Command and conquer and the herd of coconuts

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what made Microsoft a great company to work for, and why working at Juno was so frustrating. At first I attributed the difference to the east coast/west coast thing, but I think it’s a bit more subtle than that.

One of the most important things that made Microsoft successful was Bill Gates’ devotion to hiring the best people. If you hire all A people, he said, they’ll also hire A people. But if you hire B people, they’ll hire the C people and then it’s all over. This was certainly true at Microsoft. There were huge branches of the Microsoft tree filled with great people; these businesses were perennially successful (Office, Windows, and the developer products). But there were also branches that were just not as successful: MSN failed again and again and again; Microsoft Money took forever to get going, and Microsoft Consulting Services is full of airheads. In each of these cases it’s pretty clear that a B leader built up a business unit full of C players and it just didn’t work.

So: hire smart people who get things done. (See The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing) It’s so important there’s a web page all about it and it’s one of PaxDigita’s most important goals. And when it worked, it worked quite well at Microsoft.

When I first went to interview at Juno, I wasn’t sure that this was the company for me. The software looked a little bit goofy. The whole company smelled like a bunch of Wall Street Jocks who heard that the Internet was the New New Thing and they wanted in. So I called them up and said, “well, I’m not sure if I want to work there, but I’d like to learn more about your company.”

In typical arrogant manner, they proceeded to schedule me for a whole battery of interviews and made me prove that I was good enough to work there. At first I was a little bit miffed, because I hadn’t really

decided that I was interested in the job in the first place. But then I realized that any company that has such a rigorous hiring process as Juno does has got to be full of smart people. This alone impressed me enough to take the job. Sure enough, Juno (and D. E. Shaw, the corporate parent) were full of geniuses. The receptionists had PhDs. The place was full of people like Dr. Eric Caplan, a former associate professor from U. Chicago who was writing technical documents for the intranet for heaven’s sake. Talk about overqualified.

For a couple of years, I was very happy at Juno. It seemed like a dream job. (I even got interviewed for a website called dreamjobs. com talking about how dreamy Juno was). One thing was a little bit strange – after about a year, I was promoted to be in charge of exactly 2 people on my little team of 6. In fact the average manager at Juno has about 2 reports, a stunningly vertical organization by any standard.

The next thing that I started noticing was strange is that a lot of people were leaving. In the wired wired world of Silicon Alley that’s not uncommon. What was weird is how consistent their reason for leaving was: none of them felt any possibility of moving up in the company.

So what we had here was a company that was already as vertical and hierarchical as imaginable, with about 50 managers for a total of 150 employees, and people were complaining because there was no hope of moving up.

What’s going on here?

At Microsoft, for some reason, lots of people at the lowest rung of the hierarchy were completely satisfied with their jobs and were happy to go on doing them forever.

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Command and conquer and the herd of coconuts