Microsoft’s Refreshing New Personality

IMG_20170930_144100861If Microsoft were a person, I’d offer that for most of the company’s history it has been an affable soccer dad, his receeding hairline swept back in a ponytail, sporting a goattee, glasses, and a cell phone clipped to his belt, driving around a Costco parking lot in a PT Cruiser blasting a bootleg of a band that plays rock operas in time signatures other than 4/4. A guy you’d have an entirely pleasant conversation with at a barbecue about spooky action at a distance, but who could easily corner you and talk your ear off about cloud computing if you weren’t careful. Easy to like, if a bit socially awkward, with self confidence bordering on smugness. Spends his money on expensive audio equipment and has pictures from a family trip to Italy on his desk. Was way into fist bumps before anyone else you knew. Uses the word “webinar” with no sign of lexical embarrassment. Wears Seahawks jerseys on game days.

That’s the Microsoft I knew when I worked there for a blink of an eye in 2001. My two-month tenure as a contractor editing documentation related to the Xbox was bisected by 9/11. During those two months I imagined myself as a droplet in a vast ocean. I worked out of an office in Issaquah and marveled at the company’s size, with its own fleet of shuttles, massive food service facilities, and picnics featuring live music courtesy of Cheap Trick. When I got a full-time job with a Vulcan-backed startup, I left Microsoft with their mantra, “eat your own dogfood” ringing in my head.

“Eat your own dogfood” is a concept that came to define Microsoft for me in that era. It means using your own products even if there’s a product on the market that’s superior to yours. For me, this meant that instead of using the web-authoring software Dreamweaver at Microsoft, I used Microsoft’s web authoring tool, whose name I can’t remember. While parked at my desk in a windowless office in the misty Cascade foothills, I occasionally muttered “Microsoft Microsoft” to the tune of the song in Being John Malkovich, in which the titular actor finds himself in a self-referential dreamscape where everyone is a clone of himself, including a lounge singer who can only sing his name.

That’s to say, Microsoft had become massively self-referential. Every business uses Microsoft products; at Microsoft they use Microsoft products to make more Microsoft products so that more people use other Microsoft products. I came to understand that the company’s Clinton-era antitrust scrimmages weren’t so much the result of venality on the part of Bill Gates, but of a relentless obsession to ensure that every piece of Microsoft software worked with every other piece of Microsoft software. As a result, the company developed an insularity that blinded it to opportunities that companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon were set to exploit.

I still thought of Microsoft in these terms when I signed on to participate in the Hololens Hackathon in the spring of 2016. I set up my MacBook Pro at a table at Fremont Studios and immediately felt conspicuous, like I’d get busted for using an Apple product. One of the Microsoft employees who was on hand to assist with the event disabused me of this notion. She explained that nowadays you could walk across Microsoft’s campus and see people using Android and Apple products all the time. There was a new openness to Microsoft’s culture, a platform agnosticism that represented a break from the eat-your-own-dogfood ethos I had encountered in 2001.

Over the course of that weekend, I got to experience the Hololens, an astonishing augmented reality device that seemed like science fiction realized. And my impression of Microsoft started to change. The dad wearing a Bluetooth headset as an accessory started to morph into a leaner, less Caucasian, younger sort of character. Still a guy, sure, but maybe a guy who does yoga and reads poetry.

Now I understand that this cultural shift came about largely as a result of Satya Nadella taking over as CEO, an experience he recounts in his passionate new book, Hit Refresh. Nadella sees his role as steering the company’s culture toward more empathetic engagement with its customers, and identifies three areas in which Microsoft will grow: mixed reality, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. It’s in the confluence of these technologies that the CEO sees the most promise.

I appreciated Nadella’s literary references, though I did take issue with his notion of an AI that could help him write like Faulkner. I’d argue that the only way to write like Faulkner would be to experience Faulkner’s life, from the racism he observed in the American South to the way his heart was stirred by a hymn. (That said, I have claimed in the past that I could teach an AI to write a novel.)

Having gotten a taste of Microsoft’s version of mixed reality, and having observed the company’s newfound appetite for a wide assortment of dogfood, I’m suddenly interested in Microsoft products again. This weekend I took my kids to the Microsoft store at Bell Square Mall in Bellevue to try the Microsoft Surface Studio. It’s the first example of Microsoft operating at Apple’s level in terms of design that I can think of.

My daughter picked up the styllus, twisted the Surface Dial, and started drawing on this elegant machine. An Indian gentleman, seemed like a MS engineer, stopped by, showed her some cool feature, grinned and said “Enjoy!” before walking away. That moment seemed to encapsulate much of the warm spirit I had been absorbing from Nadella’s heartfelt book.

Then there was the Surface Studio next to the one my daughter was using, which had to be manually restarted for no discernible reason. Ah, good old Microsoft.

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