September 27, 2004

Microsoft, layoffs and location

Some recent events have made me think about Microsoft as a company again.

I used to work for Microsoft Game Studios, and I loved it. I wouldn't trade my time at Microsoft for anything in the world. I learned more during my first six months at Microsoft than at any time before or since. I learned how when Microsoft decides to make a shift, it shifts extremely quickly, and that's due in large part to how Microsoft is structured.

Microsoft, to the world, is one company. It is a corporate identity. However, Microsoft to itself is essentially a holding company for several thousand small businesses, each usually 150 employees or less.

When a massive company like GE wants to change course, it can take years. However, because of the way Microsoft works, once the vision changes, each unit only has to change the path of 100-150 employees. It makes it very easy to adapt, because while each employee recognizes Microsoft as the big daddy company and associate themselves with that success, each employee also feels a deep bond with their current unit. What the unit wants, the unit gets.

I left Microsoft last October. The project I was working on was cancelled in March 2003, so the entire team was transitioned to working on "Amped 2".

In February 2003, Ed Fries announced to MGS that there were going to be layoffs due to a change in focus. When the Xbox first came out, MGS needed to fill portfolio holes. Now, MGS needed to be the premier developer on each platform: Xbox and PC.

In November 2003, the layoffs hit Salt Lake. The Penny Arcade guys put out a note saying that if anyone was looking for people, some people were just laid off. Daryl Welsh (who was test manager on the studio titles until late October when he became group product manager, so he wasn't really the GPM on those titles...) gave the standard Microsoft reply that didn't exactly say that nobody lost their jobs, but masked what happened.

I bring all that up in order to explain the kind of thing that happens all of the time at Microsoft.

At Microsoft, layoffs are commonplace. Either a product or a team is determined redundant or unnecessary, so the team is laid off. Once a team is laid off, they are still employed by Microsoft. Their entire job for the next six weeks is to hunt for internal jobs at Microsoft.

If you work on one of the main campuses, things get really easy for you. There's no expense to interviewing you, and there are usually hundreds of job openings inside of MS at any one time. Plus, internal layoffs are given priority on those openings. So, generally people on campus will shuffle around, and quickly bond with their new team, while still being cared for by Big Daddy Bill. Plus, there's no need to announce layoffs.

It's a different story for people who work off-campus. I don't know of a single employee at MGS Salt Lake who was laid off that found a position elsewhere in Microsoft. Several were unemployed for at least six months after their six weeks ran out.

So what happened? Why did things fall apart for the Salt Lake City office when things usually go so smoothly for the Redmond office? One word: money.

It costs money to fly someone up to Redmond for interviews. It costs money to relocate someone. Microsoft is on a cost-savings kick right now. Everything from removing towels from the showers to cutting back on office supplies.

If Microsoft won't spend $20 to restock the office supply room with pencils, what makes you think that Microsoft will spend $600 to fly an employee up to Redmond to interview them? The only way that you're going to get moved is if you are extremely better than the people competing in Redmond AND better than any potential recruits from outside. I've actually been in interview loops where someone was selected...not because they were the best, but because they would have to spend a massive amount of money to relocate the best.

Oh, well, such is life. Of course, the story of my ex-studio isn't over yet. There's another chapter of that story coming soon...

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