What is life as a PM like at Microsoft?
August 26, 2007 6:41 AM   Subscribe

What is life as a PM like at Microsoft?

I have been reading a lot about it on MSDN and other online/google-able sources and want to learn more. I have a lot of Project Management/Marketing experience, and while I don't have a formal technical background, my mother is a programmer and I have been around it and worked near it all my life (internet marketing/software design/et cetera). I have a passion for technology and love Microsoft, so I am seriously thinking this might be right for me. Any insights?
posted by adi to Work & Money (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you truly want to work there, you might reconsider posting this question.
posted by fake at 6:57 AM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Political, lots inter-departmental infighting, frequent re-orgs and a 24/7 work oriented life-style. And your product may never ship.
Microsoft's fortunes seem to be waning. If you're just starting out, I'd think I'd find a smaller company that's more focused on shipping a specific product or products. Getting lost in huge directionless company isn't really a good way to start a career.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:21 AM on August 26, 2007

Joel Spolsky sometimes writes about his experiences as a Program Manager at Microsoft in the early 90s.
posted by grouse at 7:42 AM on August 26, 2007

@ fake

Why is that?
posted by adi at 8:00 AM on August 26, 2007

I think what fake is getting at is that M$ doesn't just hire people who want to be technical PM's. They hire really, really, really fucking smart people with deep technology experience (and/or advanced degrees is relevant fields). You need to set the bar of your expectations a bit lower.

And what doctor_negative said. Besides, all the cool kids these days are going to Google.
posted by mkultra at 8:46 AM on August 26, 2007

all the cool kids these days are going to Google

Google is now the #1 "dream destination" for MBAs. That's probably a shark-has-jumped sign. There are smart MBAs, but it's telling that only now, and not five years ago, has the majority of the herd woken up and realised "hey, something is going on there". The "cool kids" were there years ago - what you have stampeding there now is weighted heavily towards followers. Google is probably where MS was around 1995 or so, where Apple/Claris was around 1989, where Atari was around 1982. So yeah, unless you're living really close to one of the MS campus sites, don't focus on MS but pick out any good medium-to-large engineering org and check out the culture... they tend to be quite similar because of convergent evolution. Having said that, some people I know worked there as PMs, or still work there (not as PMs), and they seem to enjoy the experience. As long as you're a full-timer, the benefits are good and unless you are psychotic about jumping ahead of lots of bodies, the hours are controllable. There are lots of niches and, as mentioned earlier, many of the things you work on will never ship, or be in endless re-design mode. But that's common for most orgs its size, whether in software, hardware, finance, consumer goods, whatever.
posted by meehawl at 10:26 AM on August 26, 2007

I don't have a formal technical background

You won't be able to work there as a PM. Microsoft has a hard time dealing with anything outside of their cookie-cutter insular world, and if you don't fall into box A or box B, they're just going to be confused.

More importantly, read doctor_negative's answer.

The Microsoft campus is sprawling, and the employees seem constantly disconnected from the real world. There are massive corporate events. It's about Team Building. It's about Corporate Spirit. It's... about group-think. Working there involves living a life inside of a subunit of a massive organization dedicated to the slow, monotonous march of products which hardly ever change, each person and subsubsubunit assigned to a tiny sphere of influence with little to no visibility into the greater picture.

This is what I've picked up from living around MS (for a few months, literally across the street), talking with people who have worked there, either voluntarily or through acquisitions.

It's not that they "hire really, really, really fucking smart people with deep technology experience (and/or advanced degrees is relevant fields)", it's that they have a fixed pipeline for HR, with static requirements and qualifications, and if you don't fit the bill you're not getting in. Microsoft interview questions look like this.. It's a lot of clever posturing, and then when it comes down to the wire, the company delivers turds like Vista and Zune.

I haven't used the word "turd" in a sentence for a very, very long time, but it is the only truly correct word there. I've met some strikingly intelligent ex-Microsoft employees, and every one was frustrated into quitting recently.
posted by blacklite at 11:11 AM on August 26, 2007

i worked there for over 5 years back in the late 90's thru 2001. on the one hand, a good PM can absolutely make things work well and herd cats and make things happen. a bad PM, on the other hand, will SUCK THE VALUE OUT OF A ROOM.

a lot of what makes a good PM is the soft skills -- basically what you're doing is trying to make people who have no organizational requirement to do things for you actually do things for you.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:24 AM on August 26, 2007

Wow, there is some real bullshit in this thread. blacklite in particular has obviously never worked there and is pulling that info about of his ass.

So, the short answer to your question is there is no answer. What a given job is like at MS (especially PM) will vary so much from group to group (or even team to team) there is no single answer. Some will be quite layed back, others will be mismanged and require lots of unpaid overtime. Some will be theoretical-only research while other ship products quite regularly.

However, right now MS is desperate for people. You might need really good credentials to be hired as a full-time employee right off the bat (though I doubt it) but its still quite easy for someone with reasonable skills / experience to work there. Just get a job as a contact employee. At the interview ask if this job will turn into a full time position. Most of them nowadays do in 6 months to a year (this is a huge change from say 2001-2003 when the opposite was true).

So, don't listen to the people saying "don't bother". That's just not true.
posted by Riemann at 12:34 PM on August 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Edit: For contract positions give Greythorn, Excel, Volt (these guys are always the least prefered option, avoid if possible) or one of several other similar agencies a call.
posted by Riemann at 12:35 PM on August 26, 2007

I am currently taking a project management course through my agency (Volt, the aforementioned "least preferred option" -- who happen to offer very reasonably-priced training and certification and have treated me pretty well so far). It's my understanding that formal project management training or credentials are very much in demand at Microsoft at the moment -- one of the people in my class got scheduled for an interview for a PM position before she'd even completed the class.

