Microsoft under a microscope

Sophia Chauchard-Stuart gets a rare glimpse into the extraordinary world of Bill Gates
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Microsoft is Bill Gates. That much is evident from Michael Cusumano and Richard Selby's business manual, Microsoft Secrets. If you weren't convinced before that creating the most successful software company in the world was the product of an extraordinary mind, you will be by the end of the book.

Detailing the history of Microsoft, its selection process for people and products, and how the company evolved, Microsoft Secrets places Gates's vision firmly within the marketplace. Cusumano and Selby were given unprecedented access to Microsoft's top-level management over two years and have come up with some interesting conclusions for the future of the company.

The general consensus of the book is that Microsoft could be spreading itself too thin, diversifying into too many new projects under its research department and not coming up with a cohesive vision for the next millennium. When Gates moves "upstairs", as he has said he will do in 10 years' time, there is no heir apparent and Microsoft's success thus far has been in large part because of Gates's total involvement with each product division.

Slightly turgid in places and repetitive to the point of tedium on how developers and testers don't get on, Microsoft Secrets could have been a lot shorter. But the authors pull no punches. Each failure is here, every data-destroying bug problem and anti-trust investigation is examined. Having access to previously unreleased memos between Gates and staff, Cusumano and Selby draw informed conclusions about the lack of experience in middle-management ranks, the weaknesses in hiring "smart" people who don't want to follow the rules, and the increasing fragility of a company that is built on hackers' mentality but has to function as a multinational blue-chip company.

The Microsoft approach is aggressive: "Attack the Future!" is a constant refrain throughout the interviews with personnel. The departure from bettering other people's products instead of source innovation is making Microsoft into a hybrid techno-media organisation.

Microsoft Secrets should be read in conjunction with Douglas Coupland's book Microserfs to give an overall view of the theory versus the reality of working for Microsoft. Cusumano and Selby have unearthed some fascinating facts, such as the Orwellian approach to becoming a "Microsoft Person" (clue: you have to live, dream and sleep Microsoft).

The biggest secret revealed is the recruitment process devised by Gates. In interviews, college-leavers are asked to estimate the volume of water flowing down the Mississippi River and the number of gas stations in the United States.

One manager admits: "The answer does not matter as much as the approach a person takes to analyse the problem." Interesting that Gates chose a question that has an unquantifiable answer to select his super-smart employees to work in an industry where no one really has the answers. Microsoft's secret is that if you lead the industry you create your own answers.

`Microsoft Secrets' by Michael A Cusumano and Richard W Selby (HarperCollins Business, pounds 20).

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