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Spolsky's Review

Joel Spolsky wrote a piece this morning on his first review with Bill Gates.  It’s an awesome story, and well worth a read.  I had to laugh at his description of the review process itself.  It starts:

In those days, Microsoft was a lot less bureaucratic. Instead of the 11 or 12 layers of management they have today, I reported to Mike Conte who reported to Chris Graham who reported to Pete Higgins, who reported to Mike Maples, who reported to Bill. About 6 layers from top to bottom. We made fun of companies like General Motors with their eight layers of management or whatever it was.

In my BillG review meeting, the whole reporting hierarchy was there, along with their cousins, sisters, and aunts, and a person who came along from my team whose whole job during the meeting was to keep an accurate count of how many times Bill said the F word. The lower the f***-count, the better.

I had the task of writing the Windows three year outlook (3YO) a couple of times during my tenure at Microsoft.  Steve would send out the template a couple of months advance.  While variations were acceptable, you were expected to follow the general flow of the template, and make sure that the slides in it were filled out.  Steve had particular information he wanted to know, and the template was his way of ensuring that we understood what questions he wanted answered.

Once written, there was a very similar review to the one that Spolsky describes.  Printed copies of the plan would be produced at the copy shop and stacked in boxes outside the meeting room.  The execs would get their copies the night before. There would be a bunch of VPs sitting in the room, with Bill and Steve, and business people and product management from various other organizations filling the room. 

Even though it was the Windows review, you’d have folks from Office, the server team, and other organizations in attendance. The largest review I ever saw had over 200 people in attendance. They wanted to see what you were presenting, and what Bill and Steve’s reaction would be, and whether they needed to do any course corrections before their turn. 

In other words, it was blood sport. 

The worst I ever saw was the very first year the WebTV team presented.  Steve Perlman and Phil Goldman came up from California with their team.  We sat down to the presentation, opened their plan… and they’d used a different template.  Well, Steve started asking his questions anyway, which set Steve Perlman and Phil off their pace. They got about 30 minutes into the presentation when it had finally become so raucous that Paul Maritz stood up and stopped the review, asking them to come back in a few weeks time with a revised plan.  Before it was over Bill had angrily torn a half a dozen pages from the plan, and Ballmer had come close to pounding a hole into the table he was sitting at.

The politically correct among us would call this bad behaviour, but to me this is pure passion.  This is the drive that the lions of industry exhibit.  That’s why they’re at the top of the foodchain.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Shannon P June 16, 2006, 11:50 am

    Alec – that WebTV presentation was rather legendary among the Billg reviews. That's why we worked so hard on the Windows 3 year reviews so you could walk out of there in one piece. Lions indeed.

  • Alec June 16, 2006, 12:05 pm

    Yes it was, wasn't it? Nice to hear from you Shannon!

  • Steve Perlman August 6, 2006, 12:48 am

    I'm afraid that the events described here were so legendary that they never occurred. billg (and steveb) would certainly voice their opinions directly, but they never tore up pages and threw them at people… or at least not at us. They could be colorful in their antics (especially steveb), but I always found them (and Paul Maritz) to treat top technical talent with a great deal of respect. The co-founder of WebTV you mention here is Phil Goldman, not Phil Goldstein. Among many other things, Phil co-developed Multifinder (the Mac OS of that era), and he wrote the operating system for WebTV from scratch. It cold-booted in less than 10 seconds with only 2 MB of RAM and 2 MB of ROM to work with on 112 MHz MIPS CPU. Sadly, Phil passed away a couple of years ago at age 39. Sorry to be prickly about what I otherwise wouldn't mind leaving posted as an amusing tale, but it matters to me that Phil's legacy remains unaltered.

  • Alec August 6, 2006, 2:37 am

    Hey Steve, thanks for dropping by. I've altered the piece. The distant past is the distant past, and while I was confident of the facts when I wrote it, it's also possible that I've confused the paper throwing incident with another group's review.

  • Steve Perlman August 6, 2006, 9:23 am

    Thanks, Alec. It certainly was quite a while ago, (in fact we have the WebTV 10-year reunion next weekend). In any case, it is definitely the case that it took time for WebTV to get integrated into Microsoft system, including the 3YO planning. It was an enormous culture clash: small, from-the-hip start-up to large, carefully-planned corporation, and also from Redmond, WA to Silicon Valley, CA. It took some give-and-take on both sides. Sometimes it was serious business matters like the 3YO (which WebTV adopted once we learned it), other times it was purely cultural, like pets on the Silicon Valley campus (which Microsoft allowed, even though pets weren't allowed in Redmond).

  • Alec August 6, 2006, 11:53 am

    I remember the clash well, and I can imagine the struggle to hold onto the WebTV identity must have been extraordinarily difficult.

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