Tales Of An Ex-Microsoft Manager

This is the sort of damage that can be done to your organization when you let a "sales guy" be the CEO. David Auerbach, at Slate writes:

The stack rank was harmful. It served as an incentive not to join high-quality groups, because you’d be that much more likely to fall low in the stack rank. Better to join a weak group where you’d be the star, and then coast. Maybe the executives thought this would help strong people lift up weak teams. It never worked that way. More often, it just encouraged people to backstab their co-workers, since their loss entailed your profit. The entire performance review process at Microsoft encouraged horrendous office politics that enabled backstabbers to profit at the expense of the companies performance. The stack rank was a zero-sum game—one person could only excel by the amount that others were penalized. And it was applied at every level of the organization. Even if you were in a group of three high performers, it was very likely that one of you would be graded Above Average, one Average, and one Below Average. Unless your manager was a prick or an idiot or both, the ordering would reflect your relative skills, but that never came as too much comfort to the hard-working schlub who just wasn’t as good as the other two. Quotas. When review time came, and programmers would fill out a short self-assessment talking about their achievements, strengths, and weaknesses, only some of them knew that their ratings had been more or less already foreordained at the stack rank. The ones who knew could sometimes be recognized by their flip comments on their performance reviews, like the hot-tempered guy who wrote every year in “Areas to Improve,” “I will try to be less of an asshole.” (That guy is awesome). This sort of organizational dissembling skews your psyche. After I left Microsoft, I was left with lingering paranoia for months, always wondering about the agendas of those around me, skeptical that what I was being told was the real story. I didn’t realize until the nonstacked performance review time at my new job that I’d become so wary. At the time—inside Microsoft—it just seemed the only logical way to be. So ex-Microsoft employees are likely to be temporarily bad employees at other companies they work at until they realize the rest of the world doesn't work like the horror that is working within the Microsoft organization? Yikes.

On Steve Ballmer's "Retirement"

There's not much for me to say that hasn't already been said elsewhere, by better writers than I. But I feel compelled to pound out my two cents in anyway.

Google is famously managed by engineers with a strong emphasis on engineering as a company value (whether they actually live up to that is an entirely different discussion). Apple famously holds design and designers in high esteem.

Microsoft? For the past 10+ years Microsoft has been managed by their Salesman in Chief. Ballmer was a sales guy with an MBA. A lot of Microsoft's defenders love to point out how Windows is still the best selling OS in the world or how Microsoft's revenue numbers have done nothing but go up over the past ten years. To take these statements at face value and out of context of what the rest of the technology industry has done since Ballmer has reigned at CEO is extremely naive and short sighted.

Ballmer did what sales people do best: he sold their existing products. Sales people do not create. They take products that have been created by others and through social skills (which Ballmer arguably had) persuade others to buy. But when you then take a person such as this and put them in charge, it can have disastrous consequences. I would argue that people with a sales background are very badly suited to run a technology company. Now, that is not to say that a person with a sales background can't make a great CEO - I'm sure there are many who have founded and ran great companies such as Macy's, Sears, etc. No, my argument is that sales people do what they do best, and that primarily is protecting their existing territory while trying to sell as much of it as possible. Microsoft has essentially been playing defense since Ballmer has taken over. And their weapons with which they've defended with (Office & Windows) have slowly began to lose their effectiveness. Microsoft cannot defend forever, especially when Google and Apple are both on a warpath. Microsoft has been crippled for years. There are dozens of stories of creative products that began to get traction within the company, only to be squashed by the Windows or Office divisions as soon as that product started to look like a potential threat to their sales. Countless stories tell of political fights within Microsoft between those two divisions and how the bureaucracies of those two products would shut down or cripple any initiative that they perceived as a threat to their own budgets.

One prime example of this is the Courier project. In case you don't remember, Courier was Microsoft's early potential answer to iOS. A team within the company had developed a new touch interface that ran on a touchscreen tablet-like device. It was so far along that a demo video was leaked onto the web which received very high praise from most designers who saw it. When the Windows division found out about this, they used their political clout to have the project shut down because it did not run Windows. Most of the Courier team quit Microsoft to founded their own company. You can now see the fruits of their labor on the App Store, known as Paper. In fact, if you browse their company's about page you will see a who's-who of ex-Microsoft employees who all have innovative iOS and touch products to their name while at Microsoft who now no longer work there.

