Untangling some of the people moves at Microsoft

Yesterday Mary Jo Foley broke the news that the father of Windows NT (and DEC’s RSX-11M and VAX/VMS) Dave Cutler had moved from the Windows Azure team (of which he was one of the founders) to the Xbox team.  Other bloggers have noted various other movements of long-time employees to the Interactive Entertainment Business (IEB) as well.  What’s going on here?

Generally speaking there are three things going on.  The first is a continuing set of reorganizations and strategy changes that have caused an unusual level of turnover in the senior ranks.  The second is the “Sinofskyization” of the cultural and organizational structure that has reduced the opportunities for senior people in many organizations.  And the third is that IEB is one of the growth areas in the company and with the increased focus on entertainment in addition to gaming, and a next-generation XBox apparently on the way, that organization is one of the few with exciting work for senior people.

While Microsoft is always in continuous reorganization, some have bigger long-term impacts than others.  Back in 2009 Microsoft decided to eliminate the Connected Systems Division (CSD) and merge its responsibilities with the SQL organization to create the Business Platform Division (BPD).  As BPD went through various organizational and strategy changes many of the former CSD leaders found their projects and responsibilities altered or cancelled and decided to seek opportunities outside BPD.  Technical Fellow Brad Lovering left Microsoft.  Technical Fellow John Shewchuk moved to DAIP to drive cloud identity-related efforts.  And a surprising number of ex-CSD people made their way to IEB, such as Distinguished Engineer Don Box and at least three former CSD General Managers.

Next up is “Sinofskyization”.  Steven Sinofky’s management philosophy does two things that severely impacts senior people.  One is to collapse the management chain, eliminating most general management roles (including Product Unit Managers, General Managers, and the occasionally used Group Manager role) and functionalizing (Dev, Test, PM) up to the Corporate Vice President (CVP) or higher level.  The other is to eliminate the role of (standalone) Architect.  I am not going to go into all the reasons for this, some of which make good sense to me and some of which I disagree with, but if you are a senior person the message often is “you aren’t wanted here”.  You can see this quite dramatically in the Windows organization, where nearly the entire architecture staff fled a few years ago.  Because Steven’s philosophies do have a history of producing high quality software releases in a reliable fashion they are spreading throughout Microsoft.  The Server and Tools Business is currently implementing Sinofsky’s philosophies, leaving many former GMs, PUMs, and Architects seeking new roles either within or outside their current organizations.

Of course the last thing is that IEB is a place that is doing exciting things and moving rapidly in the process.  So if you are looking for something new to do it becomes a rather obvious place to go.  One of the “core competencies” historically required to work at Microsoft is “a passion for technology”, and so most Microsoft engineers are already into gaming or leading edge home entertainment systems even if their day job was all about systems and enterprise software.  It doesn’t take much of a leap to combine your professional expertise with your personal passion to go build the next generation of home entertainment systems.

And how does all this relate to news that Dave Cutler and at least one other senior member of the Windows Azure team have moved to IEB?  While I don’t know any specifics one can certainly read various tea leaves.  Windows Azure started off as an incubation outside of the normal Microsoft engineering structure but has now gone through a number of organizational changes such that it is part of the Server and Cloud Division with Windows Server exec Bill Laing in charge.  Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich moved from Windows to the Windows Azure team and now appears to be its technology leader.  And no doubt there is now strategic focus on keeping Azure and Windows Server more in sync.  Anyone who joined the Windows Azure effort for a somewhat free-wheeling freedom to innovate might be looking elsewhere to satisfy that urge. Also as Sinofskyization spreads across STB a good role for Dave Cutler would become less clear.  Sinofskyization tries to eliminate the need for, and thus influence of,  heroes and Dave is the hero’s hero.  Moreover, ever since giving up his management role (as head of Windows NT) Dave has worked on whatever interested him at the moment.  He may have just decided that what interested him about Windows Azure is now done, and was seeking something else interesting to do.

Sadly the movement of senior people around Microsoft has little to do with executive decisions to move key resources to places they are needed.  Rather it is because senior people are finding their existing roles eliminated and few interesting roles to be had.  What this means for Microsoft in the long run is one of the great debates amongst current and ex employees.  A debate that likely won’t be answered until the next seismic shift in the industry.

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5 Responses to Untangling some of the people moves at Microsoft

  1. Me says:

    Nice write up, also don’t forget that BPD/SQL and Azure are currently going through multi thousand person re-orgs as part of “Sinofskyization”, the director level positions were announced in Nov but the Dev, Test and PM Managers don’t know what they will be doing or who they will be working for for another few weeks. As well as losing people to IEB this means good people are going to Facebook and Amazon because of the churn/uncertainty.

  2. What’s your opinion about possible effect of these movements on creating opportunity for fresh guys going up the hierarchy? I mean introducing new hero faces, I’m saying that because I think the more senior guys in a group the harder to get promoted.

    • halberenson says:

      The good news is that if you are a Senior or below then it probably will over time give you an opportunity to shine through more easily. But since the system also reduces the justification for Partners and Principals I don’t think it makes promotions any easier.

  3. Scittish Yankee says:

    Having worked in DEC during the Dave Cutler VMS years, all I can say is that the next version of XBox will ROCK!
    If Dave is willing to move to that division rather than leave the company then there is something that has caught his interest, and that usually means a huge technical leap forward.
    Dave has always been an “enabler” rather than a manager per se, as could be said of many of DEC’s managers during the Olsen years when the company had a flat, lean, responsive management structure (from basic Business Analyst to Country Manager could be as few as 4 levels of management).
    I wish DC all the best in his new role and eagerly anticipate what will come out of the IED.

  4. Brent says:

    It seems that the larger problem is lack of any credible growth strategy. If MS were growing like Apple there would be plenty of opportunities for senior people and others. But Ballmer decided that he could just rely on PC growth and get an easy 8-10% a year, until of course PC sales went south due to the economy and iPad.

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