The culture that is Microsoft

By Razib Khan | April 23, 2012 12:03 am

Frustration, Disappointment And Apathy: My Years At Microsoft:

Large companies have overheads, a necessary evil, you say. Overheads need to be managed. And managed they are: Group Managers, Program managers, General managers, together with ‘Senior’ flavours of those and a whole new breed of directors, stakeholders, business owners, relationship leads coupled with their own countless derivatives.

All those meeting-goers are not making anything. Deciding upon and making something is hard. And if this onerous activity has to be done, then hire external consultants for it. It’s easier and less risky.

There is no creative tension, no vision these days. Left to Microsoft’s hands we’d still be toiling on overheating Vista desktops.

This company is becoming the McDonalds of computing. Cheap, mass products, available everywhere. No nutrients, no ideas, no culture. Windows 8 is a fine example. The new Metro interface displays nonstop, trivial updates from Facebook, Twitter, news sites and stock tickers. Streams of raw noise distract users from the moment they login.

The rise of sclerotic bureaucratic intermediaries isn’t just a problem with Microsoft. Remember when parasitic squid were generating 40 percent of the economy’s profits? It’s no better in academia:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
MORE ABOUT: Microsoft
  • DK

    However uncertain the definition of “senior manager” in the above graph is, the reality is much worse. Population of the small fish bureaucratic support grows even faster. In 20 years in the department, I’ve witnessed no more than 20% growth in faculty numbers while the number of office folks increased 300% or more. The most egregious was the transition to the paperless ordering system, in which the job formerly handled by a single person now takes five people (not counting IT guys outside of the department that support it). With inferior results, generally.

  • Ken

    Rehashing a personal opinion piece from TechCrunch is not journalism, it is plagiarism and secondly very pathetic when you don’t acknowledge that it is based on a rant from a disgruntled ex-employee and therefore biased and unsubstantiated.
    Pathetic attempt Razib Khan.

  • Sandgroper

    ‘Mature’ organisation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #2 has a ‘live’ address, so might be an MS employee. i thought i’d publish the comment because it seems so manifestly retarded.

  • kirk

    As a former member of the management leisure class, it’s worse than “we go to meetings that spawn more meetings: branch to we go to meetings”. There is a glass ceiling for ‘individual contributors’ that ends at second line management rewards – the smartest technical cohort is paid no more (often much less) than the dullest, most mendacious pointy-haired manager hack. All of the final and disastrous results of Vista came from a sausage grinder of low-imagination droids that had have ‘career tracks’ on record that keeps them (and only them) on a fast track to highly paid, manifestly useless contributions. The job defaults to an endless sequence of setting and then (surprise) meeting goals and objectives. At the next level up the management chain, lower level ‘business targets’ are ‘rolled up’ into a dog’s breakfast of ‘forward looking’ strategic goals. The net is a management class that sets it’s own objectives, measure its own objectives and rewards itself for mental masturbation.

  • Sandgroper

    Zeeb nooo! Not me. Manifestly retarded yes, MS no. You mean #2.

    I’ve had this problem before – I refer to a comment no. and then it changes.

  • miko

    Management is crushing academia — see Benjamin Ginsberg’s “The Fall of the Faculty.” The public resources (and student loans) that fund universities are being actively diverted from education to the bloated salaries and numbers of pointless administrators. My private institution collects obscene amounts of “ovherhead” (again, your money) on every NIH grant “it” receives (NIH grants, of course, are technically to the institution, not anyone who conceived of or does the work). This keeps the lights on, but mainly pays 6 figure salaries to armies of glorified clerks with BAs in management with titles like “assistant dean” or “senior executive.” And by obscene I mean equivalent to the amount of research funding. Overhead in my “research” building includes $1000 chairs for meeting rooms for said administrators to have lavishly catered meetings about which $2000 light fixtures they should buy.

    The real estate / financial bubble burst, but the Douchebag Economy is undeterred.

    Good interview here:
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=416841

    “Generally speaking,” he writes, “a million-dollar president could be kidnapped by space aliens and it would be weeks or even months before his or her absence from campus was noticed.”

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Honestly, the general uselessness and the parasite nature of the management class is why I’m involved in the labor movement, and still consider myself a socialist, albeit a heterodox one.

