The B employees hire C employees…

Microsoft is often held up as an example of good hiring practices. They have long, tough interview loops. They used to ask a lot of brainteaser-like questions. They’re intended to be far too tough, and to reject qualified candidates if it means that it prevents bad employees from being hired. I work at a company with Microsoft DNA, and we believe a lot of the same things.

Of course, that only works for so long: there are only so many rocket scientists out there. When Microsoft grew like crazy, it was reasonable to expect that they’d hire people who weren’t up to snuff of the original hires, because the company had two options:
– staff up like crazy, lowering standards but keeping them high, and take over the universe with an army of people who on average are still pretty great, or
– with only a few super-smart people, limit severely the scope of extremely high-quality things they could do, and see what happens

They chose the first, and it’s worked out for them. In a company where incentives were heavily based on stock options, and the stock price was heavily powered by explosive raw growth, it makes sense.

For a long time, I refused to consider working at Microsoft on general ethical grounds, which — and this is outside the scope of discussion — I eventually overcame. But even as an outsider who didn’t want to go there, I had a lot of respect for them. I know a lot of people who work their, and they’re all smart, smart people. When I interviewed there years back at the start of my IT career and didn’t get past the screen, I was okay with that. I’ve gone back and considered working there again.

Which brings me to today.

I worked at AT&T Wireless for five years in a number of roles on the software development side. Some of the people were great, but the company as a whole was pretty messed up, and there were some things that were just horrible:
– the leaders made inexplicable decisions
– everything was political and getting work done often involved a lot of poisoned knives
– the incompetent were promoted as fast as possible, while the competent were often punished for being right

If you could find a good team to work on, and a manager who could protect everyone, working in that bubble was okay. I wish I’d left much earlier, but that last year-and-change I really liked my team, and it was hard to go.

So to my point: one of the huge problems AWS had was hiring to fill slots. People were valued by the number of reports, so everyone hired like crazy and we got a lot of horrible people, and that made life miserable for the good people, and then they left… bad stuff.

Starting a couple years ago, every once in a while I’d hear about someone getting hired over there that would cause me to pause. A developer, say.

Now it’s all over the place: the worst people I knew at AWS are now at Microsoft, and they’re bringing in all the people they were comfortable working with. It’s like seeing a cancer spread from the outside, but what am I going to do, write Bill Gates and say “Hey, you’ve got this clearly malignant growth on your company…”

I don’t know how much time I give them. I don’t know if Microsoft might be large enough that this kind of thing won’t affect the giant engine of commerce.

But here’s the thing: it’s the end of Microsoft if Microsoft is voluntarily giving itself cancer. Even if someone at Microsoft today saw this post, went through the rosters and purged everyone they’d hired with last_employer=cingular, something’s changed that these executives are being hired and they’re able to get their equally bad minions hired on. Something’s gone horribly wrong. Their immune system isn’t working, and it’s not one random staph cell or something with a funny fake nose-and-moustache disguise strolling around, it’s a convention.

This is why hiring standards matter, and why companies must actively seek out and destroy bad hires that get through the screen and then make the screen better. And why I’m glad I don’t own MSFT stock.