“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”
The hyper growth years of Microsoft were pretty much official over after the year 2000. The company was still in great financial shape and an excellent place to work, and there were many tremendous opportunities to advance personal computing and to advance my career. But Microsoft had become a big, fairly slow, bureaucratic machine, it was now playing defense. The DOJ case and ensuing settlement, the declining stock price, and the overall size and bureaucracy of Microsoft was settling into the company culture.
Microsoft was now afraid to be aggressive competitively which was core to it’s culture. It seemed that everything had to be checked and double-checked by a growing legion of lawyers, lobbyists and PR experts at the company. It felt like lawyers were involved in every decision the company made, big and small. Every product move, every marketing message, even internal communication emails were being reviewed for DOJ compliance. The company was wounded and just did not want to take on any additional risk. In hindsight, the company needed to change the culture and grow up. So in many respects, that company was just evolving to a more mature and responsible corporation. Personally, I found the changes hard to deal with, working at Microsoft was less fun, it took way longer to get less done. Work started to really feel like a lot of work!
The bureaucracy It slowed things down, it made jobs much harder, and getting stuff done was way more difficult than it had been in the past. But the worst part was, Microsoft was losing its focus on the customer, and it was losing its drive to innovate. Fear had taken over. Fear of being sued, fear of losing your job, fear of another stock price meltdown. More than ever bureaucrats were running the show at Microsoft, there was an attempt to take the risk out of everything. It was suffocating.
I vividly remember one of my favorite managers at Microsoft, Lora Shiner, telling me that once the lawyers and the bureaucrats take over it is better to leave and find a new place where you can focus on doing stuff that matters over just covering your ass all the time. She was of course right about that. But it is very hard to leave a good thing, and I had a family to think about – so I took the risk-averse path and stayed with the company. I mostly regret staying at Microsoft as long as I did. I took a comfortable route that was good for me financially, but it slowed my learning and stunted a lot of growth that I think I would have enjoyed had I left to try new things. It also landed me ended up landing me into a spot where I was branded a “lifer” at the company. Not that there is anything wrong with spending a lifetime at a great company like Microsoft. But for me personally, my dream was never to be a lifer at some big company. I just didn’t fit what I wanted to do with my life.
Lesson #8 When the lawyers and bureaucrats start to take over at your company, getting stuff done gets way harder, it’s a good sign that it is probably time to leave for your next opportunity
I will never really know if I would have been better off leaving Microsoft when it became obvious to me that the company was becoming a “big slow corporation”. I do know that most of the real fun of showing up to work and getting a lot of stuff done was fading pretty fast. The company was becoming excruciatingly slow. Important decisions took countless meetings with “stakeholders” from so many different divisions and groups all over the company that often times a decision would just never get made. Worse, many decisions were made for internal political reasons, to protect a senior manager’s turf, or to make sure a certain group or Corporate VP would make their fiscal year numbers. Microsoft had gone from a company that encouraged their people to take risks, break rules and focus on customers; to a bloated organization that made a lot of internal backroom decisions to protect the growing layers of middle management, too often at the cost of creating badly inferior products. The signs were there for me, and if you see them at your company consider leaving!
As a footnote: It appears that Satya Nadella has done a lot to change the culture at Microsoft. I have not been at the company for a long while, so I really don’t know first hand how different things are today. But certainly Nadella deserves a lot of credit for turning around Microsoft and by most reports he has changed the culture significantly.