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Microsoft Confessions: ‘Deeply dysfunctional family’

By Joe Wilcox, Betanews

The next former Microsoft employee story comes from someone I’ll call Fred, which, of course, is not his real name. Fred took a job right out of college and might still work at Microsoft today, if not for the elimination of his group during layoffs last year. Like the former Microsoftie from the first post in this former employee “confession” series, Fred helplessly watched as the exciting and flexible workplace he joined bogged down in increasing layers of middle management.

When Microsoft hired Fred nine years ago, the company employed a little more than 47,000 people. When he was laid off in May 2009, the number was around 93,000. That number is for full-time employees and doesn’t include contractors. According to Microsoft’s fiscal 2010 10-K, the breakdown on June 30, 2009: “56,000 in the United States and 37,000 internationally. Of the total, 36,000 were in product research and development, 26,000 in sales and marketing, 17,000 in product support and consulting services, 5,000 in manufacturing and distribution, and 9,000 in general and administration.”

How many more layers of middle management did Microsoft add when more than doubling headcount during the last decade — before more than 5,000 layoffs? Fred has an answer for that.

As I explained yesterday, following the last round of Microsoft layoffs, I asked former employees to tell their stories. Responses came from recent departures and others long ago. No identities will be intentionally revealed, although I have verified each one. Fred understands that there is enough detail in his story for Microsoft to possibly identify him. But he is willing to take the risk (and hopefully not risk work elsewhere).

Fred’s story is the second posted in this short series running for the next couple days. His account is first-hand, but I will string some other stories together as narrative for better readability and to protect identities.

Something is missing from Fred’s story that I would like to encourage some commenters to fill in. Microsoft hiring and compensation follows a scale of levels. While I have some information about the levels and associated salaries, I would prefer some existing or former Microsoft employees pipe in with current salary information for level 63. I ask in hopes of generating discussion. If no one does, I’ll later add the information to this introduction or in comments. Four years ago, WashTech News offered an excellent review of Microsoft’s complicated compensation system.

Now for Fred’s story:

I started with Microsoft in June 2001, right out of college (I received a BS in information technology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). I was hired as a level 59. My first role was with Microsoft Consulting Services as an IT Infrastructure Consultant based in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US. I stayed in that role for four years, traveling around the country (mostly on the East Coast, but with a few exceptions) to help large organizations design/plan/implement Microsoft technology — mostly Windows desktops, Active Directory and Exchange. My clients included Fortune 100 companies in the retail, financial services, higher education and government sectors. Even a branch of the US military.

In 2005, rather tired of the Monday-Friday travel schedule, I started searching for a new role. That June, I accepted a role in the MSDN & TechNet organization — the part of the company responsible for communicating with developers and IT professionals. I was a level 61 at that point. Over the following four years, our business grew — we were reaching millions of IT pros with high levels of customer satisfaction — the team grew and my role grew as well. The role of the group was really one of audience marketing — to take a post-sales approach to the dissemination of technical information, with the intent of making the job of IT professionals easier, and hopefully as a result making them more satisfied with Microsoft.

Unfortunately, over the course of reorg after reorg, our group got buried in an IT infrastructure group. We were 15 people doing audience marketing, as part of a larger group of 450 responsible for the Microsoft.com web infrastructure. Our group had proposed a number of times to be moved into a more appropriate organization, like global marketing, that was better aligned with our mission. But our management chain, which grew deeper with every reorg, resisted the idea of giving up headcount or budget.

At the time I was laid off in May 2009, I was a level 63. I had never received anything other than exemplary reviews (I received an “Exceeded” rating in the three consecutive review cycles leading up to the time I left.) The size of the company more than [doubled] in my eight years there. The number of managers between me and the CEO went from six to 10.

Processes became more bureaucratic and individuals were less empowered to take action. In fact, oftentimes the incentive structure encouraged individual contributors not to do the right thing, but just to do what they committed to in their review the year prior. In other words, if you committed to include Feature A in Windows, and half-way through the year you realized that was a bad thing for Windows and Microsoft customers, the incentive structure actively discouraged you from trying to kill the feature, because then you wouldn’t have achieved your commitments. That sort of behavior just got easier and more engrained as the organizations grew.

Our entire group was laid off in two rounds. The first half were let go in January [2009]. Their roles were taken up by an outsourcing company based in India. The rest of us were let go four months later, and the remaining operation was outsourced. Four months after that, the majority of our work was dismantled. At the time I was laid off, I was given a choice of accepting a different role within the company, but it would have required my relocation, so I refused. My understanding is that I was the only member of the staff offered that chance (because of my technical background; the rest of the staff was purely marketing).

There’s a part of me that can actually understand our group being laid off. An argument could reasonably be made that non-Microsoft employees can be just as effective at fulfilling our mission and could do so at a lower cost (though that’s proving to not be true in the aftermath; it was a disaster). Some of the other people I knew around the company who were let go, though, made my jaw drop to the floor. While areas like Search and Zune continued to received astounding resources, areas focused on customer satisfaction and connection, evangelism, and program management were decimated.

One of the better examples where fat ended up cutting muscle, was someone like Steve Riley, who was a noted security expert and one of the best public faces Microsoft had to the IT Pro audience. He was the only person from his group let go. He never had anything other than stellar reviews, and [he] was one of the few people Microsoft had who could pack a ballroom and hold their attention for as long as he wanted. That one really shocked me.

To be honest, as much as I miss many of the individuals I worked with — and the steady paycheck and benefits, which were always great — I’m glad to not be a part of Microsoft any more. It bares very little resemblance in my mind to the company I joined 8 years ago. It’s hard to describe the atmosphere of excitement and innovation that existed when I first started. But over time, that certainly diminished, seemingly in an inverse relationship to the size of the company.

The company as a whole seemed more and more focused on chasing competitors into any business where they might someday present a threat — which to me always felt like ego on the part of SteveB [CEO Steve Ballmer]–  and seemed to completely lose sight of its core strengths and where it could deliver the most value to its customers (see the investment in Zune and Live Search as it correlates to Windows Vista).

If I had to sum up my feelings about the whole experience though, it really boils down to sadness and disappointment — not over the loss of my job, which, for the most part I enjoyed, but am happy to move past, but rather over the failed efforts, missed opportunities and wasted potential of Microsoft as a whole. I’ve never met so many talented, passionate individuals. But it felt like everyone was part of a deeply dysfunctional family, and in the end, that dynamic trumped what could have been astounding achievements.

I’m still collecting stories. Please e-mail joewilcox at live dot com. Stories can be anonymous, but I will need to verify identity.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2010

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