Don Davis

"Under The Radar" Seattle, Part Two: The City Of Microsoft

Filed By Don Davis | April 03, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Seattle, Under The Radar

It's been a few weeks since we began our series of "Under The Radar" stories with a visit to lovely Kirkland, Washington, and it's time for another.

But which city should we visit this time?

There's Woodinville, with its wineries, or the Snoqualmie Valley, where Salish legend has it that the Earth and Heaven were once connected by a rope, or even Kent, the home of the "bitchin' Camaro"...but for this story, I think we're going to go, instead, with a city that's not actually a real city at all.

So come along, my friends, and let us visit the mythical City of Microsoft.

"It's Microsoft versus mankind, with Microsoft having only a slight lead."

--Oracle Corporation CEO Larry Ellison

Manufacturing in Seattle is not like manufacturing in the Midwest or Texas or along the industrial East Coast. There is a steel mill, and there are shipyards, and we even assemble airplanes here, but for the most part buildings belching forth smoke and pushing giant things out the front door are really quite uncommon.

Instead of sparks flying and giant forges pounding, most manufacturing in Seattle takes place in locations that resemble college campuses, and the largest of those types of factory complexes is operated by Microsoft.

Of Microsoft's 88,000 employees worldwide, about half of them are located around the Puget Sound region, giving the City of Microsoft a population of nearly 40,000. The Company reports that they require 79 different locations to accommodate all those workers, and that they occupy nearly 10 million square feet of floor space around town.

A huge portion of those 40,000 workers are located somewhere in or near Redmond, Washington (just a short hop across from Seattle on one of the two floating bridges), on what was originally a 300 acre campus...that's growing all the time.

Here's a video showing part of the trip over the bridge and an example of what some of the newest buildings on campus look like:

One of the products Microsoft produces, of course, is Windows, but another significant part of the operation is the XBOX video game business, and there's a new addition to the City for those workers that represents accommodations for another 5,000 residents, including a new conference center (not the only convention center in the City of Microsoft, by the way), several restaurants offering food from several countries, and a second visitors' center and "company store".

The City of Microsoft also operates its own transit system. Known as The Connector, they move employees around town in everything from Toyota Prius automobiles to mid-sized vans to full size buses. Here's an example of what that looks like:

There's also a "City Hall" complex: Buildings 34 and 35, which house senior management, and Building 33, the Executive Briefing Center, are the corporate hub of the City.

Here's a quick look at those buildings:

In the course of my explorations, I came across a column of either steam or smoke rising from a secluded portion of the campus; I assume this is the place where they secretly burn any Apple devices they might come across:

(Before you sue me, City of Microsoft...I'm only kidding.)

Not unlike the military, the City of Microsoft has a "meritorious service award": the Patent Cube, a small granite cube inscribed with your name, the name of your invention, and the date the patent was awarded for your invention...and there are employees "around town" with dozens of the cubes on display.

Meet The Medicis

As with other City-States, Microsoft has a ruling aristocracy, in the form of Corporate Executives and Board Members--but there is also a "working aristocracy" of Technical Fellows, Distinguished Engineers, and what is basically the local version of the Order of the Garter: Distinguished Scientists.

Just like the founding of Rome, there's a Romulus and Remus in Microsoft's founding story, in the form of Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who met at Seattle's tony Lakeside School as kids (Quick Local Trivia: the Lakeside School has a most excellent annual rummage sale, which, despite the recession, still brought in $175,000 for the School in 2008).

The pair became a troika in 1980 when Gates hired Steve Ballmer. The 1980s and 1990s followed, Microsoft became the world's most valuable company...for a time...and everyone became billionaires.

Allen left the Company in 1983, reportedly due to Hodgkin's disease. Gates stepped down from business operations to return to a role as "Chief Software Architect", a position he relinquished in 2008 to concentrate on philanthropy. He is, however, still Chairman of the Board.

Ballmer is currently the Company's CEO--and, ironically, the only one of the three who is not a college dropout.

So That's The Happy Talk...But There Is Controversy.

There is competition, in the form of operating system software such as Linux or the various "flavors" of the Apple OS, and in the server market as well. XBOX is competing with Wii and PlayStation devices. Google is competing in virtually every market in which Microsoft does business.

The Zune is not exactly crushing the life out of the iTunes business model, and Microsoft is, at last, trying to push their way into the iPhone- and Android-dominated "smartphone" market with the highly-anticipated Windows Phone 7.

