Microsoft, Yahoo! aren't that different

Scott Berkun, author of the bestseller "The Myths of Innovation."

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL:Is this clash of cultures between Yahoo! and Microsoft overstated? Is Bellevue, Wash., really that far away from Silicon Valley? Commentator, tech blogger and former Microsoft employee Scott Berkun says that when you take a closer look, the two worlds are more alike than they are different.


SCOTT BERKUN: The one company Silicon Valley loves to hate is the Borg, the evil empire, aka Microsoft. Microsoft is the reference for everything Silicon Valley companies aren't: big, slow, evil and old. But if you look beyond the safe stereotypes, it's hard to ignore the similarities.

High-profile Valley companies have recruited at the same colleges for 20 years. You'll find similarly high percentages of MIT, CalTech, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford graduates at Yahoo!, Google, Apple or Microsoft. And if today you were transported inside the hallways of these company's project teams, you'd be hard-pressed to guess where you were -- everywhere you'd see young, casual, passionate people, having fun while working hard as they develop technological solutions to all the world's problems.

You'd see different spins on the same perks: flexible hours, gourmet food, showers, couches, pool tables and video games. The surprise is that most of those perks, while not invented, were popularized by Microsoft's rise. These include stock options and private offices for most employees.

But it would be silly to suggest there are no differences. The average age at Microsoft hovers around 37, while at Google it's 29. Unlike much of the Valley, Microsoft's age and dominance means it has more to lose than to gain, and that has an impact on the way people think about taking risks in their work.

But at the same time, newer projects like XBox have more in common with the mindset of the Valley than the folks cranking away at the thirteenth version of Microsoft Office. Every culture has sub-cultures, and it's foolish to assume any group of thousands is consistent with a single cultural stereotype.

Perhaps it's best to judge cultural differences by behavior. Veteran Microsoft employees from important projects are consistently hot prospects in most of the Valley. It's no surprise that Google and Facebook have hired some of Microsoft's best in the last few years. Those folks have been very successful as they've crossed what should be, at least in the Silicon valley lore, an impossible divide.

RYSSDAL: Scott Berkun worked at Microsoft from 1994 to 2003. His book is called "The Myths of Innovation."

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