This Just In

My Visit to Microsoft

I’ve just walked into the Slate offices after an hour-long free-form discussion with about 200 Microsoft employees. I loved the discussion. There was obviously tension in the air, because my visit–though long-scheduled–came on the heels of the “Findings of Fact” by the judge presiding over the antitrust case brought against Microsoft by the Justice Department.

Even though the Justice Department makes its own independent decisions in such matters without input from the White House, its leaders–including Joel Klein–are appointees of the current administration. For that reason, I couldn’t comment on the decision that was clearly on many people’s minds on the Microsoft campus today. I did make clear that there is a fundamental American value in making sure that neither heavy-handed government nor unfair business practices stamp out competition.

But then the meeting moved on to other topics, and I wasn’t surprised to find that, as much as Microsoft’s employees are interested in technology and the Internet, they are also interested in the same issues as all hard-working Americans–how they can give their children the best education; how we can make our schools and streets safer; and how we can reach across our divisions to bring this nation together.

And even though national security policy didn’t come up, I suggested that one crucial issue for voters to ponder is this: Whose finger do you want on the ALT-CONTROL-DELETE button?

The issue of payment of our U.N. dues came up (in the context of the group’s feeling that no inappropriate compromise on the issue of choice should be accepted), but no other foreign policy issues arose. So I obviously spent too much time in advance preparing for a pop quiz about CEO’s of software companies from hot spots around the world.

But in truth, the questions were wide-ranging. One person asked me my position on hate crimes legislation. And to me, in a year when Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split rail fence because of his sexual orientation; when James Byrd was dragged to his death because of his skin color; and both a Filipino-American and a Korean graduate student were murdered because of the shape of their eyes–I cannot comprehend how some can argue that hate crimes are no different from all other crimes. That is why we need tougher laws to prevent and punish them.

Another person asked me how we can make our schools safer in the aftermath of tragedies such as Columbine. I said that I believe the solutions range from tough measures to get guns away from kids and criminals, to more discipline and values in our schools, to more self-restraint in the use of gratuitous violence in the entertainment media, to more parental involvement in the lives of our children–which of course means we need to give working parents more help in balancing work and family.

I was certainly impressed by the discussion, and the quality and range of the questions. I could see right away that Microsoft was home to a great deal of talent and creative drive. That may be why, according to certain projections, Bill Gates may be worth a trillion dollars some day. Of course, I feel it’s important to point out to America’s young people: If Bill had not dropped out of college, he’d have a chance at being worth two trillion dollars.

After the discussion, I got a chance to visit Microsoft’s Home of the Future–where I got a chance to see technology that was definitely impressive. My favorites were features of Windows 2000: magnification for the vision-impaired, and a voice that reads the screen to the blind.

Finally, I stopped over here at the offices of Slate, where my daughter Karenna worked in ‘96 and ‘97. Actually, while I started this piece at Slate, I am finishing it in Seattle and e-mailing it. (And all this time, I thought you actually had to be physically present at in order to write for it.) It was terrific to meet some of her friends and former colleagues–and also to try my hand at journalism for the first time in almost a quarter of a century.

Instead of my trusty old typewriter from my days at the Nashville Tennessean, I did get to write this article on a state-of the-art, ergonometric keyboard. And, true to my old profession, as I write this I’m crashing to meet the deadline I was assigned by editor Michael Kinsley.

All told, it was a wonderful visit. The entire Microsoft campus is just bubbling with energy and ideas. I certainly hope to spend even more time in the Seattle area. And who knows? If I work at it, I might even be able to pick up some endorsements from members of the Sonics …