How I Create Presentation Content

Over the years, I have developed an approach for building content for presentations where a PowerPoint or Google Slides deck is required. Here it is, in case it is helpful to you.

I don’t go through this whole process every single time, however if I have no previous content to draw from, I have adequate time to prepare, and I need to do a good job, this is what I do:

1. Write down bullet points for the following. [15 minutes]

  • Who is the audience for the presentation?
  • Who else is likely to see the presentation?
  • Why do they care about the subject?
  • What do I want them to know about the topic? (3-5 things)
  • What I hope to accomplish by presenting? (1-3 things)
    • This is what you want, not what the audience wants. e.g. for a project to be funded, to hire more people, to give management confidence in the team’s capabilities.

2. Write a short essay about the topic. [1 hour]

  • Make an outline of the main points, based on the above.
  • Write a 1-3 page essay based on the outline.
  • Assume very little prior knowledge.
  • Don’t use jargon.
  • Do it quickly and don’t worry about flow or structure. I try to write the essay in less than an hour.

3. Do something else for a day or two.

4. Revise your essay. [30 minutes]

  • Read it, without consulting your prior notes.
  • Pull out the main points based on your reading (or ask someone else to read it and tell you).
  • Think about whether the main points should change, or be reworded.
  • Edit the essay as necessary.

5. Make a skeleton for the deck. [30 minutes – 1 hour]

  • Make a single slide with the main points as bullets.
  • Make a single blank slide for each main point, with the main point as the title
  • Ask myself which basic concepts need to be explained, and make one slide for each concept.
    • You will reuse these “concept” slides in future decks.
    • Even if your audience is already familiar with the concept, build the slide anyway. You can put it in the appendix. Most of the time, your audience is not as familiar with basic concepts as you think.
  • Think about whether there is a good real world example that makes the point.
  • Don’t worry about whether the ordering of slides makes sense.

6. Build slides. [several hours]

  • Look at one slide at a time.
  • If you have content from previous decks that fits, go ahead and pull it in now, as long as it really does fit.
  • Think about the point you want to make on the slide.
    • There should be only one main point.
    • If there is more than one point, break into more than one slide.
    • If you end up with too many slides on one topic, don’t worry about that now.
  • Think about a picture, data visualization, or table that might make the point well. Re-use old content if you can. Don’t worry about making the visual content look nice at first.
  • Work in whatever order feels comfortable.
  • Keep doing this until most of the slides have content.
  • Do not do an intro slide or a conclusion slide.

7. Edit slides. [several hours]

  • Flip through all of the slides and see if there is a logical story being told.
    • Example: “Situation, Obstacle, Action, Result”
  • Move slides to the appendix if they seem extraneous
  • Start asking for feedback from people you trust, even before you are done editing
  • Think about ‘frequently asked questions’ that might come up. If they are important, put them in the main flow. Otherwise, make a slide in the appendix.
  • Now get very picky about wording and presentation:
    • Remove extra words
    • Always use the same terminology for the same concept
    • Spell out all acronyms the first time you use them
    • Use consistent fonts, visual styles, and alignments
    • Format all tables properly
    • Always label the axes of charts, and give all charts meaningful titles
    • Add arrows and short comments for things that require particular emphasis. Lower the cognitive burden on your audience.
    • Here are some more tips from a blog post I wrote seven years ago…
  • Make an intro slide last.
  • Consider omitting a ‘conclusion’ slide – you often don’t need it.

 

A Case Study in Leadership: Kevin Durant

If you have a minute or two this morning, have a look at basketball star Kevin Durant’s acceptance speech for winning the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player award. The MVP award is the pinnacle of individual achievement in his profession, yet Durant chooses to use this occasion to talk about something of greater importance. It is a wonderful case study in leadership.

He calls out each of his teammates by name, describing not only how each has pushed Durant to be the best he can be, but also the depth and significance of their relationships as teammates. This is something that is very hard to fake. It would be very hard to stand up and look each of your colleagues in the eye in this way without having first laid the groundwork. These moments are built day by day, out of the sight of cameras. It is because these late night texts, conversations, notes in lockers were unprompted and unscripted that they have meaning. These men are not merely his “supporting cast” or resources to be allocated.

