Microsoft workers binge watch training videos. Their version of Breaking Bad?
I've got a film crew spending the day with me Friday as I plagiarize content and offend readers while sniffing glue.
Microsoft Employees Are Hooked on the Company’s Training Videos
Instead of a finger-wagging snoozer about corporate misbehavior, ‘Trust Code’ has flawed characters, dramatic cliffhangers and fans worldwide
An excerpt from a trailer for ‘Trust Code.’
By Dylan Tokar, WSJ
May 10, 2023 9:52 am ET
Like other aspiring actors, Devin Badoo makes ends meet working on TV commercials, including as dads hawking Loctite glue and Hot Wheels toys.
What Hollywood producers might not know is that Mr. Badoo is already the star of a hit show—just not one they would ever see. The 35-year-old plays Nelson, one of the most popular characters of “Trust Code,” a series of Microsoft compliance training videos that has made him a celebrity among the company’s 221,000 employees in 190 countries.
For employees at most companies, sitting through training videos every year is about as welcome as a toothache. “Trust Code,” with its recurring characters and end-of-season cliffhangers, is redefining the genre. Since launching in 2017, it has inspired watch parties, viral memes and T-shirts with Mr. Badoo’s image.
“Current status: #Sobbing while watching #Microsoft standards of business conduct,” one fan tweeted. For a few years, employees at the company’s annual charity auction could bid for a walk-on role on the show.
“Trust Code,” slated to run for only two or three years, is now headed into season seven. New employees aren’t required to watch older seasons, but the buzz about the show has spawned group binge-watching to catch up on early episodes. Others have created fan art that mimics a movie poster of “The Lord of the Rings” and watch-party bingo cards with squares for “awkward flashback,” “dramatic piano chord progression” and when a character is fired.
Facebook parent Meta Platforms is another company that has recast its compliance training videos as a TV show. In a pilot episode that launched last year, Bianca, a newly hired Meta engineer, struggles to finish a fictional game called “Zombies vs. Robots” ahead of the PAX West gaming convention.
The drama begins when John, a third-party app developer with a flimsy moral compass, pushes Bianca to speed up development by bending Meta’s rules on handling user data.
“I felt like I was watching a Netflix show,” said Holly Oegema, a real-life Meta software engineer who binge-watched the entire series. The show’s creators sprinkle tributes to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg throughout the first season, including a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, one of his favorites.
Modern compliance training began in the 1990s, when the Justice Department changed its sentencing guidelines to underscore the importance of training employees about relevant laws and regulations.
Companies quickly learned that if they were caught breaking the law, they might avoid penalties if they could show they had told employees not to do it. Rather than just flooding employee inboxes with reminders to watch compliance videos, Microsoft and Meta hope people will tune in to see what happens in the next episode.
To make “Trust Code” more like a TV show, its writers at Microsoft put Mr. Badoo’s character Nelson and his fictional colleagues into tricky ethical situations where the right answer isn’t always clear.
In season one, Nelson, a fictional software engineer, improperly uses customer data to train an artificial-intelligence model. After the security breach is reported by a co-worker, Nelson is disciplined and his future at Microsoft hangs in the balance. In season two, a startup that gets wind of Nelson’s model accuses him of stealing its intellectual property, further imperiling his future at the company.
Devin Badoo as Nelson in the fifth season of ‘Trust Code.’ PHOTO: MICROSOFT
The fallibility of Nelson, part of his charm, was a challenge to the show’s writers: Given all the egregious behavior, should Microsoft fire him? Rather than decide, they created confidential employee polls on Yammer, the company’s messaging system.
Once-friendly workers joined warring camps, roughly divided between “#TeamNelson” and “#NelsonMustGo!” said Scott Hanselman, a developer community manager at Microsoft. “You would meet your co-workers and have an argument: ‘You think Nelson should stay? We can’t be friends now,’” he said.
Microsoft President Brad Smith joined the debate. After a chance run-in with Mr. Badoo at a Microsoft cafe, he opined on LinkedIn that Nelson should have asked for help right away. “Problems don’t get better with age!” he wrote.
In the third season, an elevator opens to show Nelson carrying a cardboard box. (Spoiler alert, Nelson was just moving offices.)
Mr. Badoo says he is stopped for selfies during visits to the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Some employees think he works there. “What building are you in?” they ask, and Mr. Badoo plays along. “My name is Nelson when I’m on campus,” he said. “Once I leave Microsoft campus, I’m Devin. I’m nobody.”
That fiction was partly shattered when a Microsoft employee found him working his day job at a Warby Parker store in Seattle. Soon, others trickled in to take photos. Some didn’t want to believe it. “It’s one of those things where you don’t want to give away who Santa Claus is,” Mr. Hanselman said.
Jeremy Peach, a Microsoft employee at the company’s Charlotte, N.C., office, came to work one Halloween wearing a “Nelson” nametag and toting a manila folder with the words “Stolen Customer Data.” He got a grand welcome. “Sad to say, after five years, that’s probably the most successful thing I’ve done at Microsoft,” Mr. Peach said.
Not everyone is a fan. One detractor wrote to Mr. Hanselman on Twitter after the fourth season of “Trust Code,” saying he found it “memorable mostly because of how bad it was.”
To boost his acting career, Mr. Badoo relocated with his wife from Seattle to Los Angeles a couple of years ago. While home, in between watching the couple’s 1-year-old twins, Mr. Badoo sets up a ring light and does remote auditions for such TV commercial roles as a window washer or a spokesman for flea-and-tick medication. Then he is back to changing diapers.
When Mr. Badoo returns to Seattle to shoot new seasons of “Trust Code,” he gets a glimpse of life as a TV star. “Sometimes it will hit me when we’re filming on set. ‘What is this? How did we get here?’” he said.
Write to Dylan Tokar at firstname.lastname@example.org