The Vanity Fair article on microsoft finally makes it online:
Amid a dynamic and ever changing marketplace, Microsoft—which declined to comment for this article—became a high-tech equivalent of a Detroit car-maker, bringing flashier models of the same old thing off of the assembly line even as its competitors upended the world. Most of its innovations have been financial debacles or of little consequence to the bottom line. And the performance showed on Wall Street; despite booming sales and profits from its flagship products, in the last decade Microsoft’s stock barely budged from around $30, while Apple’s stock is worth more than 20 times what it was 10 years ago. In December 2000, Microsoft had a market capitalization of $510 billion, making it the world’s most valuable company. As of June it is No. 3, with a market cap of $249 billion. In December 2000, Apple had a market cap of $4.8 billion and didn’t even make the list. As of this June it is No. 1 in the world, with a market cap of $541 billion.
Sixteen days later, Bill Gates handed off the C.E.O. reins to Ballmer. “I was stunned when Bill announced that he was stepping aside to become ‘chief software architect’ in January 2000, with Steve Ballmer succeeding him as C.E.O.,” recalled Paul Allen. “While Steve had long served as Bill’s top lieutenant, you got the sense through the nineties that he wasn’t necessarily being groomed for Microsoft’s top spot. I’d say that Bill viewed him as a very smart executive with less affinity for technology than for the business side—that Steve just wasn’t a ‘product guy.’ ”
Balmer is smart. But smart isn’t enough in a technology company. You need to have a technical vision as well. That Microsoft did nothing with PocketPC for ten years is inexcusable.
“If you don’t play the politics, it’s management by character assassination,” said Turkel.
At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.
“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”
Supposing Microsoft had managed to hire technology’s top players into a single unit before they made their names elsewhere—Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon—regardless of performance, under one of the iterations of stack ranking, two of them would have to be rated as below average, with one deemed disastrous.
This stack ranking thing sounds bad, but it sounds too bad to be all true. There are quite a lot of superstars at Microsoft; it can do great things.