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

People Ready MGX FY08

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.

 

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 Unreal

Gapingvoid - people who fail

This is not writing. Well, not “real writing. According to some.

Whatever it is, I have been doing it for a complete decade as of today. Recently, life has indeed seemed a bit unreal. So it is hard to determine the ‘real’ from the ‘unreal’. With the override role of cognitive bias in the human condition, the only “real” answer is constant questioning. Especially self-questioning. And whatever this blog is, it does that.

Seth Godin penned in his own blog a fine defence for the “unreal” in his post Walking away from "real"

  • As in, ‘that’s not a real football team, they don’t play in Division 1’ or ‘That stock isn’t traded on a real exchange’ or ‘Your degree isn’t from a real school."Real contains all sorts of normative assumptions and implicit criticisms for those that don’t qualify. Real is just one way to reject the weird. My problem with the search for the badge of real is that it trades your goals and your happiness for someone else’s.”

Embracing failure often means debunking fallacies (ie. failure of knowledge) and this “real writing” arrogance does sort of wreak of the “Real Scotsman” fallacy (ie. a logical fallacy that occurs when: during argument, after their favored group has been criticized, someone re-defines the group in order to deflect uncomfortable counter-examples and thus makes the group entirely praiseworthy).

Blogs get poo-poo’d by the pros as not ‘real writing. But I have been in the fraternity of ‘professional writers’ both as an overseas correspondent in Africa and commissioning work in my role at Microsoft marketing. I can tell you right now that a very large majority of ‘professional’ (or ‘real’) writing is in no way real. Rehashed press releases, anodyne stringing together of buzzwords, pay-per-word padding. Echoing Seth’s sentiments, most of this material is also written to the lowest common denominator or normality and unexceptionality.

But it is in the printed world where the embrace of failure to secure a publisher is most interesting. My mother adapted my letters home when I was in Africa into a self-published book. At first, I thought it would be a book that ‘only a mother would love’, but it kept her busy in her new phase of retirement so it seemed harmless. The book hasn’t been a best-seller, but it has been a great way to share a part my experience with not just extended friends and family, but also with other people interested in the topic. My father self-published ‘Shorelines’ and it is in many ways a culmination of his life’s work as a clergyman. Our daughter, Isley, self-published a book of poetry after getting more and more popular on the poetry recital and spoken work circuit and having people ask for a copy of her work. Our son, Chase, self-produced a field recording album “Four Points” and it turned out that the British Library wanted a copy for its archive (being an creative acoustic illustration of the British Isles).

Amateurish? Get real.

Embracing Mess

 

Happy Birthday Google. Seventeen years ago Google started transforming our personal and professional lives with not just their search technology, but a whole alphabet soup of innovations. Start-ups no longer want to be the “next Microsoft”, they now want to be the “next Google.” This TED talk by Astro Teller provides an intriguing peak into this post-millennial success story especially for the powerful role that failure plays in its culture.

  • “I have a secret for you.  The ‘moon shot factory’ is a messy place.  But rather than avoid the mess – pretend it’s not there – we tried to make that our strength.  We spend most of our time breaking things.  Trying to prove that we are wrong…Get excited and cheer ‘Hey, how are we going to kill our project today?’
  • Enthusiastic skepticism is not the enemy of boundless optimism.  It’s optimism’s perfect partner it unlocks the potential in every idea.”

It’s a sentiment echoed in Hugh’s “Herding Cats” post

  • “’Herding cats’ is a nice colloquialism, it certainly describes most businesses I know. Life is messy. The thing is, it’s supposed to be messy. Can you imagine if it weren’t? How utterly dull that would be! The next time you’re having “one of those days” at the office, tell yourself, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be’. Knowing that this is normal, that this is what you chose, makes it manageable.”

Gapingvoid - herding cats

(thanks Mom)

Embracing Resignation

Ballmer

Happy Birthday Microsoft. Although maybe 23 August is the date to celebrate Microsoft’s Re-Birth Day. That was the day CEO Steve Ballmer announced his resignation. Ballmer had an indelible part in writing Microsoft’s history which I have shared my own perspectives on in this blog.  But it was his decision to step aside which changed the course of the company.  And from most perspectives, for the better.

