In this two-part guest series, Ellen Chisa shares her experience at Microsoft and how its review system affected her psyche and productivity.
By Ellen Chisa (Product Manager, Kickstarter)
This first part gives an overview of Ellen’s time at Microsoft, providing insight into the company’s environment as well as the successes and failures of everyday management. The second part discusses stack rank specifically.
Recently Microsoft decided to get rid of the stack rank system they used for reviews.
Stack ranking is a performance review system that ranks employees against each other. Also referred to as “rank and yank”, stack rank creates a zero-sum management system in which one person’s positive ranking means another person’s loss. Critics point out that a process that creates inevitable losers and requires managers to fight on behalf of reports is unfair and disconnected from performance quality.
I’m really happy with this decision: the stack rank negatively affected me, and many people I know. I saw multiple people have the same experience:
1. Promising start (say, 1-3 years)
2. Something goes wrong (a project, big manager conflict, etc.)
3. The issue isn’t addressed when it happens and festers until review.
4. Bad review, general angst, uncertainty
5. Talented person quits and moves on to a great career elsewhere.
One obvious takeaway is that Microsoft was probably hemorrhaging a lot of talent. The more insidious one is the toll on its employees’ self-perception and effectiveness.
I wanted to write about how that feels. Here I outline what happened in my first eighteen months at Microsoft, which were interesting and challenging — to how things started to go wrong.
The First Year: Learning How to Work
I started at Microsoft in July 2010 on a high note.
I worked on a complex feature with Nokia (which still had 60% market share then) for Office Mobile. I felt like I was really achieving. I got to work on complicated feature design with teams in Finland and India. It was a great challenge both technically and organizationally.
It wasn’t perfect. There were the usual bumps that come in a first year of working. My manager and I had to learn how to communicate well together. I had to learn how to gauge what was a big problem versus what would blow over in a day or so.
The downside was that I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well.
There’s a metric in the career-tracking website called “promotion velocity”, and I always felt like if you got off to a slow start, you’d never succeed. I was very concerned about getting promoted to level 60 of Microsoft’s technical career track in the first six months (most college hires begin at 59). I had a few friends who’d been hired at level 60, and I didn’t want to be average. I wanted to be excellent.
Because of that pressure, I was frustrated because I wanted a more “important” project. I felt like I couldn’t get promoted without more responsibility. I couldn’t figure out how to succeed if I was in a system where I didn’t have much control. I didn’t get the six month promotion I obsessed over, but at the end of my first year, I got one.
In retrospect, I wouldn’t change anything about the first year. I learned a ton about getting people to work together to ship software, even when external circumstances weren’t perfect. I also learned to take really awesome notes. Making great software to the sort of standard that Microsoft holds takes time, and I still regularly use skills I developed that first year.
On the whole, I was positive about working at Microsoft. Objectively, things were pretty great. Subjectively, I was a upset because I knew I hadn’t gotten the best possible review. It’s strange to feel like you’re failing even when you’re promoted.
The Next Six Months: A Strong Transition
After demonstrating I could handle working with complicated teams and problems, I got my wish for a larger project — working on the core team who identified the features and overall design for the Office Hub for Windows Phone 8.
Around the same time, I switched managers. My first manager who’d wanted to do more individual work became an individual contributor (IC) and moved into another role within our team. I was sad, not only because we’d invested so much in building a good relationship, but because he’d invested in becoming an excellent manager.
This meant I’d have to build up a whole new rapport with a different lead. I was worried because my new manager seemed more political. I started getting paranoid because this lead had another report who’d started at the same time and level as me. I wasn’t sure a new lead would really care for me when he’d been advocating for that report against me.
The new project, though, was one of the hardest and most fun parts of my career! There was a lot of tension about what to build, but we came up with an elegant solution. Everyone was on one page, and we managed to scope the work to fit the schedule! There would be notable improvements from Windows Phone 7.5.
I felt like I was doing really well. I’d come to own the specifications for the “Most Recently Used Documents” panel and the “Email Attachments” work. I enjoyed writing them.
I was learning and doing interesting work — which gets us up to February, 2012, when things started to go downhill quickly.
The Last Eight Months: The Plummet
After I completed my specifications for Office on Windows Phone 8, it was time to move onto something else to help the release.
I’m not going to mention specifics, but all you need to know is that it was something I knew nothing about. This shouldn’t have been an issue. When I’d started at Microsoft, I knew almost nothing about how to be a product manager. I learned how to write specs several different ways and how to handle challenging cross-team issues — culturally, logistically, and from the business priority perspective.
This assignment should have been another minor challenge, a step towards getting better. I should have been able to overcome it and move on because that’s generally how career progression at Microsoft is supposed to go — you get more and more advanced challenges but learn how to cope.
For some reason, that didn’t happen. I didn’t understand the project. I spent too long hoping it would miraculously dawn on me (which has happened before). I talked to a coworker, who didn’t really understand what I was supposed to be doing either.
I tried to talk to my manager and explain that I was having a hard time. He said that I just needed to try harder and that I wasn’t engaged in my work. He thought I’d been distracted by my involvement with the Awesome Foundation or the Global Shapers program, and the coworker who I’d talked to about the project told me he’d been asked to make sure I was doing other parts of my job (the ones I’d always been fine at).
I was around less because it was depressing to stare at my computer without a good idea of where to start. Two months into the stalling project, I booked a last-minute plane ticket to visit a friend in Texas. Usually if I’m stuck, doing something spontaneous helps me break out of my context and think about a problem differently. It helped a little, and when I came back, I tried again to explain to my manager that I had a draft but was still confused about where I was headed.
By this point, we’d hired someone else into our overall team who had a role that technically encompassed what I was doing. I became even more confused about why I was doing it. My manager still didn’t believe me. He had me send my draft to coworkers to review. They thought it lacked details. (It probably did. The premise of the document was very general. I still think the actual scope was impossible.)
It kept getting worse. I didn’t understand what to do next after the draft, and my manager seemed uninterested in talking to me or having 1:1s. It became my personal version of hell to go to work everyday. I’d given it everything I had, but it seemed like no one was listening or cared.
I still wanted to stay until Windows Phone 8 shipped. I wanted to be there on the official day. So I stayed. I suffered through my review, which was bad, even though the first half of the year had been excellent and didn’t seem to count at all. But at that point it didn’t really matter, because there was no way to fix it.
So the day Windows Phone 8 shipped, I quit. I quit via email, because there wasn’t anyone to tell.
Have you ever experienced the stack rank system? What are your thoughts on it?
About the blogger: Ellen Chisa is a Product Manager at Kickstarter. In her free time, she serves as a trustee of the NYC Awesome Foundation and reads lots of books. In 2014, she wants to check something into Github everyday. Follow her on Twitter.