ketchikan" and "Khmer," I was startled by a THWACK against my hallway window. Suddenly, a yellow ball came hurling toward me, only to stick next to another ball on the window. My jaw dropped as I looked up at this guy aiming his air gun at my office. He grimaced, fired again, then turned back to his work.

I could not believe that I was working for a company where a guy who merited five computers and an external window would shoot toy balls in my direction without comment. Obviously, I'd made a lot of wrong assumptions.

Having reached "Z" in Encarta, I was asked to stay on and serve as some sort of education specialist. Someone thought that a product made mainly for kids should have someone with teaching experience working on it. But my mantle was absurdly vague -- and as a contractor, I had neither a title nor a business card. Still, I was pleased. I'd work with schools and teachers; I'd initiate exciting, inventive collaborations. But as I blindly searched the company for other people whose jobs encompassed "education," I realized they were just marketers in sheep's clothing. In the name of "education," Microsoft was simply offering money-making schemes aimed at the young -- just a small notch above Joe Camel.

At one presentation, a bunch of fifth-graders showed a product team what they had done in school with the software. The kids were thrilled to be on campus with a group of interested adults; their teacher beamed. A few people tried to make kid-friendly chitchat, but then a product manager abruptly exposed the true purpose of the children's visit. "Would each of you like to have this product at home?" he asked and was quickly greeted by a positive chorus. And then the suave stinger: "Do you know what kind of credit cards your parents have?" Not a hint of a smirk crossed the guy's face as he held his pen, poised to jot down their responses. Dickens couldn't have written it better.

At Microsoft I got a full tour of the underworld of geekdom. I once sat in the cafeteria just to hear how long two guys could discuss which parts of the Star Trek Enterprise's Holodeck could be real. After an hour, I had to get back to work. Then there was the guy who appeared from thin air in my friend's office and asked her for a lunch date without so much as introducing himself -- instead, he asked which product she worked on.

But the geeks aren't the problem. It's the meanness, the pomposity that I found most dispiriting. Although contractors were not above the nastiness, true spitefulness was doled out by "real people." Those full-time, benefit-earning, stock-collecting folk flaunt their top-dog status and get away with murder. No matter your number of degrees, your age, your general decency (a real drawback), a contractor is always reminded of the true hierarchy. During crunch-time on one project, a developer (i.e. full-timer) put it succinctly when he asked the lead editor (i.e. contractor) to "get your little people off the system!" The developer was probably 5 feet 6 inches tall and around 25 years old; the editor had a law degree and at least five years on the guy, not to mention a few inches.

What's the source of this climate? As a tour guide in London once told me, "Look up and you will see a city's true history." The same applies at Microsoft, where looking up, up, up lands one face-to-face with Bill Gates. I only saw the man once: While eating lunch outside, he walked past just as a massive sprinkler system began drenching me. The spray of water knocked a sweater from my hands into the air. Gates walked on, oblivious to the unfolding comedy.

Gates' ruthlessness is legendary, and the people I met at Microsoft who were gung-ho about the place definitely shared it. Everyone else -- those not wholly caught up in the divide-and-conquer mentality -- seemed like they'd been drained of some of their vital fluids. The place has an eerie effect on people. After some time on campus, smart people who could probably lead rich lives filled with reading, home-cooked meals and non-computer-related friends will fly off the handle about whether a button should be on the bottom of a screen or the top. These same people give up eating anything remotely nourishing for weeks on end as a project comes to a harried, tension-filled finale and the remnants from pizza deliveries and Chinese carry-outs collect in offices. How anyone maintains personal relationships, especially of a sexual nature, is beyond me -- though it explains the very high number of Microsoft partnerships.

There's a chill about the place that emanates from the top. It's widely known that Gates has little regard for people who don't understand the technical end of the business. (If you work on content, you can expect the short end of any project stick.) Meetings with Bill or one of his top people are often replete with a barrage of expletives and other disdainful comments. One co-worker of mine who had developed a prototype for a new product was asked to present it to a divisional manager. He worried for weeks about the meeting, and when the day arrived he even drove home at lunch (an hour-long journey) to make sure he looked just right. Midway through the presentation, the manager stopped him and asked coolly, "Why are you showing this to me?"

I'm now working in a small company -- the whole of which wouldn't begin to fill one of Microsoft's 30-some campus buildings. The men who control the purse strings probably vote more conservatively than Bill, something that doesn't altogether please me. But people say hi to each other in the halls and talk at the coffee maker. For the first month or two, I must have seemed like a cold fish, having lost the ability to chat. After all, one of the few conversations I recall having at Microsoft with a stranger was when a guy furtively -- for he knew he was breaking the cold-shoulder code -- asked where I'd bought my shoes. Every time we saw each other after that was awkward, as though we'd shared an inappropriate intimacy.

Now, though, I put my lunch in the refrigerator without marking my name on it, confident it won't be stolen. And each day I'm less amazed by the miracle of watching people arrive at 8 a.m. and leave in unison at 4:30 p.m. There's a civility to it that Microsoft, for all its bucks, will never attain.

By Jennifer New

Jennifer New writes and swims in Iowa City, Iowa. Her last piece for Salon was "Iowa Heartland."

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