03 November 2005

Microsft: a culture of detail

It's taken me a while (5 years, in fact), but I am finally starting to understand the culture at Microsoft, and how to fit it a little bit. It has been quite an uphill climb for me. I have been used to being the wunderkind at every other place I've worked, but here I was just another face in a crowd of tens of thousands. It has been frustrating, and humbling, to realize that my ability to effect change is so limited, and having to re-discover ways to get my voice heard.

And what have I learned?
  1. Microsoft is a detail oriented place
    There is a high premium placed on micromanagers, and people who know EVERYTHING.

    This has been perhaps the most difficult problem for me to grapple with. By nature I am a broad-brush person who ignores details in favour of the "big picture". At Microsoft, however, this is deadly to your career since no one will trust your recommendations, or judgement, if you can't answer all their questions at the ritual grilling.

    I have a tendency to make decisions based on gut feel, and my over-all impression of customer needs, and market. But this kind of instinctual activity does not go down well at Microsoft.

    Not that this leads to better decision making. I have seen us make plenty of lousy technical and business decisions, despite (or maybe because of) this detailed fanatacism.

    I have heard many a tale of instances where top executives ripped into someone on minute issues that had come up years before. These stories are told with a sense of awe, and admiration, that our great company leaders have such a grasp of detail. Such stories, however, make me wonder if we aren't somehow too obsessed with minutiae.

  2. It's all in the family
    Relationships mean a great deal at Microsoft, and there is a strong preference for old-timers who have built a history of trust. It is a cadre of old-timers who really make this company tick, which have built a web of relationships, and trust, that the company falls back on again and again. I would even say that there is an inverse relationship to the level at which one is hired into the company and the success of their career. It is far easier to start as a new staffer, out of college, and work your way up rather than come in mid-career with a lot of experience acquired elsewhere.
The good news is that things are finally looking up for me at Microsoft, and this past year has been the first time I've felt like I was really starting to make an impact. The biggest advantage is that I am now starting to gain a wee bit of trust. I may make decisions from the gut, but now a few people are starting to see that these ideas often have some merit to them.

To be sure, I don't regret for a minute my decision to work at Microsoft. It has been tough, but I've learned a lot (about myself and others). Yes there are lots of things to complain about at Microsoft, but there are lots of great things too. I'll have to write about some of these things in future posts.