The High Tech Office: After trying to hate Microsoft,
author ends up
with new respect
Apr 22 1997
by Alan Zisman
As one of the richest self-made businesspeople, Bill
Gates along with
his company, Microsoft, seems to inspire emotions ranging from envy
jealousy to outright hatred. A year ago, for instance, Net-hip 'Wired'
Magazine offered a handy tour guide to 'Hate Microsoft' sites on the
Business historian Randall Stross spent three years
trying to cut through
the emotions as well as the company's self-promotion. With free access
to Microsoft's offices and archives, and with no obligation to preview
his findings to company management, he has managed an objective look at
what makes this two-decade old company so successful.
In "The Microsoft Way" (Addison-Wesley, 1996), Stross
the hordes of avid Microsoft-bashers. He sighs "my conclusions tend
Microsoft of the most serious charges leveled against it... I am not
to find myself in this position, especially because Gates is rich and
company is powerful. It does not seem fair, in the grand scheme of
that he and his company should be praised to boot".
Nevertheless, Stross suggests that Gates and Microsoft
have been successful,
not simply by being born into wealth (true, but not a major factor in
case), and not simply by being lucky-being in the right place at the
time (though getting to sell a non-existent operating system to IBM in
1980 certainly helped, it can't account for Microsoft's even greater
throughout the '90s, a decade when they'd broken with IBM). And not by
simply bullying the competition or through hyping mediocre products.
Instead, Stross points out a number of techniques that
have been followed
by the Microsofties that have led to their present, in his view,
* Hire smart. Microsoft has long made it a policy to
hire the best and
the brightest. Gates has claimed that it's easier to deal with an
who's a failure than with one who is mediocre, but is prepared to speak
of having a 'high IQ' workforce. This in itself accounts for much of
resentment-there's a long history in North America of being, at best,
* Build a positive work environment. Stross suggests that Microsoft's
tree-lined 'campus', where nearly every employee has a private office
outside windows (and nearly every office is the same size), has helped
build team-oriented workgroups. While paying lower-than-average
(even Chairman Bill is paid under $200,000 a year), Microsoft has been
able to win employee loyalty with a mix of benefits and stock options.
* Be prepared to fail, but learn from your failures, and move right
onto the next generation. It's an ongoing joke that it takes Microsoft
three versions to get a product right; its strength has been its
to persevere, and to be prepared to look at building markets over the
Stross looks ar several case-studies: the seven years between the
Microsoft-sponsored conference on CD-ROMs in 1986 and 1993 when
'took off', the effort, nearly as long, to get a digital encyclopedia
production, and then to fine-tune both the product and its marketing.
the way, Microsoft learned that there was much more profit to be made
selling a $50 encyclopedia than a $399 one.
* Be ready to reinvent yourself. Microsoft has evolved from a company
selling programming languages, to one selling operating systems, to one
selling applications, to one that is increasingly focusing on the
and on selling multimedia content. Previously, no company has been able
to remain at the top as the predominant model of technology has
by staying paranoid, Microsoft may be able to pull off this feat.
Despite being written by a historian, 'The Microsoft
Way' avoids a mere
chronology of Gates or his company. Instead, we look at a series of
studies-including Microsoft long-term successes like CD-ROM and
and failures, such as the attempt to beat and then buy rival personal
software-company Intuit. We see how Microsoft has been forced to adapt
to the changes demanded by the explosion of interest in the Internet,
how this has made startup online service Microsoft Network nearly
And we view the US government's abortive use of antitrust legislation
Microsoft, particularly in light of the failed merger with Intuit.
Finally, Stross has some thoughts about Gates'
wealth... is it, ultimately,
any of our business?
There have been at least half-a-dozen books focussing on Gates or
in the past few years. 'The Microsoft Way' stands out as thoughtful and
open-minded. Worthwhile reading for anyone wanting an inside look at
model of high-tech success.