Monday, October 31, 2005

Giving a Reality Check

Giving: checking in with the Giving Campaign at http://give/ shows we met the dollar target but missed the percent target (just by 5%). I am so proud to work at a company that matches our charitable giving dollar to dollar. Since 2001, I always feel a little anxiety every time a Giving Campaign rolls around, wondering if people are prone to giving less when work is more like a jay-oh-bee than a remarkable place. I do muse over the business group breakouts, wondering if there's anything to be drawn from the high participation (research / exec staff) to the low participation.

Business Week: there were a few interesting letters following up to the Business Week interview with Steve Ballmer: Reading Between The Lines At Microsoft. Interesting snippet:

With 25 years of experience as a human resources and organization consultant, I found the hollow phrases of Ballmer and his evasive response to the pointed questions of your journalists very recognizable. I've heard and seen them before in numerous companies where, soon afterward, the chief executive and the organization were in deep trouble and totally "surprised."

Mr. Greene also kicks in his assessment of last week's financials: Microsoft's Xbox Factor. As for the financials and other reactions, Friday was a good day (though any day we end up at least one cent feels like a good day for the past few years). A number of articles are coming vetting that Microsoft has finally hit bottom and is set for stock growth. I have my favorite cowboy hat ready to start waving as I yell out "Yee, haw!" riding that climbing stock chart line graph. The following should stay live and current as time goes by so we'll see (Microsoft vs. the stock indexes via Yahoo!):

Check, check: regarding the posts cheering on ChrisJo's internal blogging and the departures of Hadi and Don, this comment hits the Reality Check Reset button:

I am surprised with the kind of people that are getting praised in this group. First you expect the HR folks to come and solve the problems that exist at low levels. Linda Brumel is expected to solve all problems that exist. Then every fat middle management person that leaves microsoft is praised as having contributed incredibly for the success of Microsoft. ( what about the folks that are breaking their backs and still working hard ) Then people like Chris Jones who did a lot of useless things are being praised as heros. Who killed the IE team without any business sense ( IE team is being re-created because of firefox ), pushed longhorn API and messed up alpha longhorn and has a business degree. Not only has he successfully disbanded a good team - he has grown incompetent people to management roles. His org still has a lot of issues and people like him are causing the current problems at Microsoft.

Goodness! A little context goes a long way.

No Windows for You! Various comments in the last post go back and forth discussing the threat to yank Windows out of South Korea if the South Korean government come down with a decision that forces Microsoft to redesign what goes in the box. I agree with some of the commenters that the components in question should already be such that the base COM components can always be installed and you can make the executable instantiating those components either hidden, install on demand, turned-off, download only, whatever. As a shareholder pissed off by the whole Windows N debacle, though (how many copies of that have we sold, M. E.U.?), I am a bit ready to collect my marbles. But then, a $200,000,000 growing market keeps my attention (and my marbles on the ground).

I'm not clear on the SKU plan for Vista, but perhaps there is a stripped down "N"-ish version in there with all the basic components to program against but none of the executables present that we can provide for situations like this. I like the idea of "Mega" or "Max" or "Supah Premium" versions because they then do give value to the, ah, bundling of features out of the box and distinguish them from a monolithic operating system that governments object to. Choice begets wiggle room.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

FY06 Q1 Results, SteveB Memo, and Non-Compliance

More quarterly financial results and a Steve Ballmer email to boot! Some quick lazy links thanks to Todd Bishop at the Seattle PI:

And some more...

Joe Wilcox has a take on the financial results: Microsoft Fiscal 2006 Q1 Results . It ends with a kicker:

Given Xbox 360's power--easily rivaling many home PCs--I would contend that Microsoft is a computer manufacturer, ala Apple.

Hmm. The Red Herring link up there ends with this bit:

The company also went through a reorganization creating three broad groups comprised of platform and products services, a business division, and entertainment and devices. The reorganization sought to realign various business groups and “speed up execution,” Microsoft said.
But the move got a thumbs-down from analysts who said it failed to tackle the bureaucracy and lack of agility that has plagued the company in recent years (see Redmond Reorg Skirts Problems).

That last link, Redmond Reorg Skirts Problems, is a good read. A snippet:

Mr. Cohan suggested Microsoft may need to look at radical solutions, such as splitting up the company, to get its mojo back. "If you split it up into smaller pieces, each of which can act as an entrepreneurial venture, then it could energize the company," he said.

(There's mojo again - is that an emergent term? Maybe if I had started this blog for the first time today I'd rename it Mojo-Microsoft.)

Alright, so how is the stock doing after hours. Is it (baiting my breath) taking off like a rocket like Google this past week, up 10% or more? Click... no, down to $24.45 (exhale / sigh). A general concern is being expressed about XBox 360 and Microsoft being able to sell enough units. People don't have a good idea how many units are going to be available for launch or through the rest of the year. Answering that would relieve some angst (Wall Street + Angst ==> Flat Stock).

Personally, I'm a bit worried about initial XBox 360 impressions. I sat down at the Company Museum and played with one (I'm sure I had a frowny face as I sat in-front of the money losing gift to the gaming community). First of all, the controller is fantastic. Secondly: I couldn't tell any difference in graphics and play from just a regular ole XBox game. Now, I know it wasn't a big huge screen or anything, but if you had started up the game and given me my old Duke controller, I would have been quite convinced I was playing on the good ole XBox. I hope the future games blow away this initial taste.

Given that XBox 360 is supposed to be one of the innovative firecrackers erupting out of our big-bang pipeline, Microsoft needs to do everything possible to assuage The Street that all is good and there will not be missed opportunities for the holidays. As of today, XBox 360 is getting marginalized by supply worry. Now is a good time for a dose of that Ballmer sunshine.

As for SteveB's memo today: I'd like to provide kudos on the last item in the memo: providing quarterly web casts about what's going on. That's great. Even if I'm saving my old wine corks to help shield my orifices from sunshine and smoke, I think the more upper management communicates with the rank-and-file the more the current communication gap we have starts to close. For instance, I wish every VP was as open as Chris Jones on http://blogs/ - the guy went and posted his commitments, for goodness sakes. More honest communication on a frequent basis is nothing but goodness.

