Live from Redmond, it's Windows and Office!

So inside the company, Windows Live has been known for sometime. There has been a lot of work that went into the announcement today, and on the whole this seems like a right step direction-wise, and really snaps into focus what MSN division and a lot of employees have known and felt for a long time. Is this a turn around of the giant tanker, of the same variety as the Internet remake of 1995? Only time will tell. But a lot of smart people are working on it, and I'm cautiously optimistic that a lot of positive things will come out of this.

Now that I've dispensed with the positive, constructive outlook of the "what" of this move, let me dive into something that's more critical, which is the "how." In particular, let's take a look at the branding of this initiatives: Office Live and Windows Live.

My guess is that it will work better for Office Live than it will be for Windows Live. Here's my reasoning: Office Live is targeted at the "Digital Workstyle" portion of the overall strategy, i.e. the enterprise, knowledge worker, etc. Office is a successful brand for the productivity market, and is probably quite extensible to what used to be called the "Back Office" suite of servers, such as SQL, Exchange, CRM, etc. I think Office Live has a reasonable chance of success as a brand. Although, for companies to trust Microsoft with a hosting service of the sort of Salesforce.com, there will be a hard sell in terms of security, reliability, confidentiality. The not-too-distant history of Hailstorm proves that this can be a hard sell, though it was also a very different climate back in 2000/2001. Doable, I think.

(BTW, who is the idiot that coined "Digital Workstyle"? Most companies don’t really see a mix of style and work. Workstyle is just dumb business speak, ala Why Business People Speak Like Idiots. Productivity, efficiency are much better themes to go on than "style" when it comes to work.)

Windows Live, though, I think is more problematic. Remember this is the Digital Lifestyle portion of the strategy, and so are targeted at the individuals, the consumers, the end users. Now, Windows is a widely recognized brand, but it's not always in the best light.

Monopoly, for one. Americans are known to be always rooting for the under dog, and Windows is Goliath if there ever was one. And the global citizen isn't so keen on the monopoly either; notice the EU and Korean investigation of the Windows franchise. It's generally perceived to be a bully rather than a friend.

Security, for another. Every one have heard about the security issues for Windows, virus infestation, and the patches galore in the last few years.

Old technology, for last. Windows is about your father's Oldsmobile. It's about the "poorly debugged set of device drivers", the file system, the tired GUI that's five years or older. It conveys a sense of the non-sexy side of technology, boring even. Nobody gets excited about it anymore. On the other hand, Google, Yahoo, and even MSN is the Pirius of today. It's about setting you free to do whatever, wherever. About reaching out to the world instead of compartmentalized at your machine. IMO leveraging Windows for the Live brand is like selling an Oldsmobile hybrid: it ain't going to sell well.

If you agree with me, then what explains the Windows rebranding of MSN? I submit to you that it's pure stubbornness and nostalgia . We are proud of Windows, and god knows it's what make all our market and financial successes possible. Thus we have a certain affinity to the name, particularly at the very highest level of the company. Their personal career and fortune, along with those of the company, all originated from Windows. Without Windows there's no Office, no MSN, no SQL server. It's Microsoft's Iwo Jimma, our Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, WWII and the cold war is over, and we are in a New World Order, and the game is different, but unless there's a dramatic jolt to Microsoft, it will be a long while before we can get pass Windows. Think about what it took for IBM to move on from the mainframe and mini computers to Linux: almost financial ruin.

I think Windows Live illustrate why this is still a fast Clipper ship, instead of a steam ship. The paradigm has shifted, and we are still trying to make it work in the old context. I hope I'm wrong about this.




How did we get here 4 (cont.)

And thus the cast was set. Over the next 5-7 years, these replacement players focused on their own internal power struggle, which often manifested itself in getting more headcounts, of managing bigger teams and budgets. They strive to own as many product lines as possible. Once they owned a product, even a bad one, they feel they can take the time to make it successful. Software development in those days still have long multi-year schedule, and so the product's success or failure is a long time away. And so there was virtually no "garbage collection" of bad ideas or bad execution of products, since no one is willing to kill their own product and teams as that's just suicide. Instead, the focus was on presentation of dreams and phantom projections of success, and Powerpoints and Flash demos were the tools of choice, not working codes in users' hands.

And more of this new generation's energy is internally focused on their competition for promotion, rather than on their marketplace competitor. The energy and focus is no longer on the products, on innovation, on creativity of the product, on beating your product's competitors. Where once most people and teams in Microsoft believe in winning in the marketplace, and even in innovations and changing the world, the creativity is now on how to out maneuvering the internal competition, of padding your resume to get up on top and reap the big salary, bonuses, and stock options. Thus Microsoft became increasingly isolated from market forces, helped by the fact that money keep coming in from Windows and Office, and so there's no need to be lean. As long as your product's promise can't be validated, your power and position is mostly safe. And of course, everyone knows that in Microsoft we get three chances (or versions) to get things right anyway, right?


