by John Dodge
It’s quiet at Microsoft. Unnaturally quiet. Except for the plastic tap-tapping of the keyboards and the low hum of the hard drives, there are times you’d swear nobody was home. Phones don’t ring. Halls don’t team with life. No music plays. Probably not the picture you had in mind when you imagine what goes on behind the scenes at one of the world’s most successful software companies. It’s quiet at Microsoft because everyone is busy thinking. Bill G (yes, that’s what he’s called) figures that Dilbert-style cubicles offer too many distractions, so everyone gets their own private office which helps them to stay deep in the trenches pounding out the code. The Pacific Northwest weather focuses the work, too. I mean, who wants to play in the rain when you can stay warm and dry, drink free lattes, cruise the Net and design cool software?
I came to Microsoft from radio—ten years as a Production Director then five years as a Program Director, most recently for KidStar Interactive Media, the national children’s multimedia network headquartered in Seattle. After KidStar “suspended operations,” Microsoft hired me to design and program a kid’s channel to be broadcast via Windows 98. But things change. Microsoft works on Internet time, which is even more compressed than dog years, so in just seven months I’ve learned a book’s worth of business lessons. With the advancement of your radio career in mind, I’ll share some thoughts about what we can borrow, adapt, and even improve from the Microsoft culture. Along the way we’ll look at a collection of backstage snapshots from one of the most respected, hated, admired, feared, and chronicled companies in American history.
When you’ve spent your entire professional career in music and broadcasting, you get used to a certain personality type: gregarious, extroverted, loud. But the technologists, as a rule, are not wired that way. They tend to be twice as smart but only half as social as media people are. When they do speak, though, it’s usually meaningful. (Unlike some announcers we know!) I can’t help but generalize that successful Microsofties share a lot of traits, the most common being an appetite for results. They know that taking action and getting results is what success is all about. You don’t have to be pushy or arrogant to make things happen. In fact, that style backfires regularly. (Just compare Rodman with Jordan.) But it definitely pays to be passionate, driven, relentless. Sure, being a nice guy is important. Putting out the effort is important. But in the end, results are what move you forward. In your case, that might be the promo that gets talked about, the spec that closes the deal, the spot that drives sales, the campaign that wins awards, the system you develop which cuts costs and increases productivity. Quantifiable results count more than anything because it’s a fact of life that management will endure and even promote a butthead who delivers longer than they will support a nice guy who tries hard and means well.
Isn’t it ironic? As of this writing, the Justice Department still wants to fine Microsoft a million bucks a day for alleged monopolistic business practices. At the same time, a recent newspaper poll names Microsoft the best company in America. These two statements taken together make an incredible mixed message. Lots of people hate Microsoft. An equal, maybe even a greater number are awed by their huge success. Mostly it’s a mixture of the two. I think Microsoft gets a thumbs up for the same reason pro football is so popular: Americans love a flashy display of aggression, power, brains, and skill. Sure, there’s the occasional penalty for stepping over the line, but hey, that’s football. I mean, that’s business. Simply, Microsoft wants to win more than the other team. They don’t really want to take over the world, but they absolutely intend to be the dominant software company for the 21st century. They’re in it for the long haul. That’s another pointer we might take from their example: develop a long-term approach to your own career. Learn to think and act strategically so you can connect the things you work on today with where you want to be in a year or two. And try to stretch the scope of your job description so you’re not easily pigeonholed as “the production guy.” To earn the respect of managers, learn to keep the big picture in mind and view your station’s challenges through the eyes of the PD, even the GM. Take an integrated, “systems” view of the departments within your station, the stations within your group, the groups within the radio industry, and your industry among the rest of the other media.
Here’s a snapshot for you. Email is the dominant mode of communication at Microsoft. It’s the reason the phones don’t ring. You and I might work next door to each other but we still communicate via email. When you figure some 80% of human communication happens with body language, you wonder how the heck email got to be so popular so fast. Maybe because it’s instant and anything instant is always seductive. Email lets you filter the messenger and focus on the message. It’s like increasing the signal, decreasing the noise. It’s convenient--you respond according to your own schedule on your own terms. Or don’t respond as you see fit. And you have a record to refer back to or to forward on to someone else. Entire books on email business etiquette are available, but let’s save some dough and hit the big danger areas. Whatever you do:
1.Don’t write email that you wouldn’t want splashed on the cover of the New York Times. Email is not private. If your employers own the servers, they own the right to read your mail.
2.Don’t send an email message when you’re angry. Anger is temporary; email is forever.
3.Don’t substitute email for face time with the boss. If you’re that busy, drop something from your schedule! Always get your accomplishments in the boss’ face. Follow up with email if necessary.
4.Don’t use email as a distancing device so you don’t have to communicate with someone you don’t like. It’s understandable, but your problem with that person will likely grow worse. Go work it out.