I do not know if Steve Ballmer is directly responsible for the fact that 53 exists, as a company, but surely if he is not, then his failure to prevent others within the company for driving employees like this out can be laid as his feet. Ballmer's corrosive policies has propped up the bureaucracies of Office and Windows at the expense of all other creative initiatives because he is too short-sighed or cowardly to attempt anything else for fear that it could harm their crown jewels.

The sad part is though, as John Gruber pointed out, all of the potential successors to Ballmer that showed any promise have all left the company in the past several years. From the outside it looked as if Ballmer himself was responsible for driving them out of the company for fear that they might replace him. And now, in the end, it looks as if even that couldn't save him from being forced out by the board. Good riddance.

If there ever was a time to bring in someone from the outside, and to not promote within, I think this is it. Ballmer has seen to that.

The Redmond Bubble

If you know me, or follow me on Twitter, then you know that I follow politics closely. I also enjoy the HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher for the lack of censoring you see so much on main stream news sources. For about the last year, Bill Maher has had a segment on his show each week called "Life Inside The Bubble" where he makes fun of an example of a Republican issue or talking point in which is only being covered on Republican blogs or Fox News. Usually, the Republican base is up in arms about something that everyone else is ignoring because its a non-issue or they are trying to drum up faux outrage about a topic that isn't outrageous. While idea is common in politics, this 'Bubble' I mean, I've encountered it in other places as well. Earlier tonight, Marco Arment wrote about his experience of wandering into a Microsoft Store today while he was on his way to the Apple Store to buy AppleCare+ for his wife's iPhone 5. He was curious about the Microsoft Surface, not having seen one yet, and wanted to try it out in order to compare it to the iPad. Marco's entire piece is well worth your time to read but one thing in particular really caught my attention. During the aggressive demo the salesperson gave Marco, he made a particular comment. Marco writes:

He showed me Office, which was almost unusable: it was extremely sluggish, and touch targets were tiny and difficult to hit. He said this was the only tablet that could run Office, and if you used Office at work, this was therefore the only tablet that you could use at work. I played dumb. I read the rest of Marco's article but in the back of my mind, after I read that paragraph, I couldn't get the thought out of my head. This comment by the salesperson pissed me off. I have a ton of questions I wish I could ask him. Was this his opinion? Was he instructed to say this as a part of his training? Does he really believe this? The reason this really struck a chord with me is because I work for a large environmental non-profit in Washington DC. Despite being a non-profit, the day-to-day work environment at our office is more like a corporate job than working for a non-profit. We are managed and ran like a corporation. When I started there we were heavily married to Microsoft infrastructure and software - now almost 5 years later we're starting to move away from this, but it is still largely true. In the last few years more people are being given Macs, certain management now have MacBook Airs or iPads. Our new website is powered by Drupal. We're dropping .NET in favor of open source/Drupal/php. Things are getting better. We have about 260 employees, last I checked, and most of our workforce has Lenovo notebook computers. If you take the marketing & tech departments out of the equation, most of our employees spend 90% of their time in either Outlook, a web browser, or core Office apps such as Word, Powerpoint, or Excel. Whether in meetings or at their desk, this is how they accomplish most of their jobs. I've been an iPad owner since day one. When the iPad 2 came out and now the 3rd generation iPad, I bought them all. I think I'll skip the 4th generation iPad and pick up next years model but that's beside the point. My previous bosses and current one place a lot of trust in me and have been very flexible over the years of allowing me to select whichever tools I so choose in order to do my job. Because of this, I've had the iPad in the office from the very first model on a daily basis. It has now become a replacement for my old pad & paper that I used to carry around with me wherever I go. It goes to meetings with me, it is at my desk with me and I carry it around the office wherever I go. My iPad has full Exchange integration. I can access the company's employee directory in Active Directory through the Contacts app. I have access to my full calendar, can schedule meetings with others, and have full access to Exchange email. With my iPad in hand I have access to my entire Dropbox contents (which weighs in at 80GB currently spanning tens of thousands of files & documents since 2009), all of my Word, Excel, and Powerpoint files I need (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers work spectacularly), I can annotate things (Skitch), I can do quick image edits (Photoshop for iOS), I can reboot the dev box (Linode iOS app), our website stats are at my fingertips in any meeting (Analytics HD). I can even SSH into our servers with Prompt, make quick edits with Coda 2 or...well you get the point. I could list off another dozen apps I use once a week or so to do any number of tasks. You might think it a tad ridiculous for a Microsoft Store employee's comments to Marco to piss me off, but if Microsoft's standard as to whether you can use a tablet in an office environment is if it can run Word, Excel and Powerpoint...well, that's just bullshit. I challenge Microsoft to show how the Surface, right now...today can do half of the things I listed above as well as my iPad can. And they aren't allowed to use the Google bullshit cop-out argument that you can do it in the web browser. I don't expect to pay $500+ for a machine to not be able to do my work on applications that are written in non-native code. That this employee or perhaps Microsoft trained him to pitch it this way, believes that the Surface is now going to somehow open up this huge door for people to be able to use tablets at work infuriates me. Talk about living inside a bubble. Is there any stronger way to hammer home the reason why Microsoft has been consistently behind all of their competitors for the last 10 years? Does Redmond Washington somehow block out technology related news from the rest of the world? Do they really believe that the corporate world has been holding off adopting tablets because of the lack of Microsoft Office on the iPad? Give me a break.

