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October 09, 2005

State of the Mini

Mini-Microsoft, our favorite anonymous insider, has been in the news a lot. I don't think he has necessarily hopped over the carcharodon, but I do think the blog is losing a bit of focus.

The following happened at a group meeting a few weeks ago. Questions for management had been submitted in advance and one of the questions was something like, "Employees are unhappy, go read Mini-Microsoft's blog for details." So our GM, rather than just say "WTF?", said that he actually did go read the blog for an hour (I would suspect that most Microsoft managers would approach it this way, although SteveB has chosen not to). But the problem is he saw a pretty random set of complaints about Microsoft, which aren't really directly actionable. Yes, if you read the blog enough you will start to see a pattern emerge about a perception gap between executives and the rank-and-file, but you have to wade through a lot of complaints about stack ranking and the review curve.

Let's talk about that. Try a little exercise: imagine 100 people at Microsoft who think they got an unfair review. If you assume there was some impartial way to *really* do "fair and balanced" reviews, how many of those 100 would you predict had a legitimate complaint? What's the first digit of your answer? Is there another digit next to it? Bear in mind the words of the American poet Dexter Holland: "The more cynical you become, the better off you'll be."

As has been pointed out elsewhere, 85% (or whatever) of people think they are above average, but of course many of them are wrong. Review curves and its close cousin stack ranking were put in place to try to make reviews MORE objective and fair. I am puzzled when people complain about personalities playing a role in reviews (there's a big surprise) and their solution is to put more leeway and subjectivity into the process. To me Microsoft has worked hard to try to make reviews based on hard facts and results, and prevent bad bosses from hosing people for arbitary reasons. And now managers are being rated more on the growth of their people. Yes, if you have two bad managers in a row it can gum up the process--welcome to planet Earth. I contend that at least at Microsoft it can gum things up less than elsewhere. The fact that Microsoft reviews are not perfect speaks more the inherent imperfection of any review process than it does to an overriding need to try to fix them.

At my old company, which had about 50 people, annual reviews were like this: "Adam, you're doing a good job. $5000 raise." That was it. Sounds good, maybe, but was the guy next to me getting $10000? Who knew? Sure people at Microsoft complain that the average raise was whatever percent it was, but this is independent of the stack ranking--Microsoft has had bountiful years with stack ranking and lean years with stack ranking. And if you want Microsoft to be lean and mean, that's also separate. Microsoft could be lean and mean with stack ranking and it could be bloated and slow without it. The cases where Microsoft has been extremely agile in chasing a competitor--Internet Explorer in the late 1990s, MSN Search now--guess what, they had stack ranking and review curves also.

Which brings up my real concern. There is an opportunity, I think, to change Microsoft's culture for the better, and Mini-Microsoft is uniquely positioned to help with that. Trying to fix stack ranking and the curve plays well to the madding crowd but it is sidetracking this initiative. The core problem, if I can attempt to summarize it, is that the everyday employees do not see a clear upwards career path, because they feel that they will be unable to shine due to the "tax" they have to deal with in their daily jobs, and will be passed over in favor of external hires who were able to grow their careers elsewhere (let me clarify for Business Week readers: that's my analysis of a certain set of complaints I've seen, not necessarily my personal opinion). OK, so let's work on fixing that perception. Slimming Microsoft down seems like a good part of the solution, since it will remove intermediate layers of management and give employees more chance to shine. The real goal of the Mini-Microsoft blog/movement/religion should be, as Mini has always stated at the top, "slim down Microsoft into a lean, mean, efficient customer pleasing profit making machine!" So let's slim down Mini-Microsoft into a lean, mean, Microsoft-slimming machine.

Posted by AdamBa at October 9, 2005 08:51 PM

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The point about reviews and how people perceive them immediately made me think of Joel Spolsky's article "Incentive Pay Considered Harmful" (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000070.html)...I could paraphrase it badly but that would be pointless, I really do suggest you go and have a read.

Posted by: Kevin Daly at October 9, 2005 11:26 PM

Yes, I've read Joel's essay. I think he has written a lot of insightful things but this isn't one of them. In fact when people reference this as backup material for why reviews should be changed, I always wonder if they have actually read it.

He is lumping together a whole range of activities, from the Ship-It Awards to formal performance reviews. His description of reviews at Microsoft is a very inaccurate caricature of the process, even back when he was there. At the end he says "I'd recommend that you run fleeing from any kind of performance review, incentive bonus, or stupid corporate employee-of-the-month program." So is he really saying don't do performance reviews? And replace them with...nothing at all? Everyone just tootles along and gets a cost-of-living increase every year? I completely disagree.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at October 10, 2005 02:56 PM

Thanks for the post, Adam. It has been on my mind, as in: how did I end up writing about these subjects? It certainly wasn't on my radar when I banged out the "blast off" post. I think it evolved as I looked at the increasing size of Microsoft resulting in people being elevated to management who really couldn't (or didn't want to) manage well. This resulted in more bothersome process and bad reviews. So maybe more of what I'm focusing on right now is a result of the original problem I started griping about. I'll think on it.

Posted by: Mini-Microsoft at October 10, 2005 05:54 PM