My First Month @ MS
Wed, May 21, 2003
Today marks the 1-month anniversary of my assimilation. For those expecting references to my “scars,” you can be as surprised as I am that there aren’t any. In fact, my coming to MS has not really been a big deal. Oh, folks were nice and I got emails from all manner of internal and external folks with nothing but good wishes, but, somehow, I expected something different. Frankly, given the world’s impression of MS, I think I expected hazing. In fact, I woke up this morning with memories of dreams involving all kinds of bizarre knowledge- and activity-based initiation rites lead by my grand-boss that reminded me of a cross between my college fraternity and Fear Factor (although maybe I was still reliving my MSDN “morale event” experience : ).
Why did I expect all kinds of horrible things? Because MS is a very intimidating company; they play to win, seemingly at all costs. This A+ personality trait is certainly reflected inside the company, but there’s something else there, too. The part that surprised me was that job #1 seems to be exactly what I would pick: do “the right thing” for the customer.
In fact, doing the right thing is so important that MS builds a “customer advocate” position right into the heart of their culture; these people are called “Program Managers” (PMs). PMs are not to be confused with “Product Managers,” who are marketing folks. Of course, MS has all the standard positions, e.g. marketing, managers, developers, testers, documentation, etc, but they also have this PM position that, as far as I can see, forms the glue for the company and affects everything else. The PM’s job is wake up in the morning and think to him/herself, “What’s the right thing to do today?” The range of things that fall into this category is far too wide to even give you the bounds, but essentially it’s whatever someone else isn’t already doing (or isn’t doing to their satisfaction : ). Once they identify the right thing to do, they can attempt to take “ownership” of making it happen (your boss gets a say in how you spend your time).
Once ownership is acquired, that’s when things get interesting. PMs have all kinds of responsibility, but no authority. While this kind of position is generally one to avoid in the world of corporate politics, the internal product cycle training video I watched a couple of weeks ago points out that “responsibly without authority” is by design. Instead of ruling by fiat, PMs have to wander around the company finding folks that are involved with what they’re doing to get their “buy in” and their help. The way to do that is through old-fashion politics, i.e. gathering consensus, persuasion, trading favors, brow-beating, table thumping, complaining up your own management chain, complaining up your opponent’s management chain, etc. It’s not just a popularity contest, although being liked certainly helps. It’s also about your reputation, as established by your technical chops and your ability to produce, among other things. Under-achievers need not apply.
In other cultures where the hierarchy is all, such meritocracy can’t really work (in spite of lip service to the contrary). There’s often too much of an attitude of “who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” to even be allowed to present your case. Luckily, since there’s a whole bunch of folks wandering the halls looking for favors, the MS culture makes it OK to work in this manner. That’s why the role of PM forms to key to the culture, imo. Oh sure, MS is a real company with a well-established hierarchical chain of command (there’re currently 7 people between me and Billg), but hierarchy is only one part of the organization, and arguably not the dominant one (although I’m still new : ).
In a way, the whole system is kind of like the legal system. In the court room, lawyers from each side argue before a jury, each using every trick in the book to push their agenda and the law is only part of the equation. The jury decides who’s right.
At MS, multiple PMs all wrangle with each other, each using every trick in the book to push their agenda and technology is only part of the equation. Sometimes, it’s the folks inside of MS that serve as the jury. Sometimes, it’s the market itself that serves as the jury. In the latter case, that’s why you sometimes see multiple products from MS that seemingly serve the same purpose, e.g. C++ vs. C#. Those are two groups that both think that they’ve got the best way to accomplish their goals and they’ve both made strong enough cases internally to be allowed to compete externally. Probably the reason that each product exists in the first place is because one day some PM probably woke up and said, “MS really needs a C++ compiler” or ”.NET really needs a C-like language that’s not as hard to use as C++,” and look what they got themselves into. : )
Of course, it’s not just PMs that have the responsibility to constantly be on the lookout for the right thing. Everyone is supposed to get up every day with this attitude. It’s just that PMs only get to persuade; they don’t get to order things to be done (unless they get staff). Since MS is filled with folks all aiming to do the right thing, everyone is constantly committing to help with new ideas. That’s why you see MS folks at conferences always busy and always rushing back to their rooms to check their email; they’ve committed to do way more than a normal human can do because as the “right things” come along, it’s darn hard to say “no.” That’s why I started this spout entry on a Wednesday but I’m finishing it at 8am on a Saturday while the rest of my family sleeps. Even in the last month, I’ve accumulated a bunch of projects of varying sizes, all of them “right” as far as I was concerned.
According to the training video, in spite of this overwork and the recent lack of any expectation of riches, folks that come to MS don’t seem to ever want to leave. It’s that darn culture of the PM again. I’ve worked at large companies that run by fiat and they suck. Hell, I’ve worked at small companies that work by fiat and they suck, too. Is it any wonder that, assuming you have merit, once you find a stable, interesting, friendly company judging you on your merit that you’re loathe to leave? I find myself cataloging the skills that I think I’ll need to be successful at MS and it seems like I’ve been preparing for this job since I was 12 years old. I’ve hopped from company to company looking for the perfect fit. DM provided that fit during the boom. Is MS going to provide it from now on?