Technology: A win against racism

I try not to delve too much into the political arena my blog but this is a subject I have thought about many times in my career at Microsoft.  What spurred this on?  Unfortunately an old friend who has gone through a rough patch in life that has taken him down some dark and unfortunate roads.  One of those paths has led to an age-old ill in society as old as mankind.  The need to blame others for ones own failings, not based on rational thought but on skin color and religion.  It gave me pause to think about my internal beliefs and explore some of the thoughts I have had for some time about my life and the industry that I have been fortunate to work in. 

Make no mistake I am not naive enough to believe that racism does not exist in the technology space, as my title might suggest, nor are we necessarily better than other industries, but one thing I do know, in particular,  the technology industry craves strong technical talent.  It does not care about where you are from or what color your skin is, it just wants really smart people. Through my 18 years at Microsoft I do not know how many times I heard Bill Gates interviewed as to what he viewed as the key ingredient to Microsoft success and over and over again it was always the same answer, “We start by hiring really smart people”.  In the early days that really meant computer scientists, engineers etc…These were the people who were going to drive the company forward.  A great many came from India and later more and more would come from China (especially as Microsoft got aggressive in speech recognition and search)..But in reality it did not matter where you came from  and I met or heard people present from almost everywhere in the world.  The thing I liked best about Microsoft in the early days was it really was about open and passionate debate, from everything as big as the future of the PC to the more granular areas of what should happen with the ANSI C Standard.  If you had a passion and were smart enough to engage in the debate, race did not enter into the equation.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, “we should judge people by the content of their character”.

The nice thing about Microsoft even when I started back in 1991 was that it really was a multi-cultural environment.  You would walk the halls and see and meet Sikhs, Muslims, Hindu’s, African-Americans, Chinese, Japanese etc.. The list would probably cover every country and religion on the globe.  The internal Global Address List (GAL) usually had an alias for everything – could be Indian’s at Microsoft or Germans at Microsoft. The company had events internally from time to time to highlight our diverse culture.  As the company grew Microsoft started opening research and development departments all over the world, most notably in India and China.  There was so much talent coming to the surface on the planet you had to go where the talent pool was.

I do not believe this is at all unique to Microsoft.  When I visited customers like Cisco Systems they seemed to have a whole lunch menu catered towards their large contingent of Indian engineers.  When I did their yearly vendor event called Toolapalooza, most people I interacted with were not born in the US.  If you remember the dotcom boom how many start-ups were either led by or had on staff a significant amount of people not of american birth?  Did anybody really care?  In those days the only question was what are you doing and how will you make money. 

To date the technology sector has represented the best and brightest from around the globe.  In the end the industry will continue to become a more and more ethically diverse as the need for talent in an increasingly competitive environment grows.  This challenge will bring us all closer together as we jointly try to solve the next great technical challenge.  We will need the collective input great minds, regardless of race or creed. It will require us to put differences aside and to listen to one another.  It’s a challenge that those in  the industry will meet.  In the broader sense in the end it’s a challenge our society has to meet or otherwise we all fail.  I leave you with the words of the author H.G. Wells, “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe”.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann June 17, 2010