030. My Performance Review (and An Expense Report)
“I do not think I have met my expectations for this assignment, but based on the past six months it is clear my expectations for making you more effective were too high.”—my performance review July 94
Summertime at Microsoft was also performance review time. I was also busy trying to figure out what job to do next and was quite stressed. While this is a brief look at my own performance review, there was a great lesson for being or managing staff that I carried with me for my career. This goes beyond the Rumsfeld-like Rules I crafted and to the relationship between the support staff and leader.
Back to 029. Telling the Untold Story
In July 1994, after almost 18 months as TA, NatalieY, head of recruiting but also in many ways the emotional leader of Microsoft, sent me an email reminding me that BillG needed to fill out the spreadsheet (yes, the review system in place was a spreadsheet managers filled out with a rating, raise, and bonus) with my review score, which was Microsoft’s performance review system, and, more importantly, my salary and bonus. Because of all the work and excitement of the job, I had totally spaced and not even thought about that. Natalie reminded me because she also knew I would be changing jobs soon and any new manager would want to know what Bill had thought of my work. I later referred to my time with BillG as the “two most expensive years of my life” because I missed out on the material compensation that I might have earned had I been promoted. The non-material compensation was priceless, so, obviously, no complaints.
Most everything I did was well-documented because mostly all I did was send email about meetings I had with different groups or write memos about the learning I did through conferences, using software, or other trips. I really took to heart the early advice I received, which was not to take up or waste too much of Bill’s time. In fact, we never met about what I was doing or should do. Except for ThinkWeek, I don’t recall meeting with him one on one except for when he would occasionally dart into my office to follow up on something or fix some beta product that stopped working. Even when we flew to the same place, I would take a different flight knowing that someone else would find more value in bugging him on the trip (though I should note, Bill’s routine for flying was to sit in a window seat with a blanket over his head and not talk to anyone, often disappointing those hoping for a discussion).
For my review I wrote a memo, rather than use the performance review form, which wasn’t something BillG was familiar with. Rather than waste his time, the memo detailed all the projects I worked on and the memos I had written. I noted all reports I’d written for learning trips I had taken as Bill’s eyes and ears.
Except for one.
PaulMa, leader of all Platforms under MikeMap, asked me to go with him to London on short notice to help document what was going on with a sizable enterprise customer. PaulMa was the most enterprise-focused of executives and, with Windows NT beginning to gain traction, this type of learning was important. Having never taken overseas travel for Microsoft, I emailed Paul’s executive assistant, Kay Barber-Eck (KayB) for help and she obliged, booking a plane ticket and a hotel. I packed my blue suit and off we went to visit with several UK banks.
When I got back, I took the plane ticket (the red-backed carbon paper kind) and the hotel receipt (one night) and filled out the standard expense report in triplicate and gave it to JulieG like I always did. The following Monday morning when Bill signed things for the week he refused to sign off on the expense because “he flew business class” as per the note on the form. I panicked. The ticket was thousands of dollars, and I could not afford that on my own. I emailed KayB and she said to submit it again and tell him it was the policy, and it was okay. She let me know the employee handbook included the travel policy, which said flights of eight hours or more could be optionally business class. I copied that policy page from the employee handbook and printed out a note explaining myself. A week went by. The report came back unsigned, noting that the flight was seven hours 45 minutes. At that point, I was about to be overdue on my credit card bill. I panic-telephoned KayB. She said to bring the expense report over and PaulMa would sign it. Phew.
Microsoft was still a start-up in Bill’s mind. How could one not respect that, I asked myself.
Out of protest, I never sent Bill my trip report on the future of ATMs and banking from home in the United Kingdom.
Natalie insisted that I schedule a meeting with Bill to go over the review even though we both disliked scheduling time to talk. Bill read the memo and agreed with my self-assessment but zeroed in on one line, which to this day we still joke about.
In my performance review memo, I said that in an effort to be efficient and not waste his time I never asked for feedback about how I was doing or even what to do. Instead, I wrote stuff and sent it to him, such as the pre-meeting notes or trip reports, and then watched to see what he repeated to teams or forwarded to others. It was like training myself as a neural network. He got a real kick out of that. So much so that for the next few weeks in a meeting if he knew he was repeating something I had said to him, he would look at me and sort of grin a bit.
Everything in my career that followed can be traced to my time working for BillG as his technical assistant. The ability to think broadly while applying that to building products, balancing innovation and execution, treating innovation as a portfolio of work, and always keeping a focus on competition are a few of the skills and approaches I modeled and developed based on working in this role.
I got a small raise and no promotion.
But at least my trip to London was approved.
One thing I mentioned in the review was how difficult it has been to figure out what to do next. Bill wanted to direct me to a specific job, but these did not feel like jobs. They felt more like problems (I would later learn in talking to many people that served similar roles at other companies, this is almost always how product/technology leaders think of staffing for valued contributors, which is the exact opposite of how people think of their own careers). This notion of putting a person on a problem reflected the Systems way of working, which was that the execs maintained a list of people and a list of problems and there was a constant juggling of assignments between those lists. As I came to learn, the Apps way of working was much more about assigning people to products and thinking first about what products needed to be built and who would be best. As always, this reflected Microsoft’s two gardens.
It also did not help that as AaronG, the previous technical assistant, told me the day I moved into the office, “every group is screwed up”. From this vantage point, all you see are the problems and there’s no shortage of those.
A vacation spent deeply immersed in some competitive software would change my trajectory and outlook.