How to drive your best employees away

Interesting article in Vanity Fair about Microsoft’s problems. 

What I hadn’t previously realized was that they use the stupid “stack ranking” system. Maybe it worked well at GE in Jack Welch’s days -  it’s possible that firing 10% of employees every year was a smart strategy for them - but whoever thought that was the answer for Microsoft was definitely asking the wrong question.  

It worked real well for Enron as well. 

Microsoft’s Lost Decade

[..] At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Supposing Microsoft had managed to hire technology’s top players into a single unit before they made their names elsewhere—Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon—regardless of performance, under one of the iterations of stack ranking, two of them would have to be rated as below average, with one deemed disastrous.

For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door.

Outcomes from the process were never predictable. Employees in certain divisions were given what were known as M.B.O.’s—management business objectives—which were essentially the expectations for what they would accomplish in a particular year. But even achieving every M.B.O. was no guarantee of receiving a high ranking, since some other employee could exceed the assigned performance. As a result, Microsoft employees not only tried to do a good job but also worked hard to make sure their colleagues did not.

“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.”

Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate.

“The six-month reviews forced a lot of bad decision-making,” one software designer said. “People planned their days and their years around the review, rather than around products. You really had to focus on the six-month performance, rather than on doing what was right for the company.”

There was some room for bending the numbers a bit. Each team would be within a larger Microsoft group. The supervisors of the teams could have slightly more of their employees in the higher ranks so long as the full group met the required percentages. So, every six months, all of the supervisors in a single group met for a few days of horse trading.

On the first day, the supervisors—as many as 30—gather in a single conference room. Blinds are drawn; doors are closed. A grid containing possible rankings is put up—sometimes on a whiteboard, sometimes on a poster board tacked to the wall—and everyone breaks out Post-it notes. Names of team members are scribbled on the notes, then each manager takes a turn placing the slips of paper into the grid boxes. Usually, though, the numbers don’t work on the first go-round. That’s when the haggling begins.

“There are some pretty impassioned debates and the Post-it notes end up being shuffled around for days so that we can meet the bell curve,” said one Microsoft manager who has participated in a number of the sessions. “It doesn’t always work out well. I myself have had to give rankings to people that they didn’t deserve because of this forced curve.”

The best way to guarantee a higher ranking, executives said, is to keep in mind the realities of those behind-the-scenes debates—every employee has to impress not only his or her boss but bosses from other teams as well. And that means schmoozing and brown-nosing as many supervisors as possible.

“I was told in almost every review that the political game was always important for my career development,” said Brian Cody, a former Microsoft engineer. “It was always much more on ‘Let’s work on the political game’ than on improving my actual performance.”

Like other employees I interviewed, Cody said that the reality of the corporate culture slowed everything down. “It got to the point where I was second-guessing everything I was doing,” he said. “Whenever I had a question for some other team, instead of going to the developer who had the answer, I would first touch base with that developer’s manager, so that he knew what I was working on. That was the only way to be visible to other managers, which you needed for the review.”

I asked Cody whether his review was ever based on the quality of his work. He paused for a very long time. “It was always much less about how I could become a better engineer and much more about my need to improve my visibility among other managers.”

In the end, the stack-ranking system crippled the ability to innovate at Microsoft, executives said. “I wanted to build a team of people who would work together and whose only focus would be on making great software,” said Bill Hill, the former manager. “But you can’t do that at Microsoft.”

Magic TV MTV7000D

I have been waiting for a long time for Now TV and Cable TV to provide the facility to record programmes (as Sky TV do in the UK with Sky+), but there’s still no sign of anything useful.

Step forward the MTV 7000D, which allows you to record programmes from Now TV and Cable TV on to a 500gb hard disk. 

I was slightly wary of this device, having been told by a friend that it was difficult to set up.  Well, not in my experience, it isn’t.  Yes, you have to connect both decoder boxes to the Magic TV box, and then attach the IR transmitters to the front of both boxes, but that was all fairly straightforward.  I happen to have an Ethernet cable that was installed by Now TV (but which is no longer needed), so it was also easy to connect it to the Internet (you can use Wi-Fi - if you have a wireless network and purchase a Wi-Fi adapter). 

After that there is some basic setup to be done, and it’s ready.  Which means that you can put your TV, Cable TV and Now TV remote controls into a drawer and control everything from the Magic TV remote control.  You also get an integrated EPG (Electronic Programme Guide), and from there you can record anything on any channel. 

The only problem I have had so far was when the machine forgot the date and time and decided it was 1st January 2000, and was unable to find any programme schedules for this date.  My first thought was that the Internet connection was down (it wasn’t) and then I found an option to change the date and time.  Frustratingly, this forces you to restart the Magic TV box – and then it doesn’t actually change the date.  I tried that a few times, always with the same result.

