Thursday, July 22, 2004

Microsoft Stack Rank as a Popularity Contest

(This is a bit light on content - I'm hopped up on some heavy decongestants for a summer cold, so hopefully this post holds together to some small degree.)

When you (well, me) go and say you want to move people out of the company based on their lifetime review score, you bring up the issues behind the whole mechanics that result in that 4.0, 3.5, or 3.0 (or 2.5s, which I'd love to spread through the company deservingly).  The main process that puts in motion the final score is the Stack Rank.

I've had lots of different leads during my years at Microsoft.  During the boom, lots of folks were made leads that shouldn't have been and that pretty much summed up my first couple of bosses.  They were great developers and I'd talk to them about my career few times a year, two of those meetings being the delivery of my major and minor reviews (we now just have the single major annual review).  One of the feedbacks I'd get was that I had to, "...(sigh), increase your... visibility in the group."  How do I do that?  "We'll, ah, work on it, I have some ideas."  Hand-over of a sheet with final review numbers.  What!?!  I'm better than that!  Back they went to coding.

Then along came a new lead.  Her feedback, "You've got to increase your team visibility so that you can do better in the stack rank meeting."  The what-rank?  She said it slower as if it would help me to divine what the heck she was talking about.  Then she got up and gave me the stack rank lesson and I got to learn about how the team is divided into columns of high, medium, and low folks and then each column has a person by person relative ranking, all those positions negotiated by the leads putting their people up on the whiteboard and then arguing the merits of which report belongs above which other reports.  She said they set the context of their decisions by asking a question like, "Okay, if the team were on a sinking boat and we had to decide who we would put on the life-boats, who would it be?"  Up to that point, my ass was next in line for the boat but still going down with the ship.

Her revealing comment: "My defense of your accomplishments is not enough to get you to the top of the stack rank.  The best way for you to rise above your peers is to have other leads in there defending you based on what they know about you."  This is where you could say that popularity comes into play.  It's also where you starting owning your career.

Why am I bothering to write about this?  Well, it's not just about moving the poor performers out of Microsoft.  It is also about becoming an efficient, invigorated, innovating company.  If folks don't feel like their contributions and abilities are being recognized, why the heck should they put in the extra effort?  Do you as a Microsoft contributor truly ROCK but are not getting duly rewarded and compensated? I want to change that.

So, putting aside changes to the stack rank and review process, what can you as a motivated individual do?  This is some scattered advice that's not too unique, but here for you to consider as we head towards delivery of reviews.  I'd love to read other constructive advice.

Get a mentor.  Microsoft has an internal mentoring hook-up site I highly recommend.  Find someone outside of your business group that is a successful lead for at least a few years.  Their experience as a lead can give you greater insight about what it takes to succeed at Microsoft and candid details about the stack rank.

Know when the stack ranks are.  This is important.  Find out when the annual stack rank for your group is going to happen.  Your group may or may not do a stack rank during the checkpoint review.  Ask your boss.

Set-up skip level 1:1s. You should meet with your lead's lead at least once a month.  You should meet with your test manager / general PM / dev manager (what ever is appropriate) at least twice a year, before the major and minor reviews.  You should meet with your GM once a year, at least, before the annual review.  (1) it's just good to get exposed to these folks who have had success at Microsoft, so you can get career advice.  (2) it's your chance to ensure they know about your accomplishments and why you're so freaking excited to be on this team.  I've seen major turn-arounds in the opinions about contributors after they've had a candid skip-level 1:1.

Get involved with other team members, especially leads.  Be there as a key resource to unblock or mentor other team members, and co-ordinate through those people's lead.  Ensure your lead knows about it, too.  Is it about being popular?  It's about helping them accomplish their work and knowing how damn good a job you can do.  But if the other lead doesn't know about it, it's not going to matter come stack rank time.

Seek feedback.  This is hard.  Most people don't seek feedback or feel odd about dropping by someone's office (like your lead's peer) and asking for feedback on what you could do better.  It's a great way to check-in to see if they know what the heck it is you do and to do a check-up on your presence.

Tell your boss why you're so great.  My first good boss related this great story from a person in HR: this HR person would have a frank conversation with their boss a bit before the stack rank and explain exactly what it is she's accomplished, how she ranks against her peers, and what kind of review results she expected.  Damn, that's owning your career!

Put career reminders in Outlook now.  You need to have frank, early conversations about your career before the major review / checkpoint.  Are you treating the review meeting like Christmas, and run downstairs to open your present only to find that instead of a Fire-Engine 4.0 you received a Silly-Putty 3.5?  The review meeting should be one of the more boring meetings you have.  Put reminders into Outlook for December and May now where you will ensure all the significant 1:1s occur and that you ensure your boss knows what you've accomplished.  Put in other check-points to assess how well you're doing on the team.

Is all this superficial popularity-contest B.S.? Your call, but it worked for me and I've seen it work for other team members.  You need to accept that there's a certain personality that excels at Microsoft, and if you can't gravitate towards that, you'd be best finding a better place to invest the most productive years of your life.

When it comes down to one little number that dramatically affects your compensation, it's worth working out a system that ensures your hard work and investment in this career works for you.  I truly think that if you have two contributors that start off with excellent skills and one increases her team presence, she's going to get the much better review.  And most importantly: the team's product is going to be better.  This person will know more about the product, increase team-cohesion, and grow.  That's worth compensating.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post and applies today in almost any company (especially software development) just as much as it did two years ago, and as it will twenty years from now. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting into words exactly while I'll be leaving as soon as my one-year indenture ends (they really got me good with the relocation expenses). A company where managers are "too busy" to understand what their employees do is headed for serious trouble.

Anonymous said...

and more than 5 years later, still 100% applicable.
so sad, so true.