November 13, 2012
@ 01:38 PM

I’ve had about four hours of sleep but can’t seem to go back to sleep. There’s a pain of loss that feels like a death in the family and I hope writing this down helps in some way of dealing with it.

Yesterday it was announced that Steven Sinofsky is leaving Microsoft. As someone who considered Steven to be a role model of executive leadership and a source of my faith in the future of Microsoft this is a big shock. Part of me acknowledges that change is a natural part of life and nothing lasts forever but this is still a difficult incident to digest. Steven was a leader who understood how to leverage the strengths of an organization to build world class products while protecting the organizations from its inherent self defeating nature. As the saying goes a group is its own worst enemy.

When I think about Steven Sinofsky’s leadership style, I’m reminded of Joel Spolsky’s guide to interviewing which has the following succinct description of a great hire

In principle, it’s simple. You’re looking for people who are

  1. Smart, and
  2. Get things done.

That’s it. That’s all you’re looking for. Memorize that. Recite it to yourself before you go to bed every night. You don’t have enough time to figure out much more in a short interview, so don’t waste time trying to figure out whether the candidate might be pleasant to be stuck in an airport with, or whether they really know ATL and COM programming or if they’re just faking it.

People who are Smart but don’t Get Things Done often have PhDs and work in big companies where nobody listens to them because they are completely impractical. They would rather mull over something academic about a problem rather than ship on time. These kind of people can be identified because they love to point out the theoretical similarity between two widely divergent concepts. For example, they will say, “Spreadsheets are really just a special case of programming language,” and then go off for a week and write a thrilling, brilliant whitepaper about the theoretical computational linguistic attributes of a spreadsheet as a programming language. Smart, but not useful. The other way to identify these people is that they have a tendency to show up at your office, coffee mug in hand, and try to start a long conversation about the relative merits of Java introspection vs. COM type libraries, on the day you are trying to ship a beta.

People who Get Things Done but are not Smart will do stupid things, seemingly without thinking about them, and somebody else will have to come clean up their mess later. This makes them net liabilities to the company because not only do they fail to contribute, but they soak up good people’s time. They are the kind of people who decide to refactor your core algorithms to use the Visitor Pattern, which they just read about the night before, and completely misunderstood, and instead of simple loops adding up items in an array you’ve got an AdderVistior class (yes, it’s spelled wrong) and a VisitationArrangingOfficer singleton and none of your code works any more.

One of the interesting problems that faces a large software company is that it is very easy to become full of smart people that don’t get things done and then institutionalize this behavior by crowning them software architects or some equivalent. Steven’s leadership style encouraged a process and organizational structure, which you can read about in his book One Strategy: Organization, Planning, and Decision Making, that encourages getting stuff done by limiting the ability of the organization and people within the organization to take up positions where they strayed far from the goals of shipping a valuable product on time and within budget.

There are lots of people who disagreed with his philosophy and approach but it is hard to argue with the results of his efforts. Under him the team that shipped Windows Vista turned around and shipped Windows 7, the big ass table became one of Oprah's favorite things and one that’s close to home is that a mish mash of confusing consumer synchronization products became SkyDrive.

The way things get done in Steven’s organizations is so straightforward it hurts. You spend some time thinking about what you want to build, you write it down so the entire team has a shared vision of what they’re going to build and then you build it. The part where things become contentious is that getting things done (aka shipping) requires discipline. This means not changing your mind unless you have a good reason to after you’ve decided on what to build and knowing when to cut loses if things are coming in late or over budget. A great post about what it is like for an engineer working in a Steven Sinofsky organization that embraces these principles was written by Larry Osterman about Windows 7.

Each of the feature crews I’ve worked on so far has had dramatically different focuses – some of the features I worked on were focused on core audio infrastructure, some were focused almost entirely on UX (user experience) changes, and some features involved much higher level components. Because each of the milestones was separate, I was able to work on a series of dramatically different pieces of the system, something I’ve really never had a chance to do before.

