Changes at Microsoft: A New Employee Perspective

Sunday, May 21, 2006

I'm a relatively new Microsoft employee. I've only been with the company for a few months, so I have a limited perspective about the changes that have recently been announced. For those who don't work at Microsoft, Microsoft has started an initiative to address the very serious problem of employee retention. It seems there are many Microsoft employees who have been unhappy with the current setup. A summary can be found at Mini-Microsoft. For those who are not associated with Microsoft here are the highlights.

  • The Curve is gone (sort of) - Microsoft had this system where you were graded on a curve from 2.5 to 5.0. Managers were forced to rank people and could only give out so many 5.0, 4.5, etc. That meant that if you were on a really strong team, and worked your ass off, you might still only be judged a 3.0 or slightly worse than average. This affected your compensation and bonuses.
  • More stock awards - Microsoft announced they will give out more stock awards to the very best performers. Stock bonuses are still based on a curve which will have a forced distribution. This is why the curve is only sort of gone.
  • Towels are back - I'm new so I never missed them but this got a lot of applause at the town hall meeting. I don't get what the big deal is about towels but I suppose it is symbolic of how Microsoft was screwing employees by taking away benefits. It is one of those small things that have an unproportinal negative reaction.
  • More workplace benefits – Microsoft has added even more workplace services like longer cafeteria hours, dry cleaning, and grocery delivery (all services employees must pay for)

There are a few more initiatives but this captures the highlights and the things that seem to be getting the most attention from Microsoft employees.

So here is my take as a new Microsoft employee.

The Curve is the most controversial thing at Microsoft. People hated it. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it. I think employees need to be differentiated. Not everyone can be a top performer. It’s just not possible. That being said, I think its silly that you have to tie someone’s review score to some forced distribution. If you really are a good contributor on a great team, you should not be penalized against someone who is a OK performer on a really weak team. Further the idea that your score follows you for the lifetime of your Microsoft employment seems a little ridiculous in my mind. I could understand if your most recent review score had an impact on your current one but the idea that you have some sort of Lifetime average seems wrong in my mind. This is coming from a guy who has always historically done very well in his career and had the intention of always being ranked among the best.

However the curve is not gone, and I don’t believe it should be. Stock bonuses are still going to be distributed on a forced distribution with the very best getting the best rewards. I know some people hate this idea but quite frankly those are the people who you might not want to work with anyway. Look, you have to pay top performers more money. Top performers drive a company. If you don’t pay them, someone else will, and then you get a company full of good but not great employees. But even that will cause the only good people to leave as they are now the ones who bear the burden of work but don’t reap the rewards. If I do not end up being one of the top performers who get the most rewards so be it. I don’t care what the reason. People complain that the rewards simply fall to not the best workers, but the workers who are best at kissing ass. So be it. If this happens to me, I will simply leave the company. I would refuse to work at a company who is going to reward kissing ass over my hard work.

A loud complaint is that base compensation was not discussed and there seems to be no plan in the works to increase this. My reaction, tough. The comment I hate the most is “I could get x% more working at Google.” My response is, why don’t you go work for Google then? First off, most of the people complaining probably couldn’t get a job at Google, if they could they would jump ship immediately. And even if they could, they probably would not get the pay increase they would expect. But seriously, why complain about it? We live in a free society. If you can get more money somewhere else, there must be a reason for you to stay at Microsoft. Microsoft can’t force you to stay. I don’t care what the reason is. I don’t care if it’s a personal reason like you can’t leave the Seattle area for whatever reason. There clearly is not incentive enough for you to change your job, and that choice is solely yours. So quit complaining about it.

And the towels. I just don’t get it. I don’t get why it was ever a big deal. It is one of the first rules of benefits at a company. Don’t start a benefit if you think you may have to someday take it away. Why? People love to bitch about how things use to be and complain very loudly when even the smallest benefit is taken away.