Sales declined from 2008 to 2009 for the first time in company history.

In 1998 the United States Department of Justice and the Attorneys General in numerous States filed lawsuits against Microsoft alleging that the company engaged in "unlawful monopoly conduct". The United States District Court for the District of Columbia agreed, as did certain appeals courts, and ever since 2002 the Company has operated in the US under Court supervision. This will continue until at least 2011, and possibly into 2012...at which point, according to the Mayans, the world will come to an end.

Microsoft and the European Commission have also been engaged in a series of equally protracted legal battles, which seem to have resolved themselves in late 2009.

Despite the fact that Microsoft maintains a giant corporate campus, the corporate headquarters, and roughly half of the worldwide employee "head count" in the State of Washington, the Company reports that it does not actually engage in the business of licensing software in the State.

(Customers never "purchase" Microsoft software: you actually purchase a "license" that allows you to use certain software in certain ways.)

Instead, your business transaction is actually conducted with CSC Services of Nevada, Inc. (located in beautiful downtown Carson City), who occupy part of a single-story building that's just slightly smaller than the back parking lot of Tito's Mexican Restaurant, which is just across the street...which is kind of weird for an enterprise that's reportedly booked over $140 billion in sales over the years.

The Washington Department of Revenue and the Company have gone round and round forever over this issue, and with the State desperate for money, and Microsoft estimated to potentially owe almost a billion dollars in back taxes...it now appears the Legislature will basically ignore the billion dollars, because, unlike every other municipality in the State (except the City of Boeing), the City of Microsoft can credibly threaten to move somewhere else.

For a number of years the Company employed workers who became known as "Permatemps". They were ostensibly hired by, and working for, outside employment agencies and were not "officially" on the payroll. They worked side-by-side with "official" Microsoft workers, often for years, and, as a result of their Permatemp status, they never had any employee benefits, including the chance to acquire the same stock options that made their "official" co-workers far richer for doing the same work.

A lawsuit, filed in 1992, was settled by Microsoft in 2000; the settlement checks were finally distributed in 2005.

The impact of this decision was felt throughout the business world, and for the most part temporary workers now have time limits on how long they can occupy a position in a company. The Microsoft settlement limited temporary employment at the Company to one year, with a 100-day waiting period required before the worker can return.

(Full Disclosure: My friend Steve was one of the Permatemps; he's currently on the Microsoft payroll as a full-time worker.)

OK, so that's the "business" part of the (admittedly highly abridged) City of Microsoft story...now let's get to the "where's the LBGT community?" part of the story.

Right off the bat, I need to tell you that, by all accounts, Microsoft is one of those companies that's always been commended for having a diverse and open workplace--and as far as I can tell, looking in from the outside, it's actually true.

The company offered domestic partner benefits early on, and groups like the Human Rights Campaign have been happy to associate themselves with the Company over the years.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Employees at Microsoft (GLEAM) was founded in 1993...which presumably made life philosophically challenging for any gay Permatemps working around the campus.

Aside from that small hurdle, things were going relatively well for all concerned--until 2005.

"Miscommunication" Occurs

That year, Washington's legislature was considering House Bill 1515, which was intended to protect against discrimination in housing and employment for gay citizens. "The Usual Suspects" were against it, Microsoft was supporting the bill.

And then things changed.

It is known that Microsoft officially went from supporting the bill to an officially neutral position before the bill's final votes on passage.

It is also known that the bill died by one vote in the State Senate, and that the Governor would have signed it had it been passed.

It is also known that the local "God Hates Fags" clergyman (and former pro football player), Pastor Ken Hutcherson, met with Microsoft senior management and threatened a boycott at about the same time as the Company changed its position on the bill.

(As we noted in our last "Under The Radar" story, there's no need to get too upset with the good Pastor, as God is, in fact, already on the case.)

It is reported that Microsoft's General Counsel informed GLEAM in a confidential meeting that the Company had, in fact, caved to the Pastor's demands, a contention that the Company denies. It is also reported that the same information was passed to State Representative Ed Murray, who was managing the bill at the time.

As it turns out, that's not smart politics, and over the next two weeks the company had...reevaluated things.

