Former 'Microsoftie' tells all - well, almost

Former 'Microsoftie' tells all - well, almost

You won't find many well-kept secrets to business success in All I Really Need to Know in Business I Learned at Microsoft, a new book by former Microsoft employee Julie Bick. Instead, these Insider Strategies to Help You Succeed, as the cover promises in a subtitle, fall mostly along the spectrum of the current conventional wisdom found in the business section of your local airport bookstore.

But the magnitude of Microsoft's success gives it an undeniable allure, and no doubt Bick's publishers expect businesspeople seeking to emulate the company to cause a run on this book. In fact, the author says she came away with a six-figure advance after a bidding war among publishers, and the book is currently being translated into German, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

Readers also won't find many juicy "don't do it like this" stories - Bick's very upbeat book comes off like the author herself: well-organised, intelligent, and above all very loyal to Microsoft. At a recent press conference in Redmond, Washington, she looked more pained than amused when a waiter, noticing a copy of her book on the table, made a cheerful joke about "the evil empire".

What readers will find are plenty of examples of how Microsoft executes sensible ideas like listening to customers and thinking like your competition, sometimes taking these ideas to extremes but apparently doing so effectively if its dominance of the software industry is any yardstick.

Certainly, Bick's description of Microsoft's "SWOT" teams invokes in the reader equal parts morbid fascination and the suspicion that if one had the time to think that way about one's competitors, they would be toast, too. In these detailed "think like the competition" analyses (SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) Microsoft employees take the extra step of writing product or business plans from the competitors' points of view - and the plan is often scarier than the reality, she said. Observers of the company have noted that "not only does Microsoft not rest on its laurels, but it seems constantly paranoid."

"That's really true," said Bick, who in her five years with the company was a product manager for Word, Office, and a group manager in the consumer division.

While Microsoft is "incredibly focused on success", according to Bick, she did aim to bring out in her book that failure is not only analysed but accepted. "They let you fail: if you haven't failed you're not trying enough new stuff," she said.

The book provides some insight into Microsoft's recruitment processes, which involve a gruelling series of interviews. Microsoft has certainly assembled an effective army using these techniques, which emphasise problem-solving questions. The implication is that people who choose problem-solving strategies similar to those employed by the questioner would do well; asked whether this may well result in a lack of intellectual diversity at the company over time, Bick agreed that there is a tendency to "hire people just like you".

Another aspect of Microsoft's corporate culture that comes through is the workaholic nature of the place.

Bick makes a few joking references to balancing work and personal life, and the one semi-sincere attempt to address the issue - "Ten Ways to Balance Work and Life" - starts with the caveat: "Actually, most Microsofties don't balance their work with their outside life. Microsoft consumes all the time and energy you'll give it."

Microsoft seems able to sustain this driven culture, Bick said, although she admits the company has lost a lot of good people as a result. That likely includes Bick herself: she left Microsoft so that she and her husband, a Windows 95 product manager, could spend a year doing all the things they haven't had time for, from travelling abroad to volunteering in a local hospital.

While her husband has returned to the company to become publisher of its Slate online magazine, Bick has since had a child and feels that it would be "hard to have two working Microsoft parents". In fact, she and her husband are acquainted with four other MBA couples that all began working at Microsoft around the same time, and all of the wives have quit, she said.

However, there's a glimmer of hope for the well-rounded on the empire's outposts: asked how well the corporate culture transplants to Microsoft's divisions overseas, Bick ventured that "in foreign countries, the pace is not quite as lunatic-intense".

Bick is donating half the proceeds from the book to a Seattle-area charity called the Technology Access Foundation, that gives inner-city children access to computers and computer training.

All I Really Need to Know in Business I Learned at Microsoft is published by Simon & Schuster and is being launched in australia this month with an RRP of $24.95 (hardback).

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