Kevin acknowledges that there are bigger, team-oriented goals which overshadow his own honors. The ultimate goal of any sports team is to win a championship. However Kevin leavens this focus on team goals with genuine joy at individual success. Some leaders are scared, or have been taught to be scared, to admit that individual recognition feels good. You can pick out such leaders by their robotic monotone in interviews or speeches, or their insincere-sounding platitudes that amount to “there is no I in TEAM”. Unfortunately there is a large population of young coaches and leaders, often coming from privileged backgrounds where they themselves received affirmation on a frequent basis, who can only speak of sacrifice to the cause. Leaders who will label anyone who desires individual success or acknowledgement to be selfish. This sounds particularly insincere when taken in the context of billionaire team owners and company CEOs, and million dollar coaches and unpaid amateur athletes. While nobody likes working with someone selfish, going too far the other way is also counterproductive. We all have a need to feel valued individually, not just as a cog in a wheel. There is a joy that comes from knowing that you’ve done your best work, and while it’s best to assess success strictly according to one’s own potential, as John Wooden would advise, it is an undeniable fact that that we often look outside ourselves as a barometer.

Kevin is emotional because he is passionate about being the best, and cares about his teammates, coaches, and trainers as people. He truthfully acknowledges difficulties and dust-ups he’s had with different players: discomfort at dealing with a reserved teammate and angry clashes with fellow stars. He is not insistent on the team looking a certain way to the outside world.

It’s telling that Kevin Durant chose for himself the (admittedly silly) nickname of “the Servant”. He has chosen a different path of leadership than the individually brilliant but imperiously bellicose Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant. Nor has he chosen to be some guy you’ve never heard of. It will be interesting to see how Kevin and his team fare as the years go by.

You’re building two things

If you had a look at my calendar you would think that most of my days were the same. Daily status meetings, design reviews, one-on-one meetings with team members, client presentations, and so on. They’re not. Some days feel like a mad rush and others are more contemplative. Still others, the days with 90 minute project reviews and training and updates and alignment exercises, are a slog. On those days the mind wanders and in the odd moments when I am not checking twitter I ask myself, “What am I trying to achieve?”  When I answer my own question I realize that with one tug at the bow I’m trying to hit two targets at once: the perfect product and the perfect team. The team often outlasts the product, and is often more important to the business. How tempting, and how dangerous it is to focus on the product to the detriment of the team. 

Steven Sinofsky is blogging again; he’s focusing on the interplay between engineering and human factors in building technology. This focus leads him to consider how and why things are built, rather than what is built – which is why his blog makes for interesting reading. (**) In his internal blog at Microsoft Sinofsky killed countless virtual trees describing and justifying the organizational structures he feels are necessary to build big software in big companies.  “Don’t ship the org chart”, Sinofsky is claimed to have said. I don’t remember if he really did, but who cares – he meant to. The point is simply for leaders to create an organizational structure where employees are best positioned to succeed. Brad Garlinghouse, formerly of Yahoo!, agrees. His widely-known “Peanut Butter Memo” warned his colleagues of the dangers of spreading organizational focus too thin at the expense of a coherent vision around which initiatives can be organized. It sounds almost tautologous when put this way, but the practical wisdom from this general point is elusive. Seven years later, Garlinghouse writes:

In a recent blog post, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz relegated corporate culture to a second-class citizen behind creating a great product. I respectfully disagree. Great products don’t come out of thin air. They are an outcome of environments where innovation can thrive and talented people are encouraged to be bold.

