The lost cult of Microsoft program managers

Some of you know I worked at Microsoft years ago (’94-’03) as what they call a program manager. In any other company the job would be known as team lead or project manager, and it was an awesome job.

When I was hired 1994 there was a cult around the role. Program Managers had a reputation for being people worthy of being afraid of for one reason: they knew how to get things done. If you got in their way, they would smile. And then eat you. They drove, led, ran, persuaded, hunted, fought and stuck their necks out for their teams with an intensity most people couldn’t match. The sort of people who eliminated all bullshit within a 10 foot radius of their presence. How to be this way, and do it without being an asshole, was one of the things I tried to capture in my book, Making things happen. All teams need at least one leader who has this kind of passion and talent regardless of where you work or what you’re working on.

But that cult has faded. I have many friends and a few clients at Microsoft, and talk with more through email and on the pmclinic discussion list, and I’m convinced true PMs are a dying breed. I suspect they were a dying breed before I started at the company and I was just lucky to be hired into a pocket still running strong. Group managers like Joe Belfiore, Hadi Partovi, Hillel Cooperman, and Chris Jones all created a landscape for PMs like me to drive and lead their teams, and made it possible for us to do a lot of good for our teams that no other role could do.

One change is the enormous growth of Microsoft since I was hired. I started in ’94 as employee #14,000 something, and now there are nearly 90,000. Bureaucracy, overhead and dead weight collect in big successful companies and Microsoft is no different. This makes it much harder to consolidate the kind of power a PM needs to behave the way I described above. The PM role has been stretched so thin there are PMs for everything, and if ever a position needs to be created that isn’t quite a marketing, programmer or tester position, but isn’t a leadership or management role, the PM label gets used anyway. Somehow it’s a crime for there to be more than 10 job titles at a company. I’m not sure why.

In many cases teams have so many PMs, and authority is so loosely distributed, than would should be simple decisions require a meeting of 8 or 10 or 15 people. Cycles of meetings on the theme of “are you ok with this? How about you? And you?” As if everyone deserves a vote on every decision. This kills momentum and wastes the value of what PMs can do. And as this goes on for years, with larger and larger staffs, no one knows what it’s like to have a clear, fast process for making basic decisions. Few remember what it feels like to be on team that has synergy, clarity, trust and focus, eliminating the need for hand-holding, triple level reconfirmations, and spending hours every week un-reversing decisions that should never have been reversed in the first place.

I hear from PMs who I suspect no longer recognize 3 hour meetings that are 100% guaranteed to be a complete waste of time, because many of their meetings are complete wastes of time. By the same token, I know PMs who work on teams that are entirely out of control, and failing in the marketplace, who think it’s normal for a team to be entirely out of control and failing in the marketplace. They’ve never seen anything else. And sadly in some cases, neither have their bosses, or (gulp) their VPs. They believe a PM is supposed to feel, much of the time, useless, ignored, and in the way. Instead of realizing that those feelings come from their failure, and the group managers failure to enable them, to do what the role was designed for.

I gave a lecture at Microsoft before I left in ’03 titled The problem with program managers that outlined many of these problems and what can be done to avoid them. All management roles run the risk of being wastes of space, and project management roles are no different. And if there’s interest I’ll pull some of those nuggets out into future blog posts.

But are there still surviving pockets of old school PMs? If so, I’d love to hear from you, at Microsoft or elsewhere.

26 Responses to “The lost cult of Microsoft program managers”

  1. Mike Torres

    We’re still out there.

    And ChrisJo is still making it possible for us to do our best work. Lots of people were retaught what an old school PM is/does once Chris arrived in Live ;)

  2. Mike Haden

    I’m with Mike – there are some of us -old- types around. I may not be the most dynamic and energetic software pm around, but I do like to focus on getting the right work done and done well, and ensuring that the team has “flow” instead of “turbulence”. Excellent piece, Scott, it sounds like you need some cheering up, I hope the number and quality of comments you’re going to get will help.

  3. Charlie Owen

    I want what you’ve got to share. I was fortunate to have a one:one with JoeB where he gave me the a set of values which have proven immensely helpful in my tenure thus far as PM. I’m going to post them tonight to my blog. Scott, would *love* to get any resources you have to make me better and more effective.

    Mike, I know you could share the love as well. ;)

  4. M. Rys

    I think I have a reputation of getting things done… and having resisted becoming a lead for a while, finally took the offer… to one part also because I want to enable some of my PMs to carry the “genes” on ;) And yes… your book is on their reading list ;)

    Now talking about useless and overlong meetings….

  5. Derik Stenerson

    Many of us are still here, and do tell the story like it is — and thank you for providing a great repository of articles to draw on and refer to. But, you are right on about the title and the over use, which can make it really hard to recruit and hire great, experienced PMs.

