Seattle - The young interns, some of the nation's best and
brightest in technology, business and design, had plenty of enthusiastic words
to describe their summer employer.
Fun. Cool. Special. A giant startup. Revolutionising the
world. Facebook, perhaps? Or Twitter? Or Google?
Try Microsoft Corp: the company once derided as the
"death star" of the technology business and lately thought of not so
much as dangerous, but merely irrelevant, bureaucratic and dull.
"Microsoft feels cool again," said 22-year-old
Gbenga Badipe, an electrical engineering student at Rice University, one of 1
500 interns spending 12 weeks at the company's leafy campus this summer.
"Microsoft products touch almost every area of technology, and everything
they do is starting to work together."
Microsoft's keen new interns already think their
competitors' days are numbered, branding Google and Facebook as
"creepy" because of their aggressive stance on privacy and heavy
reliance on advertising.
"What kind of business model is that, shoving ads in
peoples' faces?" said one Microsoft intern, who asked not to be named.
A recent poll by careers site Glassdoor put Google as the
most desirable place to intern, followed closely by Microsoft. They are also
the best paid, averaging over $6 000 a month.
Microsoft is "revolutionising the world", said
Juan Llanes, 25, a computer science and finance major at Georgia Tech, who is
also interning in Redmond, Washington this summer. Llanes grew up revering
Microsoft during his childhood in Cuba, where computers were effectively
Microsoft executives say the youthful enthusiasm evokes the
company's heyday in the 1990s, when Bill Gates took his revolutionary startup
from being International Business Machine Corp's junior partner to the United
States' most valuable company.
"I went to work at Microsoft because I believed,"
said John Ludwig, a senior executive behind the creation of Internet Explorer
and Windows 95.
"It wasn't about money. I believed in the idea of
getting computers in the hands of everybody."
"Young students want inspiration, they want to follow
something," said Ludwig, who left Microsoft in 1999 to found Seattle
venture capital firm Ignition Partners.
"That underdog thing is a powerful motivator - for a
lot of great talent, that's an appealing place to be, that feeling of us
against the world."
Back to the future
Of course, back then the sense of mission was boosted by the
fact that Microsoft stock increased 90-fold in the 1990s, creating a host of
stock option millionaires. Those days are long over, and Microsoft shares are
still well below their 1999 peak.
The idea that the company can embody a startup spirit at
this stage of its development might also be a stretch.
A recent book published anonymously by two former Microsoft
employees, called Stack Rank This!, portrays a company beset by abusive
managers and dysfunctional teams where the appraisal process - the notorious
stack rank system - actually works against the company's progress.
Indeed, the impression of the company as a Byzantine
bureaucracy still turns off some tech-minded students, who are more attracted
to younger, faster-moving firms like Facebook.
"There's a definite sense of excitement going on here.
"There's always revolutions in the making in terms of
product development," said Johan Ugander, 27, a PhD student in Applied
Math at Cornell University, who is interning for the third consecutive summer
"A lot of the interns I know, a year ago they were
working on Timeline," said Ugander. "It's really fun for them to be
able to come back to school and as the Facebook product rolls out, to say ‘I
worked on that all summer'."
But Ludwig insists that Microsoft's old "scrappy"
spirit is starting to resurface. The company may be getting crushed in areas
like smartphones and internet search, but Windows still runs 90% of the world's
computers, and Microsoft's research and product development efforts are broad
"To me, Microsoft is a giant startup battling to
innovate while maintaining compatibility," said Llanes from Georgia Tech.
"We are underdogs in some areas, and we are strong in
other areas with lots of people trying to knock us off. The stakes are
incredibly high at Microsoft, and that's the kind of place I want to
Microsoft rolls out the red carpet for interns. Last year
more than 1 000 of them were treated to a surprise show by the Dave Matthews
Band at a Seattle zoo.
State troopers paid
by Microsoft have in the past cleared the usually clogged State Route 520
floating bridge to downtown Seattle to make way for buses full of interns. They
no longer get a barbecue at Bill Gates' lakeside house like they used to, but
there is a palpable sense of excitement.
"Everyone says you have the most fun at
Microsoft," said one intern, who asked older students at her college about
where to apply.
"And Microsoft was definitely the best at selling
Of last year's computer science graduates from Carnegie
Mellon University, both bachelors and masters, Microsoft and Google were top of
the list of employers with 18 each, while seven went to Facebook.
"Microsoft is still up there," said Connie Chan,
associate director of Stanford Computer Forum, which links up the university's
tech students with employers.
"It's still one of the companies that are doing really
well on campus. Whenever Microsoft comes on campus they always have a large
crowd interested in what they are doing."
Some are sceptical that the company is still getting the
best talent out of the top schools, however.
"Microsoft's standing is still strong enough such that
they can choose to get the (recruiting) numbers they want - if they dig far
enough down their list," said one former program manager at the company.
Beyond the ranks of interns, Microsoft still struggles to
compete for talent, especially as Facebook and Google recruit aggressively for
their Seattle offices.
Microsoft has had recent victories, snagging cutting-edge
social scientist Duncan Watts from Yahoo, and welcoming back James Whittaker, a
well-known software engineer who left Microsoft for Google three years ago but
was turned off by Google's increasing focus on ad revenue.
"There's been a fundamental cultural shift - this
really is in many ways a different company," said Whittaker of Microsoft.
"At the high levels of the company they are far more willing to consider
grassroots innovative ideas bubbling up than they used to be."
There have also been defeats, such as the departure of
veteran Windows Phone manager Charlie Kindel, who left last year to found a
startup. His successor also recently left for Amazon.
But the maturing process that Microsoft has been through
will ultimately catch up with younger rivals too.
"As Google and Facebook get larger, they will
inevitably bog down in politics and bureaucracy," said Ben Slivka, a
software engineer who led the creation of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser
in the 1990s.
"You'll be asking some Google or Facebook veteran the
same questions you're asking me now."