I've been reading the Mini-Microsoft blog for a couple of months now and recently considered unsubscribing. The main reason I haven't is that the recent story in Business Week about the blog has attracted a lot of readers which makes the comment threads interesting in a Slashdot kinda way. Since I couldn't locate an email address for the blog's author on the front page of the blog, I'll just post my comments here on why the blog jumped the shark for me.

  1. Complaints about Symptoms instead of the Root Problems: A lot of the things complained about by the author of the Mini-Microsoft blog are symptoms of a single problem. About six years ago, Motley Fool ran an article entitled The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management which listed a number of characteristics of the company which made it successfull. The fourth item on the list is Require Failure and it states

    In contrast, at Microsoft, failure is expected, and even required because risking failure is the only way to push the envelope. As a result, Microsofties relentlessly pursue success without fear of failure. And if they fail, they understand that the key is to fail quickly and not waste time.

    One of the unfortunate things about a culture that turns a blind eye to failure is that this eventually there is no difference between requiring failure and a lack of accountability. A lot of the things Mini complains about point to an environment where  a lack of accountability runs rampant. I'd rather see him ring the bell about these issues [which he does every once in a while] as opposed to meaningless distractions like complaining about vague ship dates or asking for mass firings because the company is "too large".

  2. Microsoft is Lots of Little Companies: One thing that isn't clear from Mini's posts is that a number of the complaints he raises are organization specific. The culture in the Office group is different from that at MSN, the issues facing the people working in the Windows group are different from those facing the folks working on XBox. Mini's blog not only isn't representative but it doesn't seem like he pays much detail to what is happening outside of his group. For example, it is quite telling that he didn't know that the ship date for Visual Studio 2005 was announced a while ago. Given how many people within the company work on and are impacted by the shipping of Whidbey & Yukon, it seems clear that Mini doesn't pay much attention to what is going on outside of his group.

  3. Stack Ranking: This point is a probably a repeat of my first one. First of all when it comes to performance reviews, I tend to agree with Joel Spolsky that Incentive Pay Considered Harmful. Joel wrote

    And herein lies the rub. Most people think that they do pretty good work (even if they don't). It's just a little trick our minds play on us to keep life bearable. So if everybody thinks they do good work, and the reviews are merely correct (which is not very easy to achieve), then most people will be disappointed by their reviews. The cost of this in morale is hard to understate. On teams where performance reviews are done honestly, they tend to result in a week or so of depressed morale, moping, and some resignations. They tend to drive wedges between team members, often because the poorly-rated are jealous of the highly-rated, in a process that DeMarco and Lister call teamicide: the inadvertent destruction of jelled teams.

    In general, systems where you try to competitively rank people and reward them based on their rankings suck. A lot. When you combine this with the current rewards associated with positive rankings at Microsoft, then you have a system that doubly sucks. I think Mini gets this but he keeps talking about alternative performance review systems even though there is lots of evidence that incentive pay systems simply do not work.

Those are the top three reasons that I find myself losing interest in keeping up with the Mini-Microsoft blog. However I'll probably keep reading because the comments now have me gawking at them regularly, sometimes even more than I do at Slashdot.


Categories: Life in the B0rg Cube
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Monday, October 3, 2005 4:14:29 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Thanks for bringing up this stuff. I've been following Mini for a while also.

I don't understand why Microsoft does performance rankings. It seems like job mobility, a bonus structure, and cost-of-living adjustments would provide lots of incentive and reward. Don't promotions happen? A ranking system acknowledges a stagnant career situation.

Boeing has a ranking system and a limited "merit pool". The merit pool is typically held to less than inflation, so those ranked best may do a bet better than the inflation rate, everyone else suffers. As I recall, one year inflation was about 4%, the pool was about 2%, and people were overjoyed at getting 5%. While inflation has been less of a factor the last 5 years, 2006 will see a big impact from that and fuel costs, so be prepared.

Even worse, it is common practice at non-profit corps like MADD to limit all raises to a small amount, typically 2%. So new hires come on at low pay with the expectation of a raise when they work hard, then can't get one. Their annual turnover is also typically about 20%.

I think the Dilbert world of HR hell is almost universal.
Monday, October 3, 2005 10:56:24 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Re #1, a bunch of those 12 were never true. I'm not even sure the comment on requiring failure has led to lack of accountability is accurate. Specifically, while I agree that accountabililty is a problem, I'm not sure MSFT ever held snr mgrs that accountable. If you look back, most who left were lost to politics not performance. I think a more likely scenario is that back then, when growth and $ were flowing in, the consequences of shortcomings in mgt accountability were less obvious and impactful vs now when growth has slowed and competition greatly intensified.

Re #2, I think you comment about culture being departmental is all too obvious to customers and not in their or MSFT's best interests. Also, a company that apparently wants to make integration a competitive advantage, would seemingly need to have a strong coordinating culture.

Re #3, I think there's a lot of truth in that. Still, it's hard not to empathize with average employees being upset with zero or 3% increases when they see snr mgt doling out 8-11% increases and stock bonuses that would make major league sports stars jealous. Maybe part of the backlash isn't just dissapointment in the nominal amount but the fact that the "pain" doesn't
appear to be shared across the org?
Tuesday, October 4, 2005 6:31:38 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Good points you make. The root problem at Microsoft is at the top. Better leadership would mean more accountability and better handling of employee issues. The current leadership was never particularly good. Much of Microsoft's success so far is more an artifact of market dynamics than brilliance on Bill or Steve's part. They may have high IQ's but that is not the same as leadership and management ability.

