Bethany McLean on Microsoft: “The Story Almost Did Me In”

Late last year, legendary business journalist Bethany McLean sat down with The Rewrite to discuss her Vanity Fair feature on Microsoft, “The Empire Reboots.” Unfortunately, our dream interview turned into a nightmare when a shoddy connector screwed up the audio file, rendering it a choppy, barely listenable mess. (We’re sorry.) To make amends, we’ve transcribed the recording (and tossed the treacherous connector).

Here is an edited version of our conversation with Bethany McLean—and the first ever Rewrite Q&A! She discusses how she reported her article and tells the guys how she found sources inside of Microsoft, how she landed interviews with the likes of Bill Gates, and why she rarely records her interviews.

When you’re done reading, check out the entire catalog of Rewrite episodes here. They sound good, usually. —Max Chafkin and Burt Helm

Burt Helm: Why don’t you set up the story a little bit, Bethany?

Bethany McLean: Okay. So the story was a long time in the works. I started working on it last January or February. It was originally going to be a story about the search for a new CEO at Microsoft, because Steve Ballmer, who was only the company’s second CEO in its history, had either resigned or was forced out—depending on which story you believe — and the search for the new CEO was not going well. But before I could get the piece done—Vanity Fair has long lead times—Microsoft announced a new CEO [Satya Nadella]. So suddenly the story shifted. It became a story not just about the board search, but about the company, its history, and what had gone wrong.

Burt Helm: This is a massive company and a sensitive story. It’s not like you can just phone up the board and get a bunch of candid interviews about the search. So how do you start a story like this?

Bethany McLean: This was honestly one of the hardest stories I’ve ever done, if not the hardest, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Microsoft people don’t talk. And second, I’m just not a technology reporter. I’d never written about Microsoft before. I frankly didn’t even understand their business when I started. If you would ask me what Microsoft’s business was, I would have been like, “Computers?” It was enormous amount of work to get up to speed.

I had one source to begin with, which helped a lot, but this was not someone I could ever quote. It was just someone who helped me with the outlines of the piece and said, “Well, there is a story here.” I had to go get it and figure out what the story was.

Max Chafkin: Can you give us any sense of how you found that first person?

Bethany McLean: That was the easiest part of it. When you’ve been doing this for a while, sometimes people come to you and say, you should write about this. I can’t help you at all, but you should look at this.

As I delved into the story, it just became more complicated. It wasn’t just about the board and about the difficulties in finding a CEO, it became really about Ballmer’s legacy, about what actually happened inside Microsoft, about the feud between him and Gates. It became a much richer human interest story as I worked on it.

Burt Helm: When you’re learning about a company, when you’re gearing up to take on something like this, do you start out with just a stack of financial filings? How do you get to a point where you feel credible enough to start making calls?

Bethany McLean: I forged around in the dark for a while. Because after years of working in business journalism, I have enough sources who know things that I can call them up — in this case it was investors — and say, “Do you have somebody I can talk to about Microsoft, who can just help me really understand it?” Eventually you’re bound to hit upon one or two who do know something. They may not be willing to state to you on the record or to be quoted, but they can steer you in the right direction and give you a good overview of what the story actually is, and then you try to work your way in from there.

Analysts and institutional investors, that sort of thing — they are a source that people who haven’t been business journalists sometimes overlook. Those people can then offer a roadmap. Then you can read the 10-K, and the terms are familiar. That’s how I usually start.

I did not have preexisting ex-Microsoft sources, which makes it really challenging to call up somebody with the most sensitive question you could possibly ask: “Are Gates and Ballmer really having a feud?”

Max Chafkin: How do you get to that question?

Bethany McLean: I generally start with questions about the business. That offers a way into conversations that shows that you’re serious and you’re not just trying to write a hatchet job or a personality play. And I never do that as a pretext—it’s genuine. My stories always have kind of a business backbone to them. The analytical backdrop helps explain the human nature part of the story.