Garlinghouse says that building great teams is the ultimate objective because they produce worthy products. Yet a team without works is dead. Sinofsky focuses on structures and process because creating the right environment is essential. A key message is to get the right structures in place before it is time to execute. The lessons are too hard to apply on the fly in the heat of the moment, when deadlines loom, requirements stack, and you’re reminded daily of the incredible importance of the project upon which the fates of many rest, and upon which upper management is laser focused. “Our initiative to produce automated TPS reports could not possibly be more important!” And in some sense this is true. But this is the wrong time to be thinking about how to build a great team. The foundation needs to have been laid long before, so it all holds together when the storm hits. I realize I am not saying to much about what the frameworks look like, and that’s intentional: read Sinofsky’s blog and you’ll find out. It boils down to:

  1. Having a clear vision.
  2. Making sure that everyone has a clear role that they understand.
  3. Empower everyone to do their job.
Vision is a clear concept of the state of the world in the future. It’s good to have a vision of both projects and the team itself. In both cases a vision can consist of who benefits, what it took to get there, and what’s next. A vision is shared, personal, and forever changing. A clear vision helps to articulate and understand individual roles. I always want each member on my team be able to summarize our vision in a couple of sentences, as well as explain their own part in that vision. It’s easy for a team to get too task-oriented and to farm out tasks with a particular shared quality to the same person, even if it confuses roles. The danger here is that without clear understanding of roles, it’s easier to make bad tradeoffs, and easier to lose one’s sense of meaning. The last thing – empowering the team to do its job – rests on the previous two. Team members should be able to “own” their roles in the sense that they manage the execution and they are accountable. This applies both to seasoned veterans as well as newbies. Managers need to learn to let go and let the team do its work its way, so long as the vision is being made reality. The problem is often that the vision is left unarticulated, in which case shipping crap angrily and contentiously is totally within bounds. If that’s not your vision, then you’d better say so.
 
You can talk about team and project development at the same time. In the essay “Authority and American Usage”, David Foster Wallace makes a great little point:
When I say or write something, there are actually a whole lot of different things I am communicating. The propositional content (i.e. the verbal information I’m trying to convey) is only one part of it. Another part of is stuff about me, the communicator. 

You are broadcasting on two channels and often the second one – what you’re trying to say about yourself in the way that you say what you say – is often more important than the first. And that’s okay. Similarly, as a manager when I discuss project-related business goals I am also discussing how to develop the team professionally in a way that is fulfilling and productive. In practice this means that project-related tasks (e.g. “write the user guide for the advanced optimization UI”) often have a broader, hidden meaning (“understand the complexity of the processes we are ask our users to carry out”). The goal-behind-the-task can be lots of things: to provide the opportunity to do something new or fun, to mentor a new teammate, to work with someone with a different communication style, to learn a process few people understand, to struggle, to get the chance to take a breather. It is not a hidden Karate Kid-stye lesson; we sometimes discuss it up front. I don’t know how to think about professional development outside the context of the things we are asked to do, and I don’t know how to get projects done without thinking deeply about the diversity of the skills and characteristics of each member of the team. This is why “matrixes organizations” confuse me: you can hit at most one target.

You’re building two things: be mindful of them both since they rest on each other.

(**) Side note: Steven’s blog is also praiseworthy because it is snark free. It’s filled with ideas, data, and observation. Truth is interesting when told well, but it feels dangerous to rely on it too much for fear of sounding boring. Perhaps the lesson here is that we should not care so much about being adored and simply write what is true.

John Wooden

I’ve got sports on the brain – perhaps you’ve noticed. Recently, without thinking about it too deeply, I posted former UCLA coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success on my office door. Wooden’s definition of success – the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable – is meaningful and practical to me. Wooden’s teams not only had unprecedented success on the basketball court (10 national championships), but also got along exceptionally well in a time when social and racial tensions in America ran very high. The successes his teams achieved were enduring and any organization would do well to try to emulate them. Wooden himself was by all accounts an admirable and decent man, in contrast to boorish, small, me-first coaches that are often seen strutting sidelines in fancy suits this time of year.

After sticking the pyramid on my door it dawned on me that my job at Nielsen is to be a coach. I’m a recruiter who tries to attract and retain players who are skilled, coachable, and pleasant to be around. I’m a bench coach who tries to make adjustments in the flow of the game – changing defenses, substituting players, hollering at the refs. I’m a practice coach who tries to teach my team about the game as best I can, requiring me to know what the heck I am talking about. I don’t score a single point myself (at least, not very many) but my team is successful based on the effort that we all put in together, for which I am accountable.