In Windows 7, senior management has been extremely supportive of the various development teams that have had to make the hard decisions to scale back features that were not going to be able to make the quality bar associated with a Windows release – and there absolutely are major features that have gone all the way through planning only to discover that there was too much work associated with the feature to complete it in the time available. In Vista it would have been much harder to convince senior management to abandon features. In Win7 senior management has stood behind the feature teams when they’ve had to make the tough decisions. One of the messages that management has consistently driven home to the teams is “cutting is shipping”, and they’re right. If a feature isn’t coming together, it’s usually far better to decide NOT to deliver a particular feature then to have that feature jeopardize the ability to ship the whole system. In a typical Windows release there are thousands of features and it would be a real shame if one or two of those features ended up delaying the entire system because they really weren’t ready.

The process of building 7 has also been dramatically more transparent – even sitting at the bottom of the stack, I feel that I’ve got a good idea about how decisions are being made. And that increased transparency in turn means that as an individual contributor I’m able to make better decisions about scheduling. This transparency is actually a direct fallout of management’s decision to let the various feature teams make their own decisions – by letting the feature teams deeper inside the planning process, the teams naturally make better decisions.

Of course that transparency works both ways. Not only were teams allowed to see more about what was happening in the planning process, but because management introduced standardized reporting mechanisms across the product, the leads at every level of the hierarchy were able to track progress against plan at a level that we’ve never had before. From an individual developer’s standpoint, the overhead wasn’t too onerous – basically once a week, you were asked to update your progress against plan on each of your work items. That status was then rolled up into a series of spreadsheets and web pages that allowed each manager to track all the teams’ progress against plan. This allowed management to easily and quickly identify which teams were having issues and take appropriate action to ensure that the schedules were met (either by simplifying designs, assigning more developers, or whatever).

Transparency was also a cornerstone of Steven’s leadership style. The level of transparency into the organization’s decision making process via formalized mechanisms as described above as well as his personal decision making process has been unprecedented in my experience at Microsoft. It may not be as transparent as Google’s TGIF but on the other hand, I don’t think there’s anywhere else at Microsoft where visibility into how and why decisions are made was as clear as in the Windows organization.

At the end of the day, I’ll miss Steven and his influence on Microsoft. I’d like to think I became a better manager and leader from my time working spent working in his organization as well as the multiple exchanges we had over the years. Thanks for the memories.

Note Now Playing: Fall Out Boy - Thnks fr th MmrsNote


Tuesday, November 13, 2012 2:13:37 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Sinofsky imho had a lot of faults mostly his vanity and ability to communicate was poor (even his blog posts / internal comms were just waffle). Did he get stuff done? yeah, but getting stuff done isn't as hard as people make out in Microsoft (its like this b.s rationale that often people use as a prop to elevate prowess within execs as to why they are often good leaders? most execs in Microsoft are just pure assholes that basically have clawed their way to the top much the way politicians claw their way to party leaderships).

You stack a guy like Scott Guthrie against Sinofsky .. Scott gets shit done to right? he got a lot of done with not a lot of momentum but he als not only won hearts & minds of staff internally but clearly externally. That's what I find a bit meh to swallow here is that "oh because he was able to execute at the highest level in Microsof therefore he gets a free pass at being an ass to everyone who wasn't in Team Steve's circle of trust".

During the Silverlight years we had a huge bandaid so guys like Sinofsky could focus on repairing Vista's failure(s) and to turn on that entire org chart (b.s aside, i personally sat in meetings with Team windows and watched their passive aggressive attitudes towards .NET) and to do so with a case of "shut it down, regroup and we'll keep silent on our vision until the final hour" style strategy imho was the biggest cluster f.. since the day Vista went into a reset.

I sat in a Sweden room full of devs and asked "Can you tell me what your careers look like 1yr from now" and the answer came back no. That's not executing that's just bad leadership.

When Scott was running the developer relations machine, the overall internal and external community had a much wider sense as to what the next steps looked like. Today, any Microsoft staffer who thinks the community has that now is suffering form mass delusion hence why there is an overwhelming sense of relief at his departure today.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 7:12:30 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Now that Sinofsky is gone, can I have my Silverlight back?
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 11:59:33 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Nicely done. I'm shocked by this development. I thought Sinofsky would lead Windows at this critical time and eventually become CEO. Big loss, and just as the company seemed to finally be waking up from its lost decade.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 2:30:57 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"Smart" and "Gets Things Done" are all you need if you want a group of divas. Successful teams need people with more subtle skills-- the skills of cooperation, communication, and compromise, for example.

