Perceptions About Where You Work


I recently joined a new company and it’s been interesting watching people’s reactions when they learn where I now work.

Previously I’ve served in the Navy, worked for a children’s toy retailer, for an IT outsourcer and for a large company that made cell phones and software among other things. Now I work for Microsoft. (And to be clear this entire blog is my own personal effort and is not endorsed in any way or edited by Microsoft.)

I’ve always worked in some way, shape or form since I was a teen-ager and I’ve generally found talking about work to be a common conversation starter – no matter where I work it provides a universal touchstone that almost everyone can relate to.

When I was in the Navy people asked me nuts and bolts questions about what life was like serving on a submarine with the typical response being “I could never do that”, followed by the questions “so what’s it like being under water” or “how long were you at sea”. The conversation would then progress and I would try to gauge the questioner’s interest in the navy – did they just want a quick one-sentence answer or was there a genuine curiosity in their questions. As a qualified submariner, I’m proud of my service and can talk about submarine life at length, but I also recognize that for many people “The Hunt for Red October” or “Down Periscope” bookend most people’s perceptions about submarine life and they aren’t that interested in knowing anything more. 

At Zany Brainy, people would always comment on the name when I told them where I worked since most people hadn’t heard of it before nor had ever visited one of the stores. And although I was an IT manager people would invariably ask about Beanie Babies, Harry Potter books, Legos or any one of our other toys. Then the conversation would quickly move on to something else because let’s face it talking about an IT Manager’s job for most people is the verbal equivalent of watching paint dry – “so we deployed the patch but it caused a BSOD because of a .dll conflict so we had to edit the .ini file and change a registry setting……” Among the right audience that’s a riveting conversation thread guaranteed to have everyone’s full attention – outside of the technology world, not so much.

Working for an IT outsourcer that no one had ever heard of, usually just elicited blank stares before the conversation moved on. It was as if because people had never heard of the company and didn’t know exactly what a sales engineer did, they couldn’t process the information or ask an intelligent follow-up question. The conversation would falter for a moment before inevitably moving onto the Red Sox – I do live in New England after all. I got used to it after a while and even began to preface my statements with phrases like “you won’t have heard of us before because we are a small company” or “we aren’t well known because we are primarily a business-to-business company”. This seemed to let people off the hook and give them permission not to have heard of us which made the whole conversation less awkward.

Serving on a submarine was a unique, challenging and awesome experience. One I wouldn't trade for anything.

While I was at Motorola people inevitably wanted to talk about Motorola phones or Motorola’s business problems. I was happy to do both, although talking about the Motorola Razr wasn’t my idea of an interesting conversation, since I neither supported nor used that phone. I would much prefer to talk about why the Red Sox have a DH who is hitting under .200 or alternatively I could talk at length about food – both cooking it and eating it.

Once I left Motorola it was also interesting watching people’s reactions when they found out I was looking for work. It was as if being out-of-work was a disease that they were afraid of catching. Once they realized that it was non-communicable, they usually would ask what I wanted to do and invariably suggest things to help me. This outflowing of support was much appreciated and I was thankful for it.

Now when I tell people I work for Microsoft – their responses tend to fall into one of two categories – “wow that’s really cool” or “wow, how can you stand to work for them. I hate their software”.” Luckily the distribution between responses roughly mirrors the market share of Microsoft’s operating systems with roughly 90% to 95% of people thinking it’s pretty cool and only about 5% of people bashing Microsoft. I take both in stride and respond to them roughly the same way with a “yea it’s a really cool place to work” or “actually, it’s a really cool place to work and we have some awesome products”.

Not that I would know from personal experience, but I would imagine that this is much like telling people that you attended Harvard, Brown or MIT. People have a definite reaction to finding out that information. I got a chance to see a little of this within the subculture of  journalists whenever they find out that I graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism. This almost always elicits a response of “wow, that’s a really good school” followed almost immediately by “what do you do now?”

For the record, Missouri has a great journalism school (it was actually the world’s first Journalism School founded in 1908), but Missouri also has very strong programs in Philosophy, History, Engineering and science, and many other subjects as well. Of course I was a photojournalism major when means I worked with truly gifted and phenomenal writers and reporters – all of whom can craft a sentence that is not only more coherent and creative than anything I can produce, but manage to do it with a relative ease which will always escape me.

I digress, but it really is interesting how many people want to categorize you by where you work as well as what you do. I’ve been told that in some cultures, it’s incredibly gauche to ask someone what they do for a living or where they work. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it also seems a little arbitrary because work is where so many people spend the majority of their waking hours each and every day. In place of work though, I’m sure other aspects of life are substituted: like where one went to college or where one lives or what clothes one is wearing. Maybe it’s just a way to anchor the conversation or maybe it’s an evolutionary trait that’s survived over time to try and establish where everyone is in the pecking order of life, in order to survive. Who knows?

All I know is that I’m doing work that is challenging and interesting to me and I’m working at a place that truly values and cares about its employees. Have you noticed a specific reaction when you tell people where you work? As always comments, questions and feedback are always welcome. –t

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Microsoft.

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