Tuesday, May 20, 2003

It's not every day that you are surfing the Web and find your name on a MIA list for a class action settlement against Microsoft.

About five years ago, I worked for Microsoft in the Los Angeles office. My boss, Jamie Fragen and myself were two fish out of water in the buttoned up, grey cubicled, corporate sales hub, as she was plucked from Hollywood and I came from that industry as well. I also carried with me a creative background and experience in the Internet industry when we were considered just a bunch of eccentric techno-rebels. I had been through the broadband crash, and this was my second go around. The secretaries at this office took an immediate dislike to us, our guests, and our refusal to fit into the Microsoft mold that they held so dear to their hearts.

On more than one occasion, Margaret, an sullen, chinless admin who was in her early twenties but acted as the company's matriarchal hall monitor, would come up to me and tell me that we'd broken some cardinal rule at Microsoft that jeopardized the entire company's security. Usually, it was something like letting one of our Hollywood infidels use an in-house phone without clearing it with the office manager. She'd then tell me, her face flustered and lips salivating, how Hollywood was nothing compared to Microsoft, "We are Microsoft," she'd tell me, finger in my face, "You (implying our guests and Hollywood in general) are nothing compared to us." I'd come face to face with the female Niedemeyer, "A pledge pen!? On your UN-i-form!?"

The truth was, our guests had probably whisked by Margaret in the hallway without giving her as much as a second glance, or offended her in some way with their nonconformist behavior or dress as she was covering receptionist shifts. Our guests were colorful, at times loud, boisterous, and cocky. They were not, typical Microsoft sales people in white shirts and ties. And much to Margaret's chagrin, they were invited. Bill Gates was recruiting Hollywood with 300 million dollars for content for MSN, and Hollywood was answering the call.

Jamie dressed like Jackie O, had connections, went to parties, and lived the high life. Many times, she invited me along. Not to mention, she didn't give a crap what anyone thought of her, which ruffled many of the hen's feathers at that otherwise serene office. I can't say that I was so brave. I was constantly smoothing things over when the culture clashes would hit. However, at the end of my reign there, I stopped caring as well. Would that I could have adopted that attitude much earlier. It would have saved me much grief.

Though Jamie was a full-time employee, I was a temp. At Microsoft, your status is indicated by the color of the security badge that you wear. Temps were orange badges, and employees were blue badges. It was a class system that was flaunted by the blue badges. They were awarded certain privileges and access that pond scum like myself was not. I was constantly reminded of this with the "Really, we aren't supposed to be doing this for you," a snarky fat tech would sneer when one of their computers that they leased to us would cease to operate. Or, Margaret would follow me around and say, "You can't do (said task) because you aren't an employee." "You can't have any of the leftover food from this meeting, (even though it was set out for everyone) it's for employees only." It was the land of star-bellied sneeches, and non-star-bellied sneeches. I was an orange badged, non-star-bellied sneech.

Not everyone was like that, but those secretaries took their anger at Jamie, an attractive, young, thin, and successful woman, out on me, constantly riding me about Microsoft policy. I was Jamie's subordinate, and was an easy target.

However, like a buoy in the water, we just kept resurfacing and getting attention from the damnedest of people. It didn't help matters, that Jamie had an employee who sometimes practiced the Risky Business mantra, "Sometimes you just gotta say, what the fuck?" Let's take one Friday afternoon for example, when I found myself in a quirky mood and shot off an e-mail to Bill Gates.

Dear Mr. Gates, I began, and told him who I worked for and what department I was from. My e-mail address, like my badge, branded me as a non-employee. Contractors, like myself, had an a- or a v- in front of their email addresses, immediately letting the recipient on the other end know they were receiving an e-mail from non-Microsoft toe jam. It was a benign question, and I asked him since he was recruiting Hollywood, why he didn't create more tools for the trade, such as screenwriting or editing software to literally put Microsoft on the desktops of creative Hollywood. I then packed up my laptop, laughed at my whimsical action, and went home.

An hour and a half later, while at home, I plugged in the little laptop and logged on. I opened my e-mail, checking for personal responses from friends, and there, tucked among the responses to my evening plans and friendly banter, was a reply from Bill Gates.

It was like seeing a message from "God" in my inbox.

However, I quickly dismissed it as an autoreply. I mean, Bill Gates himself certainly wouldn't have responded this fast. When I opened it, there was a one line response, copied to a head of product development big wig.

"We won't do it," the reply read, "but there are other programs that will work on top of Word."

That was no autoresponse. That response specifically addressed my question.

Could it be, that Bill Gates had responded to my e-mail within an hour an a half? Nah, had to be one of his minions. You know, those minions sitting at rows of computers in a sterile room just like the people in Gattica. However, I was going to have to wait until Monday to find out.

And, find out I did when I called over one of the only sales people who would talk to me and asked him, "If Bill Gates sent you an e-mail, did he really write it?"
"Are you talking about his company wide e-mails?" He asked me.
"No, I sent him one on Friday and got this response," I said, and pointed to my screen.
"Holy shit," he said, and before I knew it I had four or five salespeople standing behind my chair, gawking at the e-mail. The sales guy I initially showed it to cracked up, "You sent Bill Gates an e-mail! You kill me!"
"Yeah," I said, "is this him responding?"
He was still laughing, "Yes," he said, "if you get an e-mail from Bill Gates from within the firewall, it is Bill Gates who sent it to you."
"Well sonofabitch," I said, imagining Bill Gates sitting in his Lear Jet, panoramic office, or maybe with his laptop on his knees as he took a dump, responding to my little e-mail. Certainly he had bigger fish to fry, but he responded to my e-mail in such a short time. The guy really is a borg, I thought.

About that time, Margaret the chinless wonder saw that I had an audience and curiosity got the better of her. The sales people told her what the fuss was about, and she stalked off, playing the incident down. Seething certainly, that the peasant girl, among the shouting had spoken softly to the king, and the king had responded.

I showed it to Jamie, who cracked up and she sent it to her boss in Seattle. It made the rounds, and occasionally when I'd answer the phone, I'd get teased, "So, you are the one who e-mailed Bill Gates." "Yep," I said, feeling like Forest Gump when he mooned LBJ.

And what does this have to do with finding myself as an MIA for a class action suit? Turns out, as a contractor I'm eligible for some settlement money from Microsoft. A bunch of contractors got together and sued Microsoft for among other things, avoiding paying benefits to workers by keeping them as contractors. After a court battle that lasted several years, the contractors won. Since I was a contractor, I'm eligible for a reward.

I found this out when I Googled myself yesterday. It had been a long time since I'd Googled myself, perhaps out of fear of going blind, and so I took advantage of being alone with my computer. And that's how I found it. They gave a phone number to call, so I called. I spoke to a very nice woman who found that indeed I was on their list, gave her my information, and they are going to send me a claim form. Who knows what the amount will be, not much I'm sure, but I'm never one to turn down free money.

And as for the star-bellied sneeches who are noticably absent from the list, let them eat cake.

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