  6. Scott

    Good to know the cult lives on! :)

    Beyond my “back in the day…” self-congratulations, a big part of my whining here isn’t Microsoft specific – I see it everywhere. It’s soooo rare to find any team, in any company, that’s strong, effective and happy. I don’t think having PMs is always the answer, but someone has to wield, to use a ridiculously violent and testosterone stuffed metaphor, “the hammer of clarity”, smashing down pretense and stupid people and getting those things out of the way of the team.

    It’s nice and familiar for me to say it’s a program manager’s job to do this, but in reality anyone with the word “manager” in their title, should see it as one of the primary ways they earn their pay. Somehow many don’t. And that I still have trouble comprehending.

  7. Davide

    We’re still around ! A team of people spread around the world that MAKE THINGS HAPPEN ! Working in a more challenging environment than 10 years ago, off course, in a more complex world with more ambiguities, more dependencies and more people to deal with. And that’s why we are here, better equipped than in the past, to drive, influence and lead the governance of this complexity and ENABLE OUR COMPANY TO BE MORE PROFITABLE.

  8. Steve

    “Program Managers had a reputation for being people worthy of being afraid of for one reason”

    No man. I was at MS from 87-01 and I tell you it was assholes like you that made me leave. Why the fuck would I want to be afraid of my co-workers.

    You are an asshole with a big ego and too much testosterone.

  9. Dwayne Phillips

    Two words come to mind: competence and excellence.

    A problem is that organizations have senior managers who cannot recognize competence and excellence. They have people around them who possess these qualities, but since they don’t recognize the qualities, they don’t allow these competent and excellent people to do anything.

    The U.S. Federal government is the kingdom of such senior managers.

  10. Omar Shahine

    The cult of Program Managers is alive and well in the SteveSi org, and specifically under Chris Jones. Chris is now a VP of Program Management in Windows Live and we have a number of Partner and Principle level GPMs that manage large senior teams of Program Manager leads that in turn manage a large number of experienced to brand new college hire Program Managers.

    Discipline based organizations are the ones where the Cult of the PM is growing and flourishing (based on personal interactions I’ve seen and our MS Poll numbers)

    Ultimately I think over time you’ll see the products reflect that.

    1. ex-MSFT

      MS poll is total bulls*it. You can blow your trumpet out here glorifying program managers but one word to summarize all these Program managers who roam around hallways holding their laptops is “useless people”.
      Ultimately I saw products like Windows 8 which were a product of PM cult.

  11. Anonymous

    Fail Torres. Your team is exactly what he is describing. Features spread across ineffective PM’s. Group think. The other permutation of this is Writer where there is one PM and all decisions are unilateral, or conversely put to the group so that everyone from test to dev gets to edit blog posts. Where does the buck stop?

    There are effective processes and guidelines in place at MS for PM’s to be the effective drivers they once were, I think education, accountability, and support from above is what’s lacking. Give me an Iain McDonald style PM any day of the week.

  12. Pawel Brodzinski

    There are still old-school PMs you talk about. And I don’t believe it’s a dying breed. I think it depends much on who you work with when you learn how to fit the role.

    If you have a great role-model or a mentor who can guide you at the beginning chances are good you’ll end up being one of these mythical old-school guys. And than if you have a chance to teach others you’ll help them to choose the same path.

    Taking a deeper look I believe the rule is general – there are organizations which have ability to raise great people. It works that way because when you’re a freshman and you join an organization it’s natural that you try to assimilate.

    On the other hand if you join a company where people barely care whether they fail and being out of control is OK you become similar. You assimilate.

    I’d love to see more postings from you on the subject.

  13. Erin

    I would definitely some specifics from your 2003 presentation.

    A few months ago, one of our QA Leads (and most competent employees) made the following comment to me:

    You are one of the 3 people here that I’m scared of.

    Of course, I wondered what he was talking about. I am definitely a no-bullshit PM, but I don’t see myself as invoking fear in anyone. I asked him to elaborate and he said “With you, I know I’ll be held immediately accountable for what I do.” which sounds much more like a compliment than the initial comment. It’s depressing that he feels that way about just 3 of the 75 people in our organization.

    Unfortunately, the other 2 people he was referring to aren’t even in our department.

  14. someone who left

    i worked there from 03-06, i was a pm… that role was worthless, every pm i knew was worthless, and microsoft was falling apart. every smart person i know who worked there has left or wants to leave… i’m an engineer now, again, and life is grand.