Burt Helm: By doing that you meet them on the topics they care about. The business is what stresses out Ballmer and Gates, what they’re consumed by on a daily basis.

Bethany McLean: Right. People may not talk to you about their feelings about Steve Ballmer, but they may talk to you about their feelings about what Steve Ballmer did or didn’t do for Microsoft. Because the company matters a lot to a lot of people, right? It employs over a hundred thousand people. It’s made people immensely wealthy. It’s one of America’s great success stories. People care a great deal about what went wrong with the business.

Burt Helm: I was fascinated by the part of the story where Ballmer says, “The low point of my career as CEO was Longhorn.” But Longhorn, of course, was the thing Bill Gates ran.

Bethany McLean: Right. It’s a confessional, but it’s a confessional with an edge.

Burt Helm: How far in your reporting were you when you got these guys to be so candid?

Bethany McLean: You have to be a long way in. I genuinely believe that there is no way to get people to open up to you if you don’t know a lot already. I mean if you know the story already and you can say, “Well, this is what I know,” people are far more likely to say, “Well, that’s right or that’s wrong.” If you don’t even know enough to ask the questions, there’s no way people are going to help you.

There’s little element of serendipity in these things. If Ballmer had picked up the phone the first time I tried to get to him, I probably wouldn’t have asked as good of questions as I did by the time I did.

I have this basic rule about investigative journalism that people are either inclined to talk to you or they’re not. If they’re really inclined not to talk to you they’re really not going to. The little bit of wiggle room is knowing a little bit more. The people in the middle of the road can be convinced to talk to you because you know something.

Max Chafkin: I’m imagining spending hours trying to craft the perfect email to Ballmer. It sounds like you’re more fatalistic about the result.

Bethany McLean: Well, I spent an enormous amount of time on the email and I tried to be as thoughtful as I could be, but I am somewhat fatalistic about the result.

I feel like I am always dead honest. I would never say, “Well, of course, you’re going to like the story if you talk.” The absolute worst thing for me would be for anybody to say they were misled. I genuinely want to understand your point of view—I like nuance, I’m not a black-and-white person. I want to paint an accurate, nuanced picture of what actually happened rather than this black-and-white, good-guy-bad-guy thing. That tends to dominate when people don’t give their side of the story.

Max Chafkin: Of course, there’s a subtext, which is that if you don’t talk to me, it might go badly for you.

Bethany McLean: I’ve thought about that a lot recently and I try to stay away from that subtext.

I’m sure I have said that to people before. I’m sure I have used exactly that language. It was only hearing it, fed back to me through the ears of potential sources with other journalists who had said that to them that I thought I have said that before, and now I realize I was threatening them and I never thought of it that way before. So it’s something I’ve only recently come to that has made me change my tune.

You come off like a bully and you come off as sort of not ethical, and so I have started to think that I’m not going to say that. So I say instead, “I’ll do my best to be fair whether you talk to me or not. But if you talk to me, I think it’s going to help. I think then there won’t be any surprises for you and I think I’ll understand where you’re coming from.”

Burt Helm: Right. I mean at the end of the day our stories are important, but they’re not—

Bethany McLean: Right, that’s the thing. Stories are important, but are they ever worth someone calling you up and saying you misled me or you lied to me? I mean never, right?

Max Chafkin: Tell us about Microsoft’s PR. They’re probably not super-jazzed about a story about how the Microsoft board is having a difficult time replacing its CEO. Did Microsoft try to kill this thing? Did you have a lot of contact with them from the beginning?

Bethany McLean: I did. At first they were very nonresponsive. They became slowly more responsive over time as I tried to show that I was serious about doing a nuanced and fair piece. I think that they were great example of how to do PR in the sense that they realized the story was going to happen, and what made the most sense was to cooperate, because the new CEO Satya Nadella has a great story. They realized what was in their interests, and they did it. There was total fair play. I never felt like I was lied to. I think that it was actually sort of a model example of how to do PR in a weird way.

Burt Helm: They were grownups about it.