    I don’t have any real problem with free markets. I also don’t have an issue with inequality on a fundamental level, although I think there should be restrictions on excessive inequality because I believe that level of heterogeneity is poisonous to the democratic process in the longer run.

    But 99% of the managerial class is, in virtually every industry, largely useless. Although seldom thought of as much, it’s a clear holdover from the ideas of nobility. There’s a titled elite who bestows titles and responsibilities upon their lessers, who bestow titles on their lessers – all of which have a clearly demarcated area of responsibility. Much of their “work” is low-productivity socialization which seemingly accomplishes little but to reinforce primate hierarchies, and if anything saps productivity from the workforce they are supposed to be managing.

    Now, there are huge productivity gains that certain changes in management have wrought, mainly through people like Fredrick Winslow Taylor who actually had work experience outside of management they took into the job. But the modern trend of designated business degrees, instead of having people move up through the ranks within their companies from non-managerial jobs, means managers start out only knowing what they learn in school, and later only discover what’s within “the bubble” – fundamentally treating all businesses as if they are identical ventures. Overall productivity growth in the U.S. economy was higher from 1947 to 1973 – before the advent of modern managerial innovations – than in any period since. And this is despite the huge boon that automation has wrought in the intervening period.

    Generally speaking though, I think workers would be better off left to themselves. It’s how work happened for centuries (e.g., the journey from apprentice to master/grandmaster). Obviously we need to have some people who understand how organizations work and can advise, but I see no reason why the buck should stop with them on every single issue – or indeed, why they should be anything more than outside hired consultants.

  • Ria

    Actually, effective project and product management (typical mid-level to upper-mid-level management) is based upon the scientific method (PMP, 2010). This is not only relevant to how effective mid-level managers ought to think, but how they ought to effect the inception through completion of their projects. Top level management (C-level) is something with which I’m less familiar, but I expect that there are at least traces of the same underlying philosophy. Many industrial, academic and governmental efforts now are much too large to go back to simplistic models such as that proposed by Mr. Zimmerman (the cannonical guild design). Managers are supposed to act as the coordinator to pull together the disparate pieces of the projects produced by the various workers/producers who focus on the details of any given task, to bring it all together into the final product. This is very similar to the function that the PI plays for the lab….and just as the first year graduate student or disgruntled tech fails to understand what the PI brings to the project, the typical worker often fails to understand what a competent manager brings to a project. I do agree, however, that it is best for a manager to work their way up in their field/industry rather than trying to jump into management by way of getting an MBA instead of having experience plus an MBA (or just experience alone, but the MBA can be invaluable when it comes to obtaining the tools for personnel management).

    As to having managers as mere consultants, I doubt that would be effective. First, they would not be invested enough in the project to be willing to put in the hours to either get up to speed or to deal with problems as they cropped up. Second, ownership (of a business, an idea, a project) is a major part of upper level management, just as it is for being a PI. After all, you are only willing to work so hard for someone else…but you’ll work yourself much harder if it’s to further your own goals/ideas. Third, a manager has to have final say on most important decisions in a project. You don’t want that kind of authority given to a consultant.

    As a final point, I definitely agree that the administration in academia has grown much to large and unwieldy at most institutions. Often, this is because of the culture of promotion and failure of accountability. Once someone is hired in and manages to stay employed for at least 6 months in academia, they almost never get fired so long as there is funding for their position…and they will be promoted on a relatively regular schedule. This leads to managerial bloat, of course, particularly of people who have no idea what they are doing. When you add that to the much lower salaries that are paid in academia relative to industry for the same titled positions, you know that you are not going to be getting the most highly qualified managers in place…which probably explains much of the academic disdain for managers, given their personal experience. This is particularly true in IT, unfortunately.

  • Brian Too

    @3. Sandgroper,

    I concur. Once organizations reach a certain size and level of comfort, it seems that 80% of an organization’s solutions amount to hiring an additional management FTE.

    While MS may be a good example of this, they cannot be held as an exclusive, or even particularly remarkable example of it.

