Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Let's Fire all the Middle Managers

"The first thing we do, let's fire all the middle managers."

Good. A recent comment starts: They should start the layoffs with middle managers...

I agree with that. Good point. The comment continues: ...[t]here's this guy who goes by Mini-Microsoft who seems to want out.

Who-da, What'za, Me-za?!? Yeah, well, okay, when you point a finger, three point back at you. I'm currently bored and exporting the GAL via Outlook to Excel to figure out how many manager-of-managers we have compared to all of management and what their average number of reports are (good lord, has Outlook ever profiled this? Can't be a common scenario and I'm squeezing my innards trying to psychically induce Outlook to run a little faster).

My intuition off-hand tells me that we have way too many idle managers, especially managers of managers. Whenever some new person shows up in an important email, I click on them in Outlook and look through their org. I'm constantly disappointed at the high percentage of managers and low percentage of individual contributors in the groups I run across. Smelly.

Maybe it's individual contributor attrition due to the fact that Google and the local start-ups are only hiring the productive people.

I figure that a feature-team manager at the minimum can deal with five reports; seven would be better (+/- 2). And, yo, just focus on the managing. Don't go and spin Alpha-Geek mythology around promoting someone from individual contributor to front-line manager and then require them to both (a) create code and (b) manage. Gee, which do you think their passion is going to direct them towards?

"We promote our best developers to leads," is the mantra instilled when the shades are closed and the candidates considered. I've never quite connected the dots of "Best Developer" and "Great Manager."

Via Dare Obasanjo:

Michael Brundage has an essay entitled Working at Microsoft  where he provides some of his opinions on the good, the bad, and the in-between of working at Microsoft. One key insight is that Microsoft tends to have good upper management and poor middle management.

And in  Working at Microsoft  you have some choice bits, especially regarding the whole idea of promoting our best developers away from the code and throwing them into the throngs of management. One bit:

Of these managers, I'd work for (or with) only two of them again. Two were so awful that if they were hired into my current organization (even on another team), I'd quit on the spot. I'd love to think this is some kind of fluke, but many other employees have shared similar sentiments with me.

Back to Dare on the cost of poor management:

Rest assured it is very true and the effects on the company have cost it millions, if not billions of dollars.

My humble suggestion: flatten the Microsoft product team management chain.

  • Not allowed: a lead with one or two reports, or a manager of managers with a sparse organizational tree. You're considered minimally loaded at five reports, and in need of internal balancing if it gets below that.
  • Do a people review of middle management. Move on the dead wood and the Rest & Vest.
  • Give front-line managers the opportunity to return to individual contributor status. You know, let our best developers get back to doing what they are best at.
  • If the remaining managers are indeed great managers, let them take on a full load; otherwise, forcefully transition them to individual contributor and require them to excel against their peers.

If all this process is paying off, I think we can get by with a lot less management and a lot more personal Engineering Excellence.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree! Working at MS Support Services, I am constantly amazed at how many layers of management is being added to the "food chain"... I used to know who most of people were between little me (individual contributor) and some "X" big manager - not so anymore... it became hard.

Anonymous said...

It is amusing to watch as they divide, subdivide and rejigger roles to give the middle managers that you mention promotions, titles and a few directs. Need to avoid a rebalance, budget yourself a GA and there's your fifth, sixth or seventh employee.

Microsoft is a company that has a whole lot of title dillution and not much value add for all the managers they're adding. I guess it makes the rapidly promoted managers feel important. Also, since these title minted managers don't have anything else to do, they drive busywork initiatives and if you're not completely on board - well review time won't be a joy.

I still remember the days when new ideas and different ways of finding solutions to problems were appreciated now it's get on board with the vision or get out.

Anonymous said...

Agree - the span of control is far less than most competitors (meaning too many mgrs/emp) and in many cases, the individual has far less experience, training, capability than their IBM, Oracle, HP counterpart. When the company was growing by leaps and bounds, the impact of that wasn't obvious and indeed these folks looked like stars. However, now that growth is coming to a standstill and competition is getting more formidible, it's increasingly apparent that these folks as a group aren't up to the challenge.

Anonymous said...

Without all the useless managers, how else can we come up with pure, unadulterated bullshit?
One of the goals from there is "Deliver simple, high-value experiences and services". Wow how did they think of that!! Amazing!!

Tim Worstall said...

Happens to every organisation sooner or later.
Read C. Northcote Parkinson on the subject (it’s in the book, Parkinson’s Law).
I came across little thing today, the revamped MSN Search still has a number of problems.
http://timworstall.typepad.com/timworstall/2005/02/the_new_msn_sea.html

Anonymous said...

I worked in a group within Windows. There was some reshuffling, then a mafia took over. Two guys trying to be the test manager setup their own small empires. Then they actually joined forces.

In the meantime, they promoted 2 of their worshippers as leads. One in particular (who is still listed in some recruiting pages as a fine example of one of our employees) was just atrocious and all his directs, within 4 weeks, were complaining to HR about him.

We all left the team and eventually there was a huge bloodbath. But that took about 1.5 years, cost MSFT 2 good employees to a competitor and basically negated any positive contribution about 4 other guys could have made over a 6 month or so period.