One last thing: we all know the term "currency" as applied to building good will with external or internal teams. Something you build up with trust and loyalty and such. Well, we just went and blew our currency with the government and Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly over this dumb-ass "Microsoft Only" strong-arm tactic for music-player vendors. I love this snippet from the C|Net article:

An attorney for Microsoft, Charles Rule, said Microsoft regretted the mistake and that "a low-level business person" who was not fully aware of Microsoft's mandate was responsible.

Blame it on the newby flunky. First of all, fire everyone involved. You want to be serious about the credibility hit we just took? Fire the folks involved and let PR know it's okay to say publicly that we've eliminated those folks as part of being dead serious over compliance. And you know, this didn't just slip out with low-level persons coming up with this scheme on their own. This is worse than a demo crashing. This kind of mistake puts the company and the shareholders at major financial risk. The government might go ahead with a forced break-up and split us up into three smaller companies and - oh!

Oooo. I likie. Maybe there's someone working here that's a lot more devious than I can imagine.

(Two week cool-down complete. Comments are back on - enjoy and behave!)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Two Microsofties Depart and Bloggity Thoughts

Two more big departures from Microsoft: Hadi Partovi and Don Gagne.

(1) Hadi noted via Sanaz's blog:

hadi partovi leaving ms

hadi, one of the main reasons for's existence is leaving microsoft to start his own venture. i'm very bummed to see him leave - but i'm glad i got a chance to work with him while he was here.

more details in seattle times article: Key MSN Manager is leaving to launch startup...

(2) Don via email that I posted in comment section:


A friend in Office forwarded me a Friday Steven Sinofsky email that Don Gagne is leaving Microsoft in December. This is a super huge loss for Microsoft and a colossal loss for Office (DonGa is in charge of development for all of Office). It's been a while since I've been on a team with Don, but he is an engineer's engineer, a voice for reason, and a champion of what is best for Microsoft's customers. While some Microsofties scream and preen and use politics to advance their little agenda, Don has always used quiet reason, common sense, and intellect to make the best possible decisions. And he's never been shy to break out the code or icecap or such to prove what's the right thing to do based on reality, not agendas.

You ask about greatness forged within Microsoft itself? That's Don. There is no replacement for Don. The only good news is that Don is not going to join a competitor like Google but rather leaving to chase his non-software passion. Microsoft, and the company's shareholders, are in a much better place now thanks to Don's contributions. I can only hope that everyone working closely with him have been paying close attention and have learned well to carry on in his absence.

I hope that he one day returns.

Speaking of comments: one way or another, I plan to turn on comments again next week. As I've lamented in the past, this blog is pushing the limits to what a blog can do as a community space. You really need something evolved... something like a... hmm... bloggity. Some simple features (which I realize some blogging software already provides) that I can think off of the top of my head that a bloggity should have are below. The thing is... I think it's more about adding features that promote good content and not trying to outsmart or outwit people gumming up the works with bad content or noise. I expect that I'll need to dedicate a certain amount of maintenance here if the level of focused contribution continues forward.

Comments feed: Blogger really needs to have a comment feed you can turn on to catch what people are saying in response to posts or other comments. People sometime add comments to really old posts that I doubt too many people ever get to read.

Comments view: it would be great to have a view that just shows recent N comments or comments over the past N days, grouped by time or by associated post, over the entire blog.

Batch delete: right now, for this blog, I have delete comment spam and crappy comments one by one. It takes forever and I'd rather be reading my new Wired magazine. I'd much rather have a batch delete so that I could just put a check box by each comment and say, "Kill it!" This would also reduce the number of times a page is republished.

Signal booster for comments: here's a hard one. As I've noted in the previous post's comments, both Tom Peters and Steven Sinofsky have been dealing with comment problems over the past week. Scoble just calls his comment area The Mudpit to set expectations. A few weeks ago, Scoble had to break out the chainsaw on Channel9 due to a bunch of trolling (which, I'm embarrassed to say, this blog was used as bait). Ideas around trying to boost signal?

Moderated comments: this is just short of what I'm doing right now as a comment monkey. Let people submit comments and allow the blog owner to let through the ones that meet the bar. I'd be happy with an option that if a comment is not approved within n-hours, let the comment through as auto-approved. That would at least cover things if I slip into a lazy mode (or if I'm out of town) and allow the comments to continue to be posted and not pile up.

I'd expect a sharp drop in comments under the moderated model. Perhaps a dozen a day. A batch approve / disapprove would be essential, especially if it went back up into the dozens-upon-dozens comments a day again. This, too, would reduce the number of times a blog page had to be republished.

Throttled comments: sort of mentioned above, but basically a model where comments go into a queue and the queue is batched published on a given schedule. I think this would help avoid the back-and-forth nyeh-nyeh posts. But you'd probably need a duplicate detector for those folks who keep hitting the publish button and wondering where their comment is...

Trusted commenting: a mechanism where certain posters could just outright comment. Given trust (see below), these people don't have to be moderated or throttled.

Semi-Anonymous commenting: your posting can be made as anonymous but through an established identity. This would allow you to delete (or edit) your own comments later.

Karma: an established identity, even if semi-anonymous,  could also be used to grant (or deny) trust. Mostly grant. E.g., if I an anonymous person was making a very reasoned argument or posting and I saw I could grant some trust or karma to them, I would (without having to know their established identity). That way, if commenting was throttled or moderated, I would be happy to let their post through untouched (until they made a big boo-boo and I revoked my level of trust towards them). And provide the same level of granting trust for those that posted through a public established identity, too.

Elevated commenting: a way for the blog owner to call out worth-while to read comments. In Slashdot this is done by setting a threshold and only showing comments that meet that threshold. Still sort of noisy. I just want a simple way to give a gold star to a comment so that if there are, say, 150 comments someone could scan through to find the ones worth reading. Right now, the only way I do this is to flag them in Outlook and then use that as a way to repost interesting comments.

