I'm constantly drawn back to the heady dot-com days at Microsoft.  Not only because team meetings flowed freely with Dove Bars and Frappuccinos.  But because the heady days created a fundamental shift in the culture at Microsoft -- a shift we may never fully recover from.

Above all else, the heady dot-com days decimated the talent pool at Microsoft.  As you know from listening to execs like BillG and from reading books like Microserfs, Microsoft has always maintained that the one thing at the core of its success, the one key asset that distinguishes it from all its competitors, is its whopping $53 billion dollars in the bank.

Hehe.  I'm only kidding, of course.  Sure, the money helps.  But it's about The People.  At least that's what execs keep saying.

Two things happened to The People during the heady dot-com days:

  1. If you were part of The Old-School People, the same people who wrote 3000 lines of code before breakfast and cracked jokes about SoftICE over the latest issue of Byte magazine, you left the company the moment your buddy, no doubt a member of The Good-Looking Old-School Business/Marketing People, phoned you up from the newly leased offices of

  2. On the other hand, if you were a member of The Talented Graduating College People, you dissed on SoftICE, grabbed a copy of Java In A Nutshell, and headed straight for

I worked recruiting.  I was there.


During the heady dot-com days, I often worked on a volunteer basis with Microsoft recruiters.  I gave tech talks, attended career fairs, and interviewed students at several universities, and focused especially on University of Maryland, my alma mater, over a period of years.  Working a Microsoft booth at career fairs in 1999 and early 2000 was like selling cigars in The Vatican.  Some would stare at us with blank, incredulous looks.  Isn't the DOJ thing enough already?  Can you believe they're even here?!  Others would walk politely by, ignoring eye contact.  Maybe they'll think I'm a business major!  [Before everyone jumps:  for the record, Microsoft loves business majors.  Two folks on my floor are Harvard MBAs.  There's always room for business majors.  We love you guys.]

Point is, a significant portion of the folks who even bothered applying to Microsoft during the heady dot-com days were mediocre at best.  Couple that with the fact that we needed to fill positions like they were going out of style and you've got a formula for disaster.

disaster = probability(applicant[i].IsMediocre) * positionsFilled

The heady dot-com days produced a huge sucking sound at Microsoft.  All the experienced folks were leaving.  All the good college grads were busy working for Trilogy.  Add to this the fact that we wanted to grow the company at record rates...  I leave the conclusion as an exercise for the reader.


Culture Change

More than 60% of Microsoft's 55,000+ employees joined during the heady dot-com days or shortly thereafter.  [Before you math whizzes pounce, remember that folks were leaving in record numbers during those years as well -- in net, Microsoft did not grow 60+% during that time.]  This means whatever you've read in Microserfs, in Showstopper, in numerous magazines in the `90's about Microsoft developers, is at least 60% wrong.

This is not your father's Microsoft.

Those people you thought were here?  They're gone.  Well, some of them have returned, repentant, like prodigal sons and daughters.  But they're mostly gone, replaced by The Next Batch.

Don’t get me wrong – we hired some great people during the heady dot-com days.  We just had to work a lot harder to find the right folks, and often had to beg shamelessly.  But I’m certainly not going to blow sunshine about how, against all odds, we redoubled our recruiting efforts and ended up with just as high quality folks as we’ve always had.  That’s simply not true.  That’s not even statistically possible.  Truth of the matter is that good people were very hard to find during those years.

Microsoft Mojo was diluted because we had to hire during the heady dot-com days.  There’s no doubt about it – the whole Bubble Phenom decimated Microsoft’s talent pool.


Now the Good News

The best thing to happen to Microsoft since the heady dot-com days wasn't settling the DOJ bit.  It wasn't Windows XP.  And it certainly wasn't the remix of SteveB screaming “Developers, developers, developers, developers!“

The best thing to happen to Microsoft since the heady dot-com days was the utter and complete collapse of the entire software industry.  There were no jobs to be found anywhere for new grads, except for the thousands of jobs with the company that had bazillions in the bank.

You wouldn't believe the folks I interviewed last fall at the University of Maryland.  One sophomore had taken over leadership of his dad's consulting business when he was fourteen.  Another runs Menuocity in his spare time, and employs several folks during the course of business.  Did I mention he was only a sophomore as well?  I couldn't invent resumes better than some of the ones I saw.

