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Online Extra: A Rendezvous With Microsoft's Deep Throat


I didn't have to change cabs twice and slip into the shadows of a suburban parking garage at 2 in the morning. Instead, we agreed to meet at a Starbucks at 5:45 pm. The signal: My contact would have a copy of Microserfs, the legendary 1995 book about employee life in the early days of Microsoft Corp. (). Sure enough, when I walked in the door, the book was sitting on the table to my right. My heart raced. "Mini," I said, extending my hand. "It's great to put a face with a name."

The proprietor of the Web log called Mini-Microsoft may be the most notorious blogger on corporate life. For more than a year, Mini has been a thorn in the side of the software giant, posting a stream of anonymous critiques of the company, Mini's employer. Mini pulls no punches, calling Microsoft a "passionless, process-ridden, lumbering idiot," in a Sept. 4 posting. Yet the blog is also chock full of humor, intelligence, and earnest suggestions for fixing Microsoft.

While Mini-Microsoft (http://minimsft.blogspot.com) is just one among an estimated 2,000 blogs operating by Microsoft staffers, it has become a virtual watercooler for employees. Hundreds anonymously vent their frustrations there without fear of retribution. Mini has emerged as something of a folk hero. Visitors to the site and other bloggers describe Mini as the employee most likely to save Microsoft -- and the most likely to be fired.

SHIFTING BALANCE. Mini provides a fascinating example of a phenomenon that's sweeping the nation. Employee bloggers are shining a bright light on the inner workings of their companies and thrusting all sorts of bottled-up frustrations out in the open. Whispered conversations suddenly become broadcast publicly. That puts a huge amount of power in the hands of employees -- for good or ill.

Indeed, the balance of power between employer and employee may be shifting. Analyst Charlene Li of Forrester Research advises companies not to try to suppress their bloggers. "You can keep it hidden or get those voices out there and deal with the problem," she says.

Not surprisingly, it took some cajoling to get Mini to sit down with me. The meeting came with one condition: continued anonymity. So we started with some ground rules. "Can I at least disclose your gender?" I asked. "Sure," Mini said, laughing. "People keep posting, wondering if I'm a he, she, or it." For the record, Mini is a man. He's soft spoken and has an easy laugh.

MISDIRECTION, EVEN AT HOME. Mini knows, though, that he's a marked man. He might lose his job if the top brass ever figured out who he is. "They'd have to consider the bad publicity of firing me," Mini says. Still, there's that uneasy feeling that they would cut him loose anyway, if only to send a message.

That's one reason why Mini is so adamant about protecting his anonymity. Prior to our meeting, he never told anyone outside Microsoft of his double life. Not even his wife. "She has enough stress in her life," he says. So if she asks what he's up to when he's posting at night, he just tells her it's work-related.

And he admits to a little misdirection on his blog, posting random details of work and personal life that are false, just to throw would-be hound dogs off his scent.

SURPRISE HIT. So why risk a career to vent about his employer? "There was a recent post by a guy who said he used to bleed Microsoft blue. That's how I was too," says Mini, who does indeed have a Microsoft blue badge, the type given to full-time staff. "Microsoft has been wonderful to me. I really want to improve it. I really want to make a difference."

Over the years, however, Mini says he found it increasingly difficult to affect any sort of meaningful change. As a regular employee, his was a lone voice in the wilderness. Ironically, anonymity has helped Mini become a clarion call for change. Near the top of his Web site is something of a manifesto: "Let's slim down Microsoft into a lean, mean, efficient customer pleasing profit making machine! Mini-Microsoft, Mini-Microsoft, lean-and-mean!"

Mini started posting in July, 2004, with little expectation that he would develop much of a following. He didn't even think to turn on the digital switch to allow readers to comment anonymously. But his following grew, particularly after other established bloggers linked back to his comments.

"DESTROY THE VILLAGE"? He doesn't track the number of visitors, but a recent missive about the unfairness of the employee-review system generated more than 150 replies. Most seemed to come from fellow Microsofties. "It's something everyone can relate to," Mini says.

Mini sometimes worries that his posts might cause Microsoft some harm, but he believes it's more likely that he'll be a force for much-needed change. "Sometimes you have to destroy the village in order to save it," he says. He just hopes it doesn't come to that.

For some of Mini's most popular blogs, check out:

http://minimsft.blogspot.com/2005/09/back-to-basics.html

http://minimsft.blogspot.com/2005/07/great-amazing-innovate-huge.html

http://minimsft.blogspot.com/2005/03/better-off-without-ballmer.html

http://minimsft.blogspot.com/2004/09/satans-process-excellence.html

http://minimsft.blogspot.com/2004/07/blast-off-for-mini-microsoft.html

By Jay Greene in Seattle, with Heather Green in New York


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