Why Microsoft Should Screw Its Hardware Partners

Mat Honan's first article at his new (old?) job over at Wired:

And then there are tablets. Microsoft isn’t even close to being a player in the tablet business, which is dominated by Apple and Android. (And, in all reality, Android is but a twee little sideshow relative to the iPad.) Many of Microsoft’s desktop partners have gone full-tilt toward Android tablets, so they’re already competing with Microsoft. So Microsoft’s best bet is to prove there’s a market in Windows tablets — which shouldn’t be hard given how abysmal Android tablets are.

Building And Dismantling The Windows Advantage

Horace Dediu, at Asymco:

Considering the near future, it’s safe to expect a “parity” of iOS+OS X vs. Windows within one or two years. The install base may remain larger for some time longer but the sales rate of alternatives will swamp it in due course. The consequences are dire for Microsoft. The wiping out of any platform advantage around Windows will render it vulnerable to direct competition. This is not something it had to worry about before. Windows will have to compete not only for users, but for developer talent, investment by enterprises and the implicit goodwill it has had for more than a decade. It will, most importantly, have a psychological effect. Realizing that Windows is not a hegemony will unleash market forces that nobody can predict. Horace outlines why all of these things will happen, based on years of data going back to the 80's and current trend-lines in this article. Great analysis.

Preview Of An Upcoming Vanity Fair Piece On Microsoft's Downfall

Two time George Polk Award winner Kurt Eichenwald, at Vanity Fair:

Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.” I've read several other articles by reporters who've read an advanced copy of the entire piece (which is much bigger than the preview I've linked to above) and if what they write is true, it should be a great read.

How To Build An iPad Competitor

Jason Kottke, at Kottke.org:

Set aside for now that Surface does look genuinely interesting, that the price hasn't been set, and the thing isn't even out yet. For a piece of portable networking technology like a smartphone or tablet to be successful on the scale at which Apple operates, you need to have an ecosystem, a network of interacting devices, software, products, and services that work together...hardware + software is not enough. Apple, Google (and partners), Amazon, and possibly Microsoft are the only companies with the expertise and pockets deep enough to build their own ecosystems. Ok, maybe Facebook in a couple years or if Nokia can dig themselves out of their current hole, but that's really about it. Jason Kottke lays out all of the things Microsoft needs to do to make the surface successful, if their goal is to directly compete with the iPad.