Microsoft Black Boxes

Ray Ozzie and Bill Gates


Happy Belated Birthday Microsoft (who turned 37 last week)…

Having worked at Microsoft for nearly half of Microsoft’s existence as well as more than half of my career it has provided one of my broadest pools of experiences including the areas I explore here. I was struck by Ray Ozzie’s (heir to Bill Gates as technical visionary of the company) memo (going on a little while ago now) that echoed so many of perspectives about ‘Black Box Complexity’ I have been investigating…

  • But as the PC client and PC-based server have grown from their simple roots over the past 25 years, the PC-centric / server-centric model has accreted simply immense complexity…. Complexity sucks the life out of users, developers and IT. Complexity makes products difficult to plan, build, test and use. Complexity introduces security challenges. Complexity causes administrator frustration. And as time goes on and as software products mature – even with the best of intent – complexity is inescapable…Complex interdependencies and any product’s inherent ‘quirks’ will virtually guarantee that broadly adopted systems won’t simply vanish overnight….But so long as customer or competitive requirements drive teams to build layers of new function on top of a complex core, ultimately a limit will be reached.”

It’s not just technical complexity that threatens to forge an inscrutable black box around the code base. But also organisational complexity can make the equally large and intricate matrix of decision making as inscrutable and opaque.

Microsoft 2.0

Microsoft 20 Mary Jo Foley

Speaking of technology earlier this month, my summer reading finally got around to probably the most insightful writer on my professional alma mater, Mary Jo Foley and her latest book on the subject, Microsoft 2.0. I couldn’t help gleaning an embracing failure gem…

“No matter how fault-tolerant and reliable systems are, downtime and outright system failure are unavoidable. Microsoft and other vendors seem to be talking less about 99.999 percent uptime guarantees these days. Instead, they’re focusing more on ‘graceful degradation’, ‘self-restoration’ and other realities. The Microsoft Research Eclipse project is all about designing distributed/fault-tolerant systems while taking performance realities into consideration.”

Microsoft’s Corner Office

Steve Ballmer Microsoft

The New York Times’ Adam Bryant interviews Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer about leadership. Ballmer faces constant competitive pressures, new markets, new technologies, ever changing landscape, shareholder expectations and what does he say his biggest challenge is…

Q. What’s the most challenging part of your job?

A. Finding the right balance between optimism and realism. I’m an optimist by nature, and I start from the belief that you can always succeed if you have the right amount of focus combined with the right amount of hard work. So I can get frustrated when progress runs up against issues that should have been anticipated or that simply couldn’t have been foreseen. A realist knows that a certain amount of that is inevitable, but the optimist in me always struggles when progress doesn’t match my expectations.

Balancing upside and downside is one of the core executive issues requiring leadership (more upside) and management (less downside). 

Microsoft Senior Leadership

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Last month, I attended our annual global summit for Microsoft senior management to prepare for the upcoming fiscal year. The time is a chance to reflect on results, challenges and of course the leadership we provide to our respective parts of the company.

The host of the meeting is, like Allan Leighton featured last month, another Walmart executive alumnus, COO Kevin Turner who himself invests a lot of time, energy and thought on the subject of Leadership. At his keynote and later in an internal web-cast symposium he did on the topic, he shared a few choice words many of which focused on the role of adversity…

[Referring to the building of the Windows franchise] “They just refused to fail. Windows took ten years to be profitable.”

[Referring to Sam Walton’s description of looking for the downsides to address] “Divine discontent. No matter how well we did it yesterday, we can do it better today.”

[Referring to the Microsoft culture and values] “One of our corporate values is embracing self-criticism without getting de-motivated.”

[Referring to professional development] “Improvement always requires some degree of failure. Tough times don’t make you who you are, tough times show you who you are”

Kevin talked about building on one’s strengths versus fixing weaknesses. It might seem that not focusing fixing weakness would be out of step with ‘embracing failure’, but actually it is the other way around. Fixing a weakness is rejecting that shortcoming and investing sometimes disproportionate resources to overcome it. Embracing failure is accepting it and moving on. Of course, there are limits and contexts to the application of all of these tenets. Glaring or debilitating weaknesses certainly need attention. But, many times one can manage around the weakness typically through partnership. It’s really a variation of the management adage to ‘focus on core business’ (hopefully a strength).

Kevin does demonstrate characteristics of both the ‘Leader’ and ‘Manager’ persona as this blog defines it around upside and downside. His COO role is central to meeting the business commitments and ensuring the smooth operation of the enterprise (ie. a manager averting downside). But, when we talks about leadership, he focuses very keenly on the upside especially around people. His first principle of his leadership talk was about bringing “people from where they are to where they want to be.” He talked about a question he was asked by a manager and now he asks all of his reports when he first met them, “What are your dreams?”