Big Idea discussion areas: so in all the linear postings a blog provides, occasionally big ideas or agenda items pop forth. Rather than being lost in time, I'd like to be able to call these out into their own areas. For instance: what to replace the performance review system with as a Big Idea post. It could be living, undergoing revision and morphing itself from the comments and discussions off of it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

We missed the boat but we've got a new hope

Three quick random things.

A New Hope? I was sent an email that it would be worthwhile to check out Chris Jones' internal blog. For Microsofties on the intranet, it's at http://blogs/chrisjo/ . Wow. He tackles some hard questions, ranging from work-life balance to VP-compensation to the Mini-Microsoft blog (hello, Mr. Jones). His answers give me hope. I look forward to the answers turning into results.

Goodbye Ward: Ward Cunningham has left to work at Eclipse (and I tell you: given the slow .NET encumbered beast that VS 2005 is, even I'm tempted to try out Eclipse right now). I first stumbled across it on edjez's So Long Ward post. Not to be overly snarky, but there goes another geek trophy wife. An... interesting hire in the first place. I'd be interested in knowing if there's a reason he moved on vs. just being plain more excited about Eclipse than anything he was able to do at Microsoft.

I hope rather than going out and looking for the next high-profile geek trophy wife that Microsoft takes a moment of reflection to ask why is it, given that we've hired so many great people and have so many wonderful researchers, that we haven't produced beloved super-star geeks. What is it about our culture?

Uh, Oh: Joe Wilcox questions whether the late Vista has missed a special nodal-point of increased PC purchases. Going into next week's quarterly earning's report, Mr. Wilcox reflects:

In July I asked the question: "Did Microsoft miss a major PC and operating system upgrade cycle? I won't say definitely until the third calendar quarter is finished and buying trends for the year clearer to assess. But my initial reaction is to say yes." Increasingly I'm convinced that Microsoft would have been much better off shipping Windows Vista in 2005 than late 2006.

Oh, yeah. Muuuuuch better. I'm sure everyone working on getting Vista out the door realizes, too, that Microsoft's stock price is directly coupled to their day-to-day success.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative

You've got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

Bing speaks to so many levels.

Pudding proof: just another quick post. Given that comments have been turned off, I find myself with some spare time to wander the web a little. Now, I can't play with right now because I web surf with highly restricted security settings (which kind of makes AJAX 'Oh-Nothing' for me). But I'm glad to see the press is getting and how gadgets became this Vista / / XP transitive beastie.

I'm curious if would have been included in the mix if they hadn't conjured themselves up and got something creative out there. I'm also reminded about how powerful Internet Explorer is not only as a web browser but also as a platform... just wander through some of the topics about programming in IE on MSDN and become amazed at the things you had no idea this little browser could do.

Anyway, so I bopped over to Sanaz's web space and scanned through it and saw this little snippet:

the next steps: slimming down our middle management and chiefs, revisiting the different disciplines at microsoft and evaluating: do we need these positions? do we need all these layers of management? can we be more efficient?

we have over 61,000 employees and only 8,000 of which are developers. doesn't sound right does it? not to me anyways.. well that's what my thinkweek paper will be on, doing more with less chiefs...

I look forward to that ThinkWeek paper! And what's empowering here is that any team that actually shipped something using efficient techniques is going to be able to speak from a position of power, versus say that smart guy waiving around books about scrum and stuff with a capital "X" in it. Ship something impressive first in a surprisingly efficient manner and then start waiving for attention.

Shareholder revolt? Well, I guess if enough shareholders take their proxy and look at question #1 and say "None of these folks!" that might just register on the leadership radar. For all the proxies heading my way (yeah, I hold Microsoft stock through more ways that I should), I'm selecting "Withhold all Nominees."

Where have all the comments gone? I pressed the big pause button this past week. I saw this comment overload coming long before it happened and it's a familiar pattern. It happened on BBSs when everyone else started by modems at Radio Shack. Happened on Usenet. As Clay Shirky notes in "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy" it happens over and over again (like with Communitree).

Like Usenet, the contemporary non-efficient yet best approach would be to allow moderated comments that had a quick way to approve or delete comments (like a checkbox one way or the other for each pending one so that only one publish sequence would be required). I'll put a request into Goggle for that (I sure wish some community-specialist at Google was spending a day a week improving Blogger's features!) but I don't have high hopes of seeing that anytime soon. I could just open the floodgates and delete offending comments, but that's rather slow with Blogger, too, and, heck, I'm lazy so offending comments would probably linger for a day or more, leading to their own threaded life.

Or I could switch to another blogging service that had moderated comments (I want the comments to be part of the posting, not hanging off of the main page on some other server). But remember: lazy!

I grieve the loss of comments, as I'm sure a lot of you do out there, because some truly great gems showed up that provided interesting perspectives into Microsoft. It was just becoming harder to find the gems in the middle of egregious brain-misfires. The only thing I can think of in the short-term is to be a comment-monkey myself: if you have a comment and would like me to consider adding it on to a particular post, you can send an email to me at this mailto link and I'll give it a scan and when I have a bunch to post I'll add it, if it's got good content and no noise. Note that anything sent to that address is fair game for me to share. Send it elsewhere if you want it to be private. I have no interest in sharing who it is from unless in your message body you specifically add your name as part of signing the message. And use a freebie mail account or some remailers if you're worried about your own privacy.

As a social experiment to indulge my own curiosity, I might silently turn the comments back on in the future. But no time soon. And if that's not cool with you and you're interested in a space like the old Mini: create your own blog or such and commence with the posting and commenting. I'll link to it and any interesting comments that crop up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Where do we go from here?

