Dear Microserfs


In 1995 Douglas Coupland wrote about a bunch of youngish Microsoft employees (called Microserfs) living in a communal bungalow/rancher house in Redmond. The characters decide to leave their corporate jobs and move to the Silicon Valley to start a small software business (that's what they called startups before they became this wierd sexy thing).

I've read Microserfs several times over at different stages of my life. Recently I've been reflecting on the setting of Microsoft campus in the early 90's tucked away in the PNW (I'm currently living in the PNW) and wondering what kind of light that sheds on the world of today. I've been kind of overwhelmed by the amount of choice and information and complexity of the modern tech/software world of late, and reflecting back on this book made me feel all nostalgic for the early days of software that I was too young to ever experience. So I decided to write an email to the characters of the book, just to see if it would tell us something about the buzzwords of our industry in 2019.


Hey guys, I'm sending you an email from 2019! Isn't that wild?? I've read all about your lives several times over thanks to Doug (Doug!), but you're stuck in 1995, and so I wanted to ask: what would you think of the software world today?

For nostalgia's sake, I've decided to write this email from the comfort of vim. Do you have vim? I guess you probably do, but mine has a lovely low-contrast solarized colour theme, and yours is probably some retina-burning shade of green, or maybe it would be blue? Like blue as in the Blue Screen of Death, blue? I wouldn't know, because I was born only two years before Doug even wrote about you guys. I guess I could Google it, but where's the fun in that?

Things seemed so much simpler for you guys in Redmond, Washington back in 1995. You split the $200 rent for a 5-bedroom bunglalow 5 ways and threw the frisbee around after work or jumped on the trampoline. You locked yourselves in your offices and ate flat foods and worked all night when you had to, but somehow it still seemed alright. I'm sure I'm glorifying it all...it's probably easier to be nostalgic for a decade that you never really experienced as a full-grown adult.

Working in software is so much more complicated these days. It seems like everyone codes all day and then goes home and works on their side-hustle or learns a hot new programming language somewhere between commuting and eating dinner. We don't just have progremmers and testers and managers anymore. We have Integration Developers, Scala Developers and QA Engineers. We have apps written in like a million different languages like Erlang and Rust and Haskell. People who hark back to a simpler time are even starting to write web applications in Lisp. Lisp?! Have you ever heard of Docker, Kubernetes, GitHub, CI/CD, Jenkins, Vagrant, Ansible? What's your tech stack look like? What IDE do you use?

Today there's machine learning and deep learning and reinforcement learning and all these different words for computers doing statistics. We have Data Engineers and Graphics Engineers and DevOps Engineers, Support Engineers, Site Reliability Engineers. Have you ever heard of a Developer Evangelist or a Growth Hacker?

It's not just the technology that's different and more complex, it's the social situation as well. I think there used to be this big secret that the nerds in high school were always going to study hard and invent something amazing and be the ones with all of the money in the end. Well, that's no secret anymore. Now everyone knows that a Software Developer is and they're probably learning to code in their spare time. They at least have some image in their mind of what a programmer is, and it doesn't involve stuffy offices or people with glasses or white short-sleeved dress shirts with pocket protectors in them. On the contrary, think mid-century modern furniture, open-concept rooms with tons of natural light. Oh and SNACKS! Have you heard about the snacks?!

Maybe it's just that the grass is always greener. I mean, I'm sure you have your fair share of complaints about the software industry c. 1995. But at least you had space to think and some attention span left at the end of the day. What was it like before you had the entire internet at your fingertips everywhere you went? My peers and I are some of the last people on earth who will know what it feels like to grow up without the internet. We had it in the house by about 2005, I still remember the sound of the dial-up modem.

Anyway, just wanted to get your $0.02 on this topic. How does all this sit with you? Is it good or bad? I might sound angry in this email, but I actually can't tell how this even sits with me.

Are you guys still developing software these days? How did everything go with your startup? Was it worth it shedding the golden handcuffs of your corporate world in favour of intellectual freedom? Have you figured out what it's all about?

BTW: Do you miss the rains of the pacific north west? I know I would. How can you handle all that sunshine in california??