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.

Something is Rotten in the Town of Redmond

Michael Malone is pulling a Marcellus here in his editorial R.I.P. Microsoft? (via Slashdot - also bouncing around in blogs).

Okay, take a moment to go to that article and contemplate Malone's business intuition. Is your Microsoft group fresh or is it rotting?

Is something rotten in Redmond? Yes! It's the rotting, fleshy mass of way too many misdirected, underutilized, and unneeded Microsofties. You would think if we were actually focused on customer problems and issues, we wouldn't have to go on buying sprees to fill in the gaps with anti-spyware and virus defense. We could grab some of these researchers and Black Hole groups and give them a product to develop that there was a real, tangible, headline-grabbing need for.

If we're the best software development house on Earth, what in earth does it mean that we can't ramp up to write great software to protect our own OS when it's under constant assault? Sure, there's some amount of fiscal responsibility in whipping out the acquisition, but didn't anyone see this slow train-wreck in progress and posit, "Hmm, perhaps we should go and write some of our own protective software?"

(If I wanted to be, ahem, cynical, I'd imagine that anyone suggesting that development idea to up-on-high were told, "We'd get higher quality results going outside - we don't want another SP2 schedule impact.")

Our focus is wildly mismatched with customer needs. Well, assuming that customers actually really need us anymore. We've accomplished our goal with Windows XP and Office 97 and have provided a fine foundation for everyone's day-to-day needs. Why do I need Longhorn to load up my iPod? And in reality, the esoteric features we pile on beyond XP and Office 97 are simply an echo-chamber of geeks' delight. And a source of rot.

I think of what my friends in various groups tell me what they're working on. If just about everyone one of those had to explain their feature to someone waiting in line at Starbucks, they'd receive a polite, "I'm sorry, I just don't understand." (subtext: "I have no idea what you're talking about nor how I'd ever use it, let alone pay good money for it; please stop talking to me.").

Chops to Scoble for running Channel 9 and getting informative blogs streaming out of Microsoft. But I don't believe that's the antithesis to Malone's commentary. Perhaps it just provides more clarity. While Alex Barnett has a Baloney post to the R.I.P. piece, do take time to scan through the comments. Simon St. Laurent adds his insights, too: Microsoft high points... dwindling?

As you wander through the upcoming MSR Tech Fest, sniff the air. Which would you prefer Microsoft to direct its corporate spending towards: half-cooked research software subsidized by Windows and Office profits or products actually focused on contemporary customer needs? Maybe I'll be surprised and find a demo of an adaptive antibody system for Windows, but somehow I think I'll just be watching this year's equivalent to an edge-detected cartoon of a kid swinging on the monkey bars. (And in my mind, as I wander around watching so many hawkers in their grown-up Science Fair booths, I'll just be repeating, "We pay you? We actually pay you?")

When it comes to being able to think ourselves out of a problem (stagnant stock, rot being sniffed by business writers), we need less Edison perspiration and more Tesla IQ. We've currently got breadth coverage of a variety of researchy areas, like monkeys typing in hopes to find the next patented tungsten killer-app. Keep that shtuff in the colleges. Let those people go and trim back into a variety of agile small teams that delight the end-user with their features. Actually end up have Office users clamoring the IT departments to upgrade to the new version of Office because of the oh-I-got-to-get-me-some-of-that features. What would that take?

It would smell good. Like the fresh-off-the-presses, crisp cash.

(Updated: updated the URL of the ABC article to its new location.)

Admin - Delays in Posts, Quiet ahead

I'm getting major delays via the posting mechanism I send to this blog (I much prefer sending posts via email vs. web interfaces). Given that the Blogger Mail2Blogger gateway is pretty much a bit-bucket right now, things have been slow to show up here. So I'm going to post the two in the queue now, hoping that after a week's worth of guru meditation they don't magically appear through the gateway, too. If they do: oops, my apologies. We all seem to get what we pay for. Until the Mail2Blogger gateway starts behaiving, things will be quiet here.