Let's see... here in the West the aspens are turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. No, no, not right. How about: recently, while propping my forearms on a tilted rake handle, I watched the big-leaf maple leaves swirling down around me and meditated on the various concerns of how the postings, conversations, and focus of the little Mini-Microsoft blog seems to be way off topic from its early days. How did the focus end up (look to left, look to right) here? Is it way off the path I was beating?

What's up with the focus on stack ranking, The Curve, process, and bureaucracy? What does that have to do with making Microsoft a leaner, agile organization that's able to shed off accumulations of dead drift-wood and get back to quickly producing fan-damn-tastic software products and services that brings in boat-loads of cash and makes shareholders clap their hands together, looking upward, shouting, "I believe again!"

So, yes, the original blast off post didn't have those topics on my agenda-radar. When I talked about stack ranking, it was more about how to play the game and get a good score vs. what a brain-dead ancient industrial-era performance appraisal device stack ranking (aka rank and yank) is.

(Short story time: when I was an individual contributor, I didn't know there was a stack rank. I learned a little bit about stack ranking from my first good manager. It wasn't until I was a lead and I was told to show up as some long meeting that I found out the full story of what the process involved. If only it also involved us puffing cigars and sitting in plush leather seats. Well, after I found out about stack ranking, I went on a mission to spread the word about how performance evaluation works to my reports, just so that they could understand what I meant by "visibility" and what goes on behind closed shades. Over time, more and more people have learned how our performance appraisal works. Even more so, I hope, due to the postings and conversations here. Still, though, I'll run across people that I'm giving career advice to and they'll respond back to me, quizzically, "The what-rank?")

When you turn your focus on one thing - say, finding out why Microsoft has been stumbling over itself and losing key talent - other items and issues you might have ignored in the past flare up and get your attention. You read business books and magazines and web sites vs. learning XQuery (fortunately, no loss there).

  • What does it mean to grow rapidly?
  • What are the consequences?
  • What common problems that exist in other corporations might exist in a maturing Microsoft?
  • What strategies exist to recover from these problems?

Usually, I say Microsoft's key assets are the people working for it. Actually, Microsoft's key asset is probably the monopolistic domination of desktop software and office software and cash that currently brings in. So people are next in line as Microsoft's key asset. And as the quality of hires and their day-to-day accomplishments suffer, so does Microsoft. Our engines of creation sit between our ears and are wired to the ten digit money makers clicking away on our keyboards. We all work on a team of some sort, and our work is interconnected when it comes to delivering quality results. Heh, maybe Scooter's aspens are an appropriate analogy... anyway, anything that impedes quality results impedes delivering fan-damn-tastic results and shareholder value.

Low quality, bad hires and bad acquisitions poison our company. Increased size results in increased management levels meaning that mid to upper management needs new processes to understand what's happening where. Lack of annual dynamic restructuring creates fiefdoms and cronyism and a complete breakdown in responsibility and accountability. Curve fitting results in folks doing what's best for themselves vs. what's best for their product and the shareholders. Forced review results rob people of their passion to do a good job. People playing the system keep around poor performers to ease their review model.

But, I've said all that before. What else is there to say, now that the public light has been shined all over those gripes?

I feel naive in making this remark, but... there's no justice. I want justice. Justice is a funny thing to ask for in a corporate world, I know. But as of late, justice seems to be sorely lacking at Microsoft and it is sucking the passion and inspiration out of people.

I want those who have screwed up to be shown the door. I want those who have done an excellent job this past week to be told, "Hey, that's a great job!" vs. their manager holding their tongue, aware that the curve might trend their report downward. I want folks to speak their mind and help start putting forth proactive change. I want VPs and GMs to go without the new big pay-raise incentive bonus until after everyone else have been given reasonable compensation. I want less VPs and GMs. I want a flattening of all organizations with a goal, within the next few months, to remove one layer of management cross-company. I want a corporate efficiency-cop that people can bring in to help streamline their org.

I want Microsoft's re-invention into a blazing, just 21st century company to be the innovative turn-around that books get written about for many years to come.

And, yes, I also want a milkshake. Preferably, one from Fat Burger. Oh, and less posters.

But what's an individual to do in seeking justice and cutting back on inefficiencies and bureaucracies? It's great to have all these desires and to pontificate upon them, but what can you actually *do*? What has worked for you? Have you done something proactive that turned out well? Have you chucked your sabot into some dumb process and where able to get back to being productive?

Random shallow ideas from the tips of my fingers:

Destroy all meetings. If you can't outright decline meetings, try to coalesce them. Always challenge the organizer for an agenda and goals. If they push back, remind them and their lead how much money every meeting costs Microsoft. Be an ass in meetings: ensure people take ownership for problems discussed before leaving, instead of having a bunch of good intentions that require another meeting later to dole out. With a bit of basic behavioral modification, you can unmake those meeting-happy contributors.

Cause trouble now. Eh, you've got about a month to cause trouble until you have to slip into hyper achievement mode going into the mid-year review. An informal stack rank is usually done then and you have to do the usually visibility games right before that to remind people about how great you are. But if you have an idea that might cause all hell to break lose, best to try it now. Write the VP with your ideas of how things could be a lot better. Now's the time for taking risks. And again after the mid-year is over. Then it's back to being a shinning cog above all other cogs.

Learn. Read some books about successful software development patterns and adopt them with fierce visibility. If there's a good group on campus that people brag about how well they do, drop in and learn more. Bring it back to your group. If feature-crews are da bomb, see if you can get your group to learn and adopt them. Bring in ideas for techniques that reduce waste and rob people of doing the job we hired them to do.

Leave. As always, I have to present this option. I'm putting down my little pied-pipe and reminding you of my meta-purpose: a smaller Microsoft. That probably means you, as good looking as smart as you are, are someone I'd prefer to see work elsewhere. And justice and satisfaction are usually a lot easier to find in smaller companies. If you leave, don't do so in a vacuum. I'd certainly appreciate a comment here on why you left, or at least a link to your own post.

