Damn!  I just found out that the Microsoft Company Meeting, a yearly event, is on October 30th, and I will be out of town!  Its hard to describe these meetings; but let me try.

You walk into SafeCo field, Seattle’s new baseball stadium, and look around, admiring the sheer size of the place.  The sliding retractable roof, with its shell-like design and bright red struts and wheels is particularly eye-catching.  You probably came together with some other folks from your team; there is a good chance you are all wearing the same shirt.  On your way in, you pass through some security – check that blue badge, please!  And open your bag – no cameras at this event; top-secret demos coming up.  Grab a drink – a water or soda – on your way to your seat; you’ll need it.  There are some snacks too, although they tend to be a bit on the healthy side for a true junk-food junky like myself.

You make your way to your seat – its assigned seating, and your whole team is sitting together.  You chat with your teammates while waiting for the show to start – or perhaps watch interesting historical facts about Microsoft flash by on the enormous video screens that flank the temporary stage plopped on top of the pitcher’s mound like an encroaching amoeba.  At some point, the inevitable happens, and those on the upper decks begin to make paper airplanes out of various maps, instructions, and other hand-outs.  The airplanes float down, in curves and lines, bouncing against the occasional wall or head.  Nobody says it, but the challenge is clear; to construct an airplane so honest and true that it flies long, and flies straight, and manages to actually land on the stage.  Oh!  That one was close; it hit one of the large video screens, and dropped on top of a smaller (60”?) TV close to the stage.

The PA system crackles, and soon the show will start – the minutes tick by, and the crowd quiets.  Then it begins.  The first Microsoft executive steps up on stage, and begins to talk.  It’s the Chief Operating Officer, and he’s giving us a status update on the plan.  Here is how the divisions are doing.  Here are the financials.  Some slides, and charts.  A little bit of inspirational chat – we think we can grow the server business by XX percent over the next three years!  We are investing heavily in mobile technologies!  A thunderous cheer erupts from the WinCE contingent, and confetti blizzards down onto those fortunate enough to sit below.  For the most part, though, the talk is fairly factual and dry.

Then the parade of Vice Presidents begins – Jim Allchin, Jeff Raikes, Paul Maritz, and more.  They discuss the challenges and successes of the various parts of the company.  Some plans are discussed, although this tends to be a bit vague; perhaps they don’t think they can really keep every nosy reporter out of the stadium, if that reporter had a serious mind to sneak in.  They do show demos, though; really, really cool demos.  You lean forward in your seat – its one of the highlights of the show.  In past years, in the late 90’s, they would bring in comedians or other acts to liven things up; but recently it has been a bit more business-like.  Still a show, though.  And you really like the demos.

Intermission comes; time to stand in line.  Get a snack, go to the bathroom – grab another couple bottles of water.  Some silly baseball cheering game is on the video monitor; see which side of the stadium can make their boat go faster.  You don’t really care, but it’s a good opportunity to stretch, talk with teammates, and return your wife’s call on the cell phone.  More airplanes float down from the upper deck, but somehow they seem sloppier, and none comes close to the stage.

Intermission ends, and to a dramatic fanfare, Bill Gates steps on stage.  Deep analysis of technological trends follow.  A big picture emerges.  Some of the stranger technological bets that Microsoft has made, start to make sense.  A vision arises, of computing and the future.  You wonder if he writes his own speeches.  He finishes, to great applause, and steps down.

Then flashing lights begin, the music cranks up a notch, and Steve Ballmer jaunts on-stage.  The man has unnatural levels of energy and enthusiasm.  He jumps around the stage, almost dancing or skipping.  He roams the seats and takes high-fives.  He waves his hands, encouraging and exhorting applause.  He also talks directly, and seems to address some of the deep concerns of the employees directly: What kind of company are we?  What kind of people are we?  What do we want to accomplish?  It is inspirational; sometimes deep, sometimes silly – but always passionate, always heart-felt.  You want to believe this man, and you want to follow him.  It is really, really cool.

When Ballmer leaves, you know you’ve been treated to a good show.  Everyone stands up, and begins to file out of the stadium.  Many people go directly to the busses, and head back to campus.  You, however, go across the street to the convention center.  More food, there, and booths set up by many of the teams from inside the company.  They are showing off their latest and greatest stuff – more nifty demos, and lots of trinkets to pick up.  Pens, pads, software.  Lucky you brought a bag with you.  In the center, an Xbox tournament is underway, giant video screens blazing the action out.  Office is on display, mobile computing too.  Research has a corner – they always have fascinating stuff.  Soon the crowd grows wearisome, however; after a last run through the food line, you get on the bus and head home.  Another year at Microsoft.  Another company meeting.

Time flies when you are having fun – how long until the next company meeting?