In this TED talk (1) Wooden describes the difference between winning and success. I think it’s pretty amazing that he could give an unscripted talk like this at age 98! A few nice lines include:

  • Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
  • There is no progress without change, but change does not guarantee progress.
  • Things will work out as they should, provided we do what we should.
      If you surf YouTube for other Wooden interviews, you will find many occasions where former players say, “What Coach says sounds corny,

but…

    ” An earnest approach like Wooden’s can be disarming and even uncomfortable because the message is so raw. We often wrap ourselves in cynicism and irony to give the appearance that what we’re going through doesn’t matter that much, and can’t hurt us. The genius of Wooden is that he thought carefully about the ultimate meaning of all this dribbling, cutting, boxing out and shooting, and directed his energy to help all those under his watch to find that meaning for themselves. That meaning, rather than the banners hanging from Pauley Pavilion, is Wooden’s lasting legacy.

(1): I read the recent (dead on right) HBR article about TED. The TED brand has become a joke, but this video is worth it, I promise.

Nate Silver, Chessboxing, and a place at the table

The best chess player in the world is a grandmaster with a computer. Not Deep Blue, or Kasparov, or Anand. It turns out that it’s the same way with predicting elections: smart people using good models. As you have no doubt heard, a number of computer-based models correctly picked the winner in all (or nearly all) fifty states +DC in the 2012 US presidential election. Analytics FTW. This is nothing new (see 2008), but this success received increased attention this fall due to controversy in the weeks leading up to election day.

In particular, Nate Silver, creator of one of the most well-known prediction models and author of fivethirtyeight.com, was singled out by several media figures including Joe Scarborough, Karl Rove, and Dylan Byers. Silver uses state and national polls and other factors to create a statistical model that predicts state-level vote totals (and therefore projected electoral vote counts). The most basic objection to Silver’s methods was that his predictions were unrealistic and implausibly precise.  Scarborough:

Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance — they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it’s the same thing," Scarborough said. "Both sides understand that it is close, and it could go either way. And anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.

Rove:

You’ve got to be careful about these polls," Rove said. "We endow them with a false scientific precision they simply don’t have.

Dylan Byers, who writes about political media for politico.com, characterized Silver’s work as “little more than poll aggregation”, which I find akin to characterizing Warren Buffett’s work as little more than reading quarterly reports.

Author Geoffrey Dunn claimed that Silver does not understand the underlying dynamics underlying presidential politics:

Silver’s commitment to a quantitative, value-free approach to the living, breathing universe–not only in politics, but in sports, entertainment, even dating–with an emphasis on numbers can be troubling, to the point of absurdity, when the answers have nothing to do with statistical equations…Here’s a guy who’s never been centrally involved in a national election, whose political acumen comes from a calculator, and, who, I am willing to bet (and I haven’t seen the numbers) has never organized a precinct in his life, much less walked one, pontificating about the dynamics in the electoral processes as if he actually understood them.

The question of how human values should be reflected in quantitative models is fascinating and relevant, but sadly Dunn chooses to lecture rather than engage.

It so happens that this time out, most of the initial criticism came from Republicans. My point is not to single out Republicans but rather those who are so dismissive of the value of analytical model for predicting future behavior. They’re all over the map politically.

The underlying tension is only superficially about numbers. It’s fear of an outsider who claims to possess wisdom about presidential politics whose justification is based on concepts beyond the reach of the current establishment. Silver is a threat to pundits like Scarborough and Rove and writers like Byers and Dunn, and his success needs to be discredited because it threatens to make them obsolete. What good are pundits if they are outside of the process, do not report on the principals involved, and have no special insight regarding what will happen? As a result, Silver is treated the same way as many politicians of both parties: built up under false premises so that they can later be torn down.

In the aftermath of the (attempted) Silver takedown, defenders fired back and another set of Silver critics emerged. These critics are more ideologically diverse, ranging from libertarian Colby Cosh to conservative Jonah Goldberg to liberal Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic. The objections are frustratingly simple minded. The common thread is that the critic takes issue with Silver’s defenders rather than making an actual critique on his methods:

Madrigal:

The left’s celebrating the analytical method right now as if it belonged to them. But it doesn’t. 

