On Reviews

My first job performance reviews, first as a dishwasher and borderline incompetent kitchen robot for a minor restaurant chain, and then writing video games for Atari, were short and sweet. Every year or so I would sit down in my manager’s office and he’d say, “We think you’re doing a great job. Here’s a pay raise.” That was it. It only took a couple of minutes. We didn’t have a long talk about objectives, or chat about what had gone right or wrong, or make a strategy for the next year.  There were no head games or bullshit politics. Just: Everything’s fine, no problems. Here, have some money. I still consider this to be a state of innocence, and possibly an ideal. It was stress-free and I had no worries. I had a similar experience working as an intern for the federal government: Every once in a while they’d increment my GS rating and I’d get a little more money (not much, it was the government).

At Apple I was introduced to the torture of writing a self review.  This was an genius application of laziness on the part of management: Each employee had to write down what they had done, be honest about their accomplishments and failures, and hope for the best. Apple actually seemed to care what you wrote, but in the end it was all classic backward-looking stuff. “You did good, no problems. Here, have some money.”  Like washing dishes or writing video games or being a very junior government drone, there was nothing about objectives or future plans. (This was in the 80s and 90s, and I don’t know what reviews at Apple were like under return-of-Steve or if they changed in the post-Steve era. It’s possible they use chemical interrogation now. I could totally see that).

At Microsoft I sweated through years of similar self-reviews before learning the truth: By the time you were done with all the self-purging and 3AM panic attacks and had finally excreted the perfect gem of a critical but not /too/ critical self review, well, by that time all the numbers had been decided a month earlier in secret meetings and whatever was coming your way, candy or stick, was already a done deal. Short of your running nekkid through the lobby or installing Linux on your workstation, your review wasn’t going to change. You could write pretty much anything (“All work and no play make this developer a dull boy. All work and…”) and the only time it mattered was when you went looking for a new position inside the company and your new management got curious about the kind of drivel you’d written about yourself. The self review itself was “post-hoc, ergo propter hoc” bullshit, a substrate for your manager to justify what the secret meetings had decided. And at its core, the process was about humiliation and sowing self-doubt.

I went through three or four revisions of the performance system at Microsoft, and it became clear that the changes didn’t really matter much. The only invariant that counted was that unless you had a good manager, a real fighter ready to lay down honor and do personal combat for his or her direct reports, you got screwed. The tweaks to the review system just altered the details of how you got screwed, or how you came under special screwtiny [sic], and did nothing to fix the underlying screwedness of the review system’s philosophical base.  The road to success at Microsoft was to put yourself under a champion.

It gets more fucked up than that, but you’ve already heard most of it from various articles on Slate, et al, and the threads on Mini Microsoft. There are truths buried in the Mini Microsoft comments, though they are submerged by rants, name-calling and taunting.

I quit Microsoft over two years ago, and it took a whole year to get some perspective (I wrote a lot of this soon after quitting, and I’m quite happy I never published it; many of the paragraphs simply did a crescendo into incoherent ASCII screams of frustration and anger). I think that many of Microsoft’s technical failures in the last decade can be root caused in a review system that rewarded bad behavior, put the wrong people in positions of power, mis-identified the people that Microsoft should have kicked out, and caused the wrong people to get sick of things and leave. Maybe the new review system does the job; I keep hearing good things.

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7 Responses to On Reviews

  1. Are the sociopaths still VPs? Yes? Sorry, new system still a failure.

  2. kwk says:

    This hits very close to home. My strategy so far has been to basically only give the highlight reel on my self assessment.

    I hate hate writing stakeholder feedback for others, especially as one of the youngest member of the teams. “Bob successfully oversaw the blah blah migration activity, as he should because he’s a competent developer with 20 years of experience.”

  3. Status Quo says:

    I was very hopeful with the new “Connect” review model Microsoft switched to a couple years back that things would improve.

    Skip ahead to last Fall. We were told to write our Connect/Review in the late Fall. We never had a discussion, or feedback. Early this Spring we were told to “update” the connect we wrote, so around Feb or so we updated and submitted. After months of silence, we received feedback on Monday, May 18th.

    Tuesday morning (May 19th) we received email instructing us to write our next connect, which was due Friday. Not sure how to write that one up, but since as you point out, the money aspect is a forgone conclusion, it doesn’t really matter what we write.

    • At a certain point you have to take back your dignity from the machine that’s trying so hard to stamp it out of you; no amount of money can possibly compensate you for that. If I were in your position, I think I would be torn between a), letting a ferret (or other small furry mammal) loose on the keyboard while Word is up and submitting the results, or b), writing that I think I did a wonderful job up to that point and deserve a healthy raise (further exposition on the relative merits of such reviews and/or the psychic violence they inflict upon their victims would not be out of place in such an instrument).

      I have to admit though, personally, I would lean more towards option a.

  4. MikeA says:

    I never worked at MSFT, but did work for two other largish companies (not counting one of the largest food-service companies. Good to see you and I shared that vital prerequisite for video-game design), and one 800-person company that managed to be just as f-d up as the 36K person company I’d come from. All played these games, but as you noted, with a good manager, it doesn’t matter, and with a bad manager it doesn’t help.

    Anyway, one year that we were asked to “write our own review”, mine included such lines as “Writes emotionally powerful poetry in four languages, including COBOL” and
    “Clearly worth 100K/yr for the sheer joy of having him around”. Of course, that year I had a good manager. The next year I was laid off.

  5. Jacques says:

    Your phrasing, “many of the paragraphs simply did a crescendo into incoherent ASCII screams of frustration and anger”, reminds me of the writings of a great man:

    As he came into the window,
    It was the sound of a crescendo
    He came into her apartment,
    He left the bloodstains on the carpet

    Anyway, what would be the consequences if you just really half arsed the written reviews and put forth the minimal effort on them?

  6. Wally says:

    Ah, performance reviews. Such joy and bliss.

    It’s even worse being a group manager, having to review and comment on and set development goals for the 20 people under you. And don’t dare skimp on that, because the manager above gets to see them all too. And he’s a nutcase with a sense of humor that was surgically removed about 3 days after birth.

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