Thursday, November 17, 2005

Six Months with the Borg: First Impressions

It's been almost 6 months since my first day at Microsoft, and also quite some time since my last substantive, original blog entry.

So, after a long day's work and a quiet evening of laundry, dishes, tea, a little bit of reading, and an episode of Lost, I figure it's finally time to sit down and let loose with something I've been waiting to share for quite some time... my first impressions of work and life at Microsoft.

This isn't meant to be an analysis of the good, the bad, and the in-between, or an attempt to explore all of the difficult issues Microsoft faces, but rather a glimpse into the highlights of the first six months of a college hire's life at Microsoft. Take it for what it's worth, your mileage may vary. ;-)

Here goes...

First, What's Cool...

Play with 2010's software in 2005

One of the coolest things by far about working at Microsoft is getting to see and play with cutting edge technology years before it's released. And it's not just about seeing and/or playing with the latest build of Windows, Windows Mobile (and the new phones!), Media Center, Office, Xbox, Messenger, MSN Search, IPTV, ... I'm also talking about software (and hardware) that hasn't even been announced yet... and even incubation projects in research that probably won't hit the market for 3-5 years!

I played with something today that I never knew existed. Something that, when ready to launch, would blow every existing similar product out of the water. Something that, only a company with a huuuuge division devoted to research, could build. There are hundreds of these projects in existence at Microsoft - I come across new ones every few days. It's unbelievable, and for a computer science major and technology geek like me, it's neverending fun.

Bug Bashing

Ever come across a bug, or even a poorly designed feature in a Microsoft product that just really pissed you off to no end? Yeah, me too. Shortly after I started, I discovered that Microsoft employees can log bugs against any Microsoft product (I spent 3 weeks doing this for the backlog of things that have bugged me for the last 10 years).

If the issue really bugs you, you can hunt down the person responsible for it, jack up the priority, call it critical, and continue hounding by email, by IM, by phone... until the damn thing gets fixed. How's that for satisfaction? ;-)

In all seriousness though, I run the next versions of Windows and Office on my desktop, and log my grievances now so that you won't have to after they ship - and tens of thousands of my closest colleagues are doing the same - just for fun, just because we can, and just because we're invited to do so by the people who are building them!

Exposure to the Best and the Brightest

I get to watch, meet, and interact with some of the coolest, brightest, smartest people in the world. And it's not just about seeing BillG and SteveB give talks in person, or about trading emails with kickass bloggers like Robert and Dare. Microsoft also brings in great thinkers and popular authors, journalists, speakers like Tom Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell. I've met researchers whose papers blow my mind, I've watched a kid I went to college with put Steve Ballmer on the spot in front of the entire company about Microsoft's reputation among college students, and I've sent email to Steven Sinofsky and Ken Moss without having to think twice before hitting send.

Next, What's Shocking...

I'll Take one Smackdown, Hold the Side of BS Please!

The most shocking thing by far - and I mean shocking - is the level of openness at Microsoft. This company is the most self-critical group of individuals I have ever seen. You can't imagine the expression on my face the first time I saw dozens of emails sent to thousands of employees with the subject "why msn search sucks". If you think Microsofties are a bunch of uptight, conservative, greedy, businesspeople, think again.

These are ex-newsgroup junkies, ex-BBS junkies, ex-debate team leaders, ex-hackers... They tell it how it is - no BS, no dancing around pink elephants, and then they fix it. And from what I've seen so far, 90% of the time, the voice of reason, not the voice of authority, wins out. It is a true meritocracy, and I love it.

Information Overload

Another thing that's shocked me is the unbelievable availability and flow of information. There are hundreds, possible thousands, of corporate intranet sites and email distribution lists. I rarely find out about what's going on around the company through official channels. I find it hilarious how many of my coworkers get their news first through the rumor mill, then poke around internally to dig up more information.

Before joining Microsoft, I'd receive 5-10 "check out this cool thing on the web" emails a week pointing me to random things on the Internet. Now, I get 5-10 "check out this cool thing at Microsoft" emails a week pointing me to random things on the Intranet too. It's mindblowing.

Real People in Touch with Reality

I have to say that it's rather unfortunate that I found what I'm about to say shocking. Microsoft employees are real people, who care about shipping great software that their customers love more than anything else. I don't encounter talk about bundling this or that, or playing unfair market games, or hatred of our competitors.

