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.

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.

Why Windows 8 Is Fundamentally Flawed as a Response to the iPad

John Gruber writes at Daring Fireball:

But I think it’s a fundamentally flawed idea for Microsoft to build their next-generation OS and interface on top of the existing Windows. The idea is that you get the new stuff right alongside Windows as we know it. Microsoft is obviously trying to learn from Apple, but they clearly don’t understand why the iPad runs iOS, and not Mac OS X. Microsoft’s demo video shows Excel — the full version of Excel for Windows — running alongside new touch-based apps. They can make buttons more “touch friendly” all they want, but they’ll never make Excel for Windows feel right on a touchscreen UI. Consider the differences between the iWork apps for the Mac and iPad. The iPad versions aren’t “touch friendly” versions of the Mac apps — they’re entirely new beasts designed and programmed from the ground up for the touchscreen and for the different rules and tradeoffs of the iOS interface (no explicit saving, no file system, ready to quit at a moment’s notice, no processing in the background, etc.). You really should read John's entire piece as he goes on to make several other points worth hearing but I don't want to quote his entire article here. Just go read it. My take? Steve Ballmer just can't let go of the product he helped to successfully bring to market. Internal politics matter to him as much, if not more, as what could actually help the company the most. He can't see the forest for the trees. He just wont let Windows go. I'm not saying Windows is a horrible product (despite the fact that I despise it personally), as it makes Microsoft a lot of money. Ballmer just can't get it through his head that you cannot put a desktop driven legacy OS and shoe-horn it onto a consumer electronics device with no peripherals. It just wont work. You make to many compromises of what makes the iPad great in order to do so. Ballmer's days are numbered.