A thoughtless book by a breathless author. By Patrick Moody READERS OF THIS BOOK might well ask why the publisher deemed it fit for publication.


Trite and "True"

Microsoft as utopia, the tech word as dystopia

A thoughtless book by a breathless author. By Patrick Moody READERS OF THIS BOOK might well ask why the publisher deemed it fit for publication. Sadly, the answer is well-known. We live in the age of celebrity authors and megacorporate publishers. For many of these publishers, putting out quality books is of little importance. Ms. Bick can be considered a celebrity of sorts by virtue of the fact that she worked for five years at Microsoft—arguably the most successful corporation of the 20th century. So Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, which is itself a division of Viacom (which, by the way, is in the process of acquiring CBS), signed her up to write a book with Microsoft's name in the title and hoped gullible buyers would gobble it up. I haven't read Ms. Bick's earlier book—All I Really Need to Know in Business I Learned at Microsoft—but I'm willing to bet it was published for the same reasons. The Microsoft edge—insider strategies for building success

by Julie Bick

Pocket Books, $20 According to its subtitle, The Microsoft Edge purports to teach readers the strategies Microsoft followed to achieve its staggering level of success. What the book delivers instead are bushels of quotation marks, abundant use of the words "focus" and "focused," simple advice that might be thought-provoking to people under the age of 10, and lots of lists. First, the quotation marks: The key to Microsoft's success is "hiring smart people"; criteria used for evaluating potential employees are "success factors"; challenges at work are the "next big thing"; a departmentwide staff meeting is an "all hands" meeting; bad news is "lowlights"; employees who are trapped by layers of mediocre management are, well, "trapped"; adding new information to a Web page keeps it "fresh." There was a time when quotation marks were used only for words used in a special sense, but "now" "they" are "ubiquitous." As for "focus" and "focused": " . . . talking it over together helps both of you focus"; make goals "unambiguous and focused"; "the focus needs to be on faultless execution . . . "; a sales force division is "focused on a segment"; sometimes Bick even puts focus in quotations, as in "customer focus." I saw the word so often it made my vision blurry—or as Bick would say, "unfocused." As for the book's "insider strategies," most of the advice is so simple and commonsense that I was left wondering what in the world could possibly have inspired the author to think she has something worthwhile to say. Microsoft, for example, tries to make its Web sites "sticky," that is, they want customers to stick to the Web site. "A sticky site is one that users prefer over competing Web sites. A sticky Web site also makes a user want to come back more often." That passage is representative. After reading several like it—on the importance of calculating the cost of adding employees before you hire them, the advantages of making your company accessible via e-mail, why you should listen to other points of view—I began to wonder what would come next. I wouldn't have been surprised to come across something like this: At Microsoft we drink soft drinks when we get thirsty. Soft drinks include cola, root beer, orange soda, and other flavors. Drinking a lot of soda can cause a person to make frequent trips to the bathroom. At Microsoft we have bathrooms specifically for men and others that are specifically for women. You should do the same in your company. At Microsoft we pioneered the use of a device called the telephone to talk to people. To use one, pick up the receiver. . . . Bick supports much of her advice with Microsoft anecdotes, but often the lessons conveyed by the anecdotes, or the anecdotes themselves, are mystifying. For example, Bick explains in detail how a Microsoft marketing team tried to form partnerships with some high-profile organizations, including NASA. The marketing team was trying to gain notoriety and traffic for an online travel magazine called Mungo Park. Bick uses the Mungo Park example to demonstrate how an organization can stretch a limited marketing and promotion budget by riding the coattails of a more well-heeled partner. That's certainly a good idea, albeit not a novel one, and doubtless there are many examples of situations in Microsoft's history where this strategy paid off. But the strategy didn't do much for Mungo Park. It folded. Elsewhere, Bick describes the enormous volume of data Microsoft collects to support its sales teams. It made me wonder what payoff the company gets from gathering and analyzing such a mind-boggling amount of detail on the market. Finally, I got to the payoff: This level of detail may seem like overkill, but when Microsoft president Steve Ballmer asked if the software sales in the western region of the United States matched population density in that area of the country, a sales manager quickly gave him the answer without referring to any notes. Great. All this work so the sales manager can suck up to the boss. Who cares if he actually sells anything?! I won't say much about the lists, except there are lots of them, and they're breezy. There are some interesting passages. Bick gives a good description of how Microsoft launched and fine-tuned its popular Carpoint and Expedia Web sites. The Carpoint story is especially useful in its descriptions of how Microsoft relentlessly modifies and tweaks its products until it gets them right. Also, Bick's descriptions of the steps Microsoft has taken to combat software piracy in Asia are tightly written and enlightening. But these sections stand out mostly because they're surrounded by such inane material. Bick seems to think that simply because she was a cog in the Microsoft machine her work experience is unique and worth sharing. It's not. Most of the advice in her book describes practices that are followed by the majority of American businesses. The question, then, is this: What are the keys to Microsoft's success? I submit the company's success can be captured in five words: Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. If you want more detail, read Gates' The Road Ahead. Several years ago, shortly after Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley (or Mike Kinsley, as Bick calls him) moved to Seattle to work for Microsoft, he wrote a piece for The New Republic magazine describing his first weeks at Microsoft. He was struck by the earnestness of the Microsoft work force, calling the Microsoft campus an "irony-free zone." Wondering what he meant? Read Bick's book. Patrick Moody is New Business Development Manager for the Herald newspaper in Everett and for Heraldnet.com. Previously he co-owned the Snow Goose Bookstore in Stanwood, and prior to that he spent eight years as a marketing executive for Time Warner in Los Angeles. "Truth" that's fiction. By Fred Moody THOSE OF US long swept under by the tsunami of tech industry tomes—an ocean of boredom and hype—have been desperately awaiting rescue in the form of a readable book. Such a book, rather than breathlessly promoting the latest trend, genius, or breakthrough, would tell the truth about some segment of the industry, the truth being that people there work too hard, make too many personal sacrifices, often fail, constantly burn out, and are frequently exploited by cynical financiers, venture capitalists, and managers. Netslaves: True Tales of Working the Web

by Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin

McGraw Hill, $19.95 Thus was born a great idea: Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin decided to traverse the silicon-mining stretches of our nation, tape recorders in hand, and interview the grunts who are doing the day-to-day work in America's high-tech sweatshops, suffering insult and injury through endless 80-hour weeks on the way to a payoff that more often than not is physical or psychological collapse rather than IPO-conferred instant wealth. It is well-known within the industry that most of the work technology-sector employees perform is long, hard, boring, and done under intense, unreasonable pressure. Many techsters are—or, at least, feel they are—tremendously underpaid. Many stock options never metastasize into wealth because some companies die before their stock is ever issued. Vast numbers of technology workers are temps, drifting from employer to employer in the forlorn hope of landing a steady job with medical and retirement benefits. And the industry is changing so fast that even well-trained workers find it hard to keep their skills current. Thousands of hours and hundreds of interviews later, Lessard and Baldwin sat down to turn their material into a compelling book. And thus was aborted a great idea. Netslaves consists of 11 personal narratives, each illustrating the plight of a caste of technology worker. The authors give these castes such names as Garbage Men, Social Workers, Fry Cooks, Cops and Streetwalkers, Robots, and so on. A brief quiz prefaces each story, and the answers help you determine whether you belong to that particular caste. Some of this material is witty (all of it is intended to be so). And occasionally the reader comes across a great slang term (programmers charged with keeping Web sites up and operating around the clock, for example, refer to themselves as "pager scum"). But in the main, Netslaves is surprisingly boring—far more boring, at any rate, than the real technology world—and the reader is soon dismayed by the personal narratives, which seem rife with inaccuracies. I say "seem" because it's often hard to tell what—or even what sort of—companies the authors are depicting in a given story. All names of companies, company executives, employees, and narrators are fictional, with some—particularly Microsoft, which is dubbed Aggro in Netslaves—being readily identifiable (a circumstance that makes you wonder what the point of its pseudonymity is). Encounter a company with which you are familiar, though, and you find tremendous inaccuracies and clearly fictional "facts" about them presented in such abundance that you doubt the credibility of the pseudonymous person telling of his or her "real-life" experience. Here is a single telling example: A programmer named Matt, working overtime against deadline for his employer, IntelliComp, on a spellchecking software program (presumably, consumers want to buy a separate spellchecking program even though the function is part and parcel of every word processor ever issued), collapses under pressure in the middle of the night and sends a vicious e-mail message to Bill Gates (called, in the book, Royster G. Pfeiffer). Gates reads the mail, which is quoted in full (or, more likely, invented) in the book, and is so incensed that he contacts IntelliComp's CEO and says, "If that's the way you and your people think about us, we have no further recourse but to crush you." Can any of this be true? Can any of it correspond even remotely with reality? And if not, can any of the rest of the book? Don't think so—which makes Netslaves as pointless to read as it was to write. Fred Moody is Director of Documentation at Indaba Communications, Inc.

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