Microsoft employees are open about using Firefox, Google, Yahoo, and Apple products - at home and at work. They appreciate the competition and strive to build better products at the same time.

Finally, What to Watch Out For...

Ah... the dangerous part of the post. Along with the good comes the bad. Here's what I've noticed (in the best possible terms)...

Not Everybody Gets to Work on Xbox

Not everybody gets to work on Xbox (somebody is working on MSN Autos). Not everybody gets to work on the iPod (somebody is working on the eMac). I could go on with more examples, but I think you get the point.

If you interview with Microsoft (or any company), make sure that you're truly passionate about the job and the team. Microsoft generally sets college candidates up with interviews with two teams. If the interviews go well, but you're not certain that you're passionate about either of the opportunities, talk about it with your recruiter and ask to interview with two more teams. You're taking a slight risk in doing so (passing up a certain offer on a job you aren't passionate about in exchange for a good chance of another offer on a job you might be more passionate about), but it's probably well worth the risk.

It's also difficult to move around internally at first. So if you have an offer for a job in sustained engineering supporting the previous version of Visual Studio, and it wouldn't get you excited for work in the morning, don't take it!

In retrospect, I didn't really know enough to make an informed decision about the product group I was hired into. I was lucky that things worked out, and I ended up in a healthy place. I'll probably blog further on this at some point in the future (maybe in another 6 months ;-)

CollegeMicrosoft is What You Make of It

Microsoft is a huge company, and it's easy to get lost in the shuffle and become a number. If you haven't gathered this so far, Microsoft is like college in many ways. There are 60,000 employees and a campus with dozens of buildings. You can go out of your way to get involved with different "extra-curricular" activities (seriously - we have everything from beach volleyball and hockey to board games and bar hopping), or you can pass them by. You can go out of your way to have coffee and lunch with some of the smartest, brightest people around, or you can sit in the back of the room with your eyes closed.

Unfortunate Distractions

Watch out for Meeting Madness, No Birds, and generally ridiculous amounts of unnecessary email and process. It's easy to spend an entire day responding to other peoples' email drama. Don't get caught up in this!

At the end of the day, Microsoft is a goal/commitment-driven organization, and a meritocracy. People are rewarded (at least, ideally) by the work that they deliver, and not by the amount of email they generate or number of meetings they call. That said, there are people who love meetings, love long email, and love process roaming about. Avoid becoming one at all costs!

Closing Thoughts

Well, I suppose that's all I've got for now. It's 1am, so I should probably get some sleep. I'm spending tomorrow coffee shop hopping while I work on finishing a spec draft. I still can't talk about what I'm working on... but that day will come soon and I'm really excited for it!

If you're a college student considering working for Microsoft and have any questions, please don't hesitate to post them here or send me an email. I've also found the JobsBlog to be a greeeat resource.

Cheers :-)


Anonymous said...

Hi Adam - Great post! I'm glad JobsBlog was a help for you!!


Mike Garrison said...

Great to hear your views/opinions after working there for 6 months.

It's also great to see you still excited about it! I was a bit worried from the beginning.

Steven Sinofsjy said...

I'm glad it wasn't scary to send me mail!

kim said...

Great read! I'm at 4 months now, and intend to do a similar post at my 6-mo milestone.

Hey, I noticed your book list doesn't have Moore's Inside the Tornado? Far more important work than Crossing the Chasm, in my mind. Must read for anyone in the tech industry. My 2c.

P.S. We share our taste in templates :-)

adamjh said...

Thanks kim! Inside the Tornado is on my Amazon wishlist (aka my "to buy when the stack on my nightstand gets low" list). Good to hear you enjoyed it -- I look forward to checking it out, and to reading your 6-mo milestone post soon. :-)

Nice blog (and template)!

Canadian Headhunter said...

Interesting post. Thanks.

Ken Moss said...

Great post. I particularly liked the phrase "Microsoft is what you make of it". I've always felt that way, and your phrase nails the concept.

Anonymous said...

Hey Adam,

Great blog...esp for someone like me...I'm a college student and have the chance to interview at Redmond this coming week...and as expected am a bundle of nervous energy...any tips for a Program Manager Interviewee?

adamjh said...

Good luck with the interview!

1. Use the whiteboard.

2. Think big, and think out loud. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Question and challenge basic assumptions.

3. Read to prepare. Read blogs, read books. There's nothing like a little context to help you understand what a Microsoft PM interviewer is looking for in an interview.

4. Dress comfortably.

Good luck!!!