Microsoft turns too many great technical people into mediocre managers and imposes a horrible review system on them, says a former manager for the company.Last week, Laurence Moroney read BI Research’s piece on industry predictions for 2012 and was “saddened” to see that Microsoft wasn’t even mentioned.
So he made his own list of things that Microsoft needs to get right to recapture its leadership position.
The last two are the most interesting because they speak to a deep, long-term problem at the company that many other former employees have talked about: Microsoft has gotten so big and bureaucratic that it struggles to keep top technical people.
Moroney boils that down to a few big problems:
- Engineers delegate too much work to outside firms. Moroney writes that the only way to succeed at Microsoft is to “deliver results,” which is measured by the number of specific tasks accomplished. One commonly accepted way to do this is to contract work out to vendors. This turns engineers into “low grade administrators” — instead of working, they spend a lot of time dealing with people who do work for them. This also creates barriers to getting work done — when a team’s vendor budget is used up, even the most trivial change (like changing a Web site) can’t be done until the next quarter. Moroney writes that he often just went in and did these changes himself, and often made managers angry in the process!
- Engineers are spread too thin. The other way to accomplish a lot is to take stakes in as many projects as possible. This means that technical people end up spending tons of time in meetings, “fighting to hold on to their slice of whatever project they’re working on, and fighting off external stakeholders.” It also means that a lot of projects have too many cooks.
- The review system penalizes managers who pick good teams. Every year, Microsoft forces managers to pick 20% of their staff who are underperforming, and employees who land in this bucket are gradually managed out of the company. Managers end up fighting the system “tooth and nail” because they don’t want to look like they were dumb enough to hire losers. The other common outcome: they give the lowest score to people who recently joined from other divisions (or to a whole team that they just gobbled up). As a result, there’s an exodus of talent from Microsoft every fall after reviews finish. Worse yet, this requires a huge amount of middle management, which detracts from the real work that needs to be done.
Every company struggles to manage employees as it gets larger, but Microsoft has been dealing with these challenges for almost a decade now without much obvious progress. Again, this is just one public blog post, but a lot of Microsoft employees (and ex-employees) say similar things privately.
Moroney also has a lot of other suggestions for Microsoft, like:
- Make Windows Phone cheaper for developers than iPhones and Android phones.
- Rely less on advertising and rely on developers to evangelize your products, particularly with Windows Azure (which will only win if techies start using it for their companies).
- Stick with things longer. Microsoft seems to have “shiny new object” syndrome where a product will get lots of love and budget for a year or two, then be quickly abandoned. (Then again, maybe this is a good thing — Moroney mentions Zune as a product that should’ve been given more time, but realistically beating the iPod with a me-too device and service was a tough prospect.)
You can read the whole thing here.