Microsoft, eh?

Microsoft Corp. won’t be adopting Molson’s “I am Canadian” slogan anytime soon but a strong Canuck presence at the U.S. high-tech behemoth continues to be a major influence on operations. And with hundreds of Canada’s

best and brightest heading across the border from one university alone, a covert northern takeover of the Washington-based company may already have taken place.

“I can walk down the hallway here and I will always meet a Canadian,” said Antoine Leblond, Microsoft’s vice-president of office program management, who arrived at the company’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters from Montreal in 1989. “We’ve often talked about stamping ‘Made in Canada’ on the products here,” he added.

Accounting for 26,000 of its 36,000 U.S.-based workforce, Microsoft’s main campus is the hub of the company’s operations. While it won’t publicly release figures on the number of its Canadian employees, the level of their influence is reflected in the internal codenames of many major projects.

“Windows XP was called Whistler and the next version was going to be Blackcomb, so we needed a name between the two for the version we’re currently working on. The Longhorn Saloon is a bar between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, so Longhorn became the codename,” said Leblond. “There’ve been dozens of other Canadian codenames like Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax. I think this happens because we’re the loudest group here.”

Short of attaching maple leaf patches to their briefcases, Redmond’s Team Canada makes no secret of its national roots, according to former Vancouverite Stephen Cawood, program manager in the content management server team.

“There’s a lively “Canucks @ Microsoft” discussion group here, where hockey and politics seem to be the biggest topics. There are 40-50 messages on it every day and about 150 people in the group,” said Cawood. “We also go to hockey games together and there was even a Microsoft U.S. versus Microsoft Canada game recently.”

Cawood joined the company when his B.C. employer NCompass Labs Inc. was taken over by Microsoft in 2001. Most employees were invited south to join their new parent. While a few stayed behind, half of Cawood’s current product team hails from Canada.

“It was an excellent move for me,” said Cawood, who has rapidly risen through the ranks since his arrival. He often travels around the world to conferences, has been awarded a patent through his Microsoft research and has also co-authored a book.

It’s this heightened level of opportunity that continues to attract the brightest Canadians, according to Peter Forsyth, professor and associate director in the School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, which traditionally fills more jobs at Microsoft than any other Canadian university.

“The U.S. is an exciting place to work and Microsoft’s research is also very exciting,” said Forsyth. “Generally, the big attraction for our students over staying and working in Canada is higher salaries, more opportunities and more interesting research.”

But it’s not a simple a case of cross-border brain drain, according to Bruce Lumsden, Waterloo’s director of co-operative education and career services, who has been sending co-op students to Microsoft since the first two were dispatched in 1987. “We don’t look at it like that at all. We live in an international community and this kind of opportunity gives our students valuable perspectives and much wider experiences,” said Lumsden.

Waterloo has sent 800 co-op students to Microsoft over a 16-year period and 250 alumni — and at least one faculty member — have found permanent jobs at the company. One of its biggest computer science co-op partners, Microsoft continues to hire between 15 and 30 Waterloo students every term for co-op positions predominantly at Redmond, but also in Vancouver, Ottawa, Mississauga and Hong Kong.

“Microsoft is a model co-op employer because they know how to mentor, providing meaningful work rather than make-work projects. And they use co-op as part of their hiring strategy,” said Lumsden. “The attraction for Microsoft is that our Canadian students are quick, nimble and highly computer literate.”

But Microsoft doesn’t just rely on Canadians for its competitive edge, attracting large groups of employees from dozens of other countries including India, China and the U.K. “We hire whoever is the best candidate for the job. Nationality isn’t a factor,” said Microsoft human resources spokesperson Mara Hobler, who added that the company receives 40,000-60,000 resumes from around the world every year.

“I don’t know how long Canadians have been flocking to work at Microsoft but we’ve had a fair number of them working here for a number of years. They work in all parts of the company in a variety of positions and they are a large group,” said Hobler, who confirmed the widespread use of Canadian codenames but was not aware of any U.S. placenames being used in a similar fashion. “They (Canadians) are not taking over Microsoft but they are certainly here in significant numbers,” she added.

Leblond and Cawood agree that while Microsoft’s Canadian contingent is not planning an imminent Redmond coup, many of them still view Canada as home. “The second I left, Canadian things took on a more mythical gravitas. Poutine has become a delicacy,” said Leblond. “I take French classes here in Redmond,” added Cawood. “I wanted to learn another language and, as a Canadian, learning French made the most sense to me.”

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