The only way Microsoft gets better is if employees make noise and express their lack of confidence in senior management. The big money institutional shareholders are sheep who are mostly interested in covering their asses. The smaller shareholders want something done but are easy to ignore. The only constituency that has any real power are the employees. You guys got something done when Ballmer screwed up the same-sex marriage legislation because you all got vocal. You got something done when Ballmer was considering buying Claria. You've done it before. You need to do that again. A strong showing of no confidence by employees would really go a long way.
Wednesday, October 5, 2005 8:14:41 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
>Mini's blog not only isn't representative but it doesn't seem like he pays much detail to what is happening outside of his group.

Mini- may be speaking from experience in his division, but, judging from the comments, what he's describing is not unique. It certainly resembles some of the more Dilbertian situations I've found myself in.

Speaking for myself, I don't have to know Whidbey's ship date to know something's rotten in Denmark.
Wednesday, October 5, 2005 4:26:22 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
You were always my number one candidate for being Mini. Still are, maybe.
Thursday, October 6, 2005 9:55:38 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Nice blog.I like this.

Friday, October 7, 2005 5:45:25 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Very interesting to go back and re-read those 12 points from so long ago. Funny how some no longer seem to be true, or at least not as true as they used to be.

1 - focus on world domination. Nope, not these days. Bottom line it is - make money now. Not saying that's a bad thing, but it's different.

2- Top 5 percent. Again, not any more. Paying second-rate salaries without the ka-ching of stock options is cutting into our quality. We don't have a bunch of doorstops, but the quality isn't what it used to be either.

8 - Size does matter. Groups are no longer as independant as they used to be. All that "Integrated Innovation" commenters complained about on Mini's blog.

9 - Bill is watching? Company's too big - he cant watch it all any more.

10 - Espirt de Corps. Mini's blog is evidence this is not what it used to be.

11 - stop the insanity. Had your port shut off lately? Rules are not as few and far between as they used to be. I had a security guard stop me - in the parking lot - last week, demanding, not very politely, to see my badge.

12 - Home away from home. We painted a co-workers office this summer when he went on vacation. We're still getting nasty mails from Facilities warning us never to do that again. Big change from twelve years ago when we sheet-rocked over the door of our manager when he went on his honeymoon...

I'm still here and still mostly happy, but it's a very different place than it was six years ago. Six years ago, "mostly happy" would have been "completely happy" though.
Saturday, October 15, 2005 9:09:09 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
The Lessons of Longhorn
I’ve worked at MS for many, many years in the product groups. I love the company, and have prospered with it. I’m not some disgruntled flunky. I manage a big group, and am committed to doing everything I can to make my group a great place to be and build really compelling products that lots of customers will want to buy. We were and still are a great company in many ways. But we could be even greater.

The Longhorn saga highlights some stark lessons about why employees are pissed off and frustrated with the very top handful of execs. We are all held to very high standards. We write annual commitments, and work very hard to achieve them. If we don’t achieve them, we know we will not be rewarded. We want to do great work, make great products, and be rewarded for it, personally and financially. We don’t shirk from this challenge, we are up to it! But, we expect these rules to apply to everyone, evenly and openly. All the way to the top.

Longhorn will be a good product when it ships, but it will ship two years later than it should have. That extra two years represents what, maybe 8,000 man years of work? At a fully burdened cost of say $150k/head/year that’s $1.2Billion in direct costs of our resources flushed down the toilet. But far worse than those direct costs are the lost opportunity costs of not having the product in market two years earlier and getting started on Vnext.

Who is to blame for this debacle? First BillG himself, for pushing the Windows group to take on huge, extremely difficult technical projects that destabilize all the core parts of the OS, and hold shipping hostage. Even worse, in some cases these efforts seem to be little more than ‘pet’ ideas of Bill’s, with little clear customer value, at least to my understanding. Second, the very top handful of execs in the Windows group are to blame, for placating Bill and not applying the most basic good judgment on engineering and project management. From my perspective, it was clear to nearly every engineer in every product group at MS that Longhorn was badly screwed up, for far too long. But no one at the top would admit it or come to grips with it for far too long. For top product execs as MS, there is a long history of a culture that Bill is right, do what he says, always stay in his good graces no matter what. If you do that, you will likely make a huge fortune. If you don’t, your career at MS is over. I understand the pressure on execs to behave that way and always say ‘Yes’ to Bill. But that’s not the leadership we need. We are not helping anyone with this game, neither customers nor ourselves.

All of us know that if we screwed up like this, we would likely be forced out of our groups, with our reputations as product people shot, and for good reason. But when Bill and Jim et al screw up, nothing happens.

I really want Bill to be man enough to stand up and say, “I made a big mistake. This is what we’ve learned, and this is how we are going to do even better.” Bill is a tremendous thinker, but he is human too, and sometimes can make mistakes. We can’t have a culture that holds he is semi-divine. We need leaders who really lead, pragmatically and effectively, who hold themselves openly to the same standards that we are all held to. That is how we can become an even better company and reach more of our still great potential.

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