Friday, November 17, 2006

The Unspoken Code of Conduct at Microsoft

Now that I've had a few weeks away from Microsoft, I thought I'd post a little ditty about the social atmosphere on campus.

Microsofties are, as a group, not the most socially adept or socially comfortable creatures around. And actually, it makes sense that the 70,000 or so Microsoft employees would consist mostly of people who would choose a day of writing code over an a day of meeting new people and being sociable.

Imagine my surprise when, upon reporting for my first day of work, my casual “good morning” in the elevator was greeted with massive and collective silence. I kid you not – there must have been seven people riding the elevator with me that morning and not one of them returned my greeting, made eye contact with me, or otherwise acknowledged my presence in any way.

Later on my first morning as a Microsoftie (er, I mean an orange-badge contractor for the Microsoft Corporation), I greeted the woman who stood next to me at the sink in the bathroom, with a nod and a short “hi,” and again, I was completely ignored. No nod, no “hi,” no nothing.

(Both the elevator and the bathroom experiences were by no means isolated events; rather, they happened almost daily for months on end.)

Undaunted but a bit perplexed, I carried on that first morning, settling into the tasks assigned to me that day. I was introduced via e-mail to the team, most of whom sat within a few offices of my own, and I have a feeling that when I left Microsoft after almost seven months on the job, there were team members who I had never met! And my manager, who was nice enough and seemed genuinely glad to meet me that first day, hardly ever looked up from his computer during the ensuing weeks and months when I popped into his office to talked to him.

In essence, it seemed, I had become invisible when I entered the heavily secured building that first morning. I wondered whether there was just a collective unspoken agreement that conventional social courtesies are not necessary on the Microsoft campus, and that such courtesies expend too much precious energy that could otherwise be used for coding.

When I returned home after my first day at work, I hoped that my experiences were a sort of sad coincidence and that people would be friendlier the next day. But they weren't. Unfortunately, I adapted to the quirky, less-than-friendly, head-always-down atmosphere around campus, and within a few weeks I, too, had stopped smiling and saying hello to people I passed in the halls or encountered on the elevators. I adapted to lunches alone almost every day, to almost all connections being electronic, and to a distinct lack of a collaborative spirit on campus.

In addition to my theory about a collective gathering of inherently socially awkward people, I believe there are other reasons why Microsofties are, as a group (and in my opinion), rather unfriendly and uncollaborative. Until very recently, Microsoft employees were "graded on a curve." That meant that all managers were required to give a small percentage of their direct reports superior and glowing evaluations, a larger percentage of their employees were to be given evaluations of "adequate performance," and another small percentage of direct reports were to be deemed "unsatisfactory." Just how collaborative do you think people are going to be when they know that X number of people on their team must fail? Am I going to share an important piece of information that would make my co-worker look more successful than me if I know that doing so might push me into that mandated "fail" category? Am I going to collaborate and cooperate if doing so might indirectly cause my demise? Not on your life. I have a family to support.

I can not even begin to explain how vehemently opposed to this form of management I am! My most successful projects and products were successful for one ultimate reason only: because the team working on the project cooperated and collaborated together, supporting each other every single step of the way to produce a superior product. If there had been one iota of competition or animosity on those teams, the products would have suffered. I believe that any great product is ultimately due to a cohesive, supportive, fully collaborative team, and my bet is that any inferior product is ultimately the result of a failed or failing team.

But there's no reason to harp on this further, as a few months ago it was announced that these management policies were being abolished, hopefully in favor of a more cohesive and cooperative approach. Good move, LisaB! That's definitely a step in the right direction.

And this question is for BillG (yes, I guess I am feeling feisty and gutsy this morning): When you announced that you were leaving Microsoft in two years to save the world (and believe me, I admire the heck outta you for doing so!), why didn't you have a little chat with the 70,000 employees you left behind about the importance of cooperation over competition? I know that Microsoft got where it is today precisely because of its competetive (and that is a massive understatement) spirit and that competition is necessary and productive in a capitalistic society, but would it have hurt so much to communicate what you have obviously come to realize as you immerse yourself more in your foundation work -- that working together, even with those you might oppose on some levels, is they key to getting things done on the grandest scale and in the grandest sense of the word?! Microsoft has great power and great influence, and I DO acknowledge its significant financial contributions to a variety of philanthropic efforts, but you might want to look at the collaborative focus of some other companies, both big and small, to explore other possible approaches to (and definitions of) success.

To Microsoftie attorneys: The preceeding is my perception and experience only and does not represent the views or attitudes of anyone except me.

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c said...

Hi. (I just left a comment a few of your posts ago also.)
I too worked in a big company for many years and experienced a lot of what you describe here. I was booted out two years ago for no good reason, maybe because I made more than the younger folks doing a similar job.

But after my layoff I found that I can freelance from home and I don't want to go back to a big company situation. Are you a tech writer? I have a friend who does that from home.

Carol said...

Hi Lilly,

Goodness no. I'm an educator and educational media designer and developer ("developer" as in product management, not as in engineering!). Maybe that's why I was such a fish out of water there. I am totally right-brained and MS is a apretty much a left-brainer world!


Anonymous said...

wow--i just came across your blog and i couldn't agree with you more about microsoft! i have experienced the exact same things as you at microsoft. it is so good to know that i'm not the only one that feels this way. i started three months ago as a full time employee. we'll see how long it lasts. i've been in IT for a while but microsoft is totally different. i just miss having actual conversations with people and meetings without laptops!! good luck in your job search. don't worry, you'll find something great!

Carol said...

At least you're allowed to GO to meetings! Shortly after I started there, my manager told me that he had been told from "on high" that contractors were no longer to go to any team meetings -- yet we were expected to know what was going on within the team in order to do our jobs! Just a tad bit odd, no...?

Mike B said...

What, you didn't enjoy being a MicroSerf? I can't blame you, but having worked at several other Fortune 100 companies and their equivalent in Europe, I can assure you that it is basically the same in most of them. Look at it like the Borg ... We are the Borg, you will be assimilated, resistance is futile ... or at least hazardous to your bank account.

vailian said...

I wish that now that MS has achieved its declared goal of world domination (really!), it could become more magnanimous.... I have long suspected that for every line of code that was useful for the Windows user, another line would be written that would somehow make more money for MS.
This could help explain the clandestine atmosphere.

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