By Lem Bingley.
It’s possible to find opinions of absolutely any stripe if you look hard enough. Look in the Web pages of ‘Team Gates’ (http://www. teamgates.com) and you’ll find the unusual suggestion that we should all ‘like’ Microsoft and its ‘cool’ chief executive. That the 667 members of Team Gates can muster only four reasons why Bill is cool and only two reasons why you should like Microsoft, doesn’t seem to have dampened the group’s enthusiasm at all. Clearly, no-one at Team Gates has yet come across Randall E Stross’ latest book, The Microsoft Way (the real story of how the company outsmarts its competition). Stross spends 319 pages telling us pretty much the same stuff, except that he’s managed to come up with a lot more than six reasons. This makes The Microsoft Way a lot harder to like than his last book about a software icon. Steve Jobs & the Next Big Thing, published in 1993, was a damaging critique: Like the Wizard of Oz, Jobs’ ‘brilliance’ evaporated when I looked behind the curtain, Stross summarizes. Jobs clearly anticipated the conclusion, because he did everything in his power to obstruct Stross. Microsoft, surprisingly, did exactly the opposite. Stross was granted unfettered access to Microsoft’s records, allowed chaperone-free access to Microsoft’s campus, granted interviews with everyone from Bill on down, and was generally made to feel like one of the family.
A legion of faceless drones
The result is a detailed picture of Gates’ company. This is perhaps the most worthwhile aspect of the book. Most people think of Microsoft as consisting of Bill Gates and a legion of faceless drones, Stross observes early in the text, when in fact Microsoft counts many other notable, clever and successful people among its number. As Stross notes, Microsoft’s campus is entirely unlike any other workplace in the world. Where else could you find several thousand millionaires, lots of multimillionaires, and two multibillionaires who continue to clomp to work every day? It’s a shame, then, that Stross forgets this lesson and continually refers to Microsoft exactly as if it were Gates and a legion of faceless drones. Most people will be surprised to learn of the pivotal role that Nathan Myhrvold has played in making Microsoft successful, for instance. Myhrvold may not have received much recognition as one of the two co-authors of Gates’ The Road Ahead, but he appears prominently in Stross’ account. The central third of the book seems to be as much Myhrvold’s story as Gates’, but Stross still treats ‘Gates’ and ‘Microsoft’ as interchangeable terms. Unlike Harvard-dropout Gates, Myhrvold completed his schooling. By the age of 23 he had in fact collected five university degrees including a doctorate in theoretical physics. Arriving at Microsoft in 1986, Myhrvold rapidly rose to become the de facto helmsman plotting Microsoft’s technical direction. For Stross, he perfectly demonstrates the secret of Microsoft’s success: the prizing of intellect over experience. Gates’ determination to hire, promote, and trust clever people irrespective of their background is, according to Stross, the single most important, and the most deliberately overlooked, aspect of Microsoft’s success. In a nutshell, Stross argues that Microsoft got to be enormously successful simply by putting large numbers of very clever people in the right environment (the university-aping Redmond campus) and encouraging them to do their stuff. While making this case, Stross spends a while deconstructing the thoughts of people who disagree. This is where the book is weakest. He links the notion of Microsoft as ‘evil’ with what he identifies as a US prejudice against intellectuals. He argues that many Americans believe that success should depend wholly on the application of honest effort, not the accident of being born smart. According to Stross, Microsoft knows this and has had to police itself to suppress any signs of arrogance concerning its reservoir of above-average minds. But this interpretation is open to dispute. M
icrosoft is probably more unpopular among well-educated, smart people than it is with the average Joe – as evidenced by Stross’ own observations about the behavior of CD-ROM buyers. Stross even quotes Symantec’s chief executive, Gordon Eubanks, who pointed out that ill-feeling within the industry should not be mistaken for consumer unhappiness. The peasants are not pissed, quipped Eubanks. Significantly, Stross fails to link these words with his ideas of anti-intellectualism. In summary, if you want to know what goes on inside the low-slung buildings of the Redmond campus, then The Microsoft Way delivers plenty. But if you’re after the real story of how the company outsmarts its competition, I’d have to advise you to pass.
The Microsoft Way, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0-201-40949-6, $24.00 This article is from the March 1997 issue of Software Futures.