Fired Microsoft employee is mad but at the wrong things

Lashing out at your former employer is not really helping the situation, whether that employer is Microsoft or not.

Sometimes it seems as if the tech press really goes out of its way to "dig up the dirt" on Microsoft. The "big story" this week - reported by Computerworld, the Seattle Times, and even our own CNET - is a TechCrunch blog post by an employee who was fired, blasting the company. This is breaking news? Aren't fired employees, more often than not, mad at the companies that fired them?

Some will point to the post as proof positive that Microsoft is (still) the Evil Empire that sucks in bright and promising young talent and then chews them up and spits them out into the cold, harsh world of the unemployed. But reading the rant made me wonder how even a staunch Microsoft-basher could see it as anything other than the commonplace efforts of a disgruntled ex-employee to shift the blame for his current situation from self to others.

I don't know Max Zografos (his pen name) but his description of the corporate culture that stifles all original thinking and isn't interested in creativity doesn't align with what I've personally observed for nine years as an MVP and over two years as the spouse of a Microsoft FTE.

Have those observations left me with biases of my own? Sure; our personal experiences with someone or something (such as a company) always influence our views of that entity. But I think it's useful, after reading a post like that, to hear from someone on "the other side" to lend some perspective to all the negativity. Besides, analyzing is what I do for a living, so I can't help but want to dig into and analyze the content of the blog post. In the end, I think it says more about its author than it says about Microsoft.

Corporate culture shock

Over my fifteen year career in the tech industry, I've seen many friends who were authors, consultants, or employees at other companies join the Microsoft family. Many (most) have stayed for the long term and love their jobs. Sure, as they climb the corporate ladder, they complain about too many meetings - but that's a complaint that's hardly unique to Microsoft. In a former life, I worked in government; if you really want to experience the meaningless meeting maelstrom, get promoted into a management job in the public sector.

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I've also seen some folks wash out after a short time at Microsoft, and I know one or two who are still there but are not shy about sharing their "frustration, disappointment, and apathy" with anyone who wants to listen. Perhaps not coincidentally, those folks tend to be people I'd describe with the same words Zografos used to describe himself; they're mostly comfortable (stupefied, even) and yet at the same time, rebellious.

It's a bad combination. In any big organization, there are plenty of people who are slackers and yes, I know there are some of them at Microsoft. They "coast from meeting to meeting," and they're perfectly happy to do as little work as possible. They often coast right on through to retirement. There are also rebels with a legitimate cause, creative and knowledgeable folks who don't do things the way they've always been done, and who are not punished but rewarded for it. Contrary to what Zografos says, they get big bonuses and "1s" on their evaluations and fast-track promotions.

The difference is that these "rebels" aren't slackers. They're go-getters. They aren't complainers; they're persuaders. They work within the corporate culture, not against it.

I wasn't exactly surprised when I got to the "Getting Fired" section of Zografos' blog post, where he notes that his performance reviews said he "lacked respect for authority." That lack of respect was evident in everything he'd written up to that point.

Are there too many managers at Microsoft? Sure, probably. Every organization seems to get top-heavy as it grows. But to me, it seems ironic that Zografos seems to think Microsoft managers are heavy-handed. I've always thought that, if anything, there is way too much emphasis on the "team" approach and allowing lower level employees to make or influence decisions. That undoubtedly stems from my background in law enforcement, where chain of command is a sacred concept and you'd darn well better respect authority, regardless of your opinion about whether those in positions of authority deserved it.

The lesson in all this

My intent here isn't to argue that Mr. Zografos wasn't (or shouldn't have been) miserable at Microsoft. He obviously was. He also obviously made some bad decisions (to join the company in the first place when his personality clearly wasn't suited for the extant corporate culture, to - as he acknowledged - not leave on his initiative when he found himself unhappy there, to complain about senior executives to their superiors).

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I believe the blog post was another bad decision. I don't think it makes Microsoft look bad; it makes the company look like a typical corporation. Similar charges were recently levied against Google by a former employee who now works for Microsoft. The post is not going to hurt Microsoft's ability to recruit new employees (although, if it scares off others who have problems with authority and are prone to slack off and coast through meetings when the opportunity to do so is present, it will actually be beneficial to the company). It's highly likely it will hurt the author's chances of getting a job elsewhere.

One of the top ten things that job search experts will tell you is to never criticize your former company or bosses. Potential employers figure that if you blast your past employer, you'll do the same to them. If you're an IT pro reading this, let Zografos' blog post serve as a blueprint for what not to do if you want to succeed in the tech industry.

There's nothing wrong with having a personality that's not suited to the corporate lifestyle. Many successful entrepreneurs are a bit rebellious, impatient with bureaucratic red tape, and unable to accept the snail's pace at which changes sometimes seem to come about in a large organization. Perhaps Mr. Zografos will go out and found a new company that will become the next Microsoft.

Meanwhile, indications are that there are a lot of exciting things going on at the company, and next week, in my last weekly Microsoft InSights column, I'll talk about some of the Microsoft initiatives that many people don't even know exist.

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