An unorthodox mix of voices

What an interesting phenomenon is shaping up at minimsft, right now! Due to either the exhaustion of more mundane subjects or the logical escalation of the conversation, minimsft has started tackling a subject of major importance for Microsoft: How Fit Is Steve Ballmer as the CEO of Microsoft? Judging by the comments on the subject, the conversation is spreading beyond the usual (SDE) suspects of the blog to embrace what seem to be Microsoft more sophisticated constituencies such as Company management and investors.

It is interesting how, by "ignoring" the conversation, Mr. Ballmer has attracted onto himself the lights of public scrutiny. For most, in the end, it doesn't matter who's raising the questions about the top guy as much as the rise of the right questions themselves.

How this whole episode in corporate communications will end? Your guess is as good as any. However, management at public companies is likely to have one more Sarbanes-Oaxley-type of burden to put up with: the "unorthodox" mix of voices coming from employees, customers, investors...

Addendum Oct 8, 2005

Apparently, there is at least one member of management at Microsoft, Ken Moss - General Manager MSN Web Search, who has read minimsft. Mr. Moss has "strong opinions on many of the points discussed on Mini’s blog and in the comments. But I’ll save those for another discussion." For the time being, Mr. Moss is only addressing a challenge to the anonymous employee behind Mini-Microsoft:
I have no idea who Mini is, but I would like to officially issue a challenge to him to come and do a totally anonymous informational interview with me. If he passes our hiring bar, I am confident that we can provide him with a way to feel inspired by Microsoft and the work we’re doing. We have many awesome features he can come and work on – and he’ll be able to ship them as soon as they’re ready since we update our service constantly.

I, and the rest of the management team, will do our very best to provide cover for any bureaucracy that may stand in his way. Mini will be free to innovate and ship software as fast as he is able to. He will be able to challenge himself to see how good he can be. He will be inspired and have a blast. I can almost guarantee that success won't be easy -- but I can guarantee the opportunity to challenge himself. If he does great work, he will get great rewards.
I find such an idea commendable--to invite an employee to an interview whereby s/he could work in an inspiring environment. Indeed, there are great individuals who get stuck in one organizational context or another, and the only way out/up is outside the organization. Having a second chance in the same place cannot hurt. However, a question still remains: Why would a manager make such an invite only to the person who, supposedly, is behind minimsft? What recommends an anonymous figure to such preferential treatment is an enigma to me... unless this is an attempt at tackling the Mini-Microsoft blog issue?

Hmm... I think the horse is out of the barn and enjoying, albeit in a contorted way, the blogosphere pastures. However, since investors and customers have joined in, minimsft is no longer an internal Microsoft affair. Thus, Microsoft management should kick into gear and treat the whole issue at least at a PR level. Observers of the whole phenomenon would probably welcome Mr. Moss' addressing any of the several MSN-related issues that have come up at Mini-Microsoft.

Addendum Oct. 17, 2005

On where Bill Gates sees himself in ten years:
I’ll be turning 60. I have to say, ten years older than me always seems like that’s when I’ll be old. When I was 40 I thought 50 would be that mark, and, now that I’m very close to that, No, no, no, that’s not being old. My life’s work in terms of creating a company is certainly around Microsoft. Software was what I thought about when I was very young and believed something dramatic could happen, and so the opportunity to be involved in that and shape that industry, that’s really my professional work.

Over the next ten years, my balance between the time I spend on philanthropic things vs. my full-time job will switch in favor of doing philanthropy. It does mean I need to get one of the great young people at Microsoft to get on the hot seat of setting product strategy. I love my job, it’s an amazing job, and I’ll always be able to have some mix of Microsoft and philanthropy.

Addendum: 12/02/2005

Kevin Schofield, General Manager with Microsoft Research, visits MiniMSFT and leaves the following comment:
Regarding Thinkweek documents, they are company confidential documents and should not be discussed outside the company. As employees who want to be trusted by our company, it's our responsibility to be trustworthy in return and not "go rogue" and leak confidential information.

