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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Microsoft: Enclave Of Nerds, Or Artists?

Associated Press

The northwest corner of the United States is home to an arts colony of astounding vigor. The locals paint, draw, sculpt, create sonic art and even have their own orchestra, with rehearsals every Monday and concerts every season.

Is this cradle of creativity centered in Seattle? Portland?

Try Microsoft.

Like most large computer companies, the software giant has always been home to an amazing collection of extremely bright individuals. But with a new commitment to creating multimedia content, the left-brained side of the work force is coming to the fore like a kid with a new set of finger-paints.

That’s no metaphor. One Microsoft group leader, Linda Stone, has been known to throw art parties that destroy any notion of nerd-like code warriors.

“Yes, senior researchers have come over to my house and finger-painted after dinner - it’s true,” she says.

The company that built the DOS operating system is undergoing its own renaissance. With new products including CD-ROMs, computer games and Web sites, Microsoft isn’t just building good, solid bottles anymore - it’s worried about what wine to put in them.

“Functionality is important, but so is the way the sun comes through the window in the morning,” Stone says.

With her neo-‘50s glasses, intense conversational style and exuberant ideas, the leader of the Virtual Worlds group is both caretaker and leader for one of the more “wild” (her words) groups at the company, committed to building three-dimensional worlds online. The artists she needs to do that have a different sensibility than your usual techie, and hiring them is a delicate process.

When programmer, musician and visual artist Kevin Goldsmith came on board, Stone spent a lot of time getting him ready for what he’d find.

“I said ‘Are you going to be OK in the corporate environment? You’re going to go to orientation, and it might scare you,’ ” she recalls.

After a few years in the computer animation industry, Goldsmith had actually been applying to another company, but Stone got hold of his resume and called “a million times” (his words). Working for what’s sometimes referred to as “The Evil Empire” wasn’t on his agenda.

“I didn’t have any interest in working for Microsoft,” he says. “In the world I was from, people don’t like Microsoft and I’d bought into that.”

But he’d never been to Seattle, so he agreed to come and hang out.

“What they were doing was pretty much the coolest thing I’d heard,” he says - so he signed on.

Microsoft is not a comfortable fit for every artist, of course. Novelist Stacy Levine remembers her stint copyediting packaging materials there as a trade-off.

“It’s a really corporate atmosphere, though they kind of soften it by giving you free snacks and Pepsi,” she says.

At night, Levine would return home to write a collection of short stories published as “My Horse,” replete with claustrophobic imagery that grew out of her experience at Microsoft and other temp jobs.

But the prospect of making a living, something difficult for a writer of experimental fiction, has drawn her back for other gigs at Microsoft from time to time.

“There’s a terrible tension between wanting to be free to do creative work and needing to survive,” she says.

Painter and programmer Jim Mahoney embodies the reverse of Levine’s quandary. A successful artist whose recent show in Santa Monica, Calif., almost entirely sold out, he agrees to work at Microsoft only as long as it doesn’t get in the way of studio time.

“If my art career started to falter, I’d have to leave here,” he says, from an office spilling over with sketches and screens.

For animator and trumpet player Chris Liles, it’s the caliber of his coworkers that impresses him.

“You can say ‘Gauguin,’ ” he exults, “and their eyes don’t glaze over.” Liles also plays in the 40-musicianstrong Microsoft orchestra.

“I just finished my second season. We played the first three movements of Beethoven’s “Eroica” and “Night on Bald Mountain” by Moussorgsky.

Liles has got nothing on ethnomusicologist Brian Pertl a few buildings over, who comes in at 5 a.m. so he can get in some time on his didgeridoo while things download. During an interview, he reached behind a bookcase, pulled out the 6-foot long instrument, favored by Australian aborigines, and launched into an impromptu concert.

With Microsoft hiring an average of 50 people a week, cinematographer Dan Colvin definitely sees a shift from an engineering outlook to something a little more creative.

He works in The Blender, Microsoft’s broadband production facility - the folks who are trying to figure out just what might come down that cable modem you’ll be getting in a few years.

“One thing that’s really smart about Microsoft having all these artists around is because we can sit down with the guys who write the code and say ‘You know, as a painter, it really needs to work like this …,’ ” he says.

Colvin’s corner of The Blender facility is piled high with art books interspersed with programming guides. He pulls out a sheaf of watercolors he did the other night, flowers and grass images that he scanned into his computer and now is manipulating on the screen. There’s paint splashed on his keyboard and brushes are tucked in odd corners.

“If I was doing a job that was most just programming or accounting, then I’d be painting on the side,” he says. “It’s lucky for me I get to paint at work.”