Colby Cosh:

The situation is that many of Nate Silver’s attackers don’t really know what the hell they are talking about. Unfortunately, this gives them something in common with many of Nate Silver’s defenders, who greet any objection to his standing or methods with cries of ‘Are you against SCIENCE? Are you against MAAATH?’ If science and math are things you do appreciate and favour, I would ask you to resist the temptation to embody them in some particular person.

Goldberg:

To listen to many of Silver’s defenders, questioning his methodology is akin to rejecting evolution or the laws of thermodynamics, as if only his model is sanctified by the god Reason.

The same dynamic emerged inside the Oakland A’s, and baseball generally, according to Moneyball. (I mentioned Moneyball in an analytics post! What do I win?)

The feeling I am left with is annoyance mixed with disinterest. (Sorry.) Annoyance because it is frustrating to witness interesting conversations very nearly happening, and disinterest because I feel that those who act innumerate are allowed to have an opinion, but there is no good reason for me to listen to them. Silver himself often seems to take this attitude: get on with the work instead of talking about it. In the long run, I hope this “ignore the haters” attitude is disruptive because it builds a body of evidence that begins to become irrefutable, as has happened with sports analytics. There’s no point in asking journalists to learn stats, unless you are doing the hiring. This is the flaw of the academic: if only people just thought like I do – how do I make them think like me?

A more flattering but still counterproductive attitude is to view quants as mystics. Cubicles become secret worlds, computer screens become portals, and models become McGuffins. This characterization of analytics in the Obama campaign is typical: well-written, engrossing, and a mixed blessing if you wish to see the role of analytics in society advanced. Ultimately I’d like the view to be: well, yeah, that’s kinda how you do it.

Sometimes people expect an analysis to be backed by mystical, unknowable methodology. If it is too complicated for me to understand, it must be right. In other cases subtleties of approach are lost in translation. Silver’s methodology page lays out an ornate set of rules, but based on a simple principle: the primary inputs of the forecast are polls. It’s far easier to skim and say “he’s doing poll aggregation”. On the other hand a substantive objection to Silver’s approach is that simpler methods have had the same success using measures that count. It’s too soon to say, so the answer is to continue to dig deeper rather than finger point or simply exclaim “MAGIC!”

The victories won by analytics are hard fought and often ignored, perhaps because the marketplace demands adaptation or death. The reward for a job well done is survival and perhaps a promotion. Weather prediction has secretly gotten much, much better over the past two decades. Marketing has been completely transformed. Same with logistics, and the list goes on and on. A prerequisite for success is that those who understand and practice analytics have a seat at the decision making table, but this may look different from what we in the analytics community envision. In the long run, many of us will change our identities and build new muscles. No longer will it be “management”, “IT” and the “math geeks”. Like LeBron James who can run past you, jump over you, and barrel you over, the leaders of the future will be MBAs who use “confidence interval” without air quotes, hackers with slide decks, and R coders with good hygiene and social graces. In short: chessboxers.

Engineering teams should have an Analyst role

Happy New Year! I look forward to a fun year of blogging – I have a number of hopefully interesting posts brewing involving: text analytics, college athletic conference comparisons, Big Data, the Open Source movement, former employers, and of course, chessboxing. The caveat is that I only post when it doesn’t cut into my regular work, and I really can’t spare much time these days. So we’ll see how much of that I get to!

Thanks to Dare Obasanjo I found an interesting response to a Quora question on “What does a Product Manager at Facebook do?”

The top response includes a breakdown of the various engineering roles at Facebook, including “Analyst”:

Analyst: when we’d get too carried away in debates in meetings, one of the eng managers would often remark: "warning: we are entering a data-free zone."  The meaning was that without grounding our arguments in data, we’re just talking about opinions.  The analysts at FB are crucial for keeping everyone grounded in actual numbers.  How well/badly are we doing?  What should be our measure of success?  How do we tell if something is broken?  Analysts play a huge role at Facebook, which will continue to be true as the company grows larger.