For example, if there is indeed a thinkweek paper about taking MS private (I haven't tried to verify this) it's inappropriate for you to mention it here. Some reporter will read your comments, will start calling Microsoft asking for a copy of it and comments on the record, and will eventually nag enough people that someone will dig it up and leak it to the reporter. Or worse, they'll just make stuff up. This is a huge can of worms that you don't want to open.

Mini, I understand why you feel like you need to stay anonymous to be a public critic of Microsoft, and while I'm not sure I agree I certainly respect the reasoning and emotion behind that decision. You'd lose all respect in my book, however, if you start using the cloak of anonymity to leak confidential information. I think it's great that the company encourages a broad set of employees to read and discuss Thinkweek papers -- I love the philosophy that by default we should trust our employees -- but this is a relatively new trend for Thinkweek and I worry that they will be forced to re-think that policy if the papers keep leaking.

But by all means, I hope you enjoy reading the thinkweek papers. There's a lot of good stuff.
available here
Here's my reply:

Kevin, knowing that a GM with MSFT visits these pages confirms my suspicion that Mini-MSFT cannot be ignored where it counts a great deal (i.e. among the executives of the Company). Not being privy to the discussions you and your peers have about Mini-MSFT, I would certainly expect that, at least when you officially visit this place, some consideration is given to any one of the real issues people bring up. Addressing this forum obliquely does justice neither to your position with the Company nor to your public profile as illustrated by

The option of taking technology companies private again has been exercised by several (e.g. Trilogy, Seagate, Corel, etc.). In other words, changing the form of ownership of a company, from public to private, is just one of the several strategic options managers ought to consider. Since a prior comment here addresses so well such (im)possibility for Microsoft, one should be grateful to the public, if anonymous, intelligence, enabled by this blog, for saving some brain-cycles of Microsoft executives.

Addendum 1/19/06:

To the growing chorus enabled by blogger/minimsft, we should hail the latest voices: Microsoft Partners'. To judge the amount of scripting vs. improvisation, the over/under-tones, and any other parameter in these folks' tunes, have a look here:

And now, the $10k-question: How soon will the top two acknowledge the minimsft- phenomenon?


fCh said...

Here is a sample of comments posted in the past 24 hours.

Dare makes a good point about focussing on the root problems instead of symptoms. If you don't, you risk devolving into an endless series of tangential complaints. It sounds like whining and has no hope of accomplishing anything.

I've said it before and will say it again. The ROOT problem at Microsoft is Steve Ballmer. He is simply not CEO material. Maybe there is stuff he is good at, but it just ain't CEOing. Everything else flows from the top. You get a real CEO at Microsoft and you will see REAL changes and not just sunshiny smoke being blown up your a**.

The crazy thing is that it is obvious Mini is aware of this, but won't quite get there and say it. I think it might have something to do with the fact that it feels safer to complain about things like "process" and "size" than to target a person. So we get distracting posts about ship dates, organizational theory, management theory, etc. But you must realize that these things all start with people. Get the right people and the right processes will follow. It just doesn't work the other way around.

This blog would be more effective and coherent if it focussed on the root problem at Microsoft. Ballmer has been CEO for long enough. It's a sad fact staring you square in the face: he needs to go.

"I've said it before and will say it again. The ROOT problem at Microsoft is Steve Ballmer. He is simply not CEO material."

I'm not sure it's accurate to say he's the root problem. I do agree that with him as CEO, the root problems aren't being adequately addressed and therefore his departure (and Gates' frankly) is seemingly integral to getting this company headed in the right direction. Both have added value but it's very unclear whether either has the ability or more importantly the willingness to make the difficult changes required to take MSFT to the next step.

"This blog would be more effective and coherent if it focussed on the root problem at Microsoft. Ballmer has been CEO for long enough. It's a sad fact staring you square in the face: he needs to go."