How did we get here 3 (cont.)

And so it is that a lot of those who likes to do, to build, to ship left the company. They were the risk takers, the big thinkers, the ones with the most imagination. These were the lifeblood of the company, who were often the mavericks that got things done.

But the bench is deep, and so when these guys left, a vacuum was formed. Of those who took advantage of this vacuum, a lot of the folks were still very smart people. But the culture and belief system of those who filled the vacuum were different than those who left. These people are more conservative. They preferred the security of Microsoft's backing in their product development, rather than risking their personal asset. They enjoyed the feeling of power, of being in charge of large teams of people, more so than the feeling of being up front blazing trail. The replacement players, in other words, weren't as hungry, as risk-taking, as "just do it" as those who they replaced. They were stronger believer in power of the institution, rather than the power of the individual, of personal will. And being institutional players themselves, they started to think more about politics and internal struggle to gain power over each other.


How did we get here 2 (cont.)

During the late 90's, when the dotcom boom was in full swing, there was a "graduating" class of employees that were ready to leave because they had been there from the mid 80's or early 90's. They've been there for at least five years, which means their initial stock options were fully vested, plus a majority of the subsequent options as well. Their MSFT options have grown so much since they first joined, that by now they have a sizable portfolio. In other words, they have the financial independence to pursue their dreams. And remember most of these employees are quite young still, often single, most child-less, and are still very idealistic and have many ideas about what they want to do.

At the same time, they've been climbing the career ladder for a while, and the "game" is getting to be a bit old. They think they have learned enough from BillG and elite of the company, and want to be their own boss, to get more control of the direction of their dream. At the same time, the company is getting bigger, more hierarchical, more complicated; things are taking longer to get done, more people to persuade and influence, more executives who wants to step in with their opinion. So naturally they yearn for something smaller, something they can have that direct connection. Something they can "make it so."

And oh, the desktop application/OS metaphors was reaching maturation, and the challenge is more in incremental improvement rather than in revolutionary changes. All the while, the new game in town, the Internet, well let's just say that most of them didn't think Microsoft got it, and won't be as strong in that arena as it was in OS and office productivity. And at the same time, the paradigm shifted from complicated COM/DCOM to the simplicities of HTTP, HTML, and Javascript. The distribution problem of retail and OEM relationship melted away, and anyone can setup a distribution channel to sell their service and software by just setting up shop. All they needed was a good product, something new and pioneering, and these group of folks aren't short on ideas at all. They have in fact many ideas that weren't getting used at Microsoft because the upper executives don't really "get it."

So they started to think about doing a startup, and with free VC money on the street, and your friend telling you how great it is to just do instead of going to endless meetings, you want to feel that sense of adventure again. You made the jump.


How did we get here?

What happened? How did it get from one of the best place to work to one perceived so negatively? That's the question that most often get asked by the outsiders, as have been asked recently by Business Week, Forbes, Financial Times and others. There are also the cynics who would say that the dirty deeds done by the Evil Empire has finally caught up to it. But that doesn't explain as much as assign it to karma.

The explanation to this question, as with explanation to most complex phenomenon, is multi layered. There is no single answer, and as such, no single cure. But I think we can identify many contributing factors, and perhaps it's through these discussion that some clue may emerge on how to fix the culture.

The easiest one to identify, I think, is size. The company has grown in size by leaps and bound. If you hold the view as I do that Microsoft once consisted of some of the smartest people in the industry, the crème of the crop in intelligence and in ambition, then the law of average dictates that no matter what you do, the growth in size are is going to dillute your advantage away. As the company grows bigger, the average performance of the employee pool is going to approach the industry workface average, because you simply can't hog the top 60,000 (or is it 70,000?) employees in a free market economy, like you can with the top 500. And even if you manage to do it, the 59,999-th employee is not nearly as good as the top performing employee of your company, and so the average/median is bound to go down.

Even in the most idealistic case, the "best" people in the company will sort themselves to the top, to be the executives, the architects, the visionaries, the strategists, and the least capable ones are the ones in positions that require the least intelligence or effectiveness.

If only that was the case.



Ah, the first post. Let me introduce myself: I'm a long time veteran of Microsoft. I've been here more than 10 years, which, incidentally, are getting to be somewhat unusual, for reasons that you'll find out from this blog.

During this period, I've seen Microsoft transformed from a hungry and energetic environment that wanted to change the world, into an institution that often are content with "well, that's good enough".

It is my frustration with this undesirable direction change that led me to start this blog. I harbor no resentment against Microsoft; in fact, I'm grateful for what it has done for me and my family. But I also am increasingly unhappy about what the company has become, and for the first time in a decade, have started considering leaving the company.

The entries to follow on this blog is a story of my thoughts and reaction to this development, and my continual idealistic search for the good that I know still exists in small doses in the company.

It is my hope that through this blog that I can provide insights from the inside, reveal what may be broken, and contribute ideas on how to turn the downward trend around.