If Microsoft is as Business Spectator suggested on Friday an also-ran, the news has yet to permeate their headquarters in Redmond, 24 kilometres north-east of Seattle.

Sure, Apple has just surpassed Microsoft as the world’s largest technology company, and the second-largest US corporation after Exxon. But Microsoft still exudes confidence. It’s survived 35 years in the turbulent tech industry — and has $40 billion in cash reserves.

Despite a company-wide policy that all air travel is economy class, I’m collected from SeaTac by a black Lincoln town car for the cruise up the Interstate 405 to the Hyatt Regency Bellevue. My chauffeur Paul, a solidly-built ethnic-Russian Georgian who’s called Seattle home for fourteen years, confirms that Microsoft is a significant part of his work.

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The sheer scale of Microsoft doesn’t really hit, though, until you arrive at “the campus”. Having long outgrown the original buildings at 1 Microsoft Way, the campus is now cluster after cluster of modern three- and five-storey offices set on manicured lawns, stretching for three kilometres north to south through the evergreen woods and, jumping the freeway, more than a kilometre and a half east to west. That’s every brown building on this map. Plus three more office towers in Bellevue.

The company is so big it runs is own transit system. Coaches bring in the workers. Shuttle buses circle the campus 7am to 7pm. And if you can’t wait, taxi-like sedans are on call. The vehicles, all painted white with green and yellow trim, have three-digit ID numbers. I saw some starting with a “7”.

“Bill said in his memo,” begins the three-day briefing on Microsoft’s security work. The audience is fifteen tech writers from Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, Malaysia and Singapore — plus me and one other from Australia, the first Aussies to attend this annual event. There’s one token American too, from New York, but he writes for a UK masthead.

It’s always just “Bill”. Never “Bill Gates” or “Mr Gates”. Bill stepped down as CEO in a decade ago, but his all-staff memo from 2002 entitled “Trustworthy Computing” still guides Microsoft’s army of information security specialists in their uniform of khaki chinos and loafers, inexpensive business-casual shirts in simple stripes or checks. There are never ties.

Whenever they answer questions, the answer begins with “so” and the prepositions are always “around”. Ask whether viruses are on the rise? “So our work around malware detection…”

In a later session, we hear directly from two programmers. One stands bolt upright as he reads the PowerPoint slides. The belt on his regulation khaki chinos is just a little too high and tight. The other, with long blond hair, wears a short-sleeve check shirt, jeans and sneakers. I’m told he dressed up for the occasion. Normally he’d be in surf shirt and flip-flops.

One evening over an acceptable Sonoma Country cabernet sauvignon — yes, yes, on Microsoft’s tab, they were keen to make a good impression — I chat with a mid-ranking officer in this infosec army. He’s a neatly-bearded software engineer in his mid-30s. His job is writing policies for how the thousands of programmers organise their work to ensure it’s as secure as possible. His job title is “Senior Security Program Manager” — that’s different from “Lead Security Program Manager” or “Principal Security Program Manager” or, presumably, plain old “Security Program Manager”.

He explains how he used to be a senior security researcher for a small software company that was bought out by Hewlett-Packard. He left because he didn’t want to be past of a big corporation. So, um, why become one of Microsoft’s 93,000 employees?

“It’s good to know that what you do makes a difference, that policies I create will improve the work of fifty thousand people,” he said. “And having forty billion dollars in the bank is kinda nice.”

Stilgherrian travelled to Redmond, Washington, as a guest of Microsoft.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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