Bethany McLean: They were total grownups about it. In a way that I actually think made it a better story for them. I mean if they had not cooperated, the story would have been, probably, maybe a less solid story, but it would have been follow-up rumors about Bill Gates and Ballmer not getting along anymore and it would have had a lot more detail about the board search and how ugly it was, a lot of detail that ended up being cut because we had this whole other story to write as well. So in the end, I think it was indisputably the right thing for them to do.

Burt Helm: Tell us about the interview with Gates and Nadella.

Max Chafkin: It was a joint interview. Whose idea was that?

Bethany McLean: So that was the PR guys’ idea.

Max Chafkin: It kind of gives you a sense that the power dynamics are a little bit confused. I mean just the fact that they’re putting the CEO and the founder together in the room…

Bethany McLean: But you can learn a lot from that. Why would you ever say no to that? It was a) the opportunity to meet Bill Gates and b) the opportunity to watch him and Nadella together, and see what they say and what they don’t. I thought it was fascinating.

Still, it was very scripted, right? I had half an hour and so you have to be really careful with your questions. Gates is incredibly media-trained at this point. He knows how to give the non-answer and he knows how to keep the non-answer short so he doesn’t ramble. I knew he was going to be a hard guy to get anything out of.

The most interesting moment to me in the interview actually came when I started asking well, “Who’s in charge, what happens if you disagree?” Gates gave this example and the language is in the story where he says, “Well, if I want X number of people on a team and Satya doesn’t want it, I bet I’ll get it—but it’s his decision.” To me, that was one of those things that a very close reader of the story would be like, hmm, that’s interesting.

But I also thought that Nadella knows how to work with Bill Gates. He really does. He knows how to manage this guy. It was fascinating to see that —to watch him differ when it was better to differ and not differ when it wasn’t. He’s a guy who knows how to manage people, which I think is a compliment. I don’t think that’s an insult.

Burt Helm: There are moments in this story that I want to ask you about. Tell me about the moment when Steve Ballmer dug out his performance review and handed it to you.

Bethany McLean: I think he wanted to show that he was not forced out of Microsoft—that he had been thinking about this for a while. I think he left a little more abruptly than he would have liked because of the fight that’s in the story, but I also think he was thinking about it for a while beforehand and I think he wanted to prove that.

Burt Helm: How long were you sitting with him?

Bethany McLean: I think it was probably about an hour and a half, maybe two hours.

Max Chafkin: One shot?

Bethany McLean: One shot.

Burt Helm: Tell us about how you structure interviews with somebody like either Steve or with Bill and Satya.

Bethany McLean: I try to be general but pointed with questions so that I try not to have an idea in my mind of what the answer might be. I try to start out with questions that are business-oriented, I guess, so that people see that I know and care about the business aspect of it. You just get a feel for people and what they want to talk about, and then you try to move in the direction that they want to talk about. I don’t tape my interviews anymore for various reasons, but I used to tape them and I would listen to myself and listen to the number of times I interrupted.

I try really hard not to say anything. I feel like the less I say in an interview, the better.

Max Chafkin: Why don’t you tape interviews?

Bethany McLean: I don’t tape them because once I started doing serious investigative work where you had to beg people to talk to you, the last thing you want to do is sit down and be like, “By the way, can I turn on tape recorder now?” Even over the phone—when you live in Chicago you have to tell people you’re taping them. So if you really work to get somebody to talk to and then the first thing you say is, “Can I turn on my tape recorder?” It’s off-putting.

Max Chafkin: So how do you take notes? Do you have a classic reporter’s notebook?

Bethany McLean: My pad is bigger than a reporter’s notebook because it’s easier for me on a bigger sheet of paper. I’ve developed my own forms of shorthand so that words people say a lot can be notated with just a symbol.

Burt Helm: So what’s an example in this one?

Bethany McLean: So Microsoft might be M or board of directors might be BD just so that I can very quickly note.

Max Chafkin: You have half an hour with Bill Gates and Nadella and you’re not going to tape that? Come on!