Grab a Dove Bar.  Snap open a Frappuccino.  The heady days are returning for Microsoft.

Comments (28)

  1. says:

    Philipsu’s article titled on his blog The World is as best as I remember it is a good read. Philipsu is a recruiter at Microsoft, and graduated from (Hoooaaaa) University of Maryland. A bit of an ego-booster now, may…

  2. Philip Su (author) says:

    Minor correction — I’m a development manager on the Tablet PC team at Microsoft, not a recruiter. I only worked with recruiters quite a bit during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

  3. Crazyme says:

    I wonder which groups recruit freshers with less than one year of experience.Needless to say..I am as excited with the oppurtunities at MS and working there has always been one of my dreams..

  4. James says:

    A kid taking over a consulting business at 14? That must have been, what, 5 years ago? 5 years ago I remember companies so desparate for ANYONE that they’d hire people as senior devs who just read an ASP book over the weekend. So being able to take over a consulting business was like having a paperboy route.

  5. Evan Erwin says:

    Wow, excellent read. You officially earned the top spot on my RSS reader.

    Some of the best blog writing I’ve found, and amazingly insightful and interesting.

    More words! Give me more stories/words/anecdotes!

  6. Dumb Microsoft Employee says:

    Wow, thanks for ripping on the people who weren’t as smart as you’d like them to be. Makes you feel good to know you were hired when they were hiring all of the idiots. As a Microsoft employee, this is definitely the kind of stuff I’d like written in a blog.

  7. big brother says:

    je,je,je…I wonder when BillG will shutdown this…

  8. There's recruiting and there's retaining... says:

    As a ten year Microsoft veteran I have been amazed at how little effort Microsoft puts into retaining talent. Management thinks of this as a HR issue, but HR is only concerned about preventing the company from being sued, not about the effects on corporate memory team morale or individual careers.

    I know more about several important areas of Microsoft products than any person in the company, but HR ("Human Remains") are entirely indifferent to that. You gotta realize that there’s not much talent in that department.

    Quite a bunch of talented long-time friends at MS have left product groups in recent months…despairing over random reorgs, second guessing from underqualified and unimaginative managers. It’s really sad. Microsoft has the the market-place clout but the dreams have gone. There are so few places to work in Microsoft product groups nowadays if you’re into improving the direct end-user experience. So if you’re talented, but unhappy in your group there is no longer the wiggle room to go elsewhere in the company. So you leave, and the void is never really filled because there are so many technobureaucrats left who are clinging onto their pay checks.

  9. midtown madness says:

    pure genius.

    so what is the right way to clean up the dead wood?

  10. There's recruiting and there's retaining... says:

    If it’s not too damp, you light a fire. However in some places the dead wood has been there so long, it’s technically petrified. Actually I could probably point to some places where there is a dead wood ecosystem, where chains of incompetency reinforce each other. So as long as no one complains, things kind of drift along indefinitely.

    The joke is that a few senior folks are given research assignments (= well paid open-ended vacations) to ease their them into "retirement". Oh and the folks who come in so infrequently – on full pay – that they’re known as "volunteers". Does the company have managers honest enough to identify these people as dead wood and gently show them the door? Not enough it seems. On a day to day basis though how does Microsoft retain the talented & passionate developer, program manager, tester, usability engineer, documentation writer? There’s nothing to help here.

    Can we talk about a merit-based compensation scheme that allows groups to punish those who leave by giving them unfavorable reviews and no bonuses/stock? HR won’t publicly acknowledge this but in private, individual HR generalists will grumblingly agree that it goes on "in other parts of the company". Honestly, dealing with that sort of behavior through the HR channels is like talking to sock puppets.

    A word on recruiting. I cannot count the number of graduates I interviewed in my decade at MS. In later years I was astounded at who the recruiters sent to us: I couldn’t comprehend the logic of sending applicants who weren’t even interested in the product we were building. There were a number I felt tempted to give career counselling, ’cause they just were not temperamentally suited to the software business. In 2002-3, I found maybe 2 interviewees who were "keepers", the ones you know have a bright future ahead. Talking to one of them 2 years later, I found him despairing that he was ever going to work on a project that would be allowed to run to conclusion. That’s two years of genius largely wasted. I think of having a school of brilliant artists kept in comfort, but whose major works are routinely and randomly torn-up when they’re 80% done. Soul destroying.