This strikes me as a pretty good idea.

The obvious counter is, “Do you really need a separate job description for this? Shouldn’t everyone on the team be an Analyst? Shouldn’t everyone use data to inform decisions?” Well, yes, certainly. But I like the idea of a defined role that attaches this responsibility to a particular person. After all, everyone on an engineering team should be concerned about quality, yet most agree that it is a good idea to have a Test/QA job function. Just as an effective QA team builds a culture that values quality, an effective analyst has the potential to build a culture of data-driven decision making. Additionally, by having an Analyst role this allows for specialization in the form of techniques (regression, data mining, optimization, data collection) and tools – just as many engineering teams have a “performance guru” who can profile anything, anywhere, any time.

On the other hand, I’m speculating. I have never worked on a team with such a role. Have you?

Sinofsky’s goodbye email: annotated

Yesterday, head of Windows Steven Sinofsky announced he is leaving Microsoft. In my eleven years at Microsoft I moved from resenting his management style (while working as an entry-level developer in Office) to becoming deeply appreciative as I matured as an engineering leader. It is ridiculously hard to lead teams the size of Office and Windows, and Sinofsky shipped again and again, on-time and on-scope. With Sinofsky, the trains always ran on time. In the case of Windows he inherited a situation that was bordering on self immolating chaos and turned it around. Whether or not you agree with specific choices, e.g. the Office ribbon, the Metro UI, or de-emphasizing .NET, he achieved what he set out to do – and that is no small thing. (Trust me.) I don’t know if working on one of Steven’s teams would have been the right fit for me, and I don’t personally agree with every decision he made, but I think his general approach was warranted and effective for the situation. I concur with Dare Obasanjo’s comments regarding Steven’s departure.

Steven’s goodbye email was leaked, and I could resist making some annotations in bold. My annotations are completely speculative and are not based on any current inside knowledge of anything that is going on at Microsoft. The annotations do not represent my own opinion of Steven’s work at Microsoft, or Microsoft itself, but rather my speculation on the message behind the message, with context thrown in for those who have never worked at Microsoft. (For what it’s worth, my feeling about Microsoft is that its destiny still lies in its own hands, because its potential remains enormous.)

Here goes:

“With the general availability of Windows 8/RT and Surface, I have decided it is time for me to take a step back from my responsibilities at Microsoft. [“I’m quitting.”] I’ve always advocated using the break between product cycles as an opportunity to reflect and to look ahead, and that applies to me too.

[Whether or not Sinofsky jumped or was pushed, this statement means that this move would have happened earlier if it were at all practical. It’s not cool to leave before the end of a cycle.]

After more than 23 years working on a wide range of Microsoft products, I have decided to leave the company to seek new opportunities that build on these experiences.

[Staying at Microsoft would have stifled his professional ambitions. He felt the future was too limiting.] 

My passion for building products is as strong as ever and I look forward focusing my energy and creativity along similar lines.

The Windows team, in partnerships across all of Microsoft and our industry,

[A pointed reference to a primary criticism: not a team player. This was obliquely referenced in SteveB’s email when referring to Julie Larson-Green’s “proven ability to effectively collaborate and drive a cross company agenda.” Also pushback at industry complaints about the lack of transparency behind Surface.]

just completed products and services

[A reference to SteveB’s statement that Microsoft is a “devices and services” company. This is either a coordinated statement to show solidarity with this vision, or subtle pushback at criticism that Windows is not sufficiently service-oriented.] 

introducing a new era [shared language with Ballmer’s email: surely coordinated] of Windows computing.  It is an incredible experience to be part of a generational change in a unique product like Windows, one accomplished with an undeniable elegance.

[“If you don’t like the hybrid Desktop/Metro interface: f*** you. I’m right and I have the telemetry data to prove it.”] 

Building on Windows, Surface excels in design and utility for a new era of PCs. With the Store, Internet Explorer, Outlook.com, SkyDrive

[a reminder of messes he has cleaned up, see for example this link via Dare Obasanjo] 

and more, each of which lead the way, this experience is connected to amazing cloud services [there’s that word again: services].

