Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

So Microsoft Is Like General Motors

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An article was brought to my attention today discussing the Pontiac Aztek, the ugliest car to come out of Detroit since AMC went down for the third time. Y’know, come to think of it, …

Pontiac Aztek on the left, AMC Gremlin on the right.

Pontiac Aztek on the left, AMC Gremlin on the right.

What is worth considering from this disaster is how it came about.

These things require a culture of complete acquiescence and intimidation, led by a strong dictatorial individual who wants it that way.
— “How Bad Cars Happen: The Pontiac Aztek Debacle”, Road and Track,

People tend to read that sentence and think that the dictatorial individual drives the culture. Originally that is the seed, but at some point the culture becomes self-perpetuating. It seeks out dictatorial individuals and legitimizes their bullying behavior. The culture develops its own self-preservation, and will spit out anyone who doesn’t conform. Robert Ringer described the process back in the seventies:

I’m Crazy/You’re Sane Theory: If you attempt to carry on a relationship with an irrational person, given enough time they will make you feel like you’re the neurotic one.

Ordinary, apparently rational people who want to do the right thing are ingested by the culture and either beaten into conformity or spit out. Often, they are beaten into conformity, sucked dry and then spit out. I watched one company litter the Chicago metro area with its human casualties over four years.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
— attributed to Peter Drucker

Sometimes a board of directors will be motivated to bring in a completely different CEO to introduce change in the company. It never works, because they underestimate the strength of the culture — often, they are in denial about it, having spent more time reading their own press releases and glossyware than actually rubbing elbows with real people engaged in real business within the company. The CEO arrives with great fanfare, brave-new-world speeches and the best of intentions. It lasts about a year, and everyone knew it would. One person who had been in such a leadership position said in an interview, “They will wait you out and wear you out.”

Lest people think this only occurs in old companies that are relics from a bygone era, we have the example of Microsoft. The company has recently produced two highly visible and entirely avoidable product fiascos: Windows Phone and Windows 8.


The new, improved Windows 8 desktop.

The new, improved Windows 8 desktop.

When did I ask for an improved desktop? I was getting my work done just fine with the desktop I had.

Why do I want my desktop to look like a smartphone? I am not sitting in the car waiting for my kids to come out of sports practice — I am trying to get my work done. A phone is a content consumption device. My desktop computer is a content creation device. My job is to create content: documents, spreadsheets and the occasional presentation. There is an impedance mismatch between what I have to do and this interface that makes my productivity tool look like an amusement.

Can I come to your office, rearrange your desk to suit my artistic sensibilities and then tell you how stupid you are when you can’t find anything?

People within Microsoft tried to tell the people who were responsible for the decision to remake the Windows user experience that these changes would not go over. The people who were in charge of the product didn’t listen. So the Windows team took their show on the road and got what they got.

One objection to the internal advice not to remake the interface was that the people given the advice did not have data to back up their statements. Well, duh — it hadn’t been released yet. Now you’ve got all kinds of data from the failure of the product to be accepted. The people making the changes didn’t have data, either. They did it because they wanted to. That is a salient feature of Microsoft culture: I will do what I want to do because I am brilliant; if you want to argue with me, you have to have data.


A Windows Mobile 6 phone

A Windows Mobile 6 phone

Back in 2009, when the Windows Mobile 6 phone was still carrying the flag, there were a substantial number of Microsoft employees carrying competitor phones. To get a sense of the significance of this, consider that Microsoft does an employee satisfaction survey every year and gets response rates above 80%. The Microsoft employee population is generally enthusiastic about the Microsoft product line, usually likes the products and wants them to succeed. So if the employees themselves — who are also shareholders, by the way — are spending their own money on competitor phone products, is there not something to learn from them?

Nothing doing. It is disloyalty, pure and simple. You work for Microsoft, and you owe it to us to get behind our product, no matter what.