  11. After watching the failing Tablet PC fiasco, I wondered when all the smart people at MSFT would show up. Maybe they should read my site and learn some things.

    Get a clue { The Tablet PC sucks because all the smart people work elsewhere}

    Maybe you should hire some other people for that team. Ya think? Er. Guess not because you are too busy collecting a paycheck.

    Hire me. I love the Tablet PC.

  12. There's recruiting and there's retaining... says:

    Tablet PC has some amazing individuals there, although since shipping v1, this has dissipated and life is being sucked out of others.

    On the other hand it has its share of time-servers, unimaginative management and a widening gulf between development and marketing. Some areas are under-resourced, many innovative projects have been cut.

    The ongoing battle between Office and Windows continues, with the customer losing in any measure of consistency. You’ll probably see improvements in Journal and other platform elements sidelined in favour of heavy-weight non-Avalon-based Office solutions.

  13. No sense complainging about things you can't chang says:

    The heady days are NOT coming back to MS. It’s over. You don’t want to admit it. Maybe you’re scared to admit it, but it’s really, really over. That doesn’t mean MS is going to whither away and disappear. Heck no! It’ll be around for years and years…just like IBM, GE, GM and lots of other American empires that can’t hold a candle to their former glory.

    It’s not that MS’ hiring policies have changed and they are now letting in more "mediocre" applicants. I’ve sat through interviews with people who were simply amazing who were then "no hired" for niggling minutia. Point is, MS has left smallstartupwithfocus and entered giantbehemothrunbyaccountants. It’s sad for those of us who remember the good ol’ days, but if you want to find them again, it won’t be at MS.

    My 3 cents but you can keep the change.

  14. Urm…

    Warning: mysql_fetch_array(): supplied argument is not a valid MySQL result resource in C:Domainsmenuocity.comwwwrootsearchwhatsyourcraving.php on line 238


  15. The downward spiral says:

    Every dog has its day, and Microsoft’s had theirs. It’s nice to see the evil empire can’t stay on top indefinitely. The cracks are beginning to show, thank goodness.

  16. drebin says:

    I gotta say.. you downward spiral and Microsoft is going to be another IBM!!!! Are you kidding??

    I have been a hard-core nerd most of my life and am the kind of person who has spent COUNTLESS nights up until 4am because I couldn’t get a chunk of code working.. and I will say, the stuff that is coming out of Microsoft nowadays – and the pace.. is staggering. I truly mean STAGGERING. Microsoft, to me as an third party joe average, is stronger, more organized and more productive – BY LEAPS – than it ever has been. This is truly a great time to be alive and a great time to be a developer.

    Look at .NET Whidbey!! Look at SQL Yukon!! From the outside, it seems ABUNDANTLY clear to me – that there are some seriously talented people, who really enjoy what they do, working in there. It shows.

    And on top of that, this blog thing (by the way, how did this MS employee blog thing start exploding??).. is unprecendented. To me, Microsoft has always been a 20 foot wall with barbed-wire at the top – inaccessible. The people who knew ANYthing – where just completed out of reach. And now, actualy people who worked on the languages that I use everyday – I can write to.

    In a sentence, "the new Microsoft" is VERY exciting to me (as a developer)..

    and to compare them to IBM, that big, bloated, horrible, bohemeth company?? No way. IBM is still in business because it spent many years getting it’s customers locked into proprietary hardware and software (ask any AS/400 person). In the old days, if your hard drive went.. there was no calling around – you had to buy your replacement IBM hard drive – FROM IBM!! They have ruled and continue to stay in business by cornering their customers. That’s a horrible business model, in my mind.

    Microsoft doesn’t have that luxory. They’ve stayed in business and have climbed to the VERY top – by having great products and continuing to innovate. End of story.

    I’m just sayin’… 🙂

  17. In a recent post, Tablet PC Development Manager, Philip Su , talked about the ups and downs he’s seen in Microsoft’s ability to attract the best technical talent over the course of the last few years . As someone who was a college student

  18. In a recent post, Tablet PC Development Manager, Philip Su , talked about the ups and downs he’s seen in Microsoft’s ability to attract the best technical talent over the course of the last few years . As someone who was a college student

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