Then I finally realized how it must get the date and time.  A few seconds of TVB Jade HD, and all was well again.  But what’s the point of the option under “settings” that appears to allow you to change the date and time? 

That small frustration apart, it's an excellent device.     

Another one

Identical, but from UPS…

Dear customer.

The parcel was sent your home address.
And it will arrive within 7 business day.
More information and the tracking number are attached in document below.

Thank you.
© 1994-2011 United Parcel Service of America, Inc.

Spam (only 3 spelling mistakes)

Three spelling mistakes and poor grammar.  And sent to an email address I never use.

Dear customer!

The parcel was send your home address.
And it will arrice within 7 bussness day.
More information and the tracking number
are attached in document below.
Thank you.
2011 DHL International GmbH. All rights reserverd.

Not really news

The iPad 2 will be "thinner, lighter and will come with a faster processor, more memory and a more powerful graphics processor."  Right.  If it was thicker, heavier or slower that would be news.

I still don’t want one, though I realize that resistance is futile and one day I will succumb.

Love the Kindle 3, hate paying $2 extra for nothing

The combination of the lower price and improved contrast won me over.  After thinking about buying one of the earlier Kindles but never quite being convinced that it  was a good idea, I really couldn’t resist the new Wi-Fi only model at US$139 (plus US$21 for delivery to Hong Kong).

However, there is a problem.  When Amazon started selling the Kindle internationally they added a flat charge of US$2 per book to cover the cost of using the mobile phone network wherever you happen to be.  Which seems somewhat unfair considering that Hong Kong has probably the lowest cost of voice and data anywhere.  But, OK, maybe Amazon were never going to set different prices for each country.

What is much more ridiculous is that even for the Kindle 3 model with Wi-Fi but not 3G, Amazon still insist on adding $2 to the price of most titles.  For no service at all.

The pricing is strange in other ways, with plenty of Kindle books priced virtually the same as - or even higher than - the physical book.  How can that be?  How can it possibly cost more to make a digital copy than to print a book and ship it first to the Amazon warehouse and then to your home? 

Yes, of course, it is almost always cheaper to buy a Kindle book (even with the $2 international surcharge) than to pay for delivery to Hong Kong, but that’s not really the point.  I understand that international couriers charge to ship books, but it costs virtually nothing to create a Kindle book and send it to me through the Internet, so what justification can there be for some of the ridiculously high prices they charge?

There are still a lot of titles available for US$9.99 US$11.99, though some only get to that price after an initial period at a higher price. Tony Blair’s autobiography was priced at $17 (+ $2.00, of course) before they dropped it to $9.99/11.99 (when it made it on to the New York Times bestseller list).  Who is going to pay the higher price, and how would you feel if you paid that and then saw it reduced a few days later?  Madness. 

image Then there’s the fact that international customers can only buy from the US store.  I can buy physical books from either the UK or the US stores, so why can’t I buy Kindle books from both?  Actually, it’s worse than that because some titles are in the US store but are not available internationally, and at times this seems totally random - with one book from a series unavailable whilst the rest are available.

There are some free books available, and some very low cost editions of out-of-copyright titles, though when you have to pay $2.00 for most of the “free” books it obviously makes them less attractive.  If I have to pay, then I’d rather pay a bit more and get a better quality edition without typographical errors and with proper navigation. 

There are also some limited-time offers, but I don’t know how to find them.  Searching for free books produces hundreds of old titles and a lot of rubbish, and I can’t be bothered to search through all of that for something worthwhile.

But what about the Kindle itself?  I have read a few very negative reviews (of the previous versions), but the Kindle 3 reproduces pictures fairly well, and the only real problem is with big charts or diagrams that either don’t fit on the page or which get separated from the text.  Apart from that, it’s fine.  On balance I think I’d still prefer to read a physical book, but the convenience of being able to carry dozens of books in one really small unit more than makes up for that.

Now, Amazon, about that $2 charge for nothing at all…

Ovi not so suite

What is it with people who design upgrades to software?

I was prompted to ”upgrade” my Nokia PC Suite to Ovi.  This brilliantly designed piece of software thinks that I want to copy all the music and podcasts from my PC to my mobile phone.  I don’t.  And there isn’t space.

Never mind, it just goes ahead and tries to use up all the space that is available.  Then the phone displays dozens of messages telling me that there is no space.  Well, thanks for that.

The only solution I could find was to delete most of the podcasts off the phone (to create some space) and then manually remove a lot of the music from the Ovi desktop software.  Eventually it was able to synchronize.  What a mess.

What were they thinking?


