My Microsoft Experience (1/3)

Recently, Microsoft decided to get rid of the stack rank system they used to use for reviews. I’m really happy with this decision: the stack rank negatively affected me, and many people I know.

I’ve seen multiple people have the same experience:
1) Promising start (say 1-3 years)
2) Something goes wrong – could be a project like mine, a big manager conflict, etc.
3) The issue isn’t addressed when it happens. Instead, it festers until review.
4) Bad review, general angst, uncertainty
5) Talented person quits and moves on to a great career elsewhere.

Since that was my experience, I wanted to write a little bit about how that feels. The obvious takeaway is that Microsoft was probably hemorrhaging a lot of talent. I think the more insidious one is the toll it takes on self perception and effectiveness of employees that are still there.

I wrote most of this piece before Microsoft decided to do away with the system, and shared it with some close friends. I recently had my first review at Kickstarter (no stack rank) and want to draw some comparisons.

I don’t think my analysis of how the review systems work will make any sense without more context of my work. So, I’m going to do this in a few pieces. This is just an attempt at a factual recounting of my time at Microsoft.

The first half is about what happens when things go well at Microsoft – my first eighteen months were interesting and challenging. The more interesting part is probably the second section (and the contrast between the two), which deals with when things started to go wrong. I’ve changed the only name I used in the piece. Of course, some of my friends are familiar with who all these people are.

Next week, I’ll post something with more analysis about how in particular the stack rank played into this story and situation. The week after that, I’ll do a piece comparing my experience with a non-ranked review.

The first 18 months
I started at Microsoft on a high note – I’d interned in the Summer of 2009, and had loved my time with the PowerPoint team. I decided if I was going back to Microsoft full time, I wanted to be based in the Redmond headquarters.

Microsoft is incredibly supportive of interns. I’d shared my plan with my management team, and my general manager had arranged for me to talk to a variety of people around Office. After several rounds of introductions, I ended up talking with Alan.

Alan was in the middle of starting a brand new team for Office Mobile. The team was built around a new contract with Nokia. It fit all the criteria I’d been hoping to fill – entrepreneurial within Microsoft, part of a core business effort, and mobile. I got the chance to meet Alan and some more of his management team. They even helped me attended a couple conferences for the team before I officially started my full time job.

When I started in July, everything was great. I was working on a pretty complex feature with Nokia (to give you an idea of how fast the market changed: Nokia still had 60% marketshare then). Things were pretty laid back compared to being in school, but I felt like I was really achieving. I got to work on complicated feature design, and worked with teams in Finland and India. It was a great challenge both technically and organizationally.

It wasn’t perfect – there were some of the usual bumps that come with a first year working. My manager and I had to learn how to communicate well together, and it was definitely demoralizing when there were substantial changes with the Nokia platform. I had to learn how to gauge what really was a big problem, vs. what would blow over in a day or so.

The downside of that time was that I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. I was very concerned about getting promoted to a level 60 in the first 6 months. There’s a metric in the career-tracking website called “promotion velocity,” and I always felt like if you got off to a slow start you’d never succeed. I had a few friends who’d been hired at level 60, and I didn’t want to be average. I wanted to be excellent.

Because of that pressure, I was frustrated because I wanted a “more important project” and I felt like everything moved too slowly. I felt like I couldn’t get promoted without more responsibility. I couldn’t figure out how to succeed if I was in a system that I didn’t have much control over.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t change anything about the first year. I learned a ton about getting people to work together to ship software, even when external circumstances weren’t perfect. I also learned to take really awesome notes. Making great software to the sort of standard that Microsoft holds takes time. Work is also different than school in that you have to be able to do it continuously – it isn’t just a three months print followed by a month of burnout. I still regularly use skills I developed that first year.

I didn’t get the six month promotion I obsessed over, but at the end of my first year, I got one. Objectively, at that point, things were pretty great. Subjectively, I was still a little upset because I knew I hadn’t gotten the best possible review. It’s strange to feel like you’re failing even when you’re promoted. On the whole though, I was positive about Microsoft and working there.

Right around then, I also got my wish of having a larger project. I’d demonstrated I could handle working with complicated teams and problems. My next project was working on the core team of people who identified the features and overall design for the Office Hub for Windows Phone 8.