It is inspiring to think of these efforts making their way into the hands of Microsoft’s next billion customers. We can reflect on this project as a remarkable achievement for each of us and for the team. Our work is not done, such is the world of technology, and so much more is in store for customers.

It is impossible to count the blessings I have received over my years at Microsoft. I am humbled by the professionalism and generosity of everyone I have had the good fortune to work with at this awesome company. I am beyond grateful.

I have always promised myself when the right time came for me to change course, I would be brief, unlike one of my infamous short blog posts,

[playful and self-aware – no defensiveness here]

and strive to be less memorable than the products and teams with which I have been proudly and humbly associated.

[The message is that in spite of what you may have heard, it’s all about the work.]

The brevity of this announcement is simply a feature.

[A reference to the Microsoft/tech industry phrase “that’s not a bug, it’s a feature”.]

Some might notice a bit of chatter speculating about this decision or timing.

[Sinofsky is notoriously secretive and controlling with regards to message and its distribution. He took great pride in outsiders “getting it wrong” with respect to speculation regarding future plans. He is a strong advocate for analysis based on hard data and rejects out of hand “gut-based” speculation, such as this blog post.] 

I can assure you that none could be true as this was a personal and private choice that in no way reflects any speculation or theories one might read—about me [execs who regard him as a pain in the ass], opportunity [speculation as next CEO], the company [fading?] or its leadership [lacking?].

As I’ve always believed in making space for new leaders as quickly as possible [see: Ray Ozzie], this announcement is effective immediately and I will assist however needed with the transition.

I am super excited for what the future holds for the team and Microsoft.

[Sly in-joke: part of Microsoft-speak is to claim that you are not just excited, but super excited about everything.]

With my deepest appreciation,

Steven Sinofsky”

Employee performance reviews done right

Hiring is the most important activity for any organization. That subject has been covered many times in many ways, so I won’t. Performance evaluation is in the top five, especially because it is linked to compensation. Yes, here’s my blog post about assigning numbers to people.

The back story for this post is that I recently spent all day in performance reviews for our organization. While describing the nature of the process and the details of who said what during today’s session would be great for page views, I’ll steer clear. I want to write about performance reviews because people are almost universally freaked out by them. It’s healthy to do regular, formal, qualitative evaluations of performance…when the evaluations are done the right way.

What are reviews like? Not every reader has been through a formal performance review, at least not in an industry setting. I don’t claim to have had a representative experience either as an employee or manager; I only know what I know. If you want to know more about "how things work" in other places, Google (or Bing) away. I can tell you that my own experiences have been pretty consistent:

  1. Performance is reviewed formally once or twice a year.
  2. Employees fill out a form where they talk about what they’ve done.
  3. Managers rate their employees’ performance and discuss with their peers.
  4. The ratings are sent up the management chain, where a series of calibrations take place to make sure everyone’s grading according to the same curve.
  5. The final ratings come back down the management chain. 
  6. The review is used to determine compensation: pay raises, bonuses, stock, promotions.
  7. Managers and employees have a discussion about the results of the review.

And the circle of life begins anew. Is all of this necessary? Technology people – geeks – really hate this stuff. At the lunch table you will be told that performance reviews are the tool of "pointy hairs" used to suppress and control the free spirited hacker who knows what is right but is not allowed to do it. I am sure there are a thousand smug Dilbert cartoons on the subject. (I despise Dilbert.) Reviews are sometimes used to control, suppress and annoy, but this is a symptom of organizational (and sometimes personal) issues. There are legitimate reasons for reviews. It may sound crass, but:

  • money is a huge motivator,
  • there are limited resources, and
  • there needs to be a process whereby the cash is fairly distributed.

A formal review system at least affords the opportunity to make the process somewhat transparent. If you buy that premise, and you’re in a relatively big organization, then most of the steps above kind of make sense. If you’re in a four person startup, maybe not.

