Steven Sinofsky, I agree, but I disagree…

December 18, 2005

I saw over on Dennis’ blog that he linked to an entry Steven Sinofsky wrote on his “Microsoft TechTalk” blog about the PM role at Microsoft. I was reading through it and most of it sounded pretty much inline with my experience until I got to this little bit:

As an aside a lot has been said lately about “agile development”. A key benefit of program management is that we are far more agile because we have program management. That can be counter-intuitive (even for many developers at Microsoft who might be waiting for their PM to iron out the spec). But the idea that you can just start writing code without having a clear view of the details and specification is a recipe for a poorly architected features. A great PM knows when the details are thought through enough to begin and a great developer knows when they can start coding even without the details for sure.

I kind of agree and kind of disagree with this. I agree because obviously, you can’t start coding without any idea of what you’re building. I disagree because it appears that Steven doesn’t know exactly what agile development is… there are many different methodologies for “agile development” and as far as I know, none of them involve coding without any specing whatsoever…

Then later in his post, he writes:

Many companies will “sell” you on being able to do many of these different things from one job. This is just not a reality that exists and I always feel a bit bad for folks who believe this. There are two times I hear this a bunch. First is at startups you hear “come join us from college and you can own all of this”. Of course at a startup the real experience is that you are the college hire, which means you will do the grunt work while the founders and the venture people do all the strategic work–so you might find yourself setting up the build machines rather than interacting with customers. Second, I hear this a lot when companies are selling against Microsoft and point out that “at our company we do not specialize and everyone does everything”. This is another “well in reality…” situation, since of course even when I have seen companies that claim to do the specifications or customer research and up front planning they do that work from Product Management, and those people are just as specialized, they just report to the marketing team. And we know what that means, which is when push comes to shove the marketing team will need to use every hand to get out there and generate the business and sell–so even if there is a single group that does the work, those roles are specialized, and rarely dedicated specifically to the role.

Wow… I’m going to have to totally disagree here. I see Steven has qualified the statement as being based “[his] experiences and of course your specific situation might be different” but it still seems to me like it’s not exactly in touch with reality.

For example, at Plaxo it doesn’t matter if you’re a fresh college grad or you’re a 20 year industry veteran. The plain truth is: we can’t afford to hire super specialized employees. Each person at Plaxo needs to be a valuable contributor and extremely flexible – there’s just too much to do and not enough people to do it. In addition to that, we also can’t afford to hire people who aren’t going to contribute to our critical projects. We only have 35 people; that means everyone has to do substantial work on the products we’re shipping to millions of customers. We can’t put a college hire on “grunt work”, we need him/her to design features, implement them, and get them shipped to our customers.

Now I’m not saying that the college hire won’t need to do any “grunt work”. What I’m saying is, everyone does “grunt work” when it’s necessary to get the job done.

The same thing repeats itself over and over at the other startups I visit and talk to. Steven, I’d encourage you to come down to the bay area and visit some startups sometime; I think you’ll see a drastically different picture than the one you’ve illustrated.

The funny thing is, I’ve seen Steven’s “college hire” description more at Microsoft than any startup I’ve visited. In my experience (and of course your specific situation might be different 😉 ), I’ve seen many college hires at Microsoft put into positions where they are taking care of build scripts, fixing bugs in code they didn’t write, and setting up test machines – basically doing the “grunt work”.

I know I’ve picked two very specific excerpts from Steven’s post to tear into, but the rest of it is actually really good. He does a great job detailing the Microsoft PM/Dev/Test model. From my own personal experience, I think Microsoft’s PM program is great and I know I learned a ton from working there. Getting a job at Microsoft is definitely far from the worst way to launch a career 🙂

However, for all you potential college hires out there, you gotta ask yourself: what are you working towards? If you’re looking for a long and steady 20 year career where you can slowly move up the corporate ladder and make a comfortable living, then you’ve got Redmond, WA written all over you. But if you’re looking for a career where you can make some big bets and with some luck come out orders of magnitude ahead, then my opinion is that Microsoft isn’t such a great place to invest your time right out of college… if you want to know what working at Microsoft is really like, check out Mini-MSFT’s blog and the comments people leave there. I guarantee you that’s the real deal.

