Erik McClure

Camp Vista - Growing Up Next To Microsoft


This blog was started on LiveJournal shortly after I graduated high school in 2009. It has survived this long because I was very persistent about porting all my posts to Blogger, and then to my own static website. Of course, I have limits. Most of my terrible old posts were removed long ago, because they were so bad they didn't contribute anything. One post was a rant about my high school internship at Microsoft. I took it down because it was bad, but more importantly I took it down because I wrote it before graduating college, while I was still completely delusional.

Let me explain.

I grew up 20 minutes from Microsoft. I had absolutely no idea what an absurdly warped childhood I had until I graduated college and met people who hadn't grown up in a tech bubble. I never questioned how my middle school always somehow had the latest copy of Windows and maintained six different computer labs (one in each classroom hub, plus the library, plus a dedicated lab). I didn't realize how unusual it was for my high school to offer an “intro to game dev course” in 2008, or how ridiculous it was that my AP Computer Science professor had worked on the first version of DirectX at Microsoft. I never thought it was weird that we had Microsoft Connector buses driving around town, creating an entire secondary bus system for the sole purpose of moving around Microsoft employees.

I definitely did not realize how utterly insane it was that, in July 2006, students from my high school (and a few other high schools around the area) were invited to a week long event where we would get to experiment with and “bug test” a beta version of Windows Vista, a full six months before it was released. At 8:00AM every morning, our parents dropped us off at Microsoft Building 40, and we were led into a room filled with rows of desks with computers on them. There were maybe 50 of us, and we were given guest accounts and full internet access while Microsoft employees gave presentations about various new features they had introduced for Vista.

I still remember some of those presentations. One that really stuck with me at the time was Microsoft jumping on the “192kHz sampling rate support” bandwagon, which makes absolutely no sense outside of music production, and in retrospect just seems incredibly dumb. Another presentation had us build wifi mesh networks between the computers, which was touted as a way to share files and communicate with friends in places with little to no internet connectivity. I remember this one both because I thought it was very cool, and because someone managed to bluescreen Windows while attempting to set it up, so they actually had an SDE come in and take a look.

In their attempts to make this a “camp” experience, they gave us all a project on the final day: create our own presentation (using the new Microsoft™ Office™ PowerPoint™ 2007, of course), about some new feature we wanted on Windows or some improvement that wasn't there yet. I don't remember what our presentation was, but I do know we were all terrible. Afterwards we were all invited to the “Windows Vista Consumer Support Assisted Beta”, a predecessor to the Windows Insider program.

This “Camp Vista” thing was a strange, one-time event, but the Hunt The Wumpus competition is still going. If you're lucky enough to be attending school in the Lake Washington School District, you can team up with several other students and get tutoring from a Microsoft employee over the course of several months while you build a very basic video game and compete for Microsoft sponsored prizes. I fondly remember our attempts at building a game using XNA back when it was brand new (it's now dead), and making a bad Descent clone. We tried to use SVN, but weren't allowed to install it on school computers, so we resorted to an FTP folder and e-mailing zip files.

Here we have the crux of the problem with my initial impressions of my high school internship - it's not a normal thing! Students worldwide compete for a chance to get college internships at Microsoft, but the high school interns are just random CS students from the Lake Washington School District. When my team learned I knew quite a bit of programming already, they had to come up with something else for me to do because they had assumed I barely knew how to code. It was just another outreach program for nearby high schools, only available to 31000 kids on the entire planet.

So in the midst of me having an experience that almost no other high school student gets to have, I am complaining about things like “wow, we have too many meetings” and “wow, this software is bad”. Yes, we know Microsoft is a dysfunctional catastrophe, but focusing on issues that are omnipresent in large corporations only serves to detract from the actual crazy parts of the internship, like how the program we were working on, if compiled with no optimizations, took 20 minutes to start. Or the meeting where the entire team spent 15 in-person minutes sitting around an actual table deciding that one of our function names was too long and debated over what to rename it before deciding not to change it. Or that one time the department head (my boss's boss's boss) took me, an intern, to a meeting with his boss, who I think directly reported to a vice president. It got better, though, because one afternoon, there was a 3-hour period of time where my boss, his boss, and the department head were all gone, so I, a 19-year-old high school student, was technically supposed to take my questions about how to use C# PInvoke to the department head's boss.

I was really careful not to break anything for 3 hours.

Looking back at my teenage years has made me realize how easy it is for people to simply miss how some aspect of their upbringing was deeply unusual. For some, it may be a silent hindrance, but for others, it might be a quiet boon, softly sending opportunities their way that almost no one else has access to. How many opportunities did I let slip by, unaware of how unique they were?


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