Quote of the day–Kurt Eichenwald

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

Kurt Eichenwald
August 2012 Issue of Vanity Fair.
Microsoft’s Downfall: Inside the Executive E-mails and Cannibalistic Culture That Felled a Tech Giant
[Via email from Ry. I could rant for an hour about this. It was a strong contributor to my leaving Microsoft.

But the final straw was a manager who several people on my team independently concluded, “He’s insane!”. The most inspired and brilliant thing I have ever done with software, a new algorithm for estimating the location of device based on the presence of cell and Wi-Fi signal, was termed by him to be, “A negative contribution to Microsoft.” A month or so later the bug this algorithm change would have fixed was termed to be a Priority 1 bug that had to be fixed ASAP. When I pointed out I had been telling him for months that we needed to make this algorithm change he then marked the bug, “Won’t fix” and it was forever ignored.

He asked us all what we liked to do best and did well then gave us tasks there were just the opposite of that. The most incompetent “engineer” on our team was promoted to a senior engineering position, the same level as me. He didn’t qualify as an engineer in my book. Had he been an intern I would have recommended he not be hired or brought back for a second internship. Others “promised” promotions by our previous manager were given poor reviews and told they were on their way out of the company if their performance didn’t improve.

I could, and have—just ask Barron, rant for many hours about this guy. He was the worst manager, by far, I have ever had in nearly 35 years of being an engineer. And I’ve had an alcoholic, one who said things to me that would be considered sexual harassment, and just plain stupid and incompetent managers. But seldom would they get in the way of you getting your job done or doing it right. This guy was counterproductive, actively destroyed moral, and degraded the quality of the product.

Four out of five people on our team complained to our skip level manager about this guy. He did nothing. Three out of five people on the team quit Microsoft because of him.

The last I heard he still works for Microsoft. If I ever get a call from a Microsoft recruiter I will tell them there is no point in continuing the conversation if this guy still works there. Any company that holds on to someone like that is not a company that I will work for.

Still, I think Windows Phone 7.x is finest mobile phone available and I am extremely proud of helping build and ship that product. I will continue to favor Microsoft products over others. But Microsoft has problems. The culture I experienced in the mid and late 1990’s was gone when I joined as a full time employee in 2006 and while I thought the culture from the earlier time needed some changes what it changed into was worse for both the employees and consumers. Microsoft needs to make some serious changes and I hope they are up to the task.—Joe]

11 thoughts on “Quote of the day–Kurt Eichenwald

  1. Amen, brother. I spent 10 years at MSFT getting 4.0s and one manager who gave me what became “underperformed” b/c I challenged him on several issues. In ten years, what changed? Either I went from a top performer to something else overnight, or the management changed. I leave the math as an exercise to the reader.

  2. To the uninitiated (like me), “Stack Ranking” is grading on the curve without regard for standard deviation or any absolute score. Southwestern University School of Law does something similar by requiring that students’ grades for each subject be graded on a curve with the mean of 2.5. After X semesters (I forget how many) students with an GPA under 2.0 are separated from the school. Except for the one year that “too many students” would have been separated for the school to meet its expenses without dipping too far into the endowment.
    Stack Ranking, aka grading on the curve is not supposed to be a Procrustean Bed, but is supposed to be descriptive.

  3. I completely understand where you are coming from. I worked at MS in 1999-2000 as a temp. And, I have a friend who worked there from the mid-1990s until last year. My understanding is that it has been taken over by managerial bureaucrats whose most important metric is how well you get along with them. I’m waiting to see what happens to their product quality. I’m not confident that it will be maintained.

  4. Amen, Joe…
    I went from a 3.5-4.0 performer to an underachiver in the space of a year, despite the fact(s) that I was meeting my stated goals and my work was deemed superior by the PMs and developers (my clients) on the product team I worked with (I was a technical writer). When I pointed out to my manager at my mid-year that I was well beyond meeting the goals we’d agreed on, he dismissed that out-of-hand. He let me know in no uncertain terms that I was on my way out.

    Complaints to the skip level manager fell on deaf ears, by several in my group who were getting similar treatment.

    Finally, I’d had enough, called my former boss at the company I’d co-founded 10 years before, and was back to being a geologist inside of two weeks. Best move I ever made.

    Microsoft and Apple stocks were both hovering around the mid-$20 mark around 2004 (of course, Apple had come down to that level due to a recent split. Microsoft – still at around $28; Apple, of course, has split multiple times since then and is now at $609.

    Any innovative spirit that Microsoft once had has been redirected into how to make the employees as miserable as possible, and then grind on them some more.

  5. @Tim
    “Waiting” to see what happens to product quality? It’s in the dumper, and has been for eons. Some of the products I worked on were so poorly received in the marketplace they didn’t even make it to V.2. And their failure was largely because they were ill conceived in the first place, rushed into production, and developed and documented by people with English as a 4th language.

    As a writer, I thought it interesting that MSFT thought it to be a masterful stroke of administrative wisdom to sack most of the writers, particularly the vendors, and send this critical task to China!

  6. Yup. I quit in ’98. Management had something to do with it, thought by most accounts it was not nearly as bad as things are now. The gist of what I currently hear from most of the MSFT people I know amounts to “to improve the products, shoot most of the managers first.”

    I realize that SOME management is necessary, to deal with some coordination and legal issues. Good engineers tend t be direct, to the point, and not very into their touchy-feely-be-PC about how you say things: they want to explain correct info quickly, so they can get back to doing something useful. Managers that can’t deal with that should be shown the door, not the engineers for “lack of team spirit” or some such twadle.

  7. All it takes is for one AA or Peter Priciple to embed itself in the upper management of a company and it’s end game. Either type will continuous strive to ensure that no one is hired who might be a threat to their position, ie. smarter then they are. This meme eventually goes all the way down the management ladder.
    WHen I worked in a large defence corporation, those of us in the field saw this regularly. If an engineer meeting either of those requirements came out to the job site and couldn’t do his job, he generally would be returned to company hq and promoted to supervisor.

  8. I have a different situation. I like my lead and respect the next two levels up as engineering leaders. Where stack ranking rubs me raw is that I’ve done great work delivering a signature feature on a flagship product through significant design changes in each milestone, only to be told I’m performing in the bottom quintile. If I didn’t love the project, it would be utterly depressing.

  9. RE Engineers don’t understand touchy feely: well that’s almost an easy one, have most folks in the engineering field take ASD (autism spectrum disorder) type testing and quite a few end up somewhere on the autism spectrum, they tend to be HFA (high-functioning autism) actually there’s been some research done on this and it appears genetic, couple that with a management type that’s polar opposite and it like oil on a fire, not compatible… have a read of the article at the link, btw I actually score pretty high on most ASD tests, so does my eldest son. Link: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aspergers_pr.html and AQ test link: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html

  10. Microsoft is on the course to imploding already and will accomplish the task within 5 years, destroying itself in a mimic of what’s happening to Nokia under an ex-Microsoft executive.

  11. Re MSFT imploding: “there’s a lot of ruin in a big corporation”. (h/t Adam Smith)

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