UPDATE: I’ve talked to a few people about my last statement in the post referring to Mini-MSFT and I can see how people might take exception to it because it makes it sound like I’m saying the stuff in Mini-MSFT is exactly what happens at Microsoft. I should’ve also said that in addition to stuff like Mini-MSFT, I’d encourage people to read other blogs (like Dare’s, Dennis’s, and Adam’s) to get a comprehensive view of what working at Microsoft is really like.

The discussion of what you’d consider impact is murky as well. There’s probably an element of buyer’s bias where we each think that we’re delivering a lot of impact in our own different ways. Comparing the amount of impact is probably a fruitless endeavor, at the end of the day we’d just be comparing apples to oranges. The one thing we do seem to agree on is that there’s no clear definition of “impact” 🙂

At the end of the day, if you’re considering working at Microsoft, I would suggest you read up on a few different blogs about working at Microsoft (including both Steven’s blog and Mini-MSFT). As Dare and Adam said, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and even within Microsoft, the situation varies.


14 Responses to “Steven Sinofsky, I agree, but I disagree…”

  1. I had to remove your comment because within it it you cite as a reference an anonymous blog. I don’t believe in assigning credibility to anonymous sources.

    I did not base my comments on just my own personal experience, but also on the experience of hiring many people from startups after a year or two. And also, people who join Microsoft from acquisitions or mergers are often amazed that they have more responsibility working for Microsoft when they did working at a startup.

    But as I said it is my view. I’m glad you have your view and write about it and that you are not doing so anonymously 🙂


  2. Adam Says:

    > I had to remove your comment because within it it
    > you cite as a reference an anonymous blog. I don’t
    > believe in assigning credibility to anonymous
    > sources.

    Wow, Steven, that’s rather harsh and IMHO extremely shortsighted of you. To suggest that anonymous blogs — much less the citing of them — lacks any credibility or worth is simply astounding. Have you no awareness of Iraqi bloggers? Corporate or government whistleblowers? Would you have completely discounted Deep Throat because — eegads — he was anonymous?

    I like and respect Microsoft, but I also read mini-msft’s blog — as does, from what I understand, quite a few MS interviewees, interviewers, execs, journalists, and so on. You can agree or disagree with his editorials or the comments in response, but to simply stick your head in the sand and — worse yet, discount all references to this very popular blog — you’re doing yourself and MSFT a huge disservice.

    Oh, and I’d post this on *your* blog, Steven, but from what I gather, you’d just delete my post, too.

  3. Respectfully, I’m not sticking my head in the sand at all. I just believe that anonymous writing lacks any context or credibility.

    One of the first rules of writing is to have good sources. If your source is anonymous it makes your writing baseless. It is why in professional journalism, anonymous sources must be triangulated by other sources and approved by an editor (why deep throat was allowed to be a source). Even the BW story that referred to this site ended up not carrying much of the information because none of it could be verified.

    I’m sorry you think this is harsh. I am trying to leave commenting unmoderated but as with most blogs I am considering moving to moderated or no comments.

    To equate an anonymous rant with corporate whistleblowers is absurd. We have numerous ways to anonymously raise issues and have specifics looked into.

    Again, I’m sorry folks think it is harsh. This is all a new medium and I think everyone is searching for a way to balance a variety of legitimate concerns.


  4. >If you’re looking for a long and steady 20 year career where you can slowly move up the corporate ladder and make a comfortable living, then you’ve got Redmond, WA written all over you. But if you’re looking for a career where you can make some big bets and with some luck come out orders of magnitude ahead, then my opinion is that Microsoft isn’t such a great place to invest your time right out of college…

    Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Most people bust their ass at a startup for a few years and after they end up burned they long for a stable place like MSFT where they get to have large impact.