Let me give all MS employees some perspective. We work at one of the best companies in the world. If you took the average compensation of all MS employees, it would have to be among the highest in the world. We get so many benefits, I don’t even know where to begin. The health plan is ridiculously comprehensive. The work schedule is extremely flexible. We get discounts on products we actually want to use. Free gym membership. Free soda. Free bus pass. The list seriously goes on and on. How can I say this? Because I’ve worked at other places. I’ve seen what is on the other side and believe me, the grass is not always greener. I worked four years at my last company and didn’t get half the benefits I do today. A worse health plan, no stock awards, no discounts. I was even lucky to get a free lunch once a year, and I was a manager with a budget! Compensation? That was a joke. I was one of the lucky ones that got a raise during my tenure there and that was because I got a huge promotion.

I seriously think that people that those that are the most dissatisfied working at Microsoft should go find another job. I am not saying that to be mean. I hope that if you do leave (and you are a top performer) you come back to Microsoft some day. You just need to get some perspective.

I’m not saying Microsoft is perfect. Even in my short time here, I’ve realized that there are some serious problems that should probably be addressed. I hope to help be part of the change that revitalizes this company and turns it around. But the notion that somehow, Microsoft does not do right by its employees is just plain wrong. If you think otherwise, I know Google is hiring.

For Whom Are Rising Home Prices Good For?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006
It's funny to me that you hear so much talk from ordinary people about how great it is that their home is appreciating. I have never really understood this mentality from people when it comes to their primary residence. Why? Because rising home prices only benefit two classes of people who plan on living in their home.

1. People who need to take out a loan on their house to cover cost that they would otherwise incur anyway.

If you need to take out a home equity loan to cover cost that you would have incurred without the house, than this may be of some advantage to you. You will be able to cover the cost of that expense and have a relatively low interest payment which may (but most likely is not) tax deductible). However. If you use the loan to actually increase your consumption more than you normally would, this is not advantageous to you. This includes things like buying a new car, remodeling your house, etc. Regardless if you get to deduct the interest, YOU ARE STILL PAYING INTEREST! I swear, I don't know any other part of life where people get excited to save $0.25 by spending a $1.00.

2. People who sell their house and rent

Everybody else loses. If you sell your house to buy another house, you are gaining nothing and in all likelihood lose because you are paying higher fees (commissions) due to higher prices. The house you are buying in all likelihood appreciated too and probably appreciated more so since most people trade up. In fact, rising home prices may very well hurt you because you are going to pay more in property tax. Your house will be assessed at the higher value and you will pay more in tax. You didn't actually become wealthier, so you are for all practical purposes worse off.

If you are a first time home buyer it is pretty obvious that you are getting screwed.

Otherwise, if you own your home and plan to live in it, like most Americans, price appreciation does nothing for you. It may make you warm and fuzzy at night thinking about all those mythical gains, but until you sell your home and actually don't buy another, rising prices don't help you one bit.

Note: This is not necessarily a rhetorical question. If you can think of an instance where someone who plans on living in their house actually benefits from price appreciation other than the above, I would love to know. I've been really trying to think of a scenario.

The Gas Rebate

Tuesday, May 02, 2006
In what might be one of the most asinine things I have heard of in the last few weeks, Republicans want to give $100 rebates to people so they can buy gas. Seriously. Who are these Republicans? Republicans are supposed to be about reducing the role of government (not that they really ever do that, but they are supposed to). Now they want to do this "wealth transfer" between oil companies and consumers.

The plan would work by giving as a one-time rebate to each taxpayer of $100. Of course nothing comes for free, the plan would cost an estimated $10 billion. To pay for this, gas companies would be taxed on their oil reserves.

People. Think About It. This idea makes no sense. It makes about as much sense as having a "windfall" tax on oil companies. There is NO way to be sure who pays the burden of a tax. Just because someone writes a check for the tax does not mean he actually bears the burden. Faced with this additional cost of a tax, what do you think the oil companies would do? Do you really thnk they will just sit there and let their profits take a hit? We have seen quite conclusively that consumers are willing to pay whatever is necessary to drive their cars. Is it really hard to imagine that oil companies will pass on the cost of the tax to the consumer? What makes it worse is that it might actually cost the consumers MORE than they get in the rebate when you factor in overhead cost and the like.

Any plan to try and help consumers at the pump is a political show. They only thing that will work is for either oil companies to somehow increase the amount of oil they are finding and producing or for consumers to demand less gasoline. Anything else is just an accounting trick.