5.Don’t conduct a hot office romance or circulate questionable material via email. Oh baby. Refer back to #1.
Microsoft’s passion for email is just one example of the general “go-go” nature of their corporate culture. One of the attributes I appreciate most about the company is enthusiasm they display for new technologies and product innovation. I recall making a point in a RAP article some years ago that enthusiasm is a powerful tool in business, a “force multiplier” as Colin Powell would put it. Well, the Microsoft team has it. And because the Web is evolving at the speed of light and Bill G has committed to “embrace and extend” the Internet, the troops need every bit of adrenaline they can get to keep up the pace, much less win. Just being Microsoft doesn’t guarantee victory. But among their big advantages are the two most important characteristics of a winning team: commitment and passion. But you wouldn’t know they were so serious by the way they dress.
If you visit headquarters in Redmond, Washington, you’ll probably observe that the Microsoft dress code makes the Gap look formal. If you ever see somebody on campus in a suit, it can only mean two things—that person is either a visitor from another world or a Microsoftie on his way to the airport. The one time I wore a tie to work somebody asked me if I had a court date. And everyone here looks like they’re about 32. There’s a good reason for this because everyone here is about 32. Microsoft likes to hire the smartest people they can find right out of college or grad school—scary-smart people with like 4.9 grade point averages. Then, while they’re young and impressionable, the company trains these young men and women in the Microsoft Way, the Code of the Techno-Samurai, which is a hybrid of business school and war college. If you last on this path until you’re 32, you become a battle-tempered software veteran. And one of the rules they have successfully pounded into your brain is the first law of business: the customer is god.
I don’t know what goes on at your business, but if the average radio station put half the effort into getting feedback from its customers as Microsoft does, that station’s ratings and advertiser retention rate would certainly improve. The company puts a huge emphasis on research that’s designed to ask, listen, learn, and adapt to meet customer needs and provide more value. The goal is continuous improvement through ongoing customer feedback loops. And it’s highly successful. Whether you consider your customers to be the advertisers, listeners, managers, or all of the above, increased focus on and attention to the customer is always a good thing. Take their tip and try to find more ways to incorporate your customer’s feedback so you can fine tune and improve the daily process of research, writing, recording, and post-run analysis.
Every industry has its own special language, its jargon and buzz words. Try asking anybody outside radio what “Dub these carts to DAT then bulk them” means. Busy computer scientists don’t have time to waste with unnecessary syllables, so they use a lot of Three-Letter Acronyms (TLA’s). I wandered into a hall party recently. “We RTM’d today,” smiled a beer-clutching techie. “Congratulations,” I said, then asked her what “RTM” meant. She fixed me with a look like, “Hellooo.” Turns out RTM is software-speak for “Release to Manufacturer,” the day your software program master goes out the door to be duplicated and shipped to, among others, the OEM’s. More TLA’s: at Microsoft I’ve worked with IMG, DRG, and now CPD on a project whose goal is to get DTV data transmitted through the VBI. I’m a CSG, someone from the Contingency Staffing Group, often referred to as a “contractor.” No stock options for me. Stock options are for the FTE’s (full time employees). FTE’s go to company parties, buy software at 80% off list price, and get transferred to other departments when the company’s needs change. By contrast, contractors are project-only, expendable, high tech day labor. “Got a Web site to build—need two guys now—hop in the back of the truck!” It’s definitely a dual class society.
The Internet is filled with Microsoft bashing. Occasionally there’s a pretty good joke. Here’s one: Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Al Gore were all killed in a plane crash. They go up to heaven and God is sitting there on the Great White Throne. God looks first at Al Gore and says, "Tell me, Al, what do you believe in?” Al replies, "Well, I believe that the combustion engine is evil and if we keep on burning fossil fuels, the whole planet will become one big greenhouse and we'll all die.” God thinks for a moment and says, "That’s good. Come and sit here at my left." God turns next to Bill Clinton. "Bill, what do you believe in?” Bill Clinton replies, "Well, I believe in feeling other people's pain. I still believe we have to get a handle on these runaway health care costs. And I believe that a good game of golf reduces stress.” God thinks for a moment and says, "That’s cool, too--come sit at my right.” Finally, God addresses Bill Gates. "Now Bill, what do you believe?" Bill Gates stands up, adjusts his glasses, and says, "I believe you're in my chair."
