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Sunday, May 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Microsoft's mystery insider

Seattle Times staff columnist

The voice on the line, which had been easy and confident with a staccato laugh, suddenly lowers with concern.

It's because I mention his first name. "Please don't put that in the paper, Danny," the voice says. "I don't know what would happen, but I'm not ready to risk being exposed."

I'm talking to the notorious Mini-Microsoft. At least I think I am. He's an employee at the Redmond software company who for two years now has written an anonymous, harshly critical Web log about life in the belly of the beast.

Minimsft.blogspot.com, his Web site, is chock-full of the kind of piercing self-analysis the bland corporate land does its best to avoid.

His own company? It's a "passionless, process-ridden, lumbering idiot," he writes.

The bloat in the beast? It's scores of bad tech-boom-era hires, who suck up time and money "writing crappy code, doing crappy testing and designing crappy features."

The culprit? Tone-deaf and boosterish management, he says. He's even mused whether Microsoft would be better off without its head cheerleader, CEO Steve Ballmer.

Mini is one of hundreds of bloggers at Microsoft. Yet he's earned a Zorro-like status. Speculation is rampant about who he is and if he'll be outed and fired. His site, with thousands of comments from Microsoft workers, has been dubbed a "virtual union hall."

This month, after the company debuted a new pay and benefits policy, some said it was due to the bosses finally clueing in to worker angst via Mini's site.

"Can one person change a huge company? Mini did. And we don't even know his name," wrote Robert Scoble, who runs another Microsoft Web log.

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I expected Mini to be crowing about this when we spoke. But he just sounded weary.

It turns out living a double life is taking its toll.

He's never told his wife about his online identity — to shield her from the stress, he says. It nags at him that he is, in effect, lying to her by harboring such a big, ongoing secret.

"It feels wrong to me," Mini says. "If I quit, it will be for the health of my relationship."

Then there's the constant threat he'll be unmasked. One co-worker already figured it out based on the tone of Mini's writing but opted to keep the secret. Others have run computer analyses to try to match Mini's text style to various in-house writings.

Mini says he's also gotten sloppy, making a series of "dumb mistakes" that could have allowed digital sleuths to ID him. One of the dumbest, he says, was when he carelessly signed his real first name in a hasty e-mail to me.

I won't print it here. I promised. Lately Mini's been toying with outing himself anyway.

It's a paradox. He could then stand up as the man who took on Microsoft from within. But he knows it's the mystery that gives him his megaphone.

I ask him what he considers his biggest success. His answer: increased transparency, a sense that Microsoft management now has to be more open with its workers.

Funny it took someone going underground to achieve that.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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