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May 01, 2007

Microsoft Memories

Back when I was tomev at Microsoft (1992-1994), billg managed to a large degree by bullying.  Even in conversation, btw, people at Microsoft were known by their email names. I didn’t report directly to billg; but, during much of the time I was there, I worked for mikemap (Mike Maples), who reported to billg, had responsibility for all the products, and was part of the boop. Boop stood for billg plus the office of the president (real presidents didn’t last very long there). The oop consisted of steveb (Steve Ballmer) and mikemap. Major decisions were sometimes made by the boop. 

Microsoft was a fairly flat organization at that time although it already had 10,000 employees. That meant that I and the other product managers got to spend a fair amount of time either doing reviews for billg or, sometimes, bringing issues to the boop. Presenting to billg and surviving a presentation to billg were key success skills in the company. Billg rarely used postive feedback as a motivational tool; he found the stick more effective than the carrot although options, which were then skyrocketing, WERE a very effective carrot. 

So you’re in there presenting your product plan to billg, steveb, and mikemap. Billg typically has his eyes closed and he’s rocking back and forth. He could be asleep; he could be thinking about something else; he could be listening intently to everything you’re saying. The trouble is all are possible and you don’t know which. Obviously, you have to present as if he were listening intently even though you know he isn’t looking at the PowerPoint slides you spent so much time on. 

At some point in your presentation billg will say “that’s the dumbest fucking idea I’ve heard since I’ve been at Microsoft.” He looks like he means it. However, since you knew he was going to say this, you can’t really let it faze you. Moreover, you can’t afford to look fazed; remember: he’s a bully. 

“What do you disagree with, Bill?” you ask as assertively as you can. He tells you. Maybe it’s the plan for user interface; maybe it’s the product positioning; maybe it’s the technical approach you’re taking to a problem or your evaluation of the enemy (competition). If you see that your dead wrong – you may be, he’s very smart – best to admit it immediately and move on. But, if he’s wrong – which is also often the case – then you CAN’T give in. You will be just as much blamed for doing the wrong thing because billg told you to as you will be if you did it all on your own. This is the moment of truth for a Microsoft manager. 

“Bill,” you say, “I know you made a billion dollars yesterday; I know you’re on the cover of Fortune; I know you can probably code this whole application in Visual Basic over the weekend; but you’re wrong.” And you tell him why and how you know you’re right. You have to do this so you do. 

You get no positive feedback. Billg looks at you coldly. “Go on,” he says. You do just that. You don’t go back and give more arguments for the point you made; you just continue. You’ve also just passed a big test – if you turn out to be right. 

Some people flourished in this trial by fire atmosphere. In fact, that is exactly what billg was doing. As smart as he is, he had no way to know most of the time whether the person presenting to him was right or wrong (unless their logic was obviously confused in which case they deserved whatever happened to them). So he tested us. Since you knew you were likely to be tested on anything, you really did think long and hard about what you were doing and what you were presenting. You had to be really tough to bluff although it happened. And you worked doubly hard afterwards to make sure that what you just presented so confidently actually came to pass. 

Two problems with this approach: one is that kinder and gentler people, who may be still be very smart, get stomach aches and other unpleasant symptoms when they gave to confront bullying. Microsoft lost out on some people who could have contributed but couldn’t take this kind of heat. Second problem is that the bullying gets emulated down the line. There was nothing quite as absurd as a newly-hired college graduate thinking he could be as smart or rich as billg if he could only manage to be as rude. 

Subject continued in Should billg Stop Bullying? 

All about Microsoft Meetings with a special audio supplement is posted here. 

Also about MSFT:

How MAPI Beat VIM (an historical footnote)

Sleeping with Telcos

Chrome – Getting Microsoft’s Goat

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