So, back to meditating around the falling leaves, how did I end up here, griping about process and other crap? I realized the growth of Microsoft has fostered a negative environment flourishing in process engineered by a growing middle management to keep itself busy. This is something the smaller Microsoft never had to deal with, yet we're still applying ideas and concepts from a smaller Microsoft. If I was smarter, I'd have better ideas to apply to the big Microsoft. Right now, I just want a big shake up that shines the light of responsibility on everyone, president to new-hire, and if your contributions to Microsoft's bottom-line aren't up to snuff, well, it's time to move on to find a better fit. And trend towards a smaller Microsoft.

This all said, I probably won't be posting about meta-problems like bureaucracy for a while unless something egregious comes my way. I'm going to dial the knob back and, if I post anytime soon, be on more direct smaller topics. I've been meaning to write my anti-CLR post for a while (ooo, that's a gonna be a fun one!). And I'm entering my own phase of shining above my peers so I'll be spending less time here and more time at what pays the bills. Take care.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Meeting with SteveSi, cat-fights, and then some.

This is an almost 100% comment paste job post, with a touch of commentary at the end. The first two comments I think are just great and worth repeating, especially for those poor people who just read the web feed.

One: Lou Giliberto provided the following interesting tale of sending feedback to SteveSi and then ending up having a meeting to follow-up on that email:

Hey Mini et al.

In my group we were having an e-mail discussion about process. Someone forwarded the link to Steven Sinofsky's blog entry on Bureuacracy.

In it he said:

We’ve put in processes that make no sense. We’ve decided things as an organization that are plain dumb. How do we excuse these? We don’t. MS people send me mail. I want to know about them.

So, I sent an e-mail to both him and Jim Allchin about process in Windows. I tried to make it not a rant, but I sure part of it ranted because it's a subject that burns me up.

But what I did was try to give personal examples of where the current process fails.

Jim Allchin took the time to respond to me, and he agreed with certain points, disagreed with others, and said he would look into trying one of my suggestions.

Steven Sinofsky thanked me for the mail and asked that I find some time to meet with him and bring some of my peers along.

So, on Friday me and 4 of my peers went and met with Steven. We outlined a bunch of problems we had with the process, how it affected us in our day-to-day jobs, etc. We had people from test, a dev manager, devs from two different windows orgs, etc. So it was from several points of view at the IC or low management level.

He listened, agreed with certain points, disagreed with others. He also challenged us to come up with a next step to fix things and offered to help us with it in any reasonable way he could.

BTW, Steven doesn't wear Gucci loafers. Though, he wasn't dressed like me either (hair past my shoulders, "No, I will not fix your computer" thinkgeek T-shirt, and torn jeans). AFAIK, Allchin doesn't wear Gucci loafers either. I don't have a foot fetish, so I usually don't pay attention to such things.

The thing to remember, especially about Sinofsky and Allchin, is that they started at a level where this stuff would affect them. They do understand how to do development. They weren't born into senior exec positions. They do have other concerns and a different view because they have different responsibilities at that level. So, opinions are bound to differ on some level.

But they obviously don't want things that stop us from shipping good products, so if there is a real problem, they want to know about it.

Sinofsky and Allchin want to fix any problems. When they disagreed with me, they were clear why certain processes were in place. That gives me an opportunity to offer an alternative to that process that may work better.

But, you can only have this kind of give-and-take discussion if you are willing to talk openly and face-to-face (or at least in e-mail).

Do I fear retribution? Nope. Because I didn't make a jackass out of myself, I stated things factually (with a tinge of bitterness and frustration), and by being non-anonymous they were given the opportunity to understand exactly how the process affected me and my peers.

By coming with some peers in a non-confrontational way to an invite from an exec, he was able to see this wasn't one disgruntled dev. Myself and peers have been at MSFT from probably like 3-13 years. We weren't people with a string of 3.0's (deserved or otherwise) looking to grind an axe.

But yes, I have received retribution from a manager who didn't like being confronted with the truth. The thing is, though, he could afford to be petty. A senior exec is not going to be petty. They don't have time to waste. They're not going to waste their time singling someone out who is trying to fix things even if it's bad news.

And it goes both ways. I don't waste their time. I'm not going to complain to Allchin or Sinofsky about a personal problem. If my manager is a jerk, I'll either tough it out or leave. HR is worthless as many people pointed out because they are there to protect the company, and admitting fault doesn't protect the company.

If you are going to raise heck at work about a serious problem, you need to target the right level, and you need to be clear about the problem.

In this case, comment was invited, so I took Steven up on his invitation. I never met the guy before because I was always in Windows or MSN, but if someone is willing to listen, I have something to say. I CC:ed Jim because Windows is his org, and I don't talk behind people's backs about them or their orgs.

Now, will things change based on the feedback given?

I don't know (LOL). Though I received agreement from both execs on certain items, some of the problems are really hard to fix. Some of them can't be done right now - you can't change how everything is built in the middle of a release, for example.

The important thing, though, is that I talked and was listened to without retribution. There is a way to provide feedback in the company without losing your job or getting a 2.5.

You have to find someone who wants to fix the situation. Managers apply retribution when they don't want to fix the situation or when they are the direct cause of it and they're CYA scumbags.

So, my advice is if someone says "I want to hear about it" the right thing to do is to tell them about it.

You can always find someone willing to listen if you try hard enough, and you won't get fired for telling the truth.

Anyhow, I just wanted to make the point it is possible to give non-anonymous feedback about touchy subjects. I encourage people to do so whenever possible.

Two: I_LOVE_MEETINGS provides the following long-timer's perspective:

Geez. So much misinformation here. I am really surprised that so few (if any) middle- or senior- managers are saying anything.

Let's clear some of the rumours.

First, some background: I have been here for a looong time. I came in back when Developers were hired in as a "10" instead of a 59 or a 60. Years before the basketball courts were plowed to make room for the EBC. Back when there were half as many tiles as there are now in front of bldg 16. I now manage those who manage Developers, PGMs, and Testers. Saying too much more than that will give away who I am, but suffice it to say that I know what I am talking about.

