18 October 2004
One of the most interesting changes in the last five years is that Microsoft has become a depressing place to work.
Microsoft embodies the old-world software mentality: large-scale, abstraction-driven, developer-focused, client-based, all founded on high-margin licenses of intellectual property.
Their all-at-once approach to software development means long, risk-prone release cycles and frequent slips. Meanwhile, even Apple puts a new version of Mac OS X out every year, and of course Linux is highly modular and new functionality is continuously available to those who want it.
Microsoft’s focus has always been on developers, and when you hear Ballmer and Gates talking about Longhorn, you hear them talking about WinFS, Avalon, and Indigo: terms that mean nothing to software users, but that are endlessly interesting to developers.
Or at least, Microsoft hopes that they’re interesting topics. But what if they aren’t?
The web has taught people that low-tech stuff can be really productive. Lots of people are using PHP, Perl and Python in areas you wouldn’t expect. These are real, salt-of-the-earth tools. By contrast Avalon and some of Microsoft’s other recent efforts at programming environment design look like out-of-touch erudite fluff, with a rank odor of cubicleware evident from miles away.
But indications are that for the world’s most talented hackers, the bloom might be coming off the Microsoft rose. Gates keeps lamenting that talented people are losing interest in IT, and has recently been stumping for the field. But what if he’s got a dark window on the IT world not because software is failing to attract bright developers, but because Microsoft is failing to attract bright developers?
And the worst bit of news for the Company that Copyright Built is that software business models are changing. People often ask me what the business model is for open source. Lately I’ve been telling them that they ought to ask what the business model is for software. The only thing that’s for sure is that no one is going to get their own private jet for writing a spreadsheet program anymore.
Now, everyone knows that Microsoft’s market and cash position give them more room for error than any other company in existence. And Microsoft has stood up remarkably well to the decline of IT fortunes, while other companies have fallen hard. And above all, they are fighters. But things have definitely changed in Redmond.
The day they offered me a job five years ago, the employment brochure (which I just found the other day, cleaning out my office) was full of testimonials from young Microsofties talking about how cool it is to write software that millions of people use.
My dad urged me to take the job — “it’s a million-dollar offer!” he would yell into the phone, speaking metaphorically, I guess — and he and certain other of my relatives expressed concern for the safety of my eager young ego when I went off and started a long-haired communist company with a dirty Mexican.
Microsoft’s stock has since come maybe 40% off their high; a fall, but not a big fall compared to the other companies squeezing through the eye of the needle after the tech stock bubble burst. The real change appears to be in the climate. I’m glad I didn’t go to work for Microsoft, but not because I got to do something cool elsewhere, or because they’re “bad people;” I’m glad I didn’t go to work for Microsoft because that place doesn’t seem like fun anymore.