Frustration, Disappointment And Apathy: My Years At Microsoft

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Editor’s Note: This Guest post is written by Max Zachariades, who spent the last five years at Microsoft in various roles. He blogs under the name Max Zografos.

I first used Windows on a TULIP portable computer, some twenty years ago. Graphical user interface, icons, mouse, an amazing new world was ushered in before my wide eyes.

At university, I scored a summer internship with Microsoft. I sported a Microsoft collared shirt and showed off my “Microsoft Product Specialist” badge with infinite pride. When Windows 2000 launched, I distributed official evaluation copies to the School of Engineering. Lecturers didn’t hide their admiration, and wonder, about my infatuation with this company. They called me the “Microsoft man,” which I saw as a compliment.

In 2005, I was commissioned to lead two Microsoft Europe-wide projects. Microsoft seemed way ahead. Virtual meetings, digitized calendars all beeping in tandem, flexible work arrangements, massage chairs, free soda. What’s more, toilets were squeaky clean. Most multinationals I’d worked for had heinous facilities, which pretty much poisoned the well for me.

Like Alice in Wonderland, I pranced around the campus, drinking as much of the Microsoft Kool-Aid as I possibly could. In 2007, I obtained a “blue badge.” I was a full-time employee now. One of them.

Fallen Star

Within my first year, I was awarded the venerable “Gold Star.” It read:

Congratulations! In recognition of your important contribution to our success, you have been selected to receive a special Gold Star Spot bonus award. I am pleased to inform you that you will receive an award of $1,000 less all applicable taxes and withholding. Since joining you’ve hit the ground running — you’re a star in the making!

Microsoft also gave out corporate-branded gizmos, laser pointers, memory keys, plastic crystals and other toys. When I raised a suggestion that we divert some of those funds to charity, my communication style was flagged as inappropriate and antagonistic.

In time, my eyes opened. We were box tickers and pen pushers. Any original thinking was sacrificed at the altar of time-proven, common sense process. Efforts to break the mould were all but punished.

The Microsoft Meeting

Microsoft culture expects you to be in meetings. Calendars need to be decorated with sufficient colourful blocks, to signal over-activity.

Dig a bit deeper and you’ll realise that Microsoft meetings are a way to diffuse and evade responsibility for decisions. Yes – let’s spend weeks on weeks “reviewing with stakeholders.” It’s so much safer that taking swift decisions ourselves. The company places no trust on the individual to make the right decision on their own.

So what happens in those meetings? Are they brainstorming earth-shattering new ideas? Are they inventing new products? Why are they getting paid to join so many of them? How can Microsoft afford to have so many of its employees fluffing about?

Because they can. Microsoft sits on stockpiles of cash, with about $60 billion earning interest in the bank. With that mystery out of the way, let’s take a look at some of those meetings: Strategy reviews, deep dives, virtual coffee breaks, quarterly off-sites, monthly get-togethers, director summits, leadership meetings, etc.

Yikes, who is going to organise all that? Fear not. Every team has their very own “business manager.” And since business managers are too senior to be bogged down with logistics, enter the legions of “support managers” and “administrative assistants” reporting to business managers.

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.

In an already loud world, all Windows 8 does is increase the decibels.

Getting Fired

Mea Culpa: I should have left on my own volition, much earlier.

Truth is, I was comfortable. Too comfortable. Stupefied even. Why look for work elsewhere when I could coast from meeting to meeting, uttering and typing meaningless busywork. I could not relinquish that kind of comfort.

Year after year, I began to voice my concerns about the meaninglessness of it all. Why write up dozens of monthly scorecards when nobody ever reads them? Worse yet, why join follow up conference calls? Why schedule get-togethers when there is no agenda? Why spend a month chasing stakeholder-committees for trivial project decisions. Why spam people’s inboxes with monthly newsletters and weekly narratives about how great our team is?

They called it out in my performance reviews: I lacked “respect for authority.” “Microsoft people are well-tenured,” said my boss once. Many employees are with Microsoft for 15 years or more. Sidestep hierarchy and tenure at your own peril.

I became cynical about the whole process. I was seen as a “rebel” and the leadership team began to marginalise me. My planned and promised promotion was cancelled.

Month after month, what I saw as a dubious case was put together. Official HR warnings were sent. My time ran out. I was offered 12-weeks’ pay for an amicable departure. Instead I decided to escalate the thoughts above to the highest echelons of Microsoft.

Below is an excerpt of my email to a Corporate Vice President.

Naturally, large teams are expected to have overheads. However, I’ve never witnessed such a systematic waste of company’s time and resources.

including its execs—spend much of their time in informational meetings with no agenda or
purpose. Let me cite an example from today’s newsletter. A senior exec talks about what he will do in March:

‘March is going to be a busy month! I will be representing at the first ever and then will representing at in San Diego on . Then back in the U.S. again the week of for the LT Strategy Planning Workshop. In March, I have 1:1s lined up with and several of her LT: , , , and .”

I struggle to discern what will actually be achieved in March by this exec. All I can see is a series of expensive trips and endless hours spent in gatherings with no outcomes or deliverables.

Can Microsoft afford that? …

Entire days spent on meetings about meetings, drafting and re-drafting ‘team stories’ and participating in endless informational conference calls. I am confident that could achieve the same actual results with just 10 percent of its current funding. Given the opportunity, I can provide more clarity on this topic.

In a time of disruptive new technologies and competition, I believe Microsoft, and each organization within, should lead by example. We cannot afford not to.

Within hours of sending this email I was summarily fired and escorted to the door, days short of my 5-year anniversary with Microsoft.