Organization Men

Organization Men

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 13 2000 12:00 AM

Organization Men


Sadly I have been "outed" today as a Slate mole so I fear my meeting multitasking may have to come to an end. There I was thinking that no one in my group was reading Slate. How naive.


You asked about the morale at MS. That's probably the question people ask most now that we have been lopped in with tobacco companies as public enemy No. 1. In my subworld at Microsoft people are very chipper. At least they seem to be, perhaps once review season is upon us we'll see a different light. My friends all feel MS will still succeed in one form or the other, and they genuinely enjoy their work. I'm not sure everyone is convinced that a networked office is better for mankind, but solving tough technical problems is definitely a satisfying experience. At the end of the day my team's code will correctly sign up customers or it will be another part of the vast MS bug conspiracy.

The interesting thing about MS is the organization tries to monitor things like morale as closely as possible. At a certain size (and thus with a certain number of human resource specialists) things like "how are we doing" are forced into a vast pseudoscience sociological process. For example, we just completed the MSPoll 2000. All employees were asked an array of questions ranging from "How well do you perceive the communication in your group?" to "How competitive do you think Microsoft is today?" All responses were ratings from 1 to 5, where 1 was "disagree strongly" and 5 was "agree strongly." Once the ratings were all in, the analysis and spin cycles started churning. For example: "We have significantly improved in all poll categories … including Business Strategy which shows a 1% increase over last year's results." (Insert recount joke here.)

Still as a computer geek myself I find the whole process of large organizations fascinating. Not only do we aggressively quantify how people feel about their jobs, we also quantify people's roles within the corporation. Everyone at Microsoft is assigned a number that indicates his or her relative experience and rank within their job category. These numbers used to go from 8-14, but that was deemed too narrowing so now they range from 56 to 68 (don't ask why, I honestly don't know). The conversion process is very challenging and I constantly find myself in interviews going "Oh, he's definitely a 10, wait I mean a 58, or is that a 59?" Truth is I can never remember what number I am (I suspect this obfuscation is part of the goal in switching the scale on us). I've developed such a mental block that I keep my number written down in my wallet. This is probably a blessing though because one's level number is supposed to be a state guarded secret. Microsoft tries very hard to create equality across all employees (we all have similar offices, similar computers, no company cars or other obvious perks). Since your number translates directly to your salary and stock options if you knew other people's numbers you would really know their status relative to yours. Interestingly the number doesn't necessarily correspond to your title. There are plenty of computer geniuses who don't want to ever be managers. So they may be at a very large level number even though their title is the same as recent college hire.

The levels come into play in two key areas: hiring and reviews. During the hiring process candidates come in and interview with a set of people all day. If they do well they go on to see the "As Appropriate" interviewer at the end. The "As Appropriate" interviewer makes the final call on whether the person should be hired and decides what number the person is. This defines the salary/offer range and basically initializes their career path. Twice yearly we have a review process where employees rate themselves on a 5-point scale (though interestingly no one gets anything other than a 3, 3.5, or 4, so it really is more of a 3 point scale). If someone is performing very well at their level and they get a few 4's in a row then they move up to the next level. The really evil part of the process occurs when managers meet together and try and decide the relative merits. Sample exchange: "Oh, I think Shuman is a total 4." "Really? He's always screwing around writing Slate pieces instead of paying attention at war meetings." "Good point, lets give him a 3."

All these processes definitely lend a bit of science and hard figures to an otherwise hugely subjective process. As a manager you feel like you have something to back up promotions and salary decisions. "Tom got 3 straight 4's, so he is definitely lead material." The downside is a nagging inhuman feeling when your life's work is boiled down to a single number. If only I could remember what my number is.

Sadly I didn't get to retell my own shotgun shooting interview experience, perhaps tomorrow.