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January 20, 2005

Microsoft Goodness

In his book What Is the Name of This Book?, Raymond Smullyan posits that everybody is either conceited or inconsistent. His argument is that we act on our set of beliefs as if every one were true, yet only a conceited person would really think that all his beliefs were actually true. It's not a logical trick; Smullyan feels, and I concur, that any reasonably modest person is acting inconsistently. I count myself in that modest/inconsistent group. It doesn't bother me to know that I am acting inconsistently. But occasionally, I do decide that something I've always believed is no longer true, and I adjust my behavior accordingly.

One of my beliefs that is teetering a bit is the belief in Microsoft's fundamental goodness as a company. I'm not concerned so much about the intentions of everyday employees; rather I wonder if Microsoft executives, in their heart of hearts, are really concerned about doing the right thing.

This has been simmering in the back of my mind, but a recent article in the Seattle Times Sunday magazine brought it to the forefront. The article doesn't mention Microsoft; it's about Costco and Dick's Drive-In, two Seattle-area companies that pay their employees more than they need to, basically because they want to.

I'm not saying Microsoft doesn't pay its employees well. It's more the philosophy that drives the company.

Read Costco's code of ethics. It's pretty basic: Obey the law. Take care of our members. Take care of our employees. Respect our suppliers. Good stuff. Now look at Microsoft's mission and values. It reads a little differently, doesn't it? A bit further from the Boy Scout pledge and the Golden Rule.

That page also contains Microsoft's mission: To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential. Costco isn't on a mission. As Jim Sinegal, president and CEO of Costco, says in the article, "We are not inventing life here, we are selling mayo." When you're on a mission, you have to get things done. Maybe you have to step on some toes, be rough around the edges, not do as much "taking care" and "respecting". Because you're on a mission! Costco, meanwhile, is just selling mayo. When you're just selling mayo, you can take the time to be good.

I still think that Bill Gates is fundamentally a good person, that he is different from Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison, that he is driven by a desire to make great software, not a desire for money and/or power. It's possible that I'm completely naive and/or wrong here, but consider his recent decision to only hold one outside board position so he could focus on his family and his foundation.

But just because Gates is a good person, does not mean the company he founded is automatically a good company. I mean, Microsoft isn't a bad company. The executives are not paid an outlandish amount compared to employees. Microsoft gives lots of money to charity, it has good benefits, it gives its employees lots of perks. But is it as good a company as Costco?

I know a couple of people who work for Costco. They love the company. Sure they make fun of some things that happen there, but when they talk about the executives and the direction of the company, it's always about something positive, and you can hear the pride in their voices. I work at Costco, and it's a good company. Do I hear that when people talk about Microsoft? I met somebody who work as a stocker at Costco and hurt his back pretty badly, and had to stop working. Know what? Even he still liked the place.

Of course, I still work at Microsoft. And I still like the place, and I'm proud to tell people I work there. But sometimes, I start to wonder.

Posted by AdamBa at January 20, 2005 09:52 PM

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Perhaps shades of conceit in denying the possible reality that Microsoft really is just "selling mayo". From the outside it seems that as MS moves farther away from its "golden era" we are seeing much more of an easing on the reigns and complacent self realization (e.g. balancing salaries, stock buybacks, etc..). Maybe there is some mayo on the mind.

(p.s. Didn't we work together on that set top box thingy back in the ACT days?)

Posted by: pete diemert at January 21, 2005 02:07 PM

Yes, I do believe we did work together. Does the phrase "Bye bye planet" mean anything to you?

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at January 21, 2005 10:43 PM

I work at Microsoft -- and I am incredibly proud of the work our company does. Our team is working hard and is backed up 100% by upper management. We all feel that we're compensated very well.

Posted by: Jim at January 28, 2005 08:17 AM

Russ Cooper, a senior scientist with Cybertrust Inc., said completely cutting off access to security fixes for pirated machines could cause a spike in malicious, Internet-based attacks. He lauded Microsoft for mitigating that problem by continuing to allow all users to get the automatic updates, regardless of whether they're running pirated versions.

Posted by: dacer at February 15, 2005 10:42 PM