For most of us privileged enough to be in a field like ours, there’s more to it than just money. Different factors motivate us and provide meaning to our work. Since many organizations are publically owned and therefore laser focused on profit, there is often a tension between employees – people – desiring to find greater meaning at work while meeting the needs of their organization. In many cases the things that provide meaning have nothing to do with money. A manager’s job should be to try and thread the needle and do right by both the employee and the organization. Those subscriptions to The Baffler may have snorted chocolate milk out of their noses at this point because this view may sound naive or even exploitive. I kind of get the skepticism, but all I can say is that if I felt I were in a place where I thought doing both weren’t possible, I’d leave. If the people that comprise an organization really want to be about something, then there is no better way to make a statement than through performance reviews. The statement might be "seemingly thankless work like maintaining a build system is valued", or "time spent mentoring new employees matters", or "showboating is lame and counterproductive", or simply "you’re doing an awesome job and we want you to stay." If management is a tightrope act balancing individual development and organizational goals, then performance reviews should be seen as the pole. Stabilizing weight hangs down on either side; a helpful burden.

So what is required to do it right? Above all else, everyone who participates in the process needs to be respectful of everyone else and truthful in their dealings. Most of the horror stories that people have about reviews boil down to a failure in one of these two areas. My own personal horror stories certainly were. (My horror stories: plural, redacted from this post, and unrelated to my current employer.) Face it: any system that involves people will fail without respect and truth. The next most important thing is shared understanding of organizational values. Sometimes the review process itself can help a team understand and articulate its own values more clearly by virtue of needing to introspect. A common trap is assessing the value of heroism: the coder who threw down a few 80 hour weeks to design and implement a brand new system to meet a deadline. New organizations risk overvaluing heroes; stagnant organizations risk undervaluing them. Organizational values make it possible to evaluate contributions. Obviously in order to carry out the evaluation you need to have a clear understanding of what people are doing and the associated value for the organization. Sometimes people spend a lot of time doing an outstanding job on tasks that are not particularly important. Who gets the blame for that depends on the situation, and yeah, realistically sometimes part of the review process is assigning blame – or "responsibility" if you want to be more PC about it.

The review process and its results should not take anyone by surprise. The #1 unwelcome surprise is when a manager tells a direct report that they’re getting a bad review when the employee isn’t expecting it. That sucks for everyone, and the blame lies entirely with the manager. It’s incumbent upon the manager to treat their employees with respect and stay up-to-date with how things are going. A manager may be tempted to blame "the system" in such cases: "I thought you’ve done a fine job, but you know how it is with the curve and all…I did what I could for you but I just couldn’t make the case well enough for you." It’s a reality that differences of opinion exist because no two pairs of heads or hearts are the same, but that’s no excuse for weaseling out of being straight with your team. Hearts and minds should be joined long before the day of judgment arrives. We owe it to each other as a team. The last important ingredient is that peer feedback at multiple levels is crucial. When collecting information for a review, the most important resource are an employee’s coworkers. Asking them directly what they think their peer is doing well, or needs to be improved, is a smart thing to do. As evaluations are reviewed by upper management, repeating this process is important. We all know that some of us are easy graders and others are tougher, so the goal is to be fair by accounting for these differences. Peer feedback needs to be shared at the end of the process (withholding names unless permission has been received) so that employees understand that the evaluation is based on the team’s input.

It’s easy, right? Be respectful, be truthful, understand your values, know what people are up to, and communicate. No, it’s not easy. It takes practice, but remember that reviews done right have still other benefits. They can inform the hiring process. If you know how to evaluate the employees that you have, you know how to look for (and get) the employees that you want. Reviews really can be a positive learning experience for everyone. The downside is that if important ingredients are missing, or applied in the wrong proportion, reviews can be a nightmarish burden. Don’t be one of those teams, and don’t shrink from the challenge!

Management advice from Satchel Paige

Actually it’s not management advice — somehow I doubt Satchel Paige would have much patience for that sort of thing.  I don’t really like baseball, but I do like the personalities (particularly from the past) and the stats.  When I was growing up we had an old baseball stats reference on the bookshelf and I used to pore over the numbers, why I don’t really know.

Anyway, Satchel Paige said: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I think that’s pretty good advice.

Here are a bunch of other Satchel Paige quotes.