I'm not sure that's Mini's role. He's doing his part, others can do theirs. As above, I do agree that the problems are much broader than the stack rank system and indeed require the org to define a new, over-riding culture - the current pick a division/pick a culture is not consistent with overall excellence nor does it lend itself esp well to "integrated innovation". The company also has to pick its battles - Gates/Ballmer's legendary paranoia about potential threats may have served the company well in the past, but it's also what brought the company's numerous legal problems, partner suspicions and most importantly the current near infinite list of markets MSFT is trying to compete in. No company can alienate that many people and spread itself that thinly and still expect to execute well.

Finally, while the concept of a smaller, leaner MSFT has appeal, the reality is that's not practical for all sorts of reasons. Therefore, the goal should really be how to take this currently struggling, often ineffective behemoth, and turn it into a market gobbling giant a la GE. Ballmer often cites GE as his model, but his actions don't follow suit. In particular, GE is relentless about self-improvement, does have a strong over-riding culture, has a far superior mgt development process (just look at how many ex VPs are now successful CEOs elsewhere) and every divisional VP on down knows that with autonomy, comes total accountability for results. I think Ballmer is smart enough to see all that, he just doesn't have the stomach to make the changes required to achieve it. Frankly, imo neither does Gates, Raikes or anyone else totally invested in MSFT's past. So instead, they try to dink around the edges with the result that minor course corrections are accomplished but the general trajectory is still down.

"With that opinion, no wonder why people are leaving. Taking away benefits and cutting the merit budget isn't going to produce good results, but rather make it harder to acheive them."

That opinion merely pointed out the facts for those who complain about even modest cutbacks in expenses. Employees who are too myopic to understand that, probably will leave and so be it. I'm sure enough competent ones who recognize that expenses can't continue rising faster than revenue, will take it in stride and stay the course. That said, I think the belt-tightening should extend to senior mgt - but doesn't.

"If the shareholders want real accountability, they should be taking it out on the executives - not leaving them employed to cook up money saving schemes such as pulling towel service."

Well, in point of fact, first of all the Board of Directors should. But clearly they aren't prepared to. Then shareholders, but most shares are held by mutuals funds and no one ever got fired for losing their customer's money in MSFT. Plus, they all want investment banking business with MSFT. So, that leaves individual holders who really can't organize w/o some major holder stepping forward - and so far that hasn't happened. Mgt isn't stupid. They know this. Why do you think they've effectively been passing the bills for underperformance through to shareholders for years now? Ans: because they can.

"If you're part of the sheeple believing everything spewing from Bill and Steve, you really ought to wake up from their candyland dreams."

No one believes Ballmer - myself and the street included. Why do you think the stock is trading at 18X forward earnings w/o taking out the cash? I'm not even sure Ballmer believes Ballmer. Pretty obviously his own insiders don't - they lead the whole market in insider selling. The issue is that individual holders have no chance of being heard when Ballmer/Gates control the % of shares that they do. BTW, although I don't support their decisions, you should be slower to condemn them. After all, in passing along those costs I mentioned to shareholders, they've been happy to personally underwrite the cost of non-performance as well. Indeed, that's probably what worries shareholders most - that either through hubris or a desire to maintain their life's legacy - they'll keep absorbing losses where any shareholder-focused/accountable CEO would aggressively makes changes and/or cut costs to meet new lower earnings expectations.

As others have noted, Steve Ballmer is the core issue at Microsoft today. He is not well suited to be CEO of Microsoft or any large company. He is a smart guy, but he does not surround himself with people who are similarly smart *and* will openly disagree with him. Instead, despite his PR spin (which is not credible to most people who know the company well), he seems to want to make all the key decisions himself. This won't work and will make the company slow. I say this as someone who worked for Microsoft for a long time, but have also worked for other large companies so have a bit of perspective. In essence, CEO's need to delegate (they can not make all the decisions themselves), surround themselves with smart people who will disagree with them (and tell them when things are broken and need to be fixed). To compete successfully against the likes of Google, Microsoft needs to move quickly and innovate, not sit around and naval gaze. That takes a focus on the outside and on customers. And that requires lots of little, empowered groups, not bloated bureacracy where many managers are telling people above them what they want to hear. In fact, over the years since Steve has become CEO, Microsoft has lost many of the super talented people that it needs now to compete. The overall turnover statistics don't tell the whole story. It would be interesting to know (without someone messing with the statistics) what percentage of really top performers (defined - despite all the obvious rating issues that others have brought up - by the stock grouping class) have left the company over the last five years. I don't think it would look pretty. The reason in my opinion this blog is so popular is that Microsoft used to have a culture where self criticism was welcomed and acted on to a large extent (it was not perfect certainly, but it happened). Today criticism is not welcome, and so some of it has spilled out into the public view.