Bethany McLean: So that’s an example of a really bad call on my part. Had the Microsoft PR guy not taped the interview, I would have been in trouble because they talk fast. They were both lightning fast and I would not have gotten down half of what they said. So it was actually one of those moments where I was like, this needs to be a flexible strategy. If the Microsoft PR guy hadn’t taped it and sent me the transcript of the interview, I would have had a quarter of it.

Max Chafkin: It’s so interesting, because I’m fatalistic about it. I feel like if they’re going to talk, they’re going to talk and that includes a tape recorder.

Burt Helm: And I’m actually even more obnoxious. I type into a little keyboard.

Bethany McLean: I think you’re probably right in some situations. It’s been my training for so long that I’ve sort of moved away from it and then I’ve watched other people. I wrote a story with Bill Cohan for Vanity Fair on Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan and Bill taped all his interviews, and I was struck by the quality of his quotes versus mine. He had more context and sort of rhythm in his quotes than I did.

Max Chafkin: I thought you were going to say he was bogged down with all these hours of tape and I knew I’d made the right decision.

Bethany McLean: No, no. He’s actually got a great system where he pays to have people transcribe them and that’s when I was like, you know, maybe I need to change that. But then every time I think about being on the phone with somebody and say, it feels incredibly awkward. Maybe I’m overly sensitive. I don’t know.

Max Chafkin: I think it’s all about your ability to—for me, anyway, to connect with the person. Sometimes I find taking notes can be obtrusive because it forces you to scribble extra hard when they say something sensitive.

Bethany McLean: Here’s the weird thing that’s made me anti-taping. I actually can’t stay with the interview when I’m not taking notes. If I’m taking notes, my focus is right there. I guess the other way I think about it, there are some people in a story that you want to quote at length and in this case, with Gates and Nadella, I should have taped. But in most cases, especially when you’re doing a long form story where nobody is on the record and you’re going to talk to a hundred people for 7,000 words story, or maybe not a hundred but 30 or 40, you’re not going to quote most of them. So wouldn’t you rather not even take the risk of them giving you filtered information?

But I’m also meticulous about going back to people and saying, even on background, here is the quote I want to use from you, here’s how I got it done. Is this what you think you said? So I check.

Burt Helm: I’m thinking your handwriting is probably a lot better than mine.

Bethany McLean: Oh no. It’s good to me. I could read it. You wouldn’t be able to read my handwriting. If someone found my notebook they’d be like, oh my God.

Burt Helm: You got some wonderful candid quotes from former and current Microsoft people. How much of reaching them was a result of cold calling versus networking — finding somebody who knows somebody?

Bethany McLean: I’d say it was networking. Probably if you were a technology reporter it would be a different story, but if you’re coming at this from the outside, it is very hard to get to people at Microsoft.

Burt Helm: How often did you have to reach out to people to get them to talk to you? How many times or how long did you talk with them before you got good quotes?

Bethany McLean: In my experience there’s not a lot of use in pestering people who don’t get back to you unless you have something new to add. So if somebody doesn’t return a call or doesn’t return an email, I’m probably not going to try again unless I have some new fact. And generally I’d say it took two or three conversations when they did speak, maybe.

My first book, I worked with a guy name Peter Elkind, who I think is the best investigative journalist I know. Peter would literally call people 20 times until they call back and that worked, actually. I think you have to be true to yourself when you’re a reporter, as well as true to the story. I just can’t hound people unless I have something new to ask.

You have to play to your strengths and I think my strengths are that actually I’m genuine. But I can’t call 20 times, I just can’t do that. I grew up in the Midwest.

Burt Helm: You’ve been an investigative reporter for a big chunk of your career. To you, what is an investigative journalist? Do you find you report stories differently from other writers?

Bethany McLean: I don’t think that I have the typical DNA of an investigative journalist. But I often think two things shape my view of the world. I was a math major. I have this analytical backbone where if things don’t make sense to me, I will keep going until I figure out why it doesn’t make sense, what the missing dot is. I can’t stand things that aren’t logical. I don’t think I’d be aggressive enough to keep calling somebody over say, hearing that they had an affair. But if there’s a missing dot in A to C, I’ve got to find B. I just can’t stand it otherwise.

