What I learned at Microsoft Part I: Ego


[ee-goh, eg-oh]


self-esteem or self-image; feelings: Your criticism wounded his ego.

Like a child..

Like a little child going to kindergarten on the first day, I walked into the Microsoft New Employee Orientation (NEO), humbled and intimidated.  In my mind, everyone at Microsoft in the early 1990’s were technical gods. In my mind everyone had memorized and corrected all of Knuth’s algorithms, they all wrote in assembler (and understood segmented memory) and most importantly they only cared about the technology. In my mind the entire company had the singular focus of improving technology for its own sake and perhaps for the sake of the rest of the world.

Though I did not recognize it at the time, the people that I worked with quickly disabused me of my idealistic mental model of the world’s greatest technocracy.  My peers and I were called to Microsoft by money, by the challenge and even by an altruistic belief in technology. Once inculcated there was a great deal of cache in being the expert in a specific area.

Irrespective of your motivation for joining, you could not get around Microsoft’s value for doing the right thing by the company.  Employees coming to decision processed with a personal (non MS) technical agenda, with an agenda for growing their empire or even an agenda to work on something cool would eventually be deselected as part of the review process.  Leaving your ego (or personal agenda) at the door in product planning or negotiations is one of the critical insights that one needed to internalize to be continuously selected across review cycles.  Whether you are an altruist or a technologist, you have to face the fact that this is your personal agenda which is rooted in ego.


Report Cards

For the most part, the people that I refer to in this post are developers.  Though there are a variety of important roles that contribute to the software development process, I was most familiar with the people and culture of developers.  Back in the early 90’s there were very few female developers.  So it was an industry rife with strong male role models, like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Phillippe Kahn and Steve Jobs were all larger than life caricatures of real people.  The male developers modeled themselves after these heroes of the industry; confident, snarky, quick-witted, all knowing and extremely competitive.

Microsoft played upon the idiosyncrasies (as did many companies) of their developer population in a number of ways.  Two of the most important were stock options (the opportunity to strike it rich) and competition for the best grades (aka review scores).  Calibration was a life boat exercises.  This means that there were a fixed number of positions in handing out the top grades.  In some organizations, there were even a fixed number of passing grades to hand out during lean years.

To make this a little more real, let’s imagine that you are a kid in a classroom with 20 other kids.  Using the lifeboat rules, only 3 or 4 of your could get A’s irrespective of how hard you worked or the scores that you got on tests.  At the middle of the curve, 14 of you and your peers would be eligible for passing grades.  The rest of you would get D’s and F’s – irrespective of the work that you had done.  The kids that got A’s in our mythical class room, would actually feel pretty good about making it through that ringer.  Our bright students would get a great deal of positive feedback, more money and more control over the destiny of their group and eventually the company.  Our average kids in the middle, might feel like they “almost made it”, “could do better next time” or perhaps “cheated” and “screwed”.  For everyone in the middle, it was time to “man up” or leave.  With two grading sessions like this every year, it did not take long for the Darwinian effects to become evident.  Judgment aside, it lead to a very competitive and hard working group of students that pulled out all the stops to be number one.

For an organization in a highly competitive organization in a fast past industry, the system described generates a great deal of intellectual horsepower.


The 5 whys?

Inquisitive kids always want to know “Why?”.  When I repetitively asked adults in my life “why?”, in search of some deep truth. I usually wound up with some dissatisfactory metaphysical reply.


Lil Cyra: Why is the dog pumping up and down on the other dog?

Grand Father: They’re playing?

Lil Cyra: What are they playing?

Grand Father: House?

Lil Cyra: How do you win?

Grand Father: You’ll know when you win

Lil Cyra: What happens when you loose?

Grand Father: You have kids!


In a culture, where you are your job or how much money you can make, your psyche can be easily manipulated and it is easy to get lost.  There were many times where it happened (and continues to happen) to me.  One of the techniques that I use to drill in on my – or someone else’s – motivations is to ask “Why?” five times.  The responses can be classified as follows

  1. Response to the first “why” is superficial and is the outward reason that people share with one another.
  2. Response to the second “why” is more personal, but typically it is a rationale that they would share with their family and close friends (assuming they respond honestly).
  3. Response to the third “why” is very personal (if they’ll answer it) but typically it is the reason that they share with their partner or very close friend.
  4. Response to the fourth “why” is singularly personal and interestingly is the reason that people usually tell themselves.
  5. Response to the fourth “why” is revelatory and is not usually not a topic that the aske has considered.


Increasing specificity in self motivation or in business are critical for you to understand the environment well enough to be successful and/or happy.  In a business setting, asking the 5 “Whys?” gets you to the organization’s (or person’s) strategy and metrics for success.  If you are to align with your leadership, you have to ask yourself and your management team the 5 “Whys?” to ensure that you are working toward compatible outcomes – and keep your ego in check.



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