No one, I mean no one up the food chain would listen to what a horrendous mistake it was that any of these clowns ever got into management.

Anonymous said...

First off if you really wanted to know the number of middle managers you should use the internal tools in the company. As your admin what tool they use to deal with req. & pos. numbers. That tool is a lot easier and quicker than using the GAL for the task (it is a common tool that has "head" as part of its name but I am not going to list it here.
Second what makes you think that efforts are not already underway to do what you describe? Some groups are slower than others (read the Windows org) but the cosolidation of the number people per lead and then per manager has been underway for the last two years (look to the IW division, they seem to be leading the way). I spent over 11 years in management (lead, manager, or group manager) before moving back to an IC and there never was a time when I did not have a least five reports (the average was 8) except when I was at the group manager level and had only four managers report to me plus an admin so I guess I *did* have five. I think a better statement to make on firing middle managers is making sure you have good leads/managers in place. You are right that over the years there have been too many "field promotions" where someone was a good IC and they were just made a lead thinking that being good at doing regular duties made you a good lead of others which in many cases is not the case.

Anonymous said...

Another group of people that needs to go are the ridiculous number of "Project Managers" that project manager each other's projects. Meaning that each of them is not solely accountable for the project.

When sh_t hits the fans, each of them point to one another and nothing positive ever happen from that.

Another thing. The big three letter acronym C P E. It's fun to see that each division and group making use of that to do/not do things anymore.

Anonymous said...

I used to know who most of people were between little me (individual contributor) and some "X" big managerWhen I got there - as an intern - I knew every person between me and BIll. Me to my manager (1) to his manager (2) to his manager (3) to the head of the division (4) to BillG (5). Five steps. (Unnamed since a couple of them are still there. Aside from Bill. ^_^ ) And the company was already well into five digits of employees.

(Mine wasn't even the shortest intern reporting chain. Another intern had one smaller.)

And sure, the company can't do that anymore; I accept that. But what's set up now is just stupid. Those managers had a lot more than five or six reports, and it wasn't breaking their backs to make it work. Empire building may be inevitable - it's like horsetail or blackberries, it just seems to appear on its own - but it has to be put in check or it will destroy a company. Any company.

Even Microsoft.

ski4burgers said...

Wow, where do I start? Clearly the people who complain about management levels in MSFT have never worked for another non-startup software company. I worked for NOVL, and the management heirarchy was no different, if not worse, there.

Big companies have deep management levels. That's just how it goes. If you don't like it, then you should A) not be working for a big company, or B) get yourself promoted into management and change the model.

What you should *not* be doing, is whining to a blogger's message board. If that's all you're doing, then you are A) pretty crappy at your individual contributor role, or B) not smart enough to effect any changes in your org.

Before the deluge of "what's your deal?" emails, let me just say that I don't think the original premise of this email is wrong, I just see a lot of people in the "whiner" category posting responses. Fix it, or shut the *?$!@#$ up.

ski4burgers said...

Wow, where do I start? Clearly the people who complain about management levels in MSFT have never worked for another non-startup software company. I worked for NOVL, and the management heirarchy was no different, if not worse, there.

Big companies have deep management levels. That's just how it goes. If you don't like it, then you should A) not be working for a big company, or B) get yourself promoted into management and change the model.

What you should *not* be doing, is whining to a blogger's message board. If that's all you're doing, then you are A) pretty crappy at your individual contributor role, or B) not smart enough to effect any changes in your org.

Before the deluge of "what's your deal?" emails, let me just say that I don't think the original premise of this email is wrong, I just see a lot of people in the "whiner" category posting responses. Fix it, or shut the *?$!@#$ up.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget what's happening to novl.

If a little whining can help bring focus, so be it.

neema said...

I'm an outsider and let me ask you a question? What is Microsoft's core mission? Who does Microsoft really want to serve? As big as Microsoft has gotten, can that question be answered? Is the problem with IE security in that it was designed to be as flexible as possible for 3rd parties or focused on the end-user?

It seems to me that Microsoft is trying to serve too many groups and so paranoid about being overtaken by the next big thing that it not lacks a core mission and core customers but that even Microsoft doesn't know "where [they] want to be tomorrow." Total domination of everything might be a goal for Pinky and The Brain but not for a company.

Without being anti-Microsoft, could it be that Microsoft simply too big and too spread out?

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Anonymous said...

It might be instructive to study the Digital Equipment Corp. history. The company laid off whole warehouses of middle managers but by then it was too late, since the product line was no longer interesting to the rest of the world.

teambob said...

I used to work for a telecommunications equipment company (which shall remain nameless.)

It was so hierarchial that they had a level system. The "boss" where I worked was level E.

Then there were two or three more levels between the "boss" and me. First a technical manager then a project manager.

Some projects then had a "project lead" which gave three layers.

Then they added "matrix" management which meant that the management was becoming so hierarchial that they needed to manage in an ad-hoc/chaotic way to get anything done.

Add to that a cop-out attitude that "it's in the documentation somewhere" and you have a HELL of a place to work.