If you want to fix Microsoft, get rid of Steve as CEO and put in someone who will hire first rate people (not yes men), delegate authority and hold people accountable for their actions. The only way I think you can get rid of Steve is to make the Board (and Bill) absolutely aware of the all the dysfunction. It is true that Boards in general don't challenge CEOs much, but if over time they see that he is destroying the Company, they may feel pressure to act since their own reputations are on the line. This blog will help to the extent it continues to get publicity, but the Board is perhaps the only answer at the end of the day!

"If you want to fix Microsoft, get rid of Steve as CEO"

You mean the guy who doesn't think there's a stock problem?

24.98 -0.52 -2.04%fyi
Volume 151.6 Mil

52 Week Low 23.82

Nah. Let's wait for a stock price in the teens first.

Anonymous said...

"minimsft has started tackling a subject of major importance for Microsoft: How Fit Is Steve Ballmer as the CEO of Microsoft?"

All due deference to Mini and the excellent job he's done, questions about Ballmer's suitability and/or effectiveness began years before Mini penned his first post. And while this whole phenomenon may be "interesting" from a communications/social perspective, keep in mind that MSFT's current problems have very real consequences and impact for employees, partners, suppliers, customers and shareholders (who at this point have experienced the largest destruction of wealth in corporate history).

fCh said...

All due deference to Mini and the excellent job he's done, questions about Ballmer's suitability and/or effectiveness began years before Mini penned his first post. And while this whole phenomenon may be "interesting" from a communications/social perspective, keep in mind that MSFT's current problems have very real consequences and impact for employees, partners, suppliers, customers and shareholders (who at this point have experienced the largest destruction of wealth in corporate history).

Throughout my postings, I showed most deference to minimsft as in I know nothing about the individual "Who da'Punk" so I cannot make any reference to him. It's interesting that you mention that skepticism surrounding SteveB as CEO had existed before minimsft--it's a given considering how many smart folks are at MSFT. The novelty here consists of a mix of voices enabled by a blogging-technology. Before so many and various voices could come from/in one place, management could easily ignore/dismiss "dissenters." Looking at the recent beatings of MSFT stock-price, I cannot think some of it is at least correlated with what happens here... Yeah, I know from my own retirement account, it hurts to lose value, but that may be the best way to force change.

Anonymous said...

"Before so many and various voices could come from/in one place, management could easily ignore/dismiss "dissenters."

MSFT has been ignoring dissenters its entire history and based on recent examples - including recent reactions to the Mini-inspired cover stories - there appears to be little change to that m.o. We'll see whether changes are forthcoming. For now, I'm pretty sure that if you tune into the upcoming shareholder call in Nov, you'll see mgt ignoring/dismissing dissenters at its best - or actually worst.

"Looking at the recent beatings of MSFT stock-price, I cannot think some of it is at least correlated with what happens here..."

Possible, but the 3 year trading range of $24-28 was already firmly established and recent weakness can just as easily be attributed to that, the S&P rebalance, expected weak Q1 growth numbers, the decision not to increase the dividend and of course MSFT's almost daily floundering and late "me-toos" while GOOG/AAPL/others continually one up them and generally kick butt. Plus, you have CSCO and INTC melting down as well w/o any visible morale problem - though I'm sure they have their share too.

"Yeah, I know from my own retirement account, it hurts to lose value, but that may be the best way to force change."