Ok, here we go.

1. They do Stack Rank in MSN. I am not sure how Kevin's group is immune from that.

2. MSN is failing, and is mediocre, because it is staffed, for the most part, with mediocre people. MSN and all of the RedVest "Rest and Vest" teams are simply where the 2.5's, 3.0's, and burnouts from other (profitable) divisions go for in-office retirement. Hell, we've all been to RedWest, gazing at the women sitting around on the grass eating lunch, marvelling at the similarities between RedWest and a posh ski lodge. Many of us have seen the server labs that take up half of a floor, with their walls flanked with flat-panel HDTV LCD monitors that immediately switch from Halo2 to "Latest BVT Results" as soon as a senior manager walks in. Many of us know about the weekly morale events for the near-death teams (Autos, Homes) that include water-skiing on Sammamish and beer on Thursdays. The entire operation is a complete scam, and MSN should be spun-off as its own separate entity and allowed to die on its own. No more also-ran technologies. No more clueless SDEs and SDE/Ts who have benefitted from the rampant, stereoptypical MSN Level Inflation and promoted to L62 even though they only know how to write javascript and link together aspx pages. No more of my time spent warning my hiring managers to be wary when a L62 from MSN interviews for a L62 in our division, because more than likely the person is 2 levels higher than where he is supposed to be.

2. I severely doubt that if someone receives a 2.5 and is moved out of the org, that the ONLY reason it happened is because he/she voiced ONE dissenting opinion, one time, to ONE manager. 2.5's are held under careful scrutiny before they are given out, as are 4.5's. A lead/manager has to have some super compelling data that justifies giving someone either score. "He didn't agree with me once" simply does not cut it. On the other hand, though: "He never agrees with me, and is always moping around telling other people on the team that we are not doing the right thing, and in general is a drain on morale" is a solid justification.

3. I hate to say it, but here at MS, similarly to almost every other company in the world: Networking and social skills do help. If your manager likes you, and understands what you are doing, and sees your contribution, and doesn't see you as a drain on productivity or morale, he/she will go to bat for you.

4. The Stack Rank is a game, just like everything else. Learn to manage it. Learn to manage the perceptions that people have of you. Folks get ahead here because they increase their scope and span of influence. You'll get that next promotion when you have demonstrated that you can operate at that ladder level (in terms of scope, accountability, and skillset). A manager who promotes someone and then gives them a 2.5 (or sometimes, even a 3.0!) the following year OFTEN gets questioned. ("Why did you promote them to their level of incompetence? Are you not in tune with their ability?")

5. When the other senior managers and I sit around in {insert discipline here} Coordination Forum meetings, reviewing stack ranks for every team for that discipline in the division, there is always a person who is penciled in as a 3.5 yet who deserves a 4.0. When the manager cares, and goes to bat for the person with the right kind of data, I often see that person changed to a 4.0 instead. And do you know what helps? If that person has contributed in such a way that OTHER managers at that roundtable are aware of the contribution, and thus all can go to bat for the person. A senior manager is never going to argue a corner case, and is never going to push for someone whom they know has (choose one): angered folks on other groups, messed up a cross-team collaboration, rocked the boat with no apparent positive effect, etc.. A manager who cares will have collected the data beforehand, synched up with his/her peers prior to the coordination forum meeting, and communicated his/her intentions to "get an extra 4.0 for Susan". And when the support is there, it happens more times than not.

(Of course, this typically means that someone else might need to occupy the aforementioned 3.5 slot, which is where the "Rank" part comes in. But I digress.)

6. Someone asked, a few blog posts ago, why employees are asked to self-rank. For my teams, and the teams of my peers, the ONLY reason I want to see the self-ranking is because I care about the differential between the manager's rating of the employee, and the employee's self-rating. A differential implies a misalignment in understanding and/or communication. I always tell my managers: "The Review is not the time for surprises. If your direct ever leaves a review discussion surprised by the message or the overall rating, you have failed in communicating with that person over the last year."

7. A manager is NEVER forced to give someone a particular rating. If your manager says, "You deserved something else, but I had to give this to you because the curve forced me to", don't even bother escalating or pushing-back. Just start doing informationals and get the Hell outta dodge. If someone that weak has been promoted into a management position, it implies something about the overall caliber of the team that you really don't want to have to deal with. Trust me. I have seen high-performing, high-profile teams in my division where a full 40% of the team is given a 4.0, because the manager has gone to bat for the team, done the right thing, and made sure the VP(s) have understood why so many folks on the team need to be rewarded. Yes, again that means that there is a team somewhere else in the division that receives 40% 3.5s, or even 3.0s. At the end of the day, though, because we have divisions such as MSN which, in my opinion, are staffed with lifetime 3.0's, it all works itself out.

8. Yes, there are incompetent managers here. I have been here for a long time, and I am amazed that some of my peers are in the positions that they are. They are not leaders; they are pureplay "managers" who, because they can not innovate, lead, instill trust in others, or enable their teams to succeed... They spend the bulk of their time playing politics, name-dropping, dreaming up new processes that are ONLY meant to "get their name out there", etc.. It is frustrating, but I have seen it at other companies as well. My hope is that over time, the weak manager who promoted them eventually moves on, a stronger manager is put in place, and the person's incompetence 'rings loud and clear' with that new management. And that new management enacts change.

