In a surprise announcement, a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed last week that Microsoft has been in labor negotiations with its testing and quality assurance staff for some time. "We don’t believe the labor dispute has impacted the quality of our products, and we stand behind them one hundred percent," the spokesperson said. "However, it’s true that negotiations have been underway for a few months."
Whining in the Rain — TidBITS’s investigation reveals Microsoft’s spokesperson may have been putting a positive spin on the situation. "It all started back in 1993 when Microsoft took bottled Talking Rain out of the free soft drink coolers," said one tester, who declined to give her name. Talking Rain is a brand of bottled water packaged and sold in the Pacific Northwest. After it was removed from the coolers, bottles of Talking Rain were only available for sale in Microsoft cafeterias in awkward one liter sizes. "I mean, it’s not like we can’t get water from other sources, but it’s the principle of the thing. Soft drinks, unlike software, should always be free."
According to reports, the situation gradually deteriorated from there. Microsoft makes a variety of juices and beverages available for free to its employees, and apparently did make carbonated varieties of Talking Rain available in cans. But the testers would not be appeased. "You can’t put the top back on an aluminum can," said one contract tester. "That basically means you can’t take your water to a meeting, or carry it down the hall without fear of spilling it. That’s a completely unacceptable working environment." Not being able to put the top back on aluminum cans is believed to have cost Microsoft thousands of dollars in damaged keyboards alone. Further, the problem does not seem to be endemic to testers; at least one Microsoft program manager is routinely seen with dozens of half-finished cans of Talking Rain on her desk. With one spill, those cans could easily spell doom for her computer and irreplaceable files. Oddly, for a company of its size and sophistication, Microsoft provides no centralized data backup services, leaving most groups to fend for themselves or (more commonly) not back up their files at all. "Management is always telling us testers to work smarter," complained one test lead. "Then they go and pull a no-brainer like that. Go figure."
Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk — Microsoft apparently began to negotiate in good faith with its testers, who initially agreed to stay on the job until the issue was resolved. "The salaries aren’t that important, but we didn’t want them to suspend our stock options. Some of us will be fully-vested soon!" But apparently testers were frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations, brought on by a number of technical failures, and are now threatening a walk-out.
Negotiations are said to have broken down at one point due to problems with Microsoft’s internal email system, based on Microsoft Exchange. "We actually had to walk copies of proposed settlements around on floppies because the network could have taken days to deliver the documents," noted one program manager. However, according to a negotiator for the testers, communications broke down later because the Word documents (with OLE attachments) became too large to fit on floppies. There are also unconfirmed reports that a Microsoft negotiator attempted to sabotage the talks by distributing a proposal infected with a Word macro virus. "They made it look like an accident, but you never know."
Leaders of the testers say they will stage a walk-out on 01-Apr-96 if their demands are not met. "This has been going on for too long – we want to resolve it before the weather gets nice in the summer." Microsoft declined to comment.