Here's how CEO Steve Ballmer put it, in an internal email:

ballmer, ceo summit, 2009.jpg

"...I don't want to rehash the events that resulted in Microsoft taking a neutral position on the anti-discrimination bill in Washington state. There was a lot of confusion and miscommunication, and we are taking steps to improve our processes going forward.

To me, this situation underscores the importance of having clearly-defined principles on which we base our actions. It all boils down to trust. Even when people disagree with something that we do, they need to have confidence that we based our action on thoughtful principles, because that is how we run our business.

I said in my April 22 email that we were wrestling with the question of how and when the company should engage on issues that go beyond the software industry. After thinking about this for the past two weeks, I want to share my decision with you and lay out the principles that will guide us going forward.

First and foremost, we will continue to focus our public policy activities on issues that most directly affect our business, such as Internet safety, intellectual property rights, free trade, digital inclusion and a healthy business climate.

After looking at the question from all sides, I've concluded that diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda. Since our beginning nearly 30 years ago, Microsoft has had a strong business interest in recruiting and retaining the best and brightest and most diverse workforce possible. I'm proud of Microsoft's commitment to non-discrimination in our internal policies and benefits, but our policies can't cover the range of housing, education, financial and similar services that our people and their partners and families need. Therefore, it's appropriate for the company to support legislation that will promote and protect diversity in the workplace.

Accordingly, Microsoft will continue to join other leading companies in supporting federal legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation - adding sexual orientation to the existing law that already covers race, sex, national origin, religion, age and disability. Given the importance of diversity to our business, it is appropriate for the company to endorse legislation that prohibits employment discrimination on all of these grounds. Obviously, the WashingtonStatelegislative session has concluded for this year, but if legislation similar to HB 1515 is introduced in future sessions, we will support it..."

In 2009, Washington State was working to create an "everything but marriage" situation for same-sex couples, and Microsoft was, indeed, active in the effort to make that happen, which appears to have been much appreciated.

In the course of putting this story together, I asked if Microsoft would be able to comment on the evolution in the Company's thinking over this period of several years; a very nice representative from Waggener Edstrom, the Company's PR representative, wrote back to tell me that they would not.

Finally, there's the XBOX Live gamertag controversy: a recent change in policy allows players, for the first time, to add information about race, religion, sexual orientation, and nationality in profiles and gamertags.

We've come a long way today; let's recap where we've been:

The City of Microsoft is a giant part of "Under The Radar" Seattle, with 40,000 residents, a Gross Domestic Product roughly the same size as Morocco's, and $20 billion or so in the bank.

It is indeed a city, with public transit and a City Hall and two convention centers, and it's growing all the time.

There are continuing questions as to where the "legacy" business is going; at the same time, some new lines of business are demonstrating considerable long-term potential.

There's a mysterious plume of smoke on campus, and for all we know, they might actually be burning Apples...but probably not.

Microsoft has been very supportive of the LBGT families in their family, and they were "early adopters" in that regard.

There has been political controversy in the past, and based on the reaction of the Company when I made my enquiries, I think they would very much like to put it behind them.

The Company, more recently, was very helpful during the R-71 fight. They are publicly highlighting their commitment to diversity, and I get the impression that they would very much like you to keep that in mind.

It's an interesting City, Microsoft is, and if I had to choose between having to manage their problems or having to manage the problems of, say, Gary, Indiana...I'm pretty sure I'd rather be managing Microsoft's.


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I don't usually like to make unpleasant comments. However, I lived in Seattle from 2000 to 2002: what a fucking shit-hole.

1. I've never seen so many meth addicts.
2. I've never seen so many pretentious people (that's saying something--I'm from Southern California.)
3. I've never seen so many rude people.

The list could go on, but if you're considering the Pacific NW, I suggest Portland OR over that shit-hole in WA.

Portland is a lovely city with very nice people. There is a lot to do, and the city is clean with some of the best gardens in the country.

i'm sorry you had a bad time up here, but there is something in what you're saying.

--there has been a real life meth problem here for a long time--and we really could do a "city of meth" story...but to be fair, we could do the same story in a lot of places, from the rural midwest to fresno and sacramento (or vancouver, washington, for that matter), and on and on and on.

--you say pretentious, i say, uptight, others might say "uppity liberal": there are communities of people here who are very, very...touchy...about environmentalism, or animal rights, or coffee, or whatever issue it might be for them, and for a lot of people that does take some getting used to.