Burt Helm: What were the missing dots in this story that got you going?

Bethany McLean: Figuring out what Gates’s influence on the company was even after he left was this whole missing piece. Once you realize the guy was there until 2008, you’re like, wait, Ballmer’s tenure is a little more complicated, isn’t it?

The other thing that shapes my view is that I got burned earlier in my career at Fortune by just writing the stories that people brought to me. I did a column called Companies to Watch, where I was supposed to pick three stocks every two weeks. The idea was to find stocks that were going to double or triple or quadruple in value in the next six months. There was no shortage of people who would come by Fortune and pitch these stories, and I would write them up only to watch as the stocks usually went in exactly the opposite direction.

I got tired of feeling suckered. I got tired of feeling like I was putting things out there that weren’t true. So I think I became a lot more skeptical. I realized I had to ask questions and dig a little more to figure out the story, because what you’re handed on a silver platter is rarely true.

Burt Helm: For a long time I was just deeply scared of being suckered. I felt very distrustful of the people I was talking to. After a while I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that a lot of times people are suckering themselves, too. It’s not coming from a place of trying necessarily to actively mislead you.

Bethany McLean: Completely. A great source of mine had a great line about the financial crisis. He said it’s a mixture of self-delusion, venality, and a little bit of outright corruption. It basically applies to almost any story of business gone wrong. People believe their own bullshit. They really do. They’re not trying to lie; this is the world as they see it. That mixture is to me what makes this stuff so interesting.

Max Chafkin: We’ve talked a lot about the reporting. Why don’t we hear a little bit about how you wrote this thing.

Bethany McLean: A longtime writer at Fortune said to me once, “If you come up with a formula to get writing right, then it would become boring. At least it’s never boring.” I always feel like structure is the hardest part of a story. Once you find the right structure, the writing tends to flow. When you’re in the wrong structure, you can’t make the writing work. The only way I know it’s wrong is that I can’t write and it feels trapped somehow.

I thought about this story in terms of the characters. Look, Gates and Nadella talked, so that shaped the structure. I rarely I think about a story in terms of who talked, but I thought in this case that Gates and Nadella are talking together for the first time about what Microsoft is going to be, well you have to begin with that. So then that forms the thing. In my original draft actually, Nadella came first and the Ballmer stuff was more toward at the end. My editor, Doug Stumpf, said, “You don’t understand who Nadella is and why he matters unless you’ve read the Ballmer stuff first.” So Doug actually switched it. You don’t care about Satya Nadella and why he was a different CEO unless you saw how hardcore and tough and perhaps destructive the Microsoft culture had been beforehand.

Anyway, I think structure is just this art. There may be an ideal structure, and then there’s a structure that your reporting allows for. It’s really hard.

Burt Helm: Here’s the dorky question we ask everyone. Do you, um, when there’s a blank screen..

Max Chafkin: You have to own that question, Burt.

Burt Helm: I’m sorry. (More confidently) Do you outline or do you just start writing?

Bethany McLean: What do you think, given that I told you I was a math major? I outline. I always view writing as sort of sculpture—that I’m carving something out of a lump of clay. For me to start writing, I have to have that lump of clay. The lump of clay is an outline with every conceivable thing I might want to include in every section.

Max Chafkin: Like quotes?

Bethany McLean: Like quotes. Sometimes it will be paragraphs of an interview with somebody. It might be like a 30,000 word giant lump that is not English. It’s just fragments of ideas here and there, and then I slowly sort of start figuring out what I think. I sort of whittle away basically.

Burt Helm: I find I’m essentially trying to balance the anxieties of writing. At least by putting all that stuff on the page, I don’t have to worry about what I have. I can divvy up my crippling anxiety. Is that similar for you?