Microsoft Global Exchange 2008

Microsoft kicks off its fiscal year with a major internal conference for field staff each July where the big execs (Ballmer, Ozzie, Liddell, Raikes, and for his farewell tour appearance – Billg) outline their strategies and vision for the company to a crowd of 10,000 numbers-crazed and demo-overdosed sales and marketing folks (check out my colleague Georgina Mitcham’s TechNet blog for an overview of highlights). In the various rousing a keynotes a few comments emerged echoing some of the leadership themes of this blog.

Senior VP of Human Resources Lisa Brummel echoed the ‘great leaders are great energizers’ entry talking about Microsoft inimitable and indomitable energy and how "our job is to keep that energy going"

Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner, really the ‘host’ and force behind the event these days had a great comment articulating the Leadership/Management balance needed in great companies: “We need to have one eye on the horizon and one eye on today.” A bit of a mixed metaphor, but it still works.

People Ready


Best Management Advice ever received by UK Microsoft Execs

Today I participated in a Management Excellence forum at Microsoft which covered all sorts of discussion about Management (and its link to ‘Leadership’) which in itself prompted several thoughts for upcoming entries on that part of my blog.  But one of the interesting parts were a number of perspectives on ‘Rising Each Time You Fall.’  The perspectives underscore a theme of this ‘Turning Adversity to Advantage’ blog that Microsoft is a company that very much ‘gets’ the concept of embracing failure as a potentially positive force in business.

The UK Board of Directors were asked in a roundtable Q&A, “What is the best piece of management advice you ever received?”  Several of the responses were fine articulations of rising each time you fall:

“A man who never made a mistake, never made anything at all.” – Chris Parker, Head of Law and Corporate Affairs

“You’re going to screw up, so get used to it.” – Terry Smith, Head of Public Sector

Attribute success to others and failure to yourself.” – Matt Bishop, Head of Developer and Platform Evangelism (who in turn attributed the advice to outgoing UK Managing Director Alistair Baker.)

You need to be a participant in your own rescue.” – Gordon Frazer, UK Managing Director

Embracing the Failure of Belief

Dilbert - dinosaur myth


Scott Adams’ post “My Skeptical Journey” is autobiography of sceptical doubt that only seems to intensify and expand as his life goes on. In a transparently public confessional, he provides an open viewing to practicing what he preaches…

  • A rational mind needs regular maintenance. One of the maintenance systems I employ is to remind myself of things I used to be sure about and later discovered to be untrue. I started a list organized by the approximate ages at which I realized my errors. A healthy rational mind needs regular doses of humility. (I might need more humility than most people.) Here is the approximate age at which I stopped believing in different stuff…”

He then goes on to catalogue 42 different things he has stopped believing in from the age of 8 to 50+. Many of his failure of his confessions of failed models and notions paralleled my own – childhood fairy tale myths, open-mindedness to paranormal phenomenon, vitamin supplements, the legitimacy of the stock market. Some of his shifts I myself haven’t come to yet mostly in the area of sport (eg. “Exercising is a big help for losing weight…Stretching helps athletic performance.”). I suspect that his experience in exercising is focused on certain types and approaches where possibly these general principles don’t specifically apply as strongly.

My own confessional of beliefs that I stopped believing in include…

  • Teens – Politics is a noble career.
  • 20s – Ignorance of the devout.
  • 30s – Sales is a shallow discipline.
  • 40s – Microsoft.
  • 50s – Flying superstitions (more of a meditation as way to relax myself, but after the Skeptics in the Pub session on superstition, I decided to drop it).

One of my most fundamental disillusionments throughout my life has been about the nature of reality itself. Books such as “Godel, Escher, Bach” and “Thinking Fast and Slow” opened my eyes to how deceptive my own eyes can be.


Paroxysms of Paracosms

The Road Ahead - Bill Gates


While the Microsoft legacy is rich and entrenched, its road ahead has never been more in question with Steve Ballmer’s resignation. The questions that face it about the company’s role in the online and device driven world are not new issues. Ironically, Microsoft was on the forefront of thought leadership in these areas as far back as 1995 with his publication of the book “The Road Ahead” (yes, it neglected to comprehend the “how” of “the Internet”, but it thoroughly presaged the “what” of the “online” world). The book itself was an extension of strategy papers by Bill and Nathan Myhrvold that had been circulating years before.

I always remember Myhrvold’s audacious proposition asking what if everything was free? “What if compute resources were free? What if bandwidth was free?” What would you build and sell in that world. The proposition was not a flippant whim, but rather a logical extrapolation of Moore’s Law (computing) and Gilder’s Law (bandwidth).

In short, it changed everything. The architecture, the business models, the design points. Everything. The only thing that would stay the same is meeting people’s known and unknown needs. But how they were met would be radically different.