The Wall Street Journal analysed his decision in their piece “Microsoft’s CEO explained how he came to believe he wasn’t the best person to remake the company” which revealed his generously humble dose of embracing failure…

  • “Mr. Ballmer says he started to realize he had trained managers to see the trees, not the forest, and that many weren’t going to take his new mandates to heart.  In May, he began wondering whether he could meet the pace the board demanded. ‘No matter how fast I want to change, there will be some hesitation from all constituents—employees, directors, investors, partners, vendors, customers, you name it—to believe I’m serious about it, maybe even myself,’ he says.  His personal turning point came on a London street. Winding down from a run one morning during a May trip, he had a few minutes to stroll, some rare spare time for recent months. For the first time, he began thinking Microsoft might change faster without him.  ‘At the end of the day, we need to break a pattern,’ he says. ‘Face it: I’m a pattern.’ Mr. Ballmer says he secretly began drafting retirement letters—ultimately some 40 of them, ranging from maudlin to radical.  On a plane from Europe in late May, he told Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith that it ‘might be the time for me to go.’… ‘While I would like to stay here a few more years, it doesn’t make sense for me to start the transformation and for someone else to come in during the middle.’  The board wasn’t "surprised or shocked," says Mr. Noski, given directors’ conversations with Mr. Ballmer. Mr. Thompson says he and others indicated that ‘fresh eyes and ears might accelerate what we’re trying to do here.’"

Nobody is perfect.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses.  A while back, I stepped down as Chairperson of a charity I had run very successfully for a number of years.  I did so for the same reason why it was time for me to leave Microsoft’s Server Business Division that I had run for 5 years.  Both had become very “Bruceified”.  I had done all the things that I knew how to do to make a team great.  Those were a lot of things and they made the team very strong.  But, for starters, once done, my ability and value to make further progress was limited.  And second, there were plenty of things that were not ideal and were not my forte to fix.

And after more than three decades of Steve Ballmer at the top (or near penultimate top) of the Microsoft organisation, it too had become very “Ballmerfied”. His focus on the enterprise brought Microsoft many revenues from the lucrative business market, but the surging consumer market was less familiar. His focus on high energy determination anchored Microsoft in the heady days of fast paced growth, but was less effective in the era of a mature market and a more complex organisation.

Since Ballmer’s resignation, Microsoft stock has risen appreciably with investors returning the embrace of this embrace of failure.

Decade of Failure

Bruce Lynn - Failure service NSUU
[“Embracing Failure” service at Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church 27 October 2002]

  • My philosophy is that it doesn’t pay to go to a conference unless you’re prepared to be vulnerable and meet people, and it doesn’t pay to go to a Q&A session unless you’re willing to sit in the front row. Reading blogs is great, writing one is even better.” – Seth Godin

Ten years ago this weekend I started blogging. At Microsoft, I had just hired a dynamic new marketer, Allister Frost, who was (and still is) years ahead of his time. He identified this new thing of ‘blogging’ as a great way to circumvent the onerous delays and rigid constraints on posting material to the corporate website and instead have a direct conversational connection with customers. It sounded intriguing and with my background in writing (eg. founder and editor of the school page in the local paper, year working as travel writer in Togo, West Africa), he was pushing on an open door for me to give it a go.

I first tried a few experimental posts on the hot (well, in technical circles) topic of “Interoperability”, but I soon twigged that to have an authentic voice I needed to choose a subject I had more personal conviction and curiosity about. I chose to write about “risk”. In particular, two dimensions – 1. “Leadership and Management” (leaders optimise upside opportunity, manager minimise downside risk), and 2. Embracing Failure (a quite popular topic these days, but much less so when I first delved into it). A few years later I added another blog on “Dynamic Work” (flexible work concepts) which was becoming an area of expertise for me and an area I did consulting in when I left Microsoft in 2009.

It was also in that year that I launched what was to be my biggest blog – Maldives Complete. It became so packed with great material that one of the most frequently asked questions I received was, “Why do I do it?” And of course, I answered the question with the blog. In fact, a series of blog posts which highlight a number of the motivations and benefits I get from the curious pastime.

One thing is for sure…there is no shortage of material on Leadership/Management and Embracing Failure. I have posted the equivalent of over 1000 pages (typed pages not web pages) so far. But I am always clipping and collecting material not to mention the countless pieces and bits I get sent by many friends and readers. As it happens, I have another 200+ pages of notes and drafts filed away for future posts at the apropos time.

So stay tuned for another ten years and more…