Bethany McLean: I guess that probably is what it is for me. I also think I don’t think in details, I think in chunks. So for me to get the flow of a story I have to think in terms of big picture ideas to find the flow of the story, I can’t think from sentence to sentence. And then to manage the anxiety about losing something or not remembering something, I have to fill in the chunks with every single bit of detail I might possibly want to include. Then I figure out over time—well, what’s the best detail? What really makes this point? Sometimes I end up feeling like the chunk doesn’t go here or the chunk actually doesn’t belong in the story at all, but I have to start there. I’m not sure it’s very efficient.

Burt Helm: It’s so fascinating to me. We interview other people on the show who are just as successful, but who just have to get the story’s voice in their head, or have to just start writing. It’s just so strange that we all end up in the same place.

Bethany McLean: The way we all think is really, really weird. Part of being a writer, I think, is letting go of your inner fact-checker and finding the flow of the narrative.

Max Chafkin: Your “inner fact-checker” meaning, what?

Bethany McLean: I mean not being so beholden to the facts that you’re afraid to find a narrative. Writing is about two things, finding the structure, and finding the words. I feel like people get in their own way. But you may need to let go a little to find the narrative. I can’t both be worried about the words and the narrative at once.

Burt Helm: I always wish there were an easier way.

Bethany McLean: Do you want to hear a horror story?

Burt Helm: Of course.

Bethany McLean: When Bryan Burrough and I worked together on the story on SAC Capital. I sent Doug, my editor, my note file for a section instead of the final draft.

Burt Helm: Oh God. Did you realize it in time?

Bethany McLean: No, and this is what’s horrifying—he and Bryan both thought I was so stressed out that I must have just lost it. They sent back these messages that were like, oh God, we don’t know what we’re going to do. I thought well, the draft wasn’t that bad. Then, about 24 hours later I was like it may not be perfect, but I don’t think it was that bad. So I checked what he sent, and it was the notes.

Burt Helm: Oh my God.

Bethany McLean: I was like seriously, you guys, you didn’t even think that that she might have sent the wrong file?

Burt Helm: They thought you were doing some real experimental stuff.

Bethany McLean: I think they thought I was just losing it. I mean, I always think I suck and particularly by the time I finish the story I feel like I’m just a mammoth failure. So to send off a note file and get back these responses from people, at first it’s corroborating, you’re like yeah, I suck! It takes a while of being like but it wasn’t that bad.

Max Chafkin: Well, that’s a horrifying story.

Burt Helm: It’s reassuring to know that other people go to that place, that other people have these anxieties.

Bethany McLean: I think the two most normalizing experiences for me were watching other writers who I thought were better writers — and who I still think are better writers than I could ever be — turning things in that don’t work. Some stories are really hard and it’s an art, not a science. Even the people who have been doing this for decades can’t make it work sometimes and get it wrong. Then hearing this other journalist say to me that it would be boring if you always know exactly what to do with every story. Then it becomes formulaic and you know exactly how to put it together. That would suck, because then you’d be doing this thing that wasn’t all that challenging to you anymore.

Burt Helm: Boy, that’s an optimistic person.

Bethany McLean: No, but the Microsoft story almost did me in.

Burt Helm: Really?

Bethany McLean: Yeah. It was really stressful, because there were periods of time where I thought, “I’m not getting anywhere. No one is calling me back. I’m not going to be able to pull this together.” There are a couple of paragraphs in the story about the state of Microsoft’s business. It took me a month of reporting to be able to write those paragraphs about the cloud and how disruptive it was to Microsoft’s business, because I was starting from square one. I didn’t understand. And so, when I write about finance I generally feel like I’m two steps ahead of whomever I’m talking to. I know exactly how to take apart what they’re saying and think about what the next question should be. On technology, I felt like I was missing every third word. It was incredibly humbling and difficult, but in the same way really good, because when you do arrive at that two paragraph description of the business, you’re like, I got here.

I almost feel more proud of that two paragraph description of the business than anything else in the piece because it was so hard fought.

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