Around the same time, I switched managers. My manager had decided he’d rather be an individual contributor (IC). He’d been struggling with balancing his desire to do individual work and managing for a while. He moved into another role within our team, and I was going to be reporting to a different lead. I was sad, because we’d invested so much time in building a good relationship, but also because in the last few months before the switch he’d invested a lot of time in becoming an excellent manager.

I was also scared, because this meant I’d have to build up a whole new rapport with a different lead. I was worried because my new manager seemed more political. I started getting paranoid because this lead had another report who had started at the same time as me, at the same level as me. I wasn’t quite sure a new lead would really care for me when previously he’d been advocating for someone against me. This didn’t really come up at the time, but lingered as a worry.

I started the new project: this was one of the hardest, and most fun parts of my career! Between teams in India, Cambridge and Redmond, we had to figure out what the Office Hub for Windows Phone 8 should be. There was a lot of tension about what to build, but we pushed and came up with a pretty elegant solution. Everyone was on one page, and we managed to scope the work to fit the schedule! There would be notable improvements from WP7.5.

After we’d agreed on the basic premise of our work, I owned the specifications for the “Most Recently Used Documents” panel and the “Email Attachments” work. I’d written specifications before, and enjoyed writing them. The development team was building the product, and it was hopefully going to be great.

I felt like I was doing really well – I was learning and doing interesting work. Which gets us up to February, 2012 – the point at which things started to go downhill, quickly…

The Last Eight Months
After I’d completed my specifications for Office on Windows Phone 8, it was time to move onto something else to help the release. I’m not going to mention specifics around what I was doing – pretty much all you need to know is that it was something that I knew nothing about.

This shouldn’t have been an issue – when I’d started at Microsoft I’d know almost nothing about how to be a PM. I’d learned how to write specs (several different ways), and how to handle challenging cross-team issues (culturally, logistically, and from the business priority perspective).

This assignment should have been just another minor challenge, and another little step towards getting better. I should have been able to overcome it, and move on to the next project. That’s generally how career progression at Microsoft is supposed to go. You get more and more advanced challenges, but learn how to cope.

But for some reason, that didn’t happen.

I didn’t understand the project. I spent a little too long hoping it would miraculously dawn on me (that’s happened before!) It didn’t, and by then it felt like too late to say I was totally clueless.

I talked to a coworker – he didn’t really get what I was supposed to be doing either. He also told me he’d been asked to check up and make sure I was doing other parts of my job (the ones I’d always been fine at).

I tried to talk to my manager and explain that I was having a hard time. He said that I just needed to try harder, and that I wasn’t engaged in my work. He thought I’d been distracted by the Awesome Foundation or the Global Shapers program.

I had been around less, but it was because it was depressing to stare at my computer when I didn’t even have a good idea of where to start.

Two months into the stalling project, I booked a last minute plane ticket to visit a friend down in Texas. Usually, if I’m stuck, doing something spontaneous will help me break out of my context and think about a problem differently, or think of a better way to ask my questions.

It helped a little. I came back, and tried again to explain to my manager that I had a draft, but was still confused about where I was headed with the project. By this point we’d hired someone else into our overall team who had a role that technically encompassed what I was doing. I was even more confused about why I was doing it.

My manager still didn’t believe me. He had me send my draft to a few other coworkers to review. They read it, thought it lacked some of the specifics and details. (It probably did – the premise of the document was very general. I still think the actual scope was impossible).

It just kept getting worse. I didn’t understand what to do next after the draft, and my manger seemed uninterested in talking to me or having 1:1s. It became my personal version of hell to go to work everyday. I’d given it everything I had, but it seemed like no one was listening or cared.

I still wanted to stay until Windows Phone 8 shipped. I wanted to be there on the official day. So I stayed. I suffered through my review. It was bad, even though the first half of the year had been excellent. It felt like the first half of the year didn’t count at all for reviews. But at that point it didn’t really matter, because there was no way to fix it.

So, the day Windows Phone 8 shipped, I quit. I quit via email, because there wasn’t anyone to tell. At least it was over.

Thanks for reading! Part II is now up!

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