Well, losing $250B+ so far and massively underperforming the indexes for 3 years in a row hasn't done it. Hitting a two-year low in April didn't do it, so hard to see how hitting it again soon will get a different result (we're only $1 away). So what does that leave? A new all-time low? Bill losing his "world's richest man" title? MSFT mgt is seemingly convinced that they're on the right track so at this point, if they aren't, this can only end badly. Of course, maybe they're as smart as they think they are...

Anonymous said...

I know minimsft blog is a bit of a geek-fest, but I was pointed there by someone at work, and (as one of those poorly paid non-geeks here, that is apparently bleeding the company dry) can I just pip in with a brief comment regarding the: 'Steve Balmer: he must go' debate? I agree.

I've only seen Balmer once when he wasn't on a podium, and it was scary...

Here's the story.

It was in one of the newer buildings and they were having one of those "not retreating is actually a victory" meetings about how they'd spent several million $ persuading some local council in South America to upgrade their copy of Exchange Server, or something, instead of buying some semi-functional 'open-source' alternative...

All the people around me were going "Steve Balmer... It's Steve Balmer..." in awed tones, so I took notice, for a change, rather than just keeping my lowly-assed head down, like I usually do...

Anyway, HE emerges (THE Balmer, I mean) from this meeting room - all smiles, and everyone is slapping each other on the back, and saying how great things were, and Balmer (not a word of a lie) leans forwards, furrows those beetle brows of his, and strikes a he-man pose... you know the kind I mean, surely? Elbow crooked, upper arm raised, fist clenched...?

For a moment, I thought "Yes! This is surely a sign that the man has a sense of self-irony! Surely he realises how ridiculous that looks: 'Uncle Fester strikes heroic pose'" - Yeah, I know we're not supposed to use the UF analogy, but honestly, guys... that's he looked like: Uncle Fester, in a suit, striking a Mr Universe pose...

Anyway, like I say, for one giddy moment, this girl thought we were actually being led by a guy with a sense of self awareness and humour... That he was about to turn around and say that the last few years have just been one gigantic joke...

You know?

But no. The Laughs and smiles continued among his groupies... and my heart sank.

Here he was, Mr Balmer, in all his frail male ego-trip glory... He actually believes that stuff, you know? He probably even thinks women find him more attractive!

I was told the other day (and this is probably old news to you geeks), that Steve Jobs has a 'reality distortion' field that takes in those around him and converts them to his way of thinking... If that's the case, then OUR Steve is like that in reverse: a kind of "Black Hole" of reality distortion. He surrounds himself with people who radiate distortion... and he kind of just sucks it all in and believes it all HIMSELF!

After all, why waste your time convincing the rest of the company that you're right, when you can just believe all that crap, yourself?

Can anyone else remember seeing this performance and fill in the blanks about where it was and how it happened? I KNOW I saw it: I'm not making this up!

I know I'm pretty low down the scale, and probably come across as such - in fact, I'm probably on my way to my first 3.0 - but maybe someone else who was there can verify this?

I just remember thinking at the time: "If that guy was a South American dictator, he'd be one of those ones that wears a colonel's uniform - even though everyone can see he's actually a fat bald guy!"

I decided, then and there, that all of our personal futures was being run, so as to flatter the ego of a fat bald guy!

Does that sound like a personal attack on Steve? Maybe we need that! maybe we need to get personal, before we puncture his ego-shield and deliver a good dose of clue to the guy?

I have no solutions, but I can say that even from my lowly position, 'Our Great Helmsman' look deluded.

Anonymous said...

Of course, KenMo will get a LOT of feedback especially when his blog requres Passport to post comments, which in turn, wants your credit card in order to ensure that you are adult to sign on to MSN. Or maybe to know your real name. That is Microsoft-controlled system. Yeah, right. If Ken wants feedback, he should allow truly anonymous comments. MSN Spaces is useless until it keeps insisting on stupid Passport stuff. Anyway, Ken, why would I want to work for another Microsoft business that is playing yet anothet catch up? Work for MSN? Why? Maybe I should just work for Google - they are market leader, they are not catching up and it appears they also pay better. Why MSN waited for Google to become market leader? WTF *every* divisioan at MS waits for someone to beat the crap out of them to begin moving? WTF PMs kills every decent idea until COMPETITION comes up with it and then PMs are happy to increase their visibility with "fighting" that competions?

