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Big Bill Is Watching You
Excerpts from The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management

Book CoverI once asked someone why he left Microsoft. He said it was because every day it was clear that it's Bill's company, and everything was going to be done Bill's way. His point is dead on. Bill's approach, his philosophy, and his strategic vision permeate the entire company. You either get with the program or leave.

This does not mean that everyone is a mini-Bill clone (although Bill would probably prefer that). But it does mean that Bill controls Microsoft to a much greater degree than does the CEO of any other large company.

Every month, the lead on each project E-mails a status report to Bill and copies everyone in the food chain between Bill and the lead. Because the person is not in upper management, he or she is much more willing to state what is wrong rather than only reporting good news. In most companies, upper management has absolutely no idea what is going on. At Microsoft, first, all the managers in the management chain, including Bill, are aware of every major problem in every project. So the decisions they make take them into account. Second, there is pressure from above to address the problems. This encourages people to fix them quickly.

BILL IS CALLING. Almost every Saturday morning, each vice president is sitting in his or her office. Why? Because every Saturday morning, Bill calls every one of them and spends half an hour discussing the various issues their departments have. While half an hour does not seem like a lot, Bill is already familiar with the details so the time is spent productively.

Every year, the entire company is bussed to a large building in downtown Seattle. This is the annual company meeting. It's part religious revival and part business report. There is always a comedian or some other entertainment to get the group laughing and cheering. The meeting is open to employees only. Afterward, booths are set up showing the interesting new products in development. In some cases, you can see things that won't be shown to the rest of the world for years. These are not just rah-rah, feel-good, propaganda opportunities. They are a focused effort to communicate the company's goals.

And each division has at least one additional meeting a year to discuss its strategy and products. The same goes for each business unit, department, etc. What is the outcome of all this? Twenty-five thousand people who are all trying to accomplish the same thing -- Bill's strategic vision.

BILL WANTS TO KNOW. And then there's the "billg" meeting. This is an official review with Bill. The focus might be on an entire project or it might be on a specific issue. These meetings are not your typical presentation to upper management where everything is quiet and refined. The meetings are downright rude at times. One of Bill's favorite replies when he thinks something is not well thought out is: "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

But this is not an event for Bill to whip a defenseless subordinate. As one vice president said, "Bill respects no. You just have to be able to back it up." The meetings are loud and contentious in many cases, but they are by no means one-sided for those prepared. However, they are truly awful for the unprepared.

Early on, when Dave Cutler (the newly hired architect of Windows/NT) had his first technical review with Bill, he did not take any of his developers with him. Bill started asking detailed questions about specific parts of the code. Dave told him that he didn't know but would get back to him. Bill ended the meeting prematurely and told him not to come back unless he brought the people with him who could answer the questions.

This illustrates a critical point. Bill, who is the CEO of the second most valuable company in America, talks directly to the people doing the work when reviewing it. Sam Walton, McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, and Walt Disney did similar things. But how many other senior executives do this?

It's more than just talking to the employees doing the work. It's understanding the work in detail and retaining that information from one meeting to the next. It is clear that Bill remembers arcane technical details from previous meetings on the project under review, as well as from other projects. Bill can often be convinced to change his mind or at least defer to the other person's judgment. But because of Bill's level of knowledge, the person discussing the issue with him better have very strong arguments.

The outcome is that major decisions are made quickly and intelligently by someone who understands what is going on elsewhere within the company. And because these decisions are made by Bill himself, the project can move ahead. People don't have to wait to see if the decision will change as it is presented to others. Contrast this with CEOs of even average mid-sized companies. They don't have the background to make decisions of this kind. Decisions end up being made by various groups, each with its own direction.

BILL GOES SLUMMING. In the early days, it was not uncommon to return to your office and find that Bill had not only been reviewing your code, but had improved it. He still cruises the halls of a given project once in a while and will pop in at random to see what someone is working on. The fact that Bill could show up in your office at any time is a constant reminder to everyone of how closely he is watching and directing the company. Other executives within Microsoft do the same thing, although they all have their own style. Managers are expected to have -- and they do -- a good picture of what is happening below them.

Finally, throughout the company, on various projects and at various levels, are the people who knew Bill back when the company was much smaller. These people can shoot Bill an E-mail, and he will pay attention to it because he knows the sender. Bill acts on these E-mails as he feels is appropriate. Software is somewhat unique in that very senior people will choose to remain developers or go from management back to development. This all means there are many individuals who are simply senior developers on a project who can E-mail Bill directly and get a response. And this means Bill and the other senior executives get constant feedback from throughout 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.



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