Going through an agency for a PM position as Riemann recommends has a couple advantages. First, the agency will tell you up front if they think they can find you work and they do all the legwork. Also, once you land a gig, you're paid by the hour and you do get overtime for anything over 40 hours. The guy in the next cubicle over from me is a PM through Sakson and Taylor (now part of Aquent) often pulls 50-60 hours a week, which would suck if he was on salary, but he gets paid time and a half for that extra 10-20 hours. The downside, of course, is you have to take a hundred day hiatus after a year.

That said, I have not met very many people at Microsoft who were not technology-savvy -- and generally, most PMs seem to have some experience in the trenches (e.g. first a dev, then a lead, then maybe PM). Of course, I'm in Research, so you'd expect that. Riemann is correct that the requirements can vary from division to division.
posted by kindall at 1:47 PM on August 26, 2007

What specifically do you want to know about? Almost everyone I know at MS (I work on campus, though not for MS, my husband was a MS PM and is now an MS engineer. dozens of our friends are PMs) is titled "program manager" yet their jobs are as different as night and day.

I'm not a techie, but I envy the Microsoft atmosphere. Very collegiate, very laid-back, very many perks given to the employees.
posted by GaelFC at 1:49 PM on August 26, 2007

rmd1023: basically what you're doing is trying to make people who have no organizational requirement to do things for you actually do things for you.

Hah. Awesome! Perfect description.
(Was a PM Intern)
posted by blenderfish at 2:11 PM on August 26, 2007

My experience:
1 year MCS engineer
2 years MCS PM
5 years PM (MSN)
1 year Engineer (MSIT)

24/7 work culture? Not at all. The Windows division does see some of that near ship time, but most other divisions, even Office, have worked out work/life balance much better than that. However, if you *let* it suck you in to 24/7 it will. The real lesson people have to learn to succeed at MS is what to put "in scope" for your job, and what's out of scope. A typical mistake is to try to be the best possible person at every possible technology and process -- and plenty of people die trying. That's not good fot the employees, and it's not what MS wants. But, it happens.

Reimann is right, the experience wil vary radically depending on the group. Inter-group infigting? Not really, even with groups that have the same charter. (Having two groups with similar charters is not unheard of for developing technologies, it helps determine which approach is best.)

True, your product might never ship. But that's OK -- anyone remember MS BOB? You've got to have a lot of irons in the fire if you're investing in the future. Who knew that XBOX 360 avatars were going to be such a big moneymaker?

Traditionally, the role "Program Manager" can be contrasted with the Microsoft role of "Product Manager." Neither is the typical "Project Manager." Why? the duties hopefully have been separated, so that Program Manager owns project delivery, but Product Manager owns the feature set. By placing these roles in different people the idea is to not pull one person into serving two masters: Feature set and project deadline.

That said, there is a definite difference between technical PM and "traditional" PM. Most PM jobs are what I would term "Technical PM" which means, yes, you are deep technically in your discipline, but unlike developers and engineers, you might brush your teeth or wear shoes once in awhile, wheas such subtleties of social nuances are not expected of C++ developers.

Lots of reorgs? Sure, but they tend to be for the same of streamlining redundant organizational structures, which often grow up organically from the bottom. In real terms, the reorgs (I've seen 3 in 7 years) do not directly affect line managers and individual contributors. Those groups do however change often, and if you want to be an accountant for the rest of your life, this type of culture is probably not for you. On the other hand, it is quite possible to find islands of stability if that's what you're really after. And one thing MS does very well, is try and find a 'you-shaped' hole to fit you in.

That's all I've got for now, my ADD is kicking in and I forget the rest of the stuff I was going to say. Besides, Porshce is about to win the American LeMans race that's on right now. (Poor Honda!)

posted by skybolt at 2:50 PM on August 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oh! I remember now

Kindall is right: There is a demand for those with traditional project management skills (though I would not OVERstate the demand). This is the other side of the coin, the difference between technical PMs, and "traditional PMs."

Those brought in for project management experience are typically not expected to understand the technology very deeply. However, beware: Though such skills are needed to strenghten the delivery of a particlar project, non-technical resources are not highly valued among peers, and an admin who knows how to banter about C# and understands an Ethernet MTU is more valued than a development manager who does not.
posted by skybolt at 3:01 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by stet at 6:18 PM on August 26, 2007

Life at Microsoft depends primarily what team you're on, who you work with, and who you report to. You would like being a PM if you like being in meetings and writing feature specs. Nice long detailed feature specs with lots of pictures.

Disclaimer: I'm in test.
posted by TheSlate at 1:38 PM on August 28, 2007

blacklite ... is pulling that info out of his ass

I'm not. stet's link above, to the mefi thread, has a number of personal anecdotes which seem to corroborate what I've come across, and the population of AskMe does seem to concur that Vista really is a turd.

I'm not trying to be personally offensive. There are some good people at Microsoft who, in my experience, become deeply frustrated with a suffocating corporate culture and an organizational style which stifles innovation.

I suppose I could be wrong, but do read the links.
posted by blacklite at 11:51 PM on August 28, 2007

FYI, I worked at MS from 1996-2000 and have several friends who are still there.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:06 AM on August 29, 2007

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