Microsoft praises the Great Chairman

I just saw this post, My Last Words To Bill, on one Microsoft employee’s weblog. Now this is a very intelligent guy, an expert on .NET performance issues who has written many helpful posts over the years… which just makes it all the more bizarre.

We had a little internal yearbook thing you could sign for Bill last week. This is what I wrote:

Dear Bill,

In not too many weeks now I’ll be celebrating my 20th anniversary at Microsoft. I think I owe you some thanks for these 20 years, and some from before.

In fall of 1979 I got my first real access to a computer. It was a Commodore PET and it was running Microsoft BASIC. For me, and many others like me, that exposure caused a radical change in our life trajectories.

By Christmas I was learning 6502 assembler and those MOS tech handbooks were not exactly rich in examples. If you wanted to see real code you had to disassemble/understand the ROMs. So I guess what I’m saying is that, at the tender age of 15, I was ripping off your intellectual property. Sorry about that.

I did manage to get pretty good at 6502 assembler and I like to think some of that code was yours, so I tell my friends I got my first low level programming lessons from Bill Gates. Of course you didn’t know it, but it was nonetheless successful long-distance education through the magic of software.

Eight years, one diploma, and one degree later, I landed in Redmond. That was 1988. Since then, I’ve had many chances to meet, learn from, and work with some great people inside and outside of Microsoft – even Melinda for a time – and in turn affect the lives of others.

Thank you for the education, the opportunities, and the inspiration.

So… Microsoft has a yearbook where employees who have never even met Bill Gates can express their admiration for the great chairman. Is anyone else creeped out by this? That’s something you’d expect from North Korea. Is this common in American companies?

It was a special “going away” thing for Bill. In case you haven’t heard, he’s retiring from the company he cofounded.

More common over here when a long-time boss leaves is for everyone to sign a card. With 40,000 MS employees in the Redmond area alone, that would be one big-ass card. Thus, the online yearbook.

And it was completely voluntary. I didn’t sign it. But if I had, I’d have a great story from 1992, when I was an editor at Compute! magazine and I made a simple joke that kind of backfired about Microsoft buying up smaller companies to the PM who came to show us the new Publisher product. I think her name was Melinda something…

Yeah, I know. What I don’t know is why tens of thousands of employees would feel like having a personal relationship with this cofounder, just because they are working at the place.

More common over here when a long-time boss leaves is for everyone to sign a card. With 40,000 MS employees in the Redmond area alone, that would be one big-ass card. Thus, the online yearbook.

Again, quite normal in small companies where everyone had been working closely with the boss, or when the leader of a small group within a large company leaves. It’s just so bizarre to see people praise a remote idol they’d barely ever met, let alone worked with. I don’t think chairmen at other big companies are, well, worshipped like this, are they?

It’s a bullshit formality, like team building exercises. I agree it’s odd, but I figure people don’t want to rock the corporate boat. Smile! Microsoft is one big happy family.

I will just never understand hero worship. Admittedly this guy is not so bad but I’ve seen worse even in my own company for a guy who basically failed upward for twenty years by yelling the loudest.

Yes Bill Gates was incredibly smart and yes he was incredibly successful but it really bothers me when people attribute their own personal success so heavily to the influence of a hero mentor like this.

Somebody may be instrumental in providing you with an opportunity (by starting a company or inventing something etc) but from there on out it’s basically all teamwork. We have far too much of a tendency in our society to see leaders as being far more important and valuable than they really are. Anybody that thinks that Obama is going to magically solve all the country’s difficult problems is in this category.

This is what religion is for people! If you’re going to worship somebody worship a deity not a software magnate or a politician.

Did you just say having admiration and being inspired by someone you never met is something that only has a place in North Korea? Am I the only one experiencing a WTF moment here? You’ve never been inspired by someone whose work personally affected you, and you felt admiration for their work, without having met them face to face?

Fortunately I didn’t say any of that. I was amazed by a company making a public (at least internally) book where people are supposed to write up their admiration, not by the fact that some have that admiration in the first place.

I’m a new MS hire – if you don’t count the two summer internships twenty years ago – and I watched the Bill-and-Steve retirement ceremony.

They’d videoed some employees’ questions. One asked what Bill was proudest of. He said two things: one, helping to create the software industry as we know it; and two, having gotten to work with so many great people, and having been able to help create their careers. That, combined with the fact that he’s retiring in order to work on philanthropy that’s totally focused on helping the world’s poorest people, gave me an entirely new sense of the guy. I think he really does care about people, given what an introverted nerd he is.

This article’s got a good recap of it by a better writer than me:

When it came time for Ballmer to make his public farewell to Gates, he joked about the inevitable inadequacy of a thank-you gift, and presented him with a large scrapbook embossed with Gates’ signature. Then, the tears came.

“We’ve been given an enormous, enormous opportunity. And Bill gave us that opportunity,” Ballmer said, his face reddening. “I want to thank Bill for that.”

As the employees rose to their feet, Gates swiped at tears of his own.

And so did I. Sentimental fool? Perhaps, but hey, founders are human too.

So it makes sense to me that they’d have the yearbook. Gates may never meet many of the people who wrote in it, but he did influence their lives in some way, and having those memories to look at later in his life… I don’t see a single thing wrong with it. Gratitude != worship.

I guess I don’t see the problem. If managers start checking for who hasn’t signed, then there’s a problem, but it doesn’t look like it’s set up for that. A good leader should inspire people; if people want to recognize that, good for them.

Please, when Tom retires from Qt3 every single one of us will sign his yearbook.

If it weren’t for people admiring the man, you wouldn’t have the internal web site (although the blogger made his comment public, it’s not a public site by any stretch of the imagination).

If there’s a problem, it’s probably more to do with your sense of propriety.

Off the top of my head, Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Hewlett, and Packard all had significant personality cults inside their respective companies. The internal culture that’s grown up around Bill doesn’t hold a candle to the Jobs cult.

The reason everyone feels like they have a relationship with him is that he pretty much defined the place they work at, top to bottom.

Voluntary well-wishes from people who may have spent huge portions of their professional lives at MS doesn’t strike me as evil at all.

I wouldn’t say that things like this are common in U.S. companies, but, at least in smaller companies, it’s not unheard of either. Now, the departing executive may not always deserve the plaudits…but in this case I believe Bill Gates has probably earned them.

Funny, I actually remember reading the same exact comment before it was public.

For anyone still interested, here’s the very moment I mentioned above.