    If you are in the software industry as a ‘get rich scheme’ then you are right that taking the gamble on a startup is a better bet than working at MSFT.

    The question to ask yourself as a fresh college graduate is whether your career is about making a difference or gambling that the one-trick pony startup you choose will end up being bought by Google, Microsoft or Yahoo! where eventually you’ll actually get to make a difference.

  5. markjen Says:

    Hi Dare, Thanks for the comment. You’re exactly right though, most start-ups don’t end in a huge IPO – most of them actually usually go bust or get acquired for a moderate sum where only initial employees see some $. I should’ve mentioned that in my post.

    As far as the impact though, I’d say it heavily varies. In my experience, most typical – non college select – new grads at Microsoft end up working on features within a huge product that ship in some number of years. Depending on what you consider impact (shipping to millions of customers vs. owning a large chunk of a product), you could say that’s huge or you could say that’s marginal. At some startups, like Plaxo, you happen to get a chance to get the best of both worlds. For example, our AIM integration code is shipping to tens of millions of customers. Meanwhile, even our college intern contributed substantial features in that release.

    Compared to Microsoft, Plaxo is definitely a one-trick pony. But then again, not only are we currently not interested in focusing on lots of different things; we can’t afford to 🙂

  6. I’m not sure if I’d agree that reading the comments on Mini-MSFT present a truly accurate view of working at Microsoft. Much like anything else, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

    It seems to me that part of the disagreement of the comments in this entry is on “making a difference.” I think we’ll all have to agree to disagree on what “making a difference” means.

    I worked on features that a huge percentage of Mac users used. Is that a making a bigger difference than working on a toolbar which doesn’t seem to have the #1 popularity of its class? Hard to compare.

  7. Sam Says:

    Mark’s reference to mini-msft was something that seemed to reflected his experience which is why he referred to it.

    It is a shame that Steve (Sinofsky) moderates his blog to omit some contrary views. Perhaps, the truth is somewhere between his statement and that expressed here but instead his blog will not be a place for such a discussion to take place.

    I take this behavior as an interesting data point about how the the leadership of Microsoft acts and what I could expect if I chose to work there.

    I missed this whole discussion here until I tried to post a comment to Steve blog pointing out this blog entry and the mere mention of it got deleted. (Seemed pretty rude for a thoughtful comment, not a flame which Steve does comment on “b0rgbasher (deleted comment)…”.)

  8. Quite the conversation you’ve going on here, Mark. 🙂

    I’ve weighed in here.

  9. markjen Says:

    Thanks for the comments all… I’m going to update my post slightly after talking to a few people 🙂

  10. terry chay Says:

    @Dennis: I think the only person arguing about “making a difference” is Dare who was the only reference to the word “difference” before you.

    Mark was taking exception to Steven’s claim which I’ll paraphrase: the majority of startup positions are highly specialized and that the “wear many hats” sell of a startup is myth.

    My tendency, based on my limited experience in four startups (one failed), tends to agree with Mark and refute Steven. I actually see this trait as a potentially bad thing. The need to work outside of your expertise sometimes can be a big waste at times.

    But instead of realizing that Mark’s claim that most startups can’t afford as much specialization as a large corporation doesn’t do anything to denigrate whether or not you “contribute more” (like we can honestly get a quantitative definition of that) at Microsoft vs. a startup. Perhaps he touched a sore nerve and thus became guilty by implication.

    Maybe so. I might note that while Entourage, being part of the Office Suite, is probably the most popular commercial Macintosh program by revenue it too “doesn’t seem to have #1 popularity of its class”—Address Book and Mail do. (What this has to do with the discussion at hand is beyond me.)

    As for the implication that Plaxo Toolbar for Internet Explorer is not #1 in popularity *shrug*. Three out of four isn’t so bad—Mark should be proud.

  11. >>As for the implication that Plaxo Toolbar for Internet Explorer is not #1 in popularity *shrug*. Three out of four isn’t so bad—Mark should be proud.

    To be clear… i wasn’t referring to the Plaxo Toolbar, but a certain other toolbar.

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