[Former CEO Steve Ballmer’s] passion can tip over into what a former executive calls “religious zealotry.” Challenge was betrayal. “His view was that anyone in the company who used the iPhone was a traitor,” says this person.
— “The Empire Reboots”, Vanity Fair,

Vanity Fair is all about people with high social wattage, and tends naturally to fix their focus on the top of the pyramid. And, to be sure, it is true that the fish rots from the head. Ballmer had a reputation within the company for stomping on employee’s iPhones in meetings. Ballmer helped shape the culture in his image. Bill Gates did so even more; without Gates, Ballmer would be some unheard-of middle manager retiring from P&G.

Nevertheless, the people who were in charge of the phone effort could have taken the responsibility to approach employees and say, “I see you have someone else’s phone. What did it offer that ours doesn’t?” In consumer products, real feedback is hard to get. The employees would have been happy to provide it in a constructive manner. There were no takers.

The cost of this arrogance? Microsoft lost time they can never get back.

Apps have a role in phone operating system (OS) acceptance. Thus a chicken-and-egg scenario develops when app developers look at charts like this to select the technologies in which they will invest. Without consumer acceptance, you don’t get apps. And without apps, you don’t get consumer acceptance. The rich get richer, and the poor get marginalized.

There is probably room for two smartphone OS products in the consumer market. Right now, it looks like those two will be Android and iOS.

When I read the article by Bob Lutz on GM culture, it reads all too familiar:

Early on, the Aztek obviously failed the market research. But in those days, GM went ahead with quite a few vehicles that failed product clinics. The Aztek didn’t just fail — it scored dead last. Rock bottom. Respondents said, “Can they possibly be serious with this thing? I wouldn’t take it as a gift.” And the GM machine was in such denial that it rejected the research and just said, “What do those a**holes know?”
— “How Bad Cars Happen: The Pontiac Aztek Debacle”

It’s not surprising that Microsoft didn’t bring in an outsider to replace Steve Ballmer. They don’t think they have a cultural problem. They think they just need some tweaks around the edges. They have $60 billion in topline revenue. Prior to joining Microsoft, I had never worked at a company with a $600 million topline.

And what would someone from the outside do? How would one bring cultural change to an organization that likes its culture just fine and has no objective imperative to change it?

So it is hardly surprising that the new CEO, Satya Nadella, put his foot in his mouth at a conference to promote careers for women in computing in October. This served as a launching pad for a wider discussion of women in the software business.

I had a woman at a technology company who, when she saw the science, just blurted out, “I thought there was something wrong with me! I hired a coach and for three years he’s been trying to help me fit into the team here, because I thought I needed fixing, and now I see that I’m just wired differently.” I asked the women in the audience, “How many of you can relate to that?” And every single hand went up.
— “Why the Tech Sector Struggles to Close the Gender Gap”,

Yes, the differences between genders are an element at work, but so are other differences. Culture is the main driver. When you don’t match the culture, the culture expects you to adapt to it. It is your problem and you have to fix it. I’m crazy; you’re sane.

Microsoft doesn’t have merely a male culture; Microsoft has an adolescent boy culture. I’m smarter than you; I pwn you.

Don’t believe me? Open up your solitaire game, make a few moves and then hit F2 to start a new game. You will be greeted with this dialog:

Microsoft Solitaire new game dialog. What do you mean, statistics?

Microsoft Solitaire new game dialog. What do you mean, statistics?

Look at the helpful advice: This counts as a loss in your statistics.

When I play solitaire with a deck of cards, I don’t have statistics. If I don’t like the way the game is going, I can just deal another one. Why do I need statistics?

But at Microsoft, it would be simply unthinkable not to keep statistics. How else can I compare my performance to that of others? I have a 90% record, while you only have an 80% record. You’ve been pwned.

And yes, I am smart enough to go into the registry, find where Solitaire keeps the statistics and change them. I have also lived long enough to have heard the expression, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

A lot of women look at this culture and think, “I’m capable of making it here, but yuck! Why bother?” Plenty of men do, also.

PS: I should point out that when I came back after publishing this article to make a correction, my system bluescreened. Evil Empire indeed.


Written by srojak

November 17, 2014 at 1:13 pm

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