We’re All Swimming in the Same Pool

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 13, 2000 — To commemorate the company’s 25 th anniversary, Microsoft this month published Inside Out , a book written by and for Microsoft employees that highlights the products, people and culture that transformed Bill Gates’ and Paul Allen’s vision for personal computing into reality. Featuring new essays by Gates and individual stories from hundreds of current and former Microsoft employees, the book provides personal anecdotes of triumph and failure, facts and trivia, and a look ahead to the company’s next 25 years.

Throughout the week, PressPass will publish excerpts and photographs from the book; in the stories below, community investment manager Gina Wesse talks about her experiences supporting South Africa’s 1994 elections, as well as establishing “digital villages” throughout the country, and support manager Hubert Daubmeier explains how Microsoft helped ensure that unified Germany’s first free elections ran smoothly.

Gina Wesse
Community Investment Manager, South Africa

The South African government was having many problems in 1994, and they wanted the national elections to go smoothly. When they approached us for software and technical assistance, we agreed to help, and we brought people from as far away as the UK to design and set up systems to organize the elections. Our people spent 24 hours a day at election headquarters and worked right up to the last minute. Everything went just like clockwork. To me, that’s the perfect example of technology doing its work. It made me so proud because the backbone of the system was Microsoft software, and it performed beautifully.

Another project that really makes me proud is the digital villages. Basically, these are community computer centers. When we set up a center, we involve the community. We help train a committee in financial management so that they can run the center locally, and sometimes we help them to recruit and train the center manager as well as instruct the trainers. To ensure that the center will be well-sustained, we stay involved with the project for two years.

When we opened a center in one the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of Soweto, we installed 20 computers, and not one of them has ever been stolen or vandalized. I think the communities treasure these digital villages because they truly belong to the people. Anyone who uses the center is expected to pay a minimal sum to be a member. The annual fee is very low so that everyone can afford it, and this gives them an additional sense of pride and ownership. At the Soweto center, we started with 20 machines and a goal of serving about 500 people. By the second year, we had 35 computers and more than 900 members. We decided to open a second center in Soweto, and now that one is oversubscribed. So the desire for computer access and training is absolutely overwhelming.

We get goosebumps when we look at some of the amazing things that are happening because of the centers. For instance, we had a computer fair, and 16 of the most highly skilled children from the center competed against privileged children from other parts of the country. Seven of the children from our center got prizes. The people from the community were so proud of them! Some people from Kimberley read about it, got on a bus, and came all the way to Soweto to see what was going on. They were so impressed that they asked us to develop a center for them. And that’s where we are expanding now. It’s all community driven, and it’s all community initiated.

Hubert Daubmeier
Europe, Middle East, and Africa Support Manager, Germany

No one in Germany could imagine what unification might mean, and being involved in the first free election was a very exciting experience for me. Because the Election Committee in East Berlin was composed of people who had never conducted a democratic election, it was quite a challenge for everyone.

All of the technology companies that volunteered to provide equipment and services agreed not to use any sort of visible advertising. IBM, which provided the mainframe hardware for data management, wanted to use Excel to display the official election charts on TV and in the press center. Because of the agreement to eliminate advertising, we needed to get rid of the words
“Microsoft Excel”
in the title bar. I got in touch with Marc Niaufre, the international product manager for Excel in Redmond, who said we could produce a version of Excel that had a different string in there. But the Election Committee couldn’t come to a decision on what words to use. About two or three days before the election, we still didn’t have a decision. So I called Marc and said,
“We’re running out of time. Can you please produce a version that has something like 40 Xs in there?”

Bringing that version of Excel to East Berlin was quite an adventure. At that time, we didn’t have the luxury of the Internet, and modems were way too slow for something that size. The new file was sent from Redmond via e-mail to the Microsoft office in Munich. From there, a courier brought it to IBM’s office, where they sent it via their internal network to Berlin and copied it to a diskette. The night before the election, the diskette was delivered by taxi across the border to East Berlin.

I used the only available resource editor–the OS/2 version of the old DOS Word–to patch this version to read something neutral like
“First Free Elections.”
Nonetheless, all the people in the press center noticed that it was Excel, and I think it ended up being a good marketing story.

For me, this was an incredible experience. I am from an area of Germany just north of Munich. One of the biggest shocks for me was to be in East Berlin for the first time. All of the buildings were dark gray–there was no color anywhere–and almost every street had deep holes. It was fascinating to work with local people who spoke the same language, but the only thing we initially shared was making this first free election a success.

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