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May 18, 2006

The Towels Are Back in Town

Yes that's right...those wild-eyed towels that had been away...are back! In the big Town Hall meeting at Microsoft today, Lisa Brummel announced that they were bringing back the late, lamented towel service. This was the biggest applause line in her speech detailing various changes to our Microsoft review system, which are currently being debated (in public, natch) on Mini-Microsoft. We cut our towel service to send a message (to employees and/or Wall Street) that we weren't the kind of company that pays a quarter of a million dollars so that the 250 employees who actually took advantage of it didn't need to bring their own towels. Now we are that kind of company again, although hopefully we could negotiate a better deal this time ("$600 a head or we walk!!").

One of the main changes is removing the curve for the basic review score (the one about "What did I do since my last review"). The way Microsoft curved the score used to remind me of high school grades (or marks, as we called them) when I was growing up in Quebec. Some of the final exams, particularly in your last two years, were exams from the provincial government which were standardized across the province. The schools sent in the exam answer sheets and the province graded them and returned the scores. But, they wanted to curve the scores. The problem was that the grades were given as a straight percentage, so instead of getting an A- or C+ or whatever you would get an 87 or a 73 or whatever. You can curve letter grades just by changing what the cutoffs are, but how do you curve a percentage grade? The answer is you just change it; so you would get a grade report back saying "You scored 88% on this exam, but your curved score is 81%"). Something similar to this I think is what really griped everyone's giggy at Microsoft: the fact that a 4.0 would be converted to a 3.5. This was made easier by the fact that they were numbers with hazy meanings. Changing the scores to "exceeded", "achieved", etc. makes it much harder conceptually to curve the scores, since they are words with real meaning.

During the meeting, someone asked Lisa why they were making these changes now. She took the tack of answering the question "Why now as opposed to next year" (which is a reasonable question, and kudos to HR for pulling this off under the strict time pressure of this summer's reviews). But I think the question really meant "Why now instead of, say, never?" And I wish Lisa would have answered that question and just said, flat out, "It's because of Mini-Microsoft." I don't see the real downside of saying this--it would allow her to spin it as "Although we don't condone leaking internal information, nonetheless we listen to what is being discussed there..." And if you read Mini-Microsoft now, there is still some disgruntlement there, and it would be very encouraging to that crew if Lisa gave a shout-out and recognized that Mini did contribute heavily to pushing these changes. It's a fact I consider to be undeniably true, so why bother denying it. In fact I had a brief fantasy (or perhaps it was a dream, while dozing off during the snooze-inducing first hour of the meeting with Steve/Kevin1/Jeff/Robbie/Kevin2) that during the meeting she would trot some unfamiliar face up on stage and that person would say "I am Mini-Microsoft, and I approve this message!" Like the moment in Ender's Game when Valentine and Peter's online alter-egos suddenly band together to push the same idea...but now might be a premature use of such an ultimate weapon.

Posted by AdamBa at May 18, 2006 10:44 PM

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The curve is NOT gone at all. It's just gone underground. All the important things - merit, bonus, stock - those are still on a curve. Only now it's up to your local manager; it's not consistent across MSFT anymore.

Posted by: anonymous at May 19, 2006 12:10 AM

As I said, the curve is gone from the basic review score. Some other aspects of the review are still curved (or bucketed).

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 19, 2006 07:45 AM

ALL other aspects of the review are covered by a budget. Now the stock award aspect is even more tightly covered by a budget, as there are 3 grouping where before you had the ability to slosh stock among everyone 59-67.

Posted by: at May 20, 2006 08:10 AM

Sure. But I'd much rather have a budget process where you handle the "one more person getting a better review" situation by taking a tiny bit away from everyone else, than by knocking that one person down an entire review level.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 20, 2006 09:28 AM

If it really took an undercover blogger like mini-MS to be the impetus for change rather than MS managers all up the chain reading the yearly company surveys and reading exit interviews, then MS management all the way to Ballmer is still a mess.

Posted by: DWM at May 21, 2006 02:32 PM