Behind the veil

Subject: Behind the veil
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 9 Oct 1995 09:51:00 PDT

Pete Praetorius writes:

>Hello, I am a graduate student at Clemson University, and I am writing
>about a subject that may be familiar to any of you who have experience
>working as privet contractor/consultants. Last year while working as a
>contractor for a small engineering firm, I became increasingly included in
>conversations that were critical of the company's management. From my
>initial assessment of the company, I thought that it was the ideal
>workplace, and one were all the employees were very happy. But after
>working for this company a while (I generally came in about once or twice
>a week), I became kind of a sounding board for a few of the engineers
>problems. I am working through several ideas as to why this whole
>scenario occurred, and I would be interested in hearing from and talking
>to others who have had similar experiences.

Two weeks ago I did a radio book interview with Fred Moody, author of "I
Sing the Body Electronic: A year with Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier"
and this came up.

Fred basically played "Fly on the wall" with the group putting together the
Explorapedia, the CD encyclopedia aimed at kids aged 5-11. Like "Soul of a
New Machine," he got to see a lot of the chaos and angst that can
characterize operations that look smooth and machine-like on the outside.

Fred's take on this (if I understood him properly) is that the relentless
pressure that creates some hate and discontent are what keeps MS on top. He
paints BillG as a pretty Machevellian figure who purposely sets unrealistic
deadlines so that, regardless of how successful a product is, its creators
feel that they have failed and that they "could have done more."

BillG sounds a good deal like Admiral Hyman Rickover, the
obsessive-compulsive figure known as the "father of the nuclear navy."
Rickover stamped most of the Navy with his own obsession with perfection and
with rooting out error and human fallability; Moody says that BillG is just
like Rickover that way: don't talk about what you did right, all they want
to know is what you did wrong. Although I've never worked for Microsoft, I
felt (after reading the book) that the cultures are incredibly similar.
Sure the uniforms are different, but in an organizational behavior sense,
they are virtually clones. Rickover obsessed about reactor safety; Gates
obsesses about stock price.

It was a pretty good book and would probably interest a lot of people on
this list. The book gives you a picture of a pretty gender-split workplace:
male right-brain programmers and female left-brain interface designers,
writers, and artists (although the project's main creative artist was also
male). The programmers can stay programmers and continue to advance
forever, but designers have to go into project management if they want to
advance. The designers and artists also tend to be the contingent folks (no
stock options, no security, no benefits). This became an issue for one
woman who wanted to go permanent--which, apparently, MS rarely does.

The book suggests a lot of issues that might be of interest to technical
communicators: the contingent workforce, workplace gender issues,
productivity measurements (Moody says this is the reason that artists and
writers have a harder time at MS than programmers: the culture requires
objective productivity measures and they can't figure out how to do that
with artists and writers, who are punished as a result), teamwork etc.
John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)

The Bill of Rights--The Original Contract with America
Accept no substitutes. Beware of imitations. Insist on the genuine articles.

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