I can say from studying a hundred different high-tech companies that "getting things done" is the easy part. Pretty much every company that gets VC funding will "get things done" but only one in ten (or fewer) will get the right things done and repay the investment. The rest will fail.

Autocratic leadership can give great results if the leader can tell the difference between the right things and the wrong things. Unfortunately, there seems to be no correlation between the ability to "get things done" and the ability to recognize the right things to do.

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Peter G.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 2:55:56 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I left Microsoft because I constantly clashed with the guys that were resting and vesting, the do no gooders who were GM's, VP's >>> the so called collaborators.

Sinofsky realized that getting shit done meant cutting through the BS and focusing on executing, not talking about executing (see the Azure cluster fuck resulting from years of collaboration).

Office 365 cost Microsoft over 2 billion to maintain, has been re-written from BPOS to O365..this services project alone costs more than Win 8 development. This was a result of "collaboration".

It takes balls to devise a strategy, plan the execution and execute to the plan. The other leaders are missing this (no pun intended).

Microsoft, a level down from Ballmer is nothing but a fellowship of the good ole's fellas that is focused on cashing out..and here comes Mr.Windows crashing everyone's party, asking them to work for a change..which means less meetings, more real work.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 6:10:50 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"I’ve had about four hours of sleep but can’t seem to go back to sleep. There’s a pain of loss that feels like a death in the family...."

Really Dare? Sometimes we Microsofties are trapped in the bubble. You couldn't sleep?! No offensive but you might have bigger problems.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 9:32:08 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
The simple fact that so many people complain about his style and ability to collaborate indicates there was a huge problem, regardless of whether you (and other Steven fan boys) want to acknowledge. Being collaborative doesn't mean not having a vision nor does it mean you can't "get things done".

>>"... I don’t think there’s anywhere else at Microsoft where visibility into how and why decisions are made was as clear as in the Windows organization."

You need to get out of Windows and look at other parts of the company. This statement is a slap in the face of well functioning, high performing teams all over the company.

Tim Choo
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 9:52:43 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Steven was a game player and he got the dose of his own medicine. Yes, he made successful products, but his silo'ed vision was a big problem as we face competition like Apple. This is a battle of the ecosystem and integrated products and Microsoft cannot win unless various divisions cooperate.

Steven also did a lot of damage to other products, anyone remember netdocs? How about office on touch devices?

He also took credit for windows 7 even though he was barely involved in windows 7. He just used to write long blog posts.

I am glad he is gone. I am not happy with his replacement but I am glad he is gone.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 11:36:37 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Don't know Steve or his work in details. Seems to be another case of "envy" and corporate ego. What investors think?
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 4:43:32 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Nice post, Dare. The news hit me fairly hard as well. You seem to be the first person really acknowledging the contributions Sinofsky made to Microsoft and how they could result in upsetting others.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 5:27:32 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
"a mish mash of confusing consumer synchronization products became SkyDrive"

lol, you mean a functional and elegant solution was handicapped and shelved as part of a Sinofsky turf war. Then it took god only knows how many people four years to ship an inferior replacement.

Meanwhile, Dropbox happened...

Dare, put down the kool-aid - things are better on the other side.
Friday, November 16, 2012 10:47:49 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
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Friday, November 16, 2012 9:39:48 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I have no comment on Sinofsky or whatever. My question is why, from this blog to Microsoft's official blogs, do pages for and by Microsoft folks look horrible? I mean this dasBlog thing looks worse than the Office 365 interface for crying out loud.

Anyway, that's all I got I guess. Sinofsky seemed sorta smart and got things done. I'll have to agree with Tim Choo above about getting the _right_ things done, MS really has to work on that to stay relevant.
some name
Sunday, November 18, 2012 4:54:41 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Dare - It feels like a death in the family? Really Dare? Please get some perspective your first two sentences are a bit over-the-top.
Howard Camp
Friday, November 23, 2012 12:15:01 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Hei than I actually would like it
Comments are closed.