Interview: Ex-Microsoft Employee Michael Hanscom
On October 23, Michael "Woody" Hanscom posted a picture to his Web log, intended to garner a chuckle or two from a few close friends and colleagues.
The reaction the picture drew from his employer can only be compared to a kind of Orwellian nightmare where anything an individual does online can come back to haunt them. That nightmare is the reality faced by an increasingly vulnerable corporate world where the Web can be used as a tool to disclose potentially sensitive and damaging trade secrets to the masses.
Hanscom's employer, Microsoft, decided that the picture -- a snapshot of Apple Power Mac G5's being unloaded at an anonymous Redmond loading dock -- had crossed the line. While it can be argued that Microsoft produces software for the Macintosh platform and the delivery reflected business as usual, much trouble can be dredged up by even a grain of sand.
Microsoft promptly fired Hanscom for allegedly breaching confidentiality agreements that were a condition of his employment on the campus.
BetaNews sat down with Hanscom as he reflected on the life changing events that transpired over course of the past week.
BetaNews: Why do you believe you were dismissed?
Michael Hanscom: Quite simply, because of a misjudgment on my part that ran afoul of Microsoft's security clauses. I don't have the impression that it was because Microsoft wouldn't want the world to know that they purchased Apple computers -- quite frankly, that would seem a bit silly, as they develop for the Mac. I think that it was just the fact that I took a picture of a section of the Microsoft campus, and then posted that online.
BetaNews: In your opinion, does a picture of boxes constitute breaking confidentiality agreements?
Michael Hanscom: Having had a good amount of time to think this over, I'm starting to feel that it very well could. While that might seem a bit silly on first blush -- so Microsoft has some Macs, big deal, right? -- on a broader level, it's a question of whether Microsoft would want _any_ of their incoming or outgoing shipments being made public knowledge. As someone pointed out during all this (I'd link to a citation if I could, but there are so many posts about this scattered over the 'net right now that it would take some serious digging), any one shipment could be considered fairly innocent in and of itself, but over time, putting together information about multiple shipments could theoretically give a savvy analyst a look into possible directions or technologies that Microsoft might be investigating.
At the time I took and posted the picture, no, I didn't think it could be considered any sort of breach. Given that hindsight is 20/20, though, I've been forced to re-evaluate that position.
BN: Do you believe Microsoft has over reacted?
MH: Well, yes and no.
On the hand, they could have simply asked me to remove the post from my Web site, given me a reprimand, and that would have been the end of it.
As my Web site had (prior to all of this) around ten regular readers that I knew off, mostly family and friends, little to nothing would have come of the situation other than a slight bruising of my ego.
Because they instead chose to dismiss me, and because my post about what happened has picked up the amount of press it has, they end up getting a certain amount of bad press over the event. It may be a relatively minor worry for them in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly could have been avoided.
On the other hand, though, once the post was found, they may have seen me as a potential threat. Given that I had already taken one picture of the campus -- innocuous as it may have been in and of itself -- what evidence was there that I wouldn't do such a thing again? From their point of view, could they continue to allow me to have access to proprietary information that I could theoretically turn around and distribute to the world at large? I can certainly claim that this was a one-time bad call, and that I would never do such a thing again, but they may have decided that it was better to deny me even the possibility of screwing up again, and dismiss me straight away.
So, while it may have been something of an overreaction that led to a PR situation that could have been easily avoided, I have to admit that I can at least see the reasoning -- or at least my best guess at the reasoning -- behind that reaction.
BN: What do they have to fear?
MH: If they hadn't dismissed me -- well, just what I mentioned above.
Now, however? I don't think they've got much to fear at all. As overwhelming as this all has been from my end, I'm sure it's actually of fairly minor concern to them in the long run. Seeing as how they have the dubious honor of being both one of the most lauded and one of the most vilified corporations in the world, there will be enough other stories (the PDC, Longhorn, etc.) in the coming days and weeks that my experiences, no matter how much noise they are making now, will soon be just another footnote to an appendix of Microsoft's history. ;)
BN: From your experience, to what extent are Macs used in the daily operations of Microsoft?
MH: It's a little hard for me to say, as I very rarely visited any part of campus aside from the building that I was assigned to. I assume that the Mac Business Unit has a good number of Macs for their development work, I have the impression that there are at least some in use for various graphic and design departments, and I've had people mention in the comments to my posts that some employees have Macs in their offices for day-to-day work. None of this is really that much of a surprise, though, nor anything that I'd see as causing any amount of embarrassment for Microsoft.
