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June 19, 2005

Building Community at Microsoft

I was reading an article in the Princeton Alumni magazine titled "Building Community". It discusses how the Princeton community has changed between the class of 1951 and 2001.

Read the following quote from the article:

"In the last 50 years, Princeton has gone to great lengths to diversify its student body geographically, racially, spiritually, and, most obviously, in terms of gender. These changes have made the endeavor of building a well-connected undergraduate community both vastly more difficult and potentially far more educationally rewarding than ever before. In other words, what Princeton has done during the last few decades is essentially to raise the stakes on the prospects of its undergraduates learning from one another: The barriers to doing so now are higher than they were in the past, but so is the potential payoff."

Now read it again, changing "Princeton" to "Microsoft", "last 50 years" to "last 15 years", "student body" to "work force", and "educationally rewarding" to...well, insert your favorite phrase to describe the technological, customer, and financial goals that Microsoft is pursuing.

There is no doubt that Microsoft has gotten more diverse since 1990. When I started there it was a bunch of white guys. The article on Princeton states: "According to the admission office’s September 1947 analysis of the freshman class, for example, exactly one-fourth of the newly admitted freshmen hailed from only six preparatory schools (Exeter, Lawrenceville, Deerfield, Andover, The Hill, and Mercersburg)." I would bet that in 1990 more than a quarter of Microsoft's college hires came from Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Waterloo.

As I have written before, there is great value in Microsoft increasing its diversity. Princeton is not experiencing the rapid growth in size that forced Microsoft to expand its recruiting efforts, but in fact this emphasizes my point: Princeton sought diversity because it recognized that if it wanted to attract the best students, and therefore the best professors, and produce the best educational "product" (for lack of a better term) it had to diversify.

But the article points out that a more diverse student body (or workforce) also introduces some challenges. Quoting Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone, Professor Stanley Katz points out "America’s social capital — the extent to which citizens feel connected to one another through social networks — has declined precipitously since the 1950s. Putnam wrote about two types of social capital: bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital, he wrote, is 'inward looking' and tends 'to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups.' Bridging social capital, by contrast, is 'outward looking' and results when people connect 'across diverse social cleavages.' Both kinds of social capital are, of course, necessary to the formation of healthy communities. But not surprisingly, bridging social capital is the harder of the two to create — and in an educational community like Princeton, it is also the more valuable." Princeton in 1951 had "far fewer divisions, and thus far less need — as well as far less potential — for the creation of bridging social capital"--just like Microsoft today. Building a "team" into a "community" is critical to enable people to reach their full productivity. You have to have people trusting each other, helping out when necessary, sharing credit instead of trying to hog it. Having more diverse teams makes the potential rewards even greater, but also makes it harder to achieve true community.

I know my team today is more diverse than the ones I worked on back in 1990. And I also think it is less tightly bound. Back in the early 1990s the NT team was comprised of two groups--the original people from Digital, and the various Microsoft employees who had filtered in. Dave Cutler, in one of his Tom West moments, notice the distinction, and started the Weekly Integration Meetings, or WIMs. Late on Friday afternoons he'd get some beer for the lab and we could all sit around shooting the shit. It probably worked, but the creation of this bridging social capital wasn't too hard--all it took was a common enjoyment of beer. Today the groups are much more diverse and much harder to bring together. You're not going to unite a team over beer if some of the people don't even drink beer. The Windows team still has WIMs, but they are huge events, and everyone just stands around talking to people they already know.

It's true that Microsoft has become more heirarchical, which creates new social strata that need to be bridged. Then again, this can lead to the other way to bring a group together, which happened at my previous job in New Jersey. We were as diverse as any Microsoft group, and we worked great as a team. What brought us together? A common belief that management was incompetent. I doubt management would like to encourage this--much easier to go with the morale events. But when it works, it works.

Posted by AdamBa at June 19, 2005 10:09 PM

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Little off topic, but it would be nice too see University see the education as 'product' instead of some sort of divine gift from above that only the priviledge share.

I think would be a lot different at my University if the Profs and the Adminstrator's jobs were on the line when it comes to student's opinions of the U.

Posted by: Chris at June 21, 2005 12:52 PM