Now the story of a Microsoft family who lost their wife and mother, and the daughter who had no choice but to find her. It’s Where’d You Go Bernadette.
With apologies to the Arrested Development team, it seems an appropriate way to start a write-up on Maria Semple’s book “Where’d You Go Bernadette.” Semple was a consulting producer on the critically acclaimed show in 2005 and 2006 before relocating with her husband to Seattle to focus on writing. In “Where’d You Go Bernadette,” she takes some of her experiences in relocating here and uses them as material and background, giving them an absurdist twist. Seattle and its culture is a prominent part of the story. And as part of that, Microsoft forms a crucial element in the story.
Early on, the book was praised for accuracy in its depiction of Microsoft. As someone who had nearly eleven years at Microsoft under my belt, after reading Molly Brown’s write-up, I had to read it to see for myself. I was skeptical that someone could really “get” the culture at Microsoft without ever being there. So I approached the folks at GeekWire and they arranged for me to get a review copy. I was also lucky enough to get to speak with Semple after reading the book to get more insights. This is my take as a former insider on her portrayal of the culture as well as some insights from her on how she came to pick Microsoft, her view of Microsoft from the outside and some interesting responses to the book from others with ties to Microsoft.
First, let me be upfront: this is a spoiler article. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want spoilers, stop now.
As a quick background, Microsoft figures into the story through the character Elgin Branch: husband to Bernadette, father to the main character Bee, and a Microsoft Research (MSR) Group Manager in charge of “Samantha 2,” an innovative neural interface project based on work that he did at his company prior to Microsoft.
Despite my skepticism, Semple creates a plausible Microsoft character in the form of Elgin and places him in a Microsoft that is slightly absurd, but absurd in a way that illustrates truth.
One of the ways that Semple gets Microsoft down is that his work takes up as much space in Elgin’s life as his family (if not more). At one point, Bernadette is trying to describe what life at Microsoft is like to an old friend in Los Angeles and her description of the way that Microsoft life is all enveloping and all consuming is very accurate. She describes a life where work is not only work, but it colors and shapes life outside the office. People not only work together but they socialize together, and their kids go to the same schools. Life at Microsoft is very much a “bubble culture” (for all the good and bad that comes with that) and Semple’s portrayal conveys a very good sense of that.
Another thing that contributes to that “bubble” quality at Microsoft is the fact that Microsoft has its own language. Every company has its own jargon but at Microsoft, I’ve argued, it has moved beyond being jargon into the realm of its own dialect. A combination of TLAs (three letter acronyms), Microsoft-specific terms and phrases (like an “888 shuttle” for execs) and an email-shaped style that is short and emphatic (“I’m super excited”) make Microspeak (as it’s called) a thing unto itself. Semple does a great job in her work of mimicking that to the point that her book can be as confusing to non-MS folks as the real thing.
As a character sitting over in MSR in building 33, Elgin is quite believable. Brilliant, driven, passionate about the work he does, Elgin is credited with giving the fourth most popular TED talk ever. It’s easy for me to picture Elgin in the Commons, on the Connector or in the halls of building 33. If you’ve worked at Microsoft or know people who have, you’ll recognize Elgin quickly.
And Elgin’s ultimate fate at Microsoft is also very realistic. Anyone at Microsoft can tell you that working on a cutting-edge project that’s not a shipping product can be exciting but dangerous. And a familiar fate befalls Elgin and his beloved “Samantha 2”: the project is cut and the group and technology folded into an established products (in this case Xbox over in games). And in a final bit of realism of life at Microsoft these days, Elgin responds by leaving Microsoft and striking out, perhaps to find greener pastures in the Seattle startup scene.
These are just a few specifics but they highlight the fact that Semple has done a good job at getting not just the surface elements of life at Microsoft, but the deeper cultural aspects. I admit: I was surprised at how she got this down, I didn’t think it was possible for an outsider to understand life at Microsoft this well.
This was one of the things I focused on in my talk with her: how did she manage to understand the culture so well. Surprisingly, she told me that she had the framework of a brilliant, driven character working in a highly immersive environment BEFORE she picked Microsoft. In the early sketches, Elgin and his relationship with Soo-Lin (the group admin) at Microsoft was based on her experiences in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. She had the two characters, and their relationship against the backdrop of all-consuming work before Microsoft was a part of the story.
She explained that Microsoft entered the picture for her by meeting people who worked there. Initially her view of Microsoft was in line with the old “I’m a PC” ads by Apple, and she expected it to be, well, a sad place. After meeting people who worked there, though, she was struck by their energy and enthusiasm and how they viewed working there as “a badge of honor” (yes, they’re super excited to work there). She said she was also struck by the fact that in Seattle “all roads lead to Microsoft: if you don’t work for Microsoft you will some day.” Those two things came together to give her the idea that Microsoft was the perfect place for her proto-Elgin character to work.
She told me that, in building the proto-Elgin into an actual character, she was inspired in particular by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft who has worked on projects including Photosynth, given a number of TED Talks, and is a friend now to Semple. Like Elgin, he joined Microsoft when the company acquired his startup (Seadragon Software).
Semple told me she realized that she needed to ensure the portrayal of Microsoft was as detailed as other parts of her book, and so turned to friends and acquaintances to help fill in the details. Surprisingly, she said she only spent a couple of hours actually on campus visiting.
With that background and help, Semple was able to craft a vision of Microsoft within a comedy work that speaks truths the way parodies often do. One thing she mentioned that attests to this: During a recent visit to Overlake, a number of kids the same age as Bee said they strongly identified with her. One student there even said that Bee’s never seeing her father without his badge made them cry because it hit home so much.
“Where’d You Go Bernadette” is a comedy novel, so its aim isn’t photographic realism but instead the kind of truth that can only be shown through parody and exaggeration. I’ve said that Microsoft is a crazy place, both good and bad, that really needs to be experienced to be understood. Semple has proven me wrong: you can “get” Microsoft without actually being there. Certainly being able to ask people who are there for help is part of it: they can help you get the details down. But to grasp the heart of life at Microsoft, I think she manages to “get” it because she looks at the world with an absurdist’s eye. That her eye has been trained by life in the entertainment industry and she used that as her initial inspiration means that Microsoft isn’t the only crazy place out there. And it means that someone can help others to understand that craziness for all its good and bad.
In the end, I guess I should’ve figured that someone that has written one of the craziest, most dysfunctional and endearing families on television, the Bluths, could get and do justice to Microsoft.
I didn’t ask Semple if she planned a follow-up book. But if she does, perhaps she’ll have Elgin take a job at Amazon and let us get a glimpse of life on that side of Lake Washington.