  15. Chris

    I appreciate Erin’s comment. Scott, while I deeply respect what you bring to the community and the depth of your thought, the notion that PMs had to “strike fear” and “take no prisoners” IMO was just an artifact of an immature company and attitude towards competition. You can command respect and accountability without “eating” people. You can also bring the “light” of clarity and not a “hammer”… I know your book tries to show how to do this without being an a**, but many, many people still don’t manage that last part. In the end, you may just be misinterpreting an embrace of different management styles of people in PM positions as a weakening of the role.

  16. Scott

    Couple ‘O things:

    1. Being an asshole is unnecessary and not a goal. If anyone I ever worked with thought I was one, I’d apologize. If anyone justifies being an asshole because of something in my book, I’d be sad.

    2. To respond to Steve, I don’t know if we ever worked together. If so, the above applies. If not, I have no idea why you’d make it so personal.

    3. I did not write “strike fear” or “take no prisoners”, even though you (Chris) put them in quotes. I don’t think I ever had the goal of making people afraid of me and have never advocated such a thing. Instead it’s to earn people’s respect – to have people afraid to lie, mislead, or BS you or anyone else in your presence as you’d bring those things to light. Perhaps respect is a better word.

  17. Sachin Rekhi

    Great post Scott.

    I’m a fan of your book Making Things Happen and anyone who asks me for advice on being a PM at Microsoft, I always point them it. When I was at Microsoft several years ago, I agree with you that what you describe in Making Things Happen is the ideal for a PM, but far from the norm.

    I’d definitely encourage you to post some more blog posts on what’s wrong with program managers. While I have moved on from my role Microsoft as a PM to silicon valley and startups, I suspect there will be valuable lessons in there for many bay area product managers as well.

  18. Trena

    Scott, please keep the nuggets of wisdom coming. I’m the sole PM at a small web dev company and battle not being everything to everyone (including friend and therapist) on a daily basis. I believe I’m far from being an @$$, but realize I have to advocate for my team AND for the clients. Finding an efficient and effective way to do this is critical – the more insights I can gain, the better I can serve my team.

    Thanks again to you and to everyone who is kind enough to share experiences and lessons learned over the years.

  19. Jeff

    I have worked with Scott. I’ve seen his program management style firsthand.

    “Respect” was definitely the word he was looking for. People don’t fear him, and I looked forward to working with him because I knew I’d get honest engagement, real feedback, and could count on him to deliver on his commitments.

    Now that I’m ex-Microsoft, I do sometimes think about the interactions that I didn’t like at the company. They tended to be people who tried to bark the loudest (throwing “fuck” in wherever they could), belittle people while trying to make their point (calling someone they don’t know an “asshole” for example), or dismissed people with different views rather than engaging them and trying to understand their perspective.

    Great Program Managers lead by example by keeping it real, delivering open and honest communication, and doing a great job of LISTENING and ASKING of everyone…drawing the best out of every member of the teams they work with. One of Microsoft’s great strengths is that there are diverse people with great ideas to be harvested if you approach them and listen to them. Even if you don’t agree with them, you can probe deeper and even decide to respectfully disagree while still keeping it pro.

    Thanks for the post, Scott.

  20. Alexandre de Oliveira

    Great post.

    Nowadays, I sense that a lot of people don’t know well what their positions are, not doing what is under their responsabilities. Put straight, people are afraid of taking responsabilities. When these people start working with someone who’s honest and knows how to make things happen, they tremble in panic. A spirit of “do less, the boss isn’t near” has taken place in a lot of instituitions, stablishing a mindframe that will take the world to worse places.

    Fear. That’s what people have. Let’s take an example. The globe hears about an economic crisis and then, afraid of losing their money, stop buying. Companies like GM, HP, sell less, not being able to pay its own costs. Lots of people get fired. 300 billion dollars will not solve the problem. Obama should go to the TV and say: “American people, go outside and start buying normally again”. That would solve the problem. The problem is fear.

    So, equally to our example, it doesn’t matter if the workplace is the best or the worst to be, if fear is around, things just don’t happen.

    ps. both of your books are great.

  21. Trevin Chow

    Great blog post, and as many others have previously commented, there are many PMs working at the company that possess the drive, passion and effectiveness that you describe.

    I’ve had my share of dark days, where the sheer number of people at the company has overwhelmed, and depressed me. However, just as I’ve encountered poor PMs, there are enough great ones at the company giving me hope that the art of being a great PM isn’t a lost art.

  22. Jon

    There are definitely enclaves of the “old school” MSFT Program Managers – though, for numerous reasons – many of the best attributes – things that were effective and “got things done” have been silenced and pushed aside in most companies – instead, replaced by a race-to-mediocrity and “feel good” emotions. I had the fortune of working with, though not closely, many of the folks mentioned in this article – and I do think about the world we were working to build…



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