9. Yes, there are useless processes here. Some were obviously created by folks who were motivated to create them for their own self-preservation. It's not these people's fault; typically there is a situation where a person's ladder level demands an increase in scope, but the person is so hopelessly incompetent that they they are in a senior position on a product/team that has maxed out in terms of strategic impact. What's the solution? Make something up! No offense to Ben and the rest of the innovators on the Feature Crew effort, but there are parts of the FC process that were apparently put in place by people who just wanted to have their name on the FC process. Some of the fields on the Infopath form, some of the hoops Dev and Test need to jump through in Product Studio... The common conception is that they were put in place just so one person could say, "Hey that's the part I created". Yes, I predict that Ben, Dean, Stefan, etc etc may respond here and say "Let me know what improvements should be made..." For the record, you already know about them. I have told you in person. :-)

10. I have heard of people being prevented from interviewing for much longer than 90 days! I remember an acquaintance of mine who did an Informational with me for one of my teams last year. We spoke, determined there would be a good fit, and agreed to proceed with next steps. Immediately after that, he went dark on me. I pinged him a few weeks later, and he said that his manager had told him, "If you interview with that team and don't receive an offer, I won't be able to support you here any longer. Just wait until we ship, and then I'll help you". Mind you, this was last year, and the product in question won't be shipping until NEXT year. A 24 month 'stop loss'! I was going to say something, but the particular manager (a GM who over the years has also made a name for himself as being a complete incompetent) was "moved into a different opportunity" in another division only a few days later. And to make the situation a complete mess, the individual (who had almost a decade of tenure and a lifetime review average of ~4.0) left the company a short while after that.

11. I'll probably stop reading this blog soon, because most of the topics here are rehashes of the same issues, simply restated. But suffice it to say: We do work for the greatest software company in the world. Many love us, and many fear us. We are going through some growing pains. Some of them will be addressed as a result of the top-level reorg and subsequent reorgs that will be announced at lower levels in the future. Some won't be addressed until some of the mediocrity is drained out of the middle-management tier. But as Stephen mentioned in his blog: It will all work itself out. Posting here won't help; the gears are already in motion. If you want to expedite the cranking/turning of those gears, talk to your manager, or HR, or write up an anonymous letter and slip it under your VP or GM's door. :-)

Three: the following comment builds on some of the growing disenchantment here:

I feel like the original intent of your blog - which was about how to help our company identify and perhaps stop some of its potentially fatal behaviors - has deviated way off course into a Redmond-centric developer and tester bitch session. I'll check back in a couple of weeks to see if you have it back on some kind of constructive track.

(Hmm. I've been on a constructive track?) Even I blew a gasket last night and had to plead to people to stop the... sorry, no other way to put it... dumb ass cat-fight bantering. Now, maybe I'm throwing a black pot around my glass house, but please don't go making broad, unsubstantiated put-downs of testers, devs, PMs, or HR. If you have a specific troublesome event you want to share, that's great. That's real. But saying that none of us knows how to format a drive? Geez. I'm glad to see at least a few people followed up with positive stories to help offset the sniping.

If you really want to explore Dev vs. Test, go create a fun blog or community space on your own and roll-around in it to your heart's delight. It is super easy to do.

Now, given the cat-fight, I think there is something at the heart of this. And I think there's an issue regarding the push for testers to suddenly wake up one day as SDETs and start cranking out automation as if that's going to be the solution to all of our non-shipping ever slipping woes. It's a solution. But in some cases, it's been taken too far and we have to be strategic in reducing it. E.g., if it takes 10 minutes to make a UI fix but two days to update all of the broken automation, well, repeat that many times and you start realizing you might need to tweak the process a little.

Fourth: looks like my broad and somewhat insulting statement towards HR and the exit-interview process in my last post wasn't 100% right, according to this commenter:

I went through an exit interview not an awful long time ago at MS. Now I know some folks who didnt bother showing, just dropped the badge at reception. I know others who showed up and noted it being a formality.

For my experience, I took the time to ask every question I had about exit benefits and such. The fellow who conducted the interview was helpful and answered all the questions he could. Those he couldnt answer, he researched and contacted me to answer them a few days later. When we got to the "why" question, I asked how long he had blocked out. And I let it all out. The review process. The internal transfer politics. The directions the company was taking. The lack of action within my group on negative feedback in the company poll. I backed up the dump truck and emptied it. I went item by item down my notes.

To his credit, he listened attentively only interrupting to postpone a task he had on his schedule.

Now whether or not he acted on my opinions and experience is not known to me. But he at least did the courtesy of listening to me until i was done.

I'd still prefer that the reason for people leaving be collected and shared and turned into action items vs. the occasional bit of text cropping up in the blogosphere. As for HR in general: it would certainly benefit folks in HR if the rest of the company had some visibility into what you do and why their everyday worklife is better because of you. Most people, like me, only deal with HR when something bad is about to happen or has already happened.

Finally: oh, great, another anti-trust settlement involving an orgasmic flood of shareholder's cash. When I saw the headline with the dollar figure my mouth fell wide open for a good ten seconds. How does that make you feel, Mr. Shareholder? I certainly hope this was the last act of contrition and we're not reading about our billion-dollar settlement with Google five years from now.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Bad Reviews from Bad Bosses

An interesting topic erupted on its own in the comments over the past couple of days: you get a crappy review score that you don't agree with. Options of what you can do at point vary, including the following:

  • You sign it and that's that, other than any new strategies you put in place to get a better score next time.
  • You refuse to sign it and begin conversations up the chain, pulling in HR.
  • If you do sign it, you ask to have your rebuttal comments for this review be attached.

Sometimes, it works out to at least flush your manager from the corporation:

I didn't sign my 04 review (an undeserved 3.0) and my former boss was out of his job in a few months. Sometimes it really gets people's attention.

Regarding the feedback portion of your review (if you feel it overly harsh or unrealistic):

A good manager will work with you until you're both happy with the feedback (often it's just a wording issue). However, ultimately, nobody cares if you don't sign your review. Your PHB can tell HR "I've given the feedback but they still wouldn't sign..." and that's pretty much it unless it's an endemic problem with them. Plenty of folks don't even write their review let alone sign it.

Ideally, though, you want that pit-bull of a manager who is on your side to get the review score he/she believes you deserve:

[...] I know of a situation in the past where a manager gave someone some unfair comments, and that was used as part of the reason to push that manager out of the group (unfortunately not fire the person from the company - it's always easier to pawn them off on another group).

