The Code at Microsoft: What Have You Done for Us Lately?
Microserfs or Ubermenschen, no one rests on their laurels in Redmond:
Excerpts from The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management
O.K., so you created a new business unit, entered a new market segment,
and dominated it. So what? That was yesterday. At many companies, a big
success can carry you for the next one to ten years. At Microsoft, it is
an indicator of how successful you may be on your next job, but little
more. Microsoft gives you virtually nothing for what you have already done.
You never get to coast on previous work. And, in fact, if you burn out
doing an awesome job, you are cast aside once the work is done because
you are no longer of use to the company.
This is a very scary concept for most employees -- and most companies.
It means that you can never stop and rest. If you do, someone else who
is not resting will pass you by, and you may become expendable. It also
means the corporation is totally heartless. Ten years of dedicated service
means nothing. Every day you have to continue proving your worth. (On the
flip side, Microsoft's success has made it unnecessary for it to lay off
divisions, including people who are doing a good job for the company --
a common occurrence in all too many companies today.)
The result is that all the employees are constantly challenged to do
the best job they can for the company because the company is constantly
looking at what the employees are doing -- now.
NO EXCUSES. No one at Microsoft is much into excuses. When success is
the only measure, then excuses become irrelevant. Everyone realizes that
some problems are harder than others, and everyone realizes that bad luck
occurs. But it is also irrelevant. The only critical question is: What
is going to be done to fix the problem?
Some people will claim that this is unfair. But Microsoft has never
been concerned with fairness. It is concerned solely with success. Microsoft
does not need to be fair to attract highly motivated employees. Let's take
a look at a sports team. Everyone understands the rules; you win or lose.
Maybe for a death in the family the player will be cut some slack for a
game or two, but that seems to be about it. All that matters is winning.
Microsoft attracts employees because it is success-oriented. Both morale
and performance are stellar, due in part to this focus. People want to
work with successful groups, and they are willing to accept that they are
judged on their success alone as long as everyone else is too. In fact,
the people who do not find this environment acceptable are generally people
who are not terribly successful.
RATING EMPLOYEES. So how are employees rated? For something major that
was out of the control of the employee, some weight may be given to a reason
for failure. But this is rare. By and large, it's performance that matters.
If no one will pay any attention to excuses, then no one will put much
effort into formulating them.
This can have a nasty side effect. I have seen several cases where it
was "common knowledge" that someone had screwed up real bad. Yet in these
cases, "common knowledge" was dead wrong. The individuals in question had
done it right. However, because there is no mechanism for discussing excuses,
those people were unfairly left with the failure on their reputations.
Failure is expected, and yet it may count against an employee in his
or her performance rating. How can this be? The road to success in Microsoft's
core business, software development, marketing, etc., is littered with
failures. On average, about 50 percent of an employee's time is spent on
things that the employee later discovers won't work. While the failures
along the road to completion are by and large both expected and ignored,
the rating of the employee is based on what was accomplished.
However, a failure is not a permanent black mark on the employee's record,
and therefore does not have any long-term effect unless the employee continues
to fail and fail and fail.
No system is perfect. Microsoft's system generally treats everyone pretty
(consistently). Further, people are not fired because the project they were on
failed. Rather, they are looked at for their individual work and judged
on how successful they were within the scope of the project. While the
system will at times treat individuals unfairly, it works very well for
the company. It keeps everyone focused on performance, not excuses.
This is one of the major reasons that appearance is so unimportant at
Microsoft. This is not to say that other factors are completely irrelevant.
People are people and even at Microsoft looks, personality, gender and
skin color affect individuals' perceptions of others. (It's worth noting
that Microsoft's top management team is, and has always been, made up primarily
of white men.) The difference is that performance is given significant
priority over these other factors, whereas at most companies performance
and success seem to be secondary at best.
I felt like a moron when I first started at Microsoft. I had come from
an environment where I was one of the best, and suddenly I was surrounded
by people who were as smart as me. And some who were a lot smarter. For
the first six months, I scrambled like crazy to catch up. I was personally
determined to become as good as I could, and because of this competition,
I became a much better programmer than I ever would have become without
SHIP IT! When Windows 3.0 was nearing completion, signs sprung up on
doors everywhere in the Win 3.0 group saying "Ship It!" What everyone meant
was that the product was good enough, so get it out the door and into customers'
hands. Now granted, Win 3.0 was (very) far from perfect, but perfection
takes forever, especially for software.
Everyone understood that the job was not finished until the product
was shipped. So virtually everyone, except those few scrambling to finish
their parts, wanted it shipped because that was the measure of success.
This permeates every project I have ever seen at Microsoft. No one has
ever said that their part was done, so they've been successful. No one
has ever considered their performance excellent if the project is in trouble.
People take ownership in the entire project. Because people take ownership,
they will step in and voluntarily help where needed. Since their job isn't
done until the project is shipped, people with less work feel compelled
to assist others with too much. And people pay a lot more attention to
the entire project. If another part is in trouble, the sooner it is addressed,
the sooner the project is back on track.
Managers have to keep everyone on the project informed of direction
and status. And for major changes in direction, they have to get "buy-off"
from the employees. This is a critical component. Employees are not stupid,
at least not the ones at Microsoft. They won't push to do something that
The team also has to buy off on the proposed schedule for a project.
The schedules are aggressive. In the case of programmers, this is essential
since you can improve a program forever. However, the same holds for almost
any job. Figure out the fastest way it can be reasonably done, and shoot
In this environment, employees are very wrapped up in their jobs, the
success of their group, and the success of the company -- not just in terms
of salary and stock, but core emotional happiness.
So what happens when they see the company doing something stupid? They
let management know -- and managers must respond positively. Employee concerns
must be directly addressed. When there is a major change of direction,
Microsoft holds meeting after meeting to present the logic behind the change
and to answer questions. (I've thought at times that Microsoft intentionally
holds so many meetings because it wants to get people bored with the issue
so they'll stop objecting.)
Communicating the reasons for change often addresses many employee concerns
that were already discussed by management before making the decision. This
demonstrates that management is thinking, thereby increasing the credibility
of the management team. And sometimes an employee will ask a question that
brings up issues that weren't considered -- possibly something critical
to the success of the company.
David Thielen worked at Microsoft for more than three years as a
senior developer, programmer, and product manager.
Reprinted and excerpted with permission from
The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management
By David Thielen,
Copyright 1999, David Thielen
Published by The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Reprinted with permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Available where books are sold.