On juggling, unicycles, and jousting

BusinessWeek has an article this week about the hiring binge at some companies in the bay area are doing (ok, Yahoo! and Google). The article raises a number of the standard “new high-tech hiring” clichés that are worth talking about because they seem to repeat themselves.

Let’s go back to 1989 – The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine ran an article the “Velvet Sweatshop” (some proud Microsoft people all got sweatshirts with that silkscreen – this was before zazzle when getting silk screening was a long lead analog process). The article was sent to me by my recruiter as I was about to make the trip from graduate school to start at Microsoft. The article was magic for me. It told the story of how employees work hard, work on great new technologies, and have a great time doing so. The article was my first exposure to some of the classics in “high tech employee” photos including of course people juggling and people riding unicycles, and of course the ever popular people riding unicycles re-enacting medieval jousting. But suffice it to say the article resonated with me (and scared my parents terribly since everyone had really long hair and wore flannel shirts even in the summer). Except for the 1983 Time magazine Machine of the Year article and the Microsoft Press Book, Programmers At Work , for me this article represented the best coverage of the programming culture I had seen to date (Steven Levy’s book Hackers later captured the spirit brilliantly).

Yet I have to admit, I’ve never actually seen programmers juggle, ride unicycles, or even joust. I have seen my share of golf in the hallways, filling offices with packing peanuts, and of course laser tag and water guns (all of these this summer at Microsoft!). That is to say, you probably can’t take literally what you read and at the same time the environment of fresh from college programmers has been pretty much the same, perhaps expressed differently, for at least the past 16 years that I know. It just seems that every new company generates the same “new” story about college grads joining computer companies.

Of course there is an element of one-upmanship that comes from these articles as companies try to portray their interpretation of the new-hire culture as unique. That's the marketing -- these articles are not spontaneous but come from PR efforts.  

The one common thread among companies that hire lots of people new from college is that it is the very presence of a bunch of people of the same age, motivation, skills, and general attitude that yield the culture and not the company itself. The company provides the higher level goals (and the money to support the stuff) and chooses what aspects to reinforce. It was incredibly cool when I showed up at Microsoft—I was 23 years old and ready to go to work. I had no friends in Seattle. My family was 3000 miles away. I lived in an apartment within walking distance from Microsoft that had a pool where beautiful people hung out. I had disposable income for the first time in my life. I was ready to be one of those cool people on Melrose Place, except I quickly found out that the work at Microsoft was way cooler than sitting by the pool. I never got around to buying much furniture (Seattle now has an IKEA) and certainly didn’t get that Webber BBQ I wanted. But man, I wrote a bunch of code and learned more in 6 months than I learned in two years of graduate school—hardware breakpoints, real mode v. protect mode, real-world code generation, USER/KERNEL/GDI, Microsoft’s cool internal compiler and tools. It was amazing. (not to limit things to the past, this week was filled with just as many learning experiences for me personally).

When I talk with our new hires this summer what they describe is *exactly* what I experienced, except they all have broadband at home so they can work even if they get woken up in the middle of the night by that party upstairs. I had to dial in and read my email over 1200b CrossTalk.

I became friends with the people I work with. We would go out to dinner then return to work. We would see movies. Our work and social lives were blurred completely. It made for great fun and a great environment. It was our own Melrose Place, but with C++ code instead of an advertising agency. It had COMDEX instead of Venice Beach.

The magic is not about joining the next big thing, but the magic is in being part of something big *and* doing that with a peer group that is just as motivated and just as smart you (think) you are. What I found out about Microsoft is that they had managed to hire a hundred college grads who were better programmers and knew more about software than me and were anxious to learn even more. And we were all working within the structure that allowed us to create the next big things. And we were all friends.

Microsoft is more about that today than we ever have been. Going through the “internet transition” that our company is famous for reinforced just how much the “under 30” crowd has to offer product development and at the same time just how far a little bit of “adult supervision” can go. To be clear that was about reinforcing that idea, not creating it. Steve Ballmer hired college graduates starting in 1980 and as late as 1990 I remember that he was copied on every interview schedule from college. Hiring from college is a core of Microsoft. Training people to be professionals and to focus their energy, creativity, and ideas on really delivering software to the world is also our core. Maybe in 1980 we were all trying to impress each other with software. Now we’re trying to impress the whole world!

One lesson I learned at Microsoft that I didn’t expect was how much of a meritocracy the company is. I mentioned previously that at a startup you are more likely to be the college “kid” doing grunt work than you might think, whereas at Microsoft the college kid is going to be the one presenting their work to Bill Gates (as we did a few weeks ago when we toured Bill around our hallways for an afternoon to show in Office “12”). We do not have a caste system based on seniority or on what type of or which degree you received. Once a company starts telling you about the degrees that people have or emphasizing specific schools you should know that such feelings run deep and don’t go away once you manage to get a job. In fact, companies that do that often look to folks outside those pedigrees to do the grunt work. When I was in college it was Bell Labs famous for hiring Cornell grads, and then you get there and find out that all the talk about PhDs was simply because it was the people with PhDs that ran the place. I think when you look at the leaders of the company you are likely to see a company created in their model—if the founders value a PhD then you can bet that they will value that in employees. Microsoft’s founders are probably most famous for the degrees they didn’t earn and therein rests the focus on the merits and the accomplishments over a career. I thought I was all fancy with my degrees, but really what mattered was can I get done what I committed to and how good was the work I did.

So there is a lot of talk about joining these “new” companies and the "new" way they hire people and let them work. It is one of those stories that repeats itself in journalism. What you experience at Microsoft is as much about what you bring to Microsoft—this is a business, not an amusement park. The great people that are drawn to Microsoft every summer create their own thrill rides while we together build software that changes the world. So grab your unicycle!