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 youwouldntbelievehowgoodofafirstmoversadvantagewevegot.com.
  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 thosefirstmovershavenoideawevegotapatentsubmarine.com.

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.