Microsoft Scribe Fred Moody
Imagine being a journalist, or anyone for that matter, who is given a key to the White House. You're given an office, a computer, an e-mail address, complete access to the White House staff and cabinet, and allowed to sit in on meetings with the President. You can only listen, drinking in the discourse around you. You observe small successes and tremendous failures. You hear hopes and dreams, witness meltdowns and mindblowing arguments. You can't say anything, you can only observe the powerful, insular mini-society as it strives to stay on top of its collective heap. Pretty heady stuff for anyone. Chances are, it's not going to happen. But a similar situation occurred in August of 1992, when Seattle Weekly writer Fred Moody approached the public relations firm that handles the Microsoft Corporation. He told them he wanted a shot at demystifying the mystique, at breaking down the walls that have been erected over nearly 20 years at the world's most successful and closed-off software company -- a shot at telling the story of another esteemed leader known by many as Bill. "They contacted all of the four senior VPs at Microsoft," says Moody from his Seattle home. "Three said no -- they thought it would screw up productivity." But one, Susan Boeschen, vice president of Microsoft's consumer division, said yes. "Her rationale, I think, was that if someone was able to tell what really goes on, she thought people would better understand Microsoft and what it was all about. "I think Susan might have known at the time she was going to be retiring, and maybe that's why she said yes," Moody adds. What transpired next is every reporter's dream. The result of a year and a half of Moody's life, I Sing the Body Electronic (Viking, 1995, $23.95), is an intimate portrait of an untamable beast. The writer, early on, found himself on a quest to attach meaning to the aura of all that was "Gatesian." Moody was given unfettered access to one of Microsoft's development teams, Gandalf. The team -- made up of a marketing expert, a software developer, an editor, a designer, a graphic artist, a producer and ancillary freelancers who at times numbered over 100 -- took the writer into its world, allowing him to listen to any and all conversations, automatically 'copying' every e-mail message to his address and sharing their frustrations and triumphs with him on a regular basis. "For the first few months I really didn't say anything," Moody remembers. "After a couple of months I got really frustrated, but even then I tended to say as little as possible. It was excruciating. "In a lot of ways, they talked to me constantly, basically venting," he adds. "But I don't think they valued my opinion at all. I didn't have any background in technology." Gandalf, the team that Moody was observing, was part of the larger Multimedia Publishing division that many believed would become a driving force in Microsoft's non-operating system (Windows95 is an operating system) development. Having just completed Encarta, now arguably one of the best CD-ROM encyclopedias on the market, the Gandalf team had set its sights on a new project -- a children's encyclopedia, code named Sendak, that would challenge children's minds while entertaining them. They entered the project, as Moody describes, dejected and looking for the new project to lift their spirits and prove themselves to Bill. In the "Postmortem" to his book -- named for the completion reports that managers file after a Microsoft project is finished -- Moody writes about an unspoken management tool that Gates has utilized to his advantage over the years. "While giving his employees the means to win," he writes of Gates, "he also ensured that they would interpret their victory as defeat. There would be no laurels for them to rest upon; instead, they would dive immediately into their next project hoping to redeem themselves." Gates is truly the enigma of Moody's book. For all the access the writer had to Microsoft and its minions, the president of the company remained outside of Moody's direct frame of reference. But not an hour went by where the alternately admired and feared leader was not the topic of conversation. "Gates's pyrotechnics are the stuff of legend," he writes about the revered, but hot-tempered chairman. "No matter how close a personal relationship a given manager may enjoy with Gates, he or she is never insulated from his attacks." Moody describes Gates's outbursts as more "Socratic than Hitlerian." "I went to this meeting where he was just screaming at them," Moody remembers, "but they all said afterwards it's what he does to make them think harder, make them challenge themselves more." The writer's personal impressions of Gates, are not part of the book, however. "The total time I've spent with Bill Gates is probably around 10-12 hours," he says astonishingly. "About four of those hours were just one-on-one interviews. When I first met him I really liked him a lot. I was surprised because even his PR people were telling me he had a really short temper. He was willing to talk about things like his money, his house, his philanthropy. He's really intelligent, and witty and a good conversationalist. "His image is driven by so many things and has probably gotten out of control." Moody illustrates that fact in the book by describing a walk he took on the Microsoft campus with developer Kevin Gammill: "'See that?' Gammill said, pointing up to an office window, 'That's Bill Gates' office. And see that sidewalk there that goes nowhere?' He pointed out a strip of concrete that branched off from the main path for ten feet or so, then came to an abrupt end in the grass. It was aimed directly at Gates' office. 'That's the altar where we go to pray,' he continued in apparent jest, raising his arms overhead and executing an elaborate bow. 'We just stand there and shout, 'We are not worthy! We are not worthy!.''" Moody says the most difficult issue he encountered was becoming friends with the people he was inevitably going to write about -- often not in a very complimentary light. "I got so emotionally involved with these people, because they were just suffering horribly," he says. "There were times when I felt bad for them because they were going to be in this book. I was on my guard early on to let those feelings not influence what I wrote -- heroically or as a failure. When I turned my first draft in, my editor said, 'aren't these people really going to be upset?' but I answered, 'If I had let that affect me writing this book it wouldn't have been written." Moody says he has not heard from the people most skewered by his prose. But those Microserfs (as author Douglas Coupland refers to them) he has been in contact with, while somewhat hurt, have told him that he hit the proverbial nail on the head. I ask Moody at the end of our conversation what he thinks drives Microsoft and Bill Gates to demand so much of their employees, many of whom have never held another job outside of their work for Big Green. "I think part of it is they're in kind of a funny position. Once he got into the competitive arena and saw how big things were going to be he's just intensely competitive," he says. "The increase in stock value has really given Microsoft an edge -- they can pay people less than their competitors (by offering stock options to employees). "I think he's really paranoid, and what he's paranoid about is some young version of himself coming along and putting Microsoft out of business. If you falter or slow down or anything, you'll stumble." Moody entered his year-and-a-half-long relationship with Microsoft expecting to chronicle an unqualified success -- the development of a new software package. But as he discovered soon after arriving, "From almost the beginning until near the end of my stay there, I believed that I was indeed observing an object lesson in how not to develop a product. Since everyone connected with Sendak was so miserable, so angry, and talked so incessantly about frustration and disappointment, I could only assume that chance had hooked me up with catastrophe." The project code named Sendak eventually became the multimedia series known as Explorapedia and has had a successful release. But as Fred Moody divorced himself from the short-lived marriage to the monolith known as Microsoft, he began to feel like the members of the Microsoft development teams when they finished a project: although outwardly successful, the book that had drawn so much blood, sweat and tears, was nothing but an abject failure. Moody, like the Microsoft developers, was wrong -- he has crafted not a failure, but an insightful, compelling narrative that breaks down the glass walls surrounding one of world's most enigmatic mini-societies.