Anonymous said...

October 19, 2005
Ballmer: Trusting Vista, battling Google
Mike Ricciuti, Staff Writer, CNET
ORLANDO, Fla.--Steve Ballmer wants you to know one thing: He never throws chairs.

"I have never, honestly, thrown a chair in my life," Microsoft's CEO said in a morning keynote at Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo here. Ballmer was responding to a comment regarding well-publicized testimony by a former employee that Ballmer had tossed furniture and vowed to "kill Google" when informed of the employee's decision to leave Microsoft for Google.

Ballmer also touched on a variety of areas related to Microsoft's competition with Google. "How are we going to compete with Google? The good old-fashioned way: with innovation. There are many things--who knows--Google may or may not do. If you read the papers, other than curing cancer, there are many things Google is going to do," Ballmer said.

He pointed to the strength of Microsoft's MSN brand outside of the United States as proof that the company is making strides in the Web search market. "People say 'I'm going to MSN you' in Holland and Korea. Not here. But globally, more people spend time online with MSN than any other site," he said.

Overall, Ballmer said Microsoft needs to continue to invest in research and development to deal with open-source software, Google, IBM and other competitors. But in years past, that sort of investment has been spread disproportionately between the companies' divisions. "The top priority for us is to be an innovative company. We need a variety of ways to innovate. We have gone through a period where we have not had all of the muscles working evenly, if you will."

Microsoft is "at the beginning of 12 months of the greatest innovation pipeline we have ever had," Ballmer said. "Vista, Office, Windows Mobile, (Internet Explorer) IE 7...I can point to a lot of things. We are in the middle of the best pipeline we have ever had as a company."

Microsoft on Monday launched an update to a community-based preview release of Windows Vista, which includes a number of new features, such as efforts to improve the Web browser and make the operating system more resilient.

Vista is the first major update to the client version of Windows since 2001. The final version of Vista, which has also been known by its Longhorn code name, is due out in the second half of next year, Microsoft has said. A server version of the operating system is expected in 2007.

"I'm going to trust Vista on day one," Ballmer said. "I bet most people in this audience will trust it day one--on their home computer," he joked. "I'm trying to be honest among friends."

Ballmer acknowledged Vista's long gestation period and said it has taken Microsoft so long because the company had consciously decided to add several major features to the operating system. "Why have Vista and Longhorn taken so long? We made some big bets," he said.

The company scaled back its plans for Vista in August 2004 after it became clear that the development plan was too ambitious, Ballmer said. "We made a call 14 months ago...that the integration challenges of bringing together a new operating system with a new presentation, file system, communications system...and have all of those things codependent" was too much of a challenge, he said.

On software licensing, Ballmer said the company has made strides in simplifying its terms, but more work is needed. "The simplest thing we have today is our enterprise agreement. Used to take two years of postgrad education (to understand it), now it's a ninth grade education. We know we have a lot more work to do in terms of tools and license forms," he said.

Ballmer said the company continues to evaluate new client software programming techniques, such as AJAX, which is growing in popularity. "We think most users like the benefits of a rich local environment. I don't think that will go away. AJAX only lets you send Javascript down. You will see that extend to other capabilities in the Windows environment," he said.

The company is taking some cautious first steps to add new Web programming tools. Microsoft last month made available to developers a set of application programming interfaces to its MSN and other public Web sites. The software company hopes that developers assemble new applications that build on those sites--a technique used successfully at Google and at other Web companies to promote their properties.

The plan has raised questions over whether Microsoft eventually intends to promote the Web--via MSN and other properties--as a development platform in addition to Windows. Some analysts, such as Thomas Bittman at Gartner, say this is likely, although Microsoft will need to tread carefully so as not to diminish the appeal of Windows and Office, the company's most valuable franchises.