Former Microsoft VP: Microsoft Has Created a Dysfunctional Corporate Culture

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Dick Brass
Dick Brass
Microsoft VP
1997-2004

Microsoft has created a "dysfunctional corporate culture," according to former vice president Dick Brass. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Mr. Brass laid out the case that Microsoft is coasting on the success of only two products, Office and Windows, and that the company's culture today discourages innovation and change.

"As they marvel at Apple's new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon's popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America's most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future," Mr. Brass wrote.

He believes that Microsoft is a great American success story, and that tech watchers should root for the company to return to its more innovative roots and stop reacting to change wrought by others. He adds the serious charge that even while the company is delivering record profits, in reality it is a company in decline.

"Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator. Its products are lampooned, often unfairly but sometimes with good reason. Its image has never recovered from the antitrust prosecution of the 1990s," he wrote, adding that the company's advertising has is inept.

(He specifically criticizes the series of adds that included Bill Gates wiggling his butt with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, an ad campaign that this reporter praised as being a good beginning at Microsoft trying to reach out to its customers.)

At the heart of the problem, according to Mr. Brass, is Big Redmond's corporate culture where established divisions and vice presidents engage in turf warfare against any new projects and technology that they perceive as threatening their preeminence within the company.

The end result is that the best and brightest engineers and executives leave the company.

"At Microsoft," he wrote, "[competition] has created a dysfunctional corporate culture in which the big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence. It's not an accident that almost all the executives in charge of Microsoft's music, e-books, phone, online, search and tablet efforts over the past decade have left."

Comments

robofly

What side of the bed did Mr. Brass wake up on that he urgently has to file his opinion now?

This is a little late hitting the newsstand. In fact, I’m sure it’s less true today than three years ago, when internal friction had just finished mangling Windows Vista.

MSFT took a dive starting this morning around 9:30a Eastern. Good job, DB!

Lee Dronick

MSFT took a dive starting this morning around 9:30a Eastern

Apple also fell today and in fact the graphs for the two are almost identical. I think that it was part of an overall downtrend in the NASDAQ, DOW and S&P 500. Now that doesn’t mean that Mr Brass is wrong about MicroSoft’s corporate culture.

xmattingly

Microsoft may very well be too bloated to produce any real innovation.

They need a willful visionary or two with a pirate flag.

geoduck

I keep thinking that it would have been a good thing for MS if it had been broken up as it looked like in 1999-2000.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Alec Baldwin: Do you know what it takes to sell software? Brass balls.

Dick Brass: Oh, I’ve got one up on you, pal.

dhp

Wow. If you take out specific technology and product references, you could substitute “United States” for “Microsoft” in the quotes above and have a pretty valid statement. Both MS and the U.S. are victims of their own (our own) paranoia.

Intruder

MS culture will not change until the CEO changes.

AceNet-Alan

They need a willful visionary or two with a pirate flag.

While the Pirate flag was Job’s way to show that there was special about the group under it (the Macintosh team), I don’t think that this flag will ever fly again at either APL, much less MSFT. Owen Linzmayer’s “Apple Confidential 2.0” described the fights that occurred within APL employees; these two companies are now much more disciplined (for lack of a better word).

No doubt that MSFT needs to develop a sense of community amonst each of their divisions so that they can build synergies that can drive innovation, as opposed to being too top-heavy in their heirarchy.

xmattingly

No doubt that MSFT needs to develop a sense of community amonst each of their divisions

By hoisting a pirate flag, what I meant is that MS needs an ambitious team to drive development on the next big thing, without interference from a competing team. I don’t think community (or lack of) is as much of an issue these days at Big Red as much as overlapping or very similar projects. It seems that they’re at least somewhat aware of this though.

ctopher

please… I’ll develop a sense of community and build synergies to drive innovation as soon as I’m done with these TPS reports!

Alan A, was that serious or sarcastic (as my paragraph above)?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@ctopher. He was totally serious. But I LOL’d too. It is amazing that anyone really thinks a sentence like that has any meaning at all. In fact, it’s truly *magical*.

James

Uh . . . can someone remind me of what Microsoft ever did that was innovative, other than getting there first riding on the back of other people’s ideas? I’d really like to know, said only partially facetiously. wink

I think Mr. Brass’ statement is actually a better reflection of just how insular and deluded the Microsoft environment he worked in had become. I guess that can happen at corporations the size of a small city.

wab95

I agree with much of what Mr Brass says in his piece, particularly his observations about corporate interactions; and on a variety of levels, including as a user of Apple products, I too do not wish to see Microsoft fail.

But if it does fail, it will not be in near term. Its current trajectory is not compatible with a longterm future as a dynamic innovator, but it could sustain the company profitably as a niche player (a rather large niche) in the two markets it now dominates for years to come.

@robofly. This is why I think Dick Brass wrote this piece; it is this future that he warns against. While his comments are not shocking to many who follow the industry’s trends, his credentials and his citation of specifics lend them credibility - perhaps even impact, particularly among MS supporters. Given the corporate culture of arrogance and complacency he describes, it will take time to change that momentum. Therein, I believe, lies his rationale for speaking up now. The launch of the iPad provides an opportunity.

robofly

Agree, agree. Only, this insider view that is now a breakfast-table staple has been true for so long that it may be turning untrue again.

M$ as a radical innovator? Oh please, the company has never been in that business. Its true ruling passion is always its *own* potential, never yours except as a necessary condition.

Interesting that, from outside, renewal at M$ looks like a sick redwood being replaced by a ring of its own root sprouts. And a thousand op-ed pieces couldn’t talk that ailing central trunk back into long-term viability.

Nookster

In fact, it?s truly *magical*

:D Don’t make me snort my cuppa, these Apple BT keyboards are friggin expensive.

OldGuy

James - the one innovation I’ll give Microsoft credit for is Excel. 

When I first saw it on the Mac (where it was out years before windows was useful) it was an enormous leap beyond Lotus 123 for DOS.  Since Apple had not come out with a spreadsheet, I’ll give Microsoft credit for the first useful graphical interface spreadsheet.

Well, almost.  Now that I think about it, I had a demo of a spreadsheet called Crunch, that may have preceded Excel.

OldGuy

Now, just to show that I am not a total Microsoft basher ...

Apple has not always served its customers well. 

In particular Apple has made programs and peripherals obsolete at a much greater pace than Microsoft has with Windows.  Even now, I’d like to use up all the ink I have for an old HP Deskwriter, and then get rid of it. 

I can print to it from my G3 iBook using 10.3.9.  But I can’t print to it from my MacBook running 10.5.8, because Apple won’t let me install it. (Interestingly, the MacBook can see it, and if I have a file formatted in HP’s PCL, I can send it to the printer from the command line and it prints, so the Appletalk / Ethernet link works.)

I thought - well then, I’ll just share the printer from the iBook to the MacBook.  Can’t.  10.5 will not allow you to connect to a printer shared from 10.3.  So I’m stuck with the USB shuffle. 

Another example, I’m staying with 10.5.8, because if a move to 10.6 my copy of Parallels v. 3, will no longer work and I’ll have to buy a new copy, or VMWare, or ....

I have way too many old programs that I can no longer run, and files that I can no longer get to.  It is, of course, in Apple’s interest, and in its developers interest, to nudge me to junk the old buy new.  But it is not always in my interest.

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