--i like portland, and i always enjoy visiting...and i always enjoy not paying sales tax when i do.

but in fairness, as seattle deals with its meth addiction, it's also fair to point out that portland has had a deep and soulful heroin addiction for just about as long and just about as intensely...and it's also fair to point out that part of what makes portland seattle's cooler and funkier neighbor is exactly that difference.

some other differences: portland was quicker to adopt transit, and tri-met has had light rail for some time now, even as sound transit is just now building out light rail in seattle.

seattle was quicker to clean up street-level prostitution and dealing, but these days both cities are pushing hard to shut both down.

the olcc (oregon liquor control commission) is more willing to allow "successful" bars in the state; the very uptight washington state liquor control board is famous for shutting down any bar that gets too popular, particularly if hip-hop is involved.

strip clubs: in washington you can't have naked people and booze (again, thanks liquor board...), in oregon you can, and as a result portland has an excellent selection of clubs featuring naked people and booze.

orgeon: income tax, no sales tax, higher property taxes, cheaper liquor.

washington: no income tax, high sales tax (around 9% in most counties), lower property taxes, very expensive liquor.

both states have relatively high minimum wages and in both cities rents are relatively high, but on the whole, the portland area is lower than the seattle area.

Seattle is the most beautiful city in this country; and anyone who has the choice of what city to live in, would be nuts if they didn't choose to live there. If city life isn't for you, then there are other wonderful places in WA. to live. Also, the weather is fantastic, and is definitely better than Portland's!

there is one big weather difference that deserves mention: portland, being so close to the columbia and wilamette rivers, is subject to "ice fog".

when it combines with snow, the results come out something like this.

The last several years, Portland has had colder winters, and hotter summers. I suspect that climate change is responsible.

something else i've noticed: winter is moving.

it used to be that december, january, february were the coldest months, and now i swear it's becoming january, february, march.

Even stranger than the winter months changing, this year, March was very Spring-like, and April is far more like Winter.

as you probably know, that's true here as well--but i'm told part of that is because the el nino this year pulled the jet stream down south, which is why we had an unseasonably nice month or so, and california got drenched far beyond their "normal".

there is one big weather difference that deserves mention: portland, being so close to the columbia and wilamette rivers, is subject to "ice fog".

when it combines with snow, the results come out something like this.

Ha!

Manufacturing in Seattle is not like manufacturing in the Midwest or Texas or along the industrial East Coast. There is a steel mill, and there are shipyards, and we even assemble airplanes here, but for the most part buildings belching forth smoke and pushing giant things out the front door are really quite uncommon.

Sadly, we don't have factories actually building things anymore either. Nothing is getting pushed out the door anymore - it's being shipped in from China and Mexico.

that's a good point, and a copule of examples will show both sides of the manufacturing "coin":

--in pittsburgh, they would disagree that nothing gets built here, and they would point you to the sony technology center as an example of how the decline in american manufacturing is somewhat of a myth.

--unfortunately, they apparently had not been checking in with sony, as just seven months later they announced the closure of that facility.

so here's a radical question: exactly what do we gain when we "save" manufacturing jobs?

the places that have been the most successful in either retaining or gaining new manufacturing have often done so by either offering huge taxpayer subsidies, guaranteed low wages, locking out unions--or all three.

here's an example of gm workers in wyoming rejecting a contract offer--just this month--that would pay new uaw hires $12/hour...which is less than what union grocery clerks make around here.

in a race to the bottom, i'm not sure who wins--but my suspicion is that it ain't gonna be china.

GraciesDaddy | April 4, 2010 11:33 AM

Is there a reason that the "Greystone Industries" building(s) in "Caprica" resemble MSoft's??

i had to go look this up, but apparently both the redmond campus and the city of vancouver, british columbia were inspirations for the design.

vancouver has some particularly distinctive buildings, including the very, very, cool vancouver public library, which you might want to look for in the show.

Yeah, the permatemps. Goes to show that unless labor law is stringent and punitive, employers will always look for ways to screw over both their employees and the country.

i'm such a cynic that i suspect even with stringent and punitive labor laws in place employers will still look for ways to screw their workers--and employers aren't exactly making me less cynical as time goes on.

I completely agree that employers will screw people in any way allowed by law. But having said that, for the sake of balance and interest to a GLBT readership, Microsoft does pay for sex reassignment surgery, which is a rare benefit.