BN: How have these events affected you personally?
MH: Well, first and most obviously, I'm certainly burning my way through my fifteen minutes of fame rather quickly! I've been quite overwhelmed by the response over the past few days. My website rocketed from around a few hundred hits a day -- primarily from random Google hits on my archives -- to close to 300,000 hits in a 24-hour period. I've had old friends from high school that I haven't spoken to in years contact me.
I made the front page of one of the local newspapers, the front page of MSNBC.com, and have been told of a mention in the MSNBC "crawler" on television. Suddenly I'm, if not famous, than at least infamous.
Overall, it's been a little freaky, but also pretty entertaining.
One of the things that I've been very pleasantly surprised by is how much support I've been getting. How much of that is actual support for me, and how much is knee-jerk anti-MS sympathies is a little difficult to ascertain, but for the most part, I at least haven't had to put up with too much flaming or personal attacks. I've done my best to stay level-headed about the whole experience, admit that I made a mistake, and not come across as unfairly blaming Microsoft for taking the actions that they did. So far, I think that most of the people who have found my posts have realized that. Even many of the people that have pointed out that it was my own mistake that got me dismissed have done so in a polite fashion, which I'm immensely grateful for.
In the end, I think my biggest long-term worry for the future is that, as more employers make it a habit to run a Google search on prospective employees, I may be running the risk of losing out on some possibilities because I might now be seen as something of a "hot topic." I hope that that doesn't come into play too terribly much, but It's a very real possibility -- and as my current short-term worry is simply finding another job and getting a regular paycheck again, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that I haven't inadvertently shot myself in the foot.
BN: Do you think it is fair for an employer to seek out and comb over your personal web log? Fine print legal matters aside, is it right to penalize you for your sense of humor?
MH: Whether or not it's fair -- something that I'm wrestling with -- I think it's to be recognized as a very strong possibility. Companies are likely to want to make sure that, if their employees are weblogging publicly, they are not releasing any proprietary information, either purposefully or inadvertently. There's a very strong argument to be made that a personal weblog is just that, and that the company should have no say in the content -- however, I certainly wouldn't expect to be able to (purely theoretically) copy the text out of a PowerPoint presentation about a planned piece of software and post it on my site without repercussion.
I'd always tried to keep this in mind, too. I had never hid my weblog from my co-workers or my supervisor, and had even pointed out certain posts to them from time to time (for instance, a collection of pictures I posted after they allowed me to take a day off to attend an anti-war rally) when I thought there might be some interest. I had no idea if they checked in regularly, or if they ignored it most of the time, but it didn't worry me, as I was generally careful about what I wrote when it came to work -- and rarely mentioned work much at all. When I posted the picture, I did so just because I thought it was interesting and amusing, and thought that I had made sure not to reveal anything that could be incriminating or cause problems. Obviously, that was an error on my part.
BN: Finally, has Apple offered you a job?
MH: No, and I certainly don't expect them to! I've been hearing this a lot, either as suggestions to apply, or people saying that Apple should just give me a job out of the blue, and I have to admit that I find the idea completely unrealistic. Attractive, to be sure -- if Apple were to offer me some sort of position, I'd love to take it -- but I just don't see that happening.
First off, while I have a good amount of computer experience, much of it Mac-based, little to none of that shows on my resume, due to a decade of working primarily in the quick print industry. Being self-taught is all well and good for day-to-day operations, but it doesn't necessarily do much in the way of landing a dream job.
Secondly, though, the very circumstances of my dismissal from the Microsoft campus may well affect any decision Apple (or any other company, for that matter) might make as to whether or not to hire me.
As I stated before, at this point, I just hope that my sudden notoriety doesn't backfire and cause issues with hiring me in the future.
BN: Just for fun, what would you rather use: a PC with Windows XP or a Mac G5 with OS X?
MH: Finally -- a question I don't have to think about! ;) The Power Mac G5 with OS X, please -- in fact, that's what I'm typing this on right now.
This is the 7th Mac I've owned, and is by far my favorite of the bunch - truly a beautiful machine. I do have a Windows PC also (with Windows 2000 Pro, rather than XP), though the last time I tried to turn it on was about a month ago. It gave me some sort of boot error and refused to start up, and I haven't bothered to take the time to try and troubleshoot what its latest issue is. I'm comfortable with both platforms, and can use each of them, but the Mac is, has been, and will continue to be my preferred computing platform.