I see that HSBC are going to stop sending paper statements (unless you are either old or willing to pay).  I subscribed to this service a year or so ago, and I have probably only downloaded a handful of statements since then. 

Why?  Because it's a complete nightmare to use, that's why.  I have no idea why they couldn't simply put the statements on the Internet Banking service for customers to view or download, but instead they came up with a bizarre system where they send you an email with a link, you click on it, enter a password, click on another link, and (if all goes well) you can view your statement.  Did I mention that you have to set up a different password to the one for Internet Banking?  Well, you do.

In an all-Microsoft world, where you use Outlook and Internet Explorer, it's possible that this all works seamlessly.  Possible, but unlikely, I feel.  However, if you are reckless enough to use other email clients and other browsers, then it certainly doesn't work very well.  Windows pop up, curious messages appear, and no statement is available to download.

I was rather looking forward to the squeals from anguish from Mrs Wong in Tuen Mun and Mr Chan in Fanling when they discovered hoops through they which they would have to jump in order to get the statement that used to arrive in the post.  But someone in HSBC has come to their senses, and in future they will indeed put downloadable statements on to their existing Internet Banking site.

Better late than never (oh, and HSBC are still sending me paper statements for my bank account).


After the browser, the operating system.  As with the Chrome browser, it would appear that Google's main interest may be in prompting Microsoft to respond.  If Microsoft can offer a cheaper (and smaller) OS to run on Netbooks, then that will bring down prices and encourage more people to go online more often - and click on more Google ads.

In other Google news, GMail is no longer in "beta", a mere ten years after it was launched.  Oh, alright, it's only just over five years.

Just recently they announced a few more minor improvements, the best of which is that you can 'hide' labels that you don't use very much.   There are a still a whole big pile of things they ought to do, such as label hierachies and allowing you to add or remove emails from conversations (there's a list of some of them here).  One day.

Read all about it

This week's Economist suggests that the Kindle might be the saviour of newspapers

The growing popularity of electronic books could offer hope for newspapers

THINGS are suddenly hotting up in the rather obscure field of electronic books and their associated reading devices, the best known of which is Amazon’s Kindle. A new, sleeker version of the Kindle was unveiled on February 9th. Just days earlier, Google said it was making 1.5m free e-books available in a format suitable for smart-phones, such as Apple’s iPhone and handsets powered by Google’s Android software. Amazon said it was working to make e-books available on smart-phones as well as the Kindle. Plastic Logic, the maker of a forthcoming e-reader device, said it had struck distribution deals with several magazines and newspapers.

The iPhone, meanwhile, has quietly become the most widely used e-book reader: more people have downloaded e-book software (such as Stanza, eReader and Classics) for iPhones than have bought Kindles. Might e-books be approaching the moment of take-off, akin to Apple’s launch of the iTunes store in 2003, which created a new market for legal music downloads?

It's an interesting idea, and I'd happily pay US$10 per month for my daily fix of The Guardian, but there are a few problems to overcome first.  For starters, there's the price of the Kindle ($359) and the fact that it's only available in the United States (and I figure that Hong Kong is unlikely to be high on their priority list).

However, there is speculation that Amazon will start to offer support for the iPhone (and presumably the iPod Touch as well), so maybe there's some hope.  Or maybe Apple will create an iBooks or iNews application similar to iTunes (using USB synchronization), and some people think they will launch a tablet computer, for which that would be an obvious application. 

I've been reading newspapers on mobile devices for more that ten years, starting with the Handspring Visor, using Avantgo to download various newspapers (including The Guardian).  By current standards it was very primitive, but at the time I was very impressed to be able to sit on the MTR reading the same day's Guardian (well, parts of it).  The biggest limitations were that the website had to create a special cut-down version (to fit the smaller screen) and Avantgo set a maximum number of kb (though you could pay to increase this). 

Next came Mobipocket.  The SCMP adopted it because of their stupid paywall, but its best feature was that anyone could write a script to extract content from any newspaper (or any website).  One kind person wrote a script to extract the whole of The Guardian each day.  Which was fine until the website was re-designed and the script would pick up nothing.  Then came Mobipocket Creator, which was supposed to make it easy for anyone to do the extract themselves from any website - and it worked (up to a point), but it also had many frustrating features, and rather than fix them they abandoned the product.  Gee, thanks, guys.

These days, both Mobipocket and Avantgo take the easy option and use RSS feeds.  Which is all very well, but it isn't the same as reading a newspaper. So I am currently using Sunrise XP and Plucker, which works reasonably well for The Guardian (though I had to create a simple HTML file to serve as a contents page), but it can't handle sites which split articles over multiple pages (yes, that means you, The Times of London). 

So I'm certainly on the lookout for something better, whether from Amazon or Apple or anyone else.