If you’re into equipment, there are two studio zones at Microsoft that are gearhead heaven, equal or better than anything I’ve seen in New York or Hollywood. IMP, or Interactive Media Production in Building C at the RedWest campus has at least a dozen cool audio production suites with digital boards, recessed Genelec speakers and pairs of 17” monitors for graphic editing. A variety of game and CD-ROM SFX are created here. A few blocks away is MS-Studios, a state of the art $20MM television production complex with three fully equipped sound stages and two major recording studios with the latest SSL consoles. You won’t find an analog recorder within miles. Everything looks overbuilt, but the Microsoft philosophy is that cheap tools are a waste of money. They consistently buy the best gear, reasoning that it will reward the company with the best service, the best performance, the most versatility and the longest replacement cycle. Your chief engineer already knows that cheap tools and cheap studios make for a cheap product. His challenge and yours is getting the GM to make the connection between investing in quality and return on investment.
Microsoft is a highly dynamic, challenging, and sometimes frustrating place to work. It’s so big that it has its own post office: One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA. 98052. I could go on with more stories…about the management style (if you get one with people skills you’re lucky), about the food (tasty and subsidized), about the inefficiency (three teams work the same problem, none of whom know the others exist), but it’s time to wrap things up. If you take away nothing from this article, remember this:
Do—increase your luck by being prepared. There have been four or five big opportunities for Microsoft that they’ve converted into major wins—getting the operating system deal from IBM, winning the market share war against Mac’s superior design, etc.. But the company couldn’t have capitalized on these opportunities if they hadn’t done their homework. Changes your perspective on luck just a bit, doesn’t it?
Do—learn to adapt quickly. It’s change or die in the business world today, so go with the proverbial flow. Learn from your mistakes. When change comes, stabilize and refocus as quickly as possible. Be flexible. “That’s not what I do” is what the dinosaur said just before he was downsized.
Do—keep adding to your skill sets. Make it a point to regularly learn new things and put them into action. Continual education keeps you alert, current, competitive, marketable, and prepared to jump if the need or the opportunity arises.
Do—strive for excellence. Use your creative imagination every day. Work hard, think, question, challenge, take risks, ask for and accept more responsibility.
Do—treat your customers like the gods they are. It’s all about the quantity and quality of service. The first rule of success bears repeating: “The customer is always right.” The second rule is “Refer to Rule #1.”
And the Don’ts—
Don’t—give up until you get it right. Microsoft’s first, even second releases on products usually stink. But they keep coming at you, relentlessly, until they’ve got something great.
Don’t—be an arrogant winner. “Arrogant” is the most oft-used adjective about Microsoft people. It comes from a “we’re ahead because we’re smarter than you are” attitude. If you’re in the winning position right now, watch it. Underdogs bite hard because they have nothing to lose.
Don’t—live in a bubble. Microsofties are regularly described as having a hive mentality because they have a tendency to work super hours and hang out with others who work in the same rarefied atmosphere. Make sure you get out of the studio and regularly refresh your perspective so you can think like a customer, a client, a listener, a user, a regular person.
Don’t—forget that even stars are part of a team. Make sure to take the interests, issues, and concerns of other people and groups into consideration when you make decisions or take action. You earn your team’s respect and trust when you act this way.
Don’t—forget that life is short. If you love what you do, commit to it completely. If not, find something that you can commit to. Time is much more valuable than money. Tick tock.
A funny thing happened on the way to the publisher. From the time RAP editor, Jerry Vigil and I decided to do this article until the time I submitted it, my Microsoft contract wasn’t renewed. As I mentioned before, my original assignment was to develop and program a kid’s channel for broadcast delivery via Windows 98. The Web meets Radio meets TV--a dream job for someone with my background. Then Microsoft lost millions creating original programming for the Microsoft Network, causing them to rethink their entire approach to being a media company. They now lease much of their content from other established media brand names. I was disappointed to say the least. I suppose I could have gone for a tiny bit of revenge and turned this article into an expose (I have the material, believe me). Instead, my final act before leaving Microsoft was send Bill Gates an email. It read:
Dear Mr. Gates,
Today is my last day here at Microsoft and I wanted to thank you personally for providing me, however indirectly, with an incredible professional opportunity. During the past seven months I’ve worked with bright, talented, driven people. I’ve had access to the highest quality tools. I’ve been at the leading, occasionally bleeding edge of a media revolution. And the business acumen I’ve developed at Microsoft will benefit me in all endeavors for the remainder of my career. I wanted you to know I appreciate this very much.
Thanks and best wishes,
John Silliman Dodge
Producer/ Microsoft Digital TV Team
Did Bill Gates read my email? Yes, he did. Did he respond? No. It doesn’t matter. Last impressions count almost as much as first ones and I wanted to exit Microsoft as professionally as I entered. Because face it, you never really know where you’ll wind up next. There’s an old saying that goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” I hope this look from inside the “Redmond software giant” has been valuable and somewhat entertaining. Maybe you even noticed ways to model the Microsoft success principles (long-term approach, results, passion, individual excellence, customer focus, and teamwork) in your career. I hope so. Best of success to you in this New Year. See you on the road.