I also want to say this: if, as a manager, you don't believe in a score you think you need to give because of the curve, you can find a way to not give them that score. If you think you need to give them a 3.0 but you think they deserve a 3.5, you can find a way to give them a 3.5. It requires a backbone, and requires work in making the case to upper management, but I've done it. In short, it requires the manager in question to actually care.

It's interesting to get this perspective from various folks in the company. The rebuttal letter is considered the unspoken kiss of death in my group, for instance. It's not going to prevent you from going out on informationals (nothing should ever prevent you from doing that) but it has the potential to raise a flag in the mind of the hiring manager (some ask for access to your review history before meeting with you). But perhaps you don't want to work for that kind of manager, anyway. If you're coming out of a bad review situation, I think you should touch on it briefly during your informational and not dwell on it more than, "I'm looking to grow and contribute beyond what I can currently do in my group," and be ready to follow-up positively where that might lead the conversation.

The review comments erupted out of people taking exception to Mr. Sinofsky's post, e.g. on having a dissenting view:

Absolutely positively no one has ever received a poor review for merely having a dissenting view.

Yeah, right.

In my FY05 mid-year review, my manager told me to my face that I was tracking to a 4.0. A few months later, I made an "emperor has no clothes" statement in a "private conversation" with a colleague. Without an e-mail message, conversation, or even a performance improvement plan having been set up, my manager ambushed me in my written review. He/she quoted confidential e-mail messages and conversations in the written review, and he/she gave me a 3.0. He/she had this look on her face that pretty much said, "I am f**king you over right now, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it." He/she was actually satisfied with his/her very personal attack against me.

And this one:

"The first part is true, they're just 2.5'd and let go for performance reasons even when they don't deserve it (I know several people who had this happen)."

I was a lifetime 4.0 and current 4.0 when I was "asked to leave" because I raised issues. This wasn't unique. I saw it happen to literally dozens of people before me (not all 4.0's but all at least 3.5s) and know of it happening to several since. His comment is just flat out incorrect and shows how divorced even well-meaning snr mgt can be from the day-to-day realities at lower levels.

And how are you supposed to improve things given a current management culture like this? Lisa Brummel, is this the kind of management you want to keep in place? I don't. I want management dorks like that fired with a high-visible vengeance. I want people to speak their mind. Again, the important lesson I picked up from Bob Herbold's book: people quickly learn what it takes to succeed in their group. Right now, we're teaching them to shut up, get along, and have some sort of high visible successes (real impact inconsequential) in comparison to their stack-rank peers so that they can get that 4.0.

I'm really surprised at one-commenter saying he's been prevented from looking at an internal transfer for over 11 months under a "stop-loss" state in his group. Which groups are putting folks into such a horrible state of servitude? If you're not going to leave the company (which how can you not expect people doing) the only option I know of is to actually do an informational and an informal interview (like, if I pass this first interview, let's set up a real interview loop). If things are a success at that point, you'd have the other potential group bearing down on your current manager / HR rep and usually that's enough to set the gears in motion to at least get an interview.

And your group's HR is just not your friend here. As people have noted, perhaps cynically, HR's one and only priority is to prevent Microsoft from being sued. HR usually acquiesces to anything management wants to do around reviews, promotions, transfers, etc., as long as it isn't too shady. Another thing: when you leave Microsoft, they set something up called your "exit interview." By golly, you'd think that might be something HR uses to understand, if you're bad attrition, why is it that you're leaving and whether you'd be inclined to come back. Nope. Just about everyone I've been in contact with post-Microsoft said no one looked to understand why they are leaving. I guess they're too busy praising the Nero-esque stylings of our senior management's fiddle playing. The exit interview typically is just a paper signing formality, and let's say they don't exactly put the best and brightest in the HR seat to conduct the session.

Following on Steven Sinofsky's management postings, KenMo's call-out of MSN's good traits, and Kevin Schofield's various praises of Microsoft and it's current state being just swell, we have a comment from Bill Hoffman stating:

Mini, I think you need to give more specific examples of where you see useless process. I would be curious as to where you think we should cut process.

I'm a Dev Manager in MSN. I don't see any useless process. All I see is my team cranking out code as fast as we can... innovating as fast as we can... shipping software every couple months. In the past year, we have launched a completely new backend for Hotmail. We are embarking on a next generation backend now, a totally new architecture.

I'm not seeing any middle management getting in my way. All I see is my VP, GM and PUM asking the world of my team, supporting us, and telling us "Go."

What matters more to me is hearing from the Microsofties with their boots on the ground. It matters the most when they get out there and call me out and say where I'm wrong and specifically call out where things are right. The specific folks that I'm complaining about - not having a clue and supporting an inefficient system - are probably not the ones I'm going to look towards giving me a good, honest assessment about the problems people have noted here (and in the blogs of the Microsoftie dearly-departed to more effective work environments).

For instance, in my last post, I questioned the feature crew process that Mr. Sinofsky mentioned in his "bureaucracy gooood" post, based on what I'd heard. Some folks followed up saying how it worked well for them and they thought it was a good idea. Hmm. Furthermore, Ben Canning, who it would seem to be where the buck stops at Office for feature crews, posted a very honest comment here about feature crews, even going so far to call out where cumbersome usage of an infopath form was indeed going too far and how he knows there are improvements to be made and that he's open to hearing about them (Mr. Canning also posted similar comments in Steven's original post). What I like is the idea that the individual contributors are the decision makers.

And as for forms, an unrelated comment notes:

I assure you that the Bureaucracy the other ills of MS have reached far outside of Redmond. I am in the EPG sales organization and the sheer amount of process that we need to hack through to get anything done is mind blowing. Sieble entries and internal meetings and ROB ( Rhythm of the Business) has become the business. I often feel like I am at the DMV... no wait, they streamlined that..... I often feel like I am at the doctors office... no, they stream lined that tooo....

I know, I often feel like I am in microsoft spending my entire life filling out infopath forms, in triplicate.

Well, maybe the first sign that you have too much process is that you're using infopath. Is your process saving collective time or just feeding someone's need to track everything their way?