Flashback: First Day at Microsoft

Calendar page - August 3, 1987

Twenty-eight years ago today, I started at Microsoft, my first full-time job after completing my bachelor’s degree. Having arrived in Seattle the previous Thursday, I had settled into temporary housing at Hampton Greens on 148th Ave NE and made the short drive to campus in my rented Pontiac 6000 sedan. I wore a Miami Vice-inspired light gray sport jacket that I’d purchased in a mall on Long Island. After employee orientation in Building 1 with about thirty other people, I walked over to Building 2 where I was greeted by my first manager, Ralph Ryan, the development manager of the LAN Manager team.

I spent part of the first day in status meetings, where my new co-workers went over stacks of printed work items lists line-by-line. The morning meeting was about something called the “redirector” and the afternoon meeting was about something called the “API” and also the UI. In between we went to lunch at the cafeteria in the recently-opened Building 5. My co-workers were excited to go there because it was the first cafeteria on campus with a grill, including a menu item called the “Blibbet Burger.”

Over the next few days I got to work. As the most junior member of the team, my first project was to design and code OS/2 LAN Manager’s installation program, based on a few pages of details in the written product specification. I learned that my team was in the Distributed Systems Business Unit, which was led by Paul Maritz. This was part of the Systems Division, led by VP Steve Ballmer, who had signed my offer letter. In the office directly across the hall was Larry Osterman, a grizzled veteran by virtue of his three years of professional experience. I reconnected with friends like Rosie Perera and David Byrne, who were partly responsible for recruiting me there.

I set up the first PC I had ever used: A Compaq Deskpro 386/16 with 1 MB of RAM. It had a 70 MB hard disk, so much capacity that I divided it into three partitions and installed MS-DOS 3.21 on the main one (soon to be replaced with OS 1.0) and Xenix on another one just for comfort. My team was using Microsoft’s SLM source code control system but had yet to set up a shared toolset or an official build process, so I had to walk the halls to collect the various versions of the compiler and libraries needed to build the whole product. (Brian Valentine, who started as the team’s first test manager two weeks after I did, put both of those in place.)

Building 2 at the time housed the Systems Division (except for the Languages group), the IT Group, and what we would now call the corporate data center. The OS/2 group occupied most of the upstairs and the rest of the groups were scattered throughout the first floor. Down the hall from me was a bunch of folks working on something called Windows/386, but most of us paid little attention to them. There was also a peculiar fellow with long red hair and a full beard who talked loudly in the hallways and occasionally had Bill Gates stop by his office.

Interoffice memos were typed by administrative assistants, printed on paper, and manually distributed to our slots in the mail room. The building receptionists used a public-address system to page employees, sometimes throughout all of the buildings at once. I never met Suanne Nagata, but her name echoed from the building’s speakers so often in those days that I will always remember it. There was no voicemail system, so unanswered phone calls were redirected to the central operators, who took messages and sent them via email. The entire company phone list was printed monthly on bright yellow paper and delivered to everybody’s mailslot. There was also an online number lookup tool on the Xenix servers; it was called “phone” and was a grep script. Email was in heavy use internally, but the microsoft.com domain was still several years away, and external email was exchanged via UUCP, typically via the decvax!uw-beaver!microsoft route.

The company had just crossed the 2000-employee threshold and its stock price – nearly 18 months since the IPO – had fallen to $90 per share after having previously reached $110. Both of these were leading indicators, my more cynical colleagues assured me, that the company had become too big and bureaucratic and that its best days were behind it. In one regard they were right, at least in the short term, as the stock price rose again to over $100, then fell precipitously two months later in the Crash of 1987 and didn’t recover for another two years.

LAN Manager 1.0 code complete was six weeks away. The wild ride had begun.


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