Seth Godin dubs these mental propositions a “Paracosm…an ornate, richly detailed imaginary world.” He describes them in his post “Paracosms, loyalty and reality in the pursuit of creative problem solving” underscoring how they depend as much on the embrace of failure as the suspension of disbelief…

  • “Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d sit with publishing chiefs and say, ‘let’s imagine how the world looks when there are no mass market books published on paper…’ Before we could get any further, they’d stop the exercise. ‘It’s impossible to imagine that. Paper is magical. Are you saying you don’t believe in books?’ (I heard variations on this from people as recently as a year ago). The emotional response is easy to understand. If one of the core principles of your business needs to be abandoned in order to act out the paracosm, it feels disloyal to even utter it. Sort of like asking your spouse if he’s going to remarry after you die…And yet. The most effective, powerful way to envision the future is to envision it, all of it, including a future that doesn’t include your sacred cows. Only then can you try it on for size, imagine what the forces at work might be and then work to either prevent (or even better, improve on) that future and your role in it. It’s not disloyal to imagine a future that doesn’t include your founding precepts. It’s disloyal not to.”

If there has been one thing that has held Microsoft back in the past decade it has been its Sacred Cows. Its insanely lucrative sacred cows. The Profit dimension of the Magic Quadrant has been off the scale for these Cash Cows, but the impacts on Growth dimension have been equally ruminant. Not only have they fenced a massive chunk of the business to a steadily maturing and saturating market, but the businesses have sucked so much of the best talent, energy and resources of the company into these relatively secure and stable businesses and away from the burgeoning opportunities of online and devices.

A Seth-urday call for a return to more paracosms for Microsoft.

Failing Generously

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates


With the big business news of the week being Steve Ballmer’s stepping down from the Microsoft executive suite, aside from the rampant piling on of critique, the other big angle to the story is who could possibly fill his shoes (especially as no successor was announced). When you scrutinise a short list (or long list) of potential candidates, one sees many of the same shortcomings for which Ballmer is being so mercilessly pilloried. It made me think, who are the real all-star CEOs in big corporate?

At the top of anyone’s Fantasy Executive Team would have to be today’s birthday boy Warren Buffet. A nearly unrivalled track record and a legacy of brilliant business insight. Including the advocacy to embrace failure…

  • If everything they do is successful, they’re a failure,” Buffett says of his children, all three philanthropists. Because it means they’re taking on things that are too easy. They should be taking on things that are tougher. If you look at the history of Rockefeller or Carnegie, not everything they did worked. But they did some very, very important things that worked, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” – “Buffett Tells Philanthropists to Fail More

Despite his close friendship with Billg, methinks Warren won’t be stepping into the Microsoft executive suite any time soon especially with his self-confessed apprehension about the whole sector.

Acting and Analysing



The big news this week, cluttering my Facebook and Twitter feeds from Microsoft former colleagues, has been the latest Microsoft reboot. The chief exec, Steve Ballmer announced its latest reorganisation with the objectives of being “Nimble, Communicative, Collaborative, Decisive, and Motivated”. I guess you couldn’t ask for a more explicit catalogue of self-confessed weaknesses Microsoft is grappling with (as well as an obvious collection of a buzzword output from a flip-chart laden executive offsite).

The one that stuck me was “Decisive”. The side effect of megalithic growth for most companies is an ossifying of the decision making processes. Decisions are hamstrung by committees, complex arrays of stakeholders, matrix management and a host of other corporate disfunctions. The very essence of this blog underscores the notion that the most important thing that an executive (or anyone exercising a degree of leadership and management) does is make decisions. Good decisions. When you can’t do that, when you can’t weigh the upside opportunity against the downside risk, then you have a leadership/management crisis.

A major problem in decision making is confusion types of decision making (just the way people confuse types of “failure”). A common confusion is mistaking ‘decisive action’ (good) with ‘decisive analysis’ (bad).  Weak executives just think that the ‘decisive’ thing is the key.  It goes along with confidence, swagger, machismo, etc. that predominates many corporations (certainly did at Microsoft).

Decisive Action is good.  Even when you know that your Analysis might be wrong.  You still have to plot a course, move ahead, and take the risk.  ‘Action’ is a controllable.  But, Analysis of any suitably complex situation is always going to be inconclusive or imperfect.  To feign otherwise is either deception or bravado.  Getting the understanding 100% right is not controllable.  Yes, one can be 100% right in toting up how many widgets have been sold (though with complex product lines and convoluted systems, even that can be a challenge).  But, understanding the market (which is the most important thing to analyse) is far too complex for any definitive conclusion. But such pressure to be as decisive in strategic analysis as strategic execution leads to a debilitating executive fundamentalism that is often more dangerous than no analysis at all.

Leaders act decisively; Managers analyse open-mindedly.


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