  • Larry, San Francisco

    I work for a large corporation in a technical area. I have spent 4 years developing a product that could actually be worth a large amount of money (a market consultant said in the range of 7 to low 8 figures a year). Legal quashed the project out of fear of potential litigation even though we did show the risk was quite small (or at least could be defended) and I had dealt with many of their objections which turned out to be only window dressing anyway. Quite frustrating.
    Before the project was quashed the senior vp of my area (the Colonel equivalent to my Sergeant status) praised the ingenuity of my project and congratulated the paper pusher in charge of trying to sell it for “thinking outside the box”. When I objected to my boss, his boss (who had made the mistake) get pissed off at him and said it was an honest mistake. He never apologized or even spoke to me.
    As to becoming a socialist, at least under capitalism my company will either have to change or will eventually die. Governments don’t die too easily.

  • Glen

    The point here is that management matters. There are huge producitivity differences across firms within the same industry, and much of this seems to come down to management quality.

    There is a study done in India (http://www.stanford.edu/~nbloom/DMM.pdf) which measures what happens when you give firms extensive and costly management consulting. And there was a 17% increase in producitivy, much of which comes down to just not knowing the information and techniques on how to manage well. Management is much worse in developing countries so you couldn’t get such large improvements in developed countries.

    And there are other constraints. One guy ran a very productive business which could have been expanded profitably. When asked why not, he simply said ‘no sons’. He couldn’t trust other managers not to rip him off if he put them in charge of new factories.

    But it’s true that managers tend to reproduce themselves by making more managers, obviously moreso in a large organisation. But good resource allocation, particuarly in a complex, diversifed firm is very important for higher productivity. It just seems we have too much bad management at the moment, with Microsoft being a glaring example.

    It’s important to have the technical people highly involved in the overall direction of a company, but unfortunatley many great technical people make poor managers.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    9 –

    The use of management in non-executive roles, sometimes subcontracted, has been successful. Look at the economic history of the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, which is the largest case of worker-owned cooperatives managing to stay competitive in the capitalist economy. They have had some issues (after all, Spain in general has), but remain competitive to this day.

    11 –

    When I said I was socialist, don’t assume that means I support central planning – as I said, I’m broadly speaking a pro-market person (within reason, I think markets for things like health insurance and mass transit aren’t feasible). The primary difference between socialism and capitalism is not markets versus central planning, it’s who controls the means of production – those who produce the product, or those that provide the capital.

    12 –

    I never said management did not matter at all. Obviously improving from the archaic systems of management in India to modern systems will result in some productivity gains. Pre-Taylor, for the large part factory owners knew nothing about production – they left it up to the workers and the foremen to figure out how to make the product. I just said it’s dubious once other productivity improvements, like those due to automation, are considered that more modern “innovations” in management have contributed much – particularly when the higher costs of management overhead today are factored in.

  • Scott

    I work at a F100 company, and I previously worked at the university I attended. I shudder to think of how high unemployment would be if these entities ran efficiently.

  • Tomasz R.

    Microsoft actually has quite sucessful management. Perhaps preventing internally-initiated innovation, but very apt at other way of doing business.

    First of all they are very good at purchasing smaller innovative companies, or licenses for technology or key people from those who have a technology, and most importantly promoting resulting products as cores of their business. Look at their portfolio: Axapta is a bought product, SQL Server started as a technology license from Sysbase, “NT” series of operating systems like Windows NT, 2000, XP were started by people they got from Digital Equipment VMS team, Kinnect comes from a bought company, Xbox is based on CPU license from IBM and graphics license from ATI. Many other companies miss this ability – for example IBM bought Lotus, Rational or Informix and these products are dying now.

    Secondly they are masters of reactive management. Most of the new features of their products are a reaction to advances of other innovative companies, but Microsoft offers them for more decent price, than Apple for consumer market or Oracle for enterprise. What they do is they just never miss reacting, and have products one generation later. Eg. their reaction to Java was .NET. This is less perfect than innovating, and doesn’t bring as many money, but is a sure strategy to survive.

    Third – they are good at building a closed, but complete and quite internally coherent ecosystem of products. Their products cooperate with their other products very well (not so much with other products), and looking at the product line you know what fits where. This product cooperation makes buyers more likely to purchase another product together with MS one, with the usual starting point being the OS monopoly on desktops.

    Fourth – they are reasonable at sales.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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