Outside the entrance to the Human Resources building at the Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., near Seattle, there is a glass screen, the kind you see in banks.
"Is that for fire protection?" I ask my guide from the Callison Partnership, the big Seattle firm of architects that since 1984 has designed 26 buildings for Microsoft. "Well no, I'd say it was more for gunfire protection."Apparently from time to time disaffected former employees of the world's largest software company turn up dressed to kill.
Microsoft is almost alone in the computer industry in still being run by one of its founders, the legendary 39-year-old octo-billionaire Bill Gates.
Gates' employees invented Windows, the operating system used by 80 percent of the world's office computers. Today, more than 60 million people use Windows, compared with 18 million users for its combined rivals Apple's Macintosh, IBM's OS/2 and UNIX.
And Windows is just one Microsoft product among many. At Microsoft Place, the firm's 200-acre campus, the paved walkways are studded with bronze plaques recording the firm's marketing breakthroughs, all the way from 1975 and the computer language Basic to last year's Encarta cd-rom atlas and encyclopedia.
The biggest plaque of all reminds you of Microsoft's goal: "A computer on every desk in every home."
Microsoft first called in the Callison Partnership 10 years ago, when the firm was still small. Partner Gerry Gerron's first commission was to design a new head-quarters complex on a wooded 53-acre site that had already been partly cleared for a defunct shopping center project.
Gates had clear ideas about what he wanted from the beginning. He liked symmetrical buildings hidden among trees and landscaped like a university campus, with everybody in the same-size office, nine feet by 12 feet by eight feet high.
The way Gates saw the future of Microsoft at that time, 420,000 square feet of these cubicles, plus parking for 1,700 cars, would provide expansion space for the firm for 10 years.
How wrong he was can be seen at a glance today. More land purchases have extended the site to 220 acres, but even with more than 8,000 parking places it is still overflowing with cars.
There are now more than 2 million square feet of beehive cubicles in six successive groups of buildings, each of them an attempt to contain the company's growth. With nearly 10,000 programmers, or "coders," working on site, the task is clearly hopeless.
More than a hundred employees are thought to be stock option millionaires already, and every day hundreds of job applications arrive from all over the world.
By far the most interesting buildings at Microsoft are those that Gerron designed 10 years ago. His idea was a star-shape structure, not unlike a small 19th-century prison, that would hold 192 cubicles and some ancillary accommodation on two stories, both suspended over car parking half buried in the ground.
Seven of these "starships" were built among the trees on the part of the site farthest from the access road. One group of four surrounded a small man-made lake that was promptly christened Lake Bill.
Ten years later this part of Microsoft Place has been cut off by new development, but it still exudes the magic of cheapness, simplicity and originality that marked the early years of the company.
These buildings were slammed up at speed, with concrete walls cast on site and air-conditioning machinery stacked on roofs. Cheap and cheerful as they were, the "starships" were designed for the job.
Their solid seven-inch concrete floors combat vibration, while the thick partitions between their cubicles rule out noise. All cabling is at ceiling level, and illumination is kept low to avoid reflection on monitors.
Best of all, the tall pine trees around the buildings have been surrounded by landscaping and lush secondary planting.
At Microsoft every "coder" has a cubicle, each cubicle interior designed by its occupant. Behind doors covered with slogans such as "I am not dead," "Don't touch me" and "Skeletons framed" are improbable collections of trailing plants, bubbling fish-tanks, mountain bikes, reptile cages, bean-bags and half a dozen computers on every right-angled desk.
The occupants of these cubicles pay no attention to visitors.
Morose-looking, tousled and almost painfully young, they move around in groups, eat vegetarian food in their subsidized cafeteria and consume vast quantities of the non-alcoholic beverages that are provided free by the company.
A journey through their campus at lunchtime is reminiscent of a music festival, a young offenders' institution or an episode of "Happy Days."
"They're computer dweebs," says the Callison man. "It's why the first buildings were, like, for wild men hiding in the woods. Bill Gates wanted to hide them like that. He didn't want to make a statement."
Statement or no statement, the Human Resources building, like every structure on the Microsoft campus, is secure.
To enter you need one of two classes of pass - "employee" or "vendor."
"Bill Gates likes working with smart people," says the Callison man, whose pass classes him as a "vendor." "He lets the employees do anything they want just so long as they meet their deadlines for shipping new products.
"There are only two rules at Microsoft: deadlines and complaints. If the coders meet their deadlines they can complain about anything and Bill will get it fixed. They want a basketball court, he builds one. They want to drive golf balls down the corridors right through the sheet plasterboard, he gets it fixed when they're done."
It all makes you wonder at the progressive gentrification of Microsoft.
Gerron's first four starships were erected in 1984; three more were completed in 1985 for phase two, with a couple of double starships, joined together like Siamese twins, added later.
After that, circa 1989, the project came into other hands at Callison and originality went out of the window. Phase four started with two symmetrically disposed blocks of brickclad four-story buildings either side of what was to have been a grand entrance, but Gates and his vice presidents didn't like these buildings at all.
Callison's most recent shot is another symmetrical composition finished in smarter white concrete, with much sharper detailing and glass. This has gone down better with the management but, again, the company has dumped the grand entrance.
Instead, the architects have turned it into a glass canopy over a restaurant that opens onto a courtyard decorated with rocks, trees and waterfalls.
The Callison view is that they have at last given Gates a new identity he likes. What they have really done has been to show the world that the wonder years at Microsoft are probably over.
First the homely "starships" gave place to the grandiloquent campus, and now the campus has given way to a pompous corporate headquarters.
It would surprise no one if phase five or six were to include a high-rise office tower - and a requirement for the "computer dweebs" to wear ties.