Debunking the Myth of Microsoft as the ‘Evil Empire’

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Employee Engagement: The Strategic Priority of HR

Last week, I wrote about George Santino and his rags-to-riches story as a partner engineer at Microsoft, a story that’s chronicled in his newly released book, “Get Back Up: From the Streets to Microsoft Suites.” During his 20-year career at Microsoft, Santino gained a behind-the-scenes perspective of one of the most influential companies in history. In our recent interview, I was eager to get an account of what it was really like on the inside of what many on the outside saw as the “Evil Empire.” What I learned is well worth recounting here.

I opened this portion of the interview by noting that I had interviewed Bill Gates in 1995, and that when I asked him for his thoughts on Netscape, he dismissed Netscape by famously saying, “A browser is a trivial piece of software.” I asked Santino if he thinks the bravado that Gates was so well known for back in those days trickled down, and what impact his leadership style had within the company. Santino said a book could be written just on the answer to that question:

I remember one day, we were in a meeting with HR, and it was one of those training classes that you get in the corporate world from time to time, where HR meets with the employees, and they want to talk about personality traits. They were talking about a personality quadrant that’s very aggressive, can be arrogant, can be loud, can be demanding.


And then they talked about a personality quadrant that’s more empathetic and understanding, they want to know where you’re coming from, and they’re more personable. They said they were trying to get the managers more toward that quadrant. I raised my hand and asked, ‘That top quadrant where you’re saying you don’t really want us—where’s Bill?’ They said, ‘He’s in that top quadrant, obviously.’ What about Steve Ballmer? ‘He’s in that top quadrant, too.’ Pete Higgins, Jim Allchin, all the very successful people at Microsoft were in the top quadrant. So I asked, ‘Why do you want us down here, when success is up there?’ They said, ‘We’re trying to change the culture of the company.’ I said, ‘That’s great. When we stop rewarding that Type A behavior, then people might move down here [to the lower quadrant]. But as long as that’s what’s rewarded, that’s the way we’re going to behave.’

And that, Santino said, is exactly what Microsoft was — a company full of extremely strong personalities:

I remember I had an employee working for me who was extremely technical — knew his stuff inside and out. But you’d never know it, because in a meeting, he never got a word in edgewise. I had to sit him down and tell him, ‘If you want to be heard in a meeting, you’re going to have to interrupt somebody — you’re going to have to be kind of rude, or you’re not going to be heard here.’ But he just didn’t have that personality, and he wasn’t successful, in spite of the fact that he was so good. So you had to be very self-confident and direct. You had to be willing to speak your mind in order to be successful at that company.

Now, the culture changed over the years, as we got older and got married and had kids. People started talking about work/life balance and that kind of stuff, so some of the edge came off. But in those early years, you gave that company your life. You worked hard, and you had to be a strong, Type A personality in order to succeed.

Santino went on to elaborate on just how the culture changed:

We all grew up with Bill — we were all about the same age, so those early guys grew up together. They were single guys, giving the company their life, eventually getting married and having children. And as Bill started to understand the need for work/life balance, that started to permeate throughout the organization.

The interesting part about that, however, is that it still was a company that rewarded results. And if you worked very efficiently, you could get results, and not have to live there. But the fact is, there still were people who worked extremely hard, got great results, but also put in extreme hours, so they got better results than other people.

The review system there is very competitive. Who’s at the top of the stack, basically, are the people who are going to get the bonuses, the raises, the stock options, and that sort of thing. So the philosophy that if you weren’t constantly in crunch mode you were in danger of losing your job, that was gone. No one was in danger of losing their job because it became a nine-to-five job for them, they were home for dinner, and they were watching their kids play soccer on the weekends. That was acceptable behavior.

However, you were still competing with these other people who were putting in the nights and the weekends. And when it came time to dole out that finite amount of rewards, it went to those people. So you understood the trade-off you were making. If you wanted to watch your kids play soccer on Saturday, fine, no problem. But if I’m there at work getting stuff done, chances are I’m going to get better rewards. You may say it’s worth it, because you got to watch your kids play soccer. So you had to decide what trade-off is worth it to you.

I asked Santino which group he was in. I wasn’t surprised when he said he was in the group that missed the soccer games:

My attitude was very simple: If I give this company my life, this company would change my life. I remember my wife saying to me once, ‘All the dads here in the cul de sac are home in time for dinner, and you’re always rolling in at eight or nine o’clock.’ I said, ‘You know what, Susan? In a few years from now, I’ll be home for dinner, lunch, and breakfast, and those guys will still be getting home at five or six o’clock for dinner, hoping to God Social Security still exists when they retire.’

So you had to decide what’s worth it, and I think I made the right choice. I went to some soccer games, not all of them. But that was a trade-off I was willing to make. Growing up where I grew up in the projects of South Philadelphia, extremely poor, and having the opportunity to truly build a successful career and a successful life for my family, to me, that was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

I asked Santino what he learned about Microsoft over the years that the outside world doesn’t know. He said in reality, it was never an Evil Empire:

When I went there, I thought it was this big, mean, arrogant place that was out to destroy all its competitors. But when I got in there, I found it to be a very different place. This was a very close-knit family of people with a true desire to put software out there that was going to change the world.

Bill Gates would say, ‘How will this software help people?' and other people had to say, ‘Well, Bill, we also have to talk about the profitability of the software.’ A lot of times for him, it was about what benefit it was going to create, before what profit it was going to create. I remember when the Justice Department was suing us, and saying, ‘Did the Word people know what the Windows people were doing, so it’s not fair to the WordPerfect people who don’t have the same access to the Windows people?’ We’d say, ‘If they really knew what was going on here, they would not be suing us at all, because the Word people don’t even talk to the Windows people! They have no idea what’s going on with Windows!’

So the people on the inside were saying, ‘They really thought we were that clever and colluding? We’re not that smart, people!’ The graphical user interface came from the Palo Alto Research Center — people said we stole it from Apple. Actually Apple stole it from PARC, and then we stole it from Apple. But once we came out with a graphical user interface, Bill quickly realized that without applications, this thing wasn’t going to go anywhere.

We decided the only way Windows was going to be successful would be to write a word processor and a spreadsheet that worked on top of Windows. So when people said, ‘That’s not fair, because Word has all the market share,’ that’s because the other guys didn’t see it coming. They didn’t write a word processor that worked on Windows. We did. We had no choice. Bill said, ‘Write it,’ so we wrote it.

So the reason Word and Excel had the market share was because they were the only applications written for Windows. And by the time WordPerfect and Lotus saw the writing on the wall, it was kind of too late. It wasn’t some big conspiracy to destroy these companies. It was just the right path to take. When I was in the company, I saw that. People outside the company thought the way I used to think, they’re the Evil Empire, they’re out to destroy the world! Not really true.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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Sep 12, 2016 4:54 AM Sam Sam  says:
I have worked at MSFT. I don't know if they are evil, or it is just raw capitalism but there is definitely a strong desire, to put it mildly, to destroy all competitors or anyone who might someday be a competitor. Partners are viewed as short term tools, as are employees, who will be discarded if there is more money to be made without them or competing with them (e.g. attacking the OEMs who made MSFT with Surface). A popular saying, this is recent, is that "we are going to stick the fire hose down the throat of [insert competitor]". You can't trust MSFT, but you can trust MSFT to be MSFT. This guy must have made off with a bunch of stock back in the day. He is obviously a fan. Reply

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