While cleaning out some boxes my Mom had packed away, I came across a yearbook from my freshmen year of high school. I hated my freshmen photo. I had skull surgery a few months earlier (long story for another post), and needed to have my head shaved. As I remember it, by the time school started, my hair was nothing but stubble.
I cracked the yearbook open to show my wife the ugliness of my head, and was a bit surprised to see that my hair actually wasn’t much shorter than my hair is now – but a glance around the rest of the page showed that my classmates from 1979 all had hair covering at least half of their head. My hair was short compared to my peers, but in hindsight, not that short at all.
It’s that time of year at Microsoft when people get uneasy (or freaked out, or hysterical, or angry, etc.). It’s review time. What’s worse, is that it’s review time at a company that has a forced curve of performance rankings (note: there is a bit of leeway this year, but it’s still a curve). Now, you’d think that in a company full of tech geeks, people could figure out that no matter how much leeway there is, that you can’t get 75% of the company into the top-20% bucket – or that in a company crammed full of smart people, that half of them are below average.
To be clear, I’m not defending the review system; it is what it is. To me, the review system is the tax I pay to get to do what I do. I have a choice to work where I want to work. If I don’t like the system, I can go pay the tax of another company’s system. Everyone has that same choice. Live in the system, change the system, or leave the system. Marlena Compton once recommended a book to me, which I, in turn, have recommended at least a dozen times. Orbiting The Giant Hairball is the story of an artist at Hallmark, and how he learned to deal with corporate life, and his sanity, at the same time. If you love your work, but struggle with the bureaucracy and politics – or even if you just want to figure out how work fits in with life, this is a great book. Also – as Marlena told me, don’t buy the e-book. For full effect, this book needs to be read in dead-tree form.
A “Bad” review
Let me tell you a story about my first review at Microsoft. I was hired full-time in June of 1995 as a level 9 (equivalent to a level 57 – our minimum hiring level today for software folks is 59). Reviews back then were in August, so I didn’t have my first annual review until August, 1996. In those 14 months, I helped ship all of the Asian versions of Windows 95, tested the crap out of IE2 and IE3 (including writing ISAPI server extensions, and what was probably among the first web automation in the industry), got rave reviews from external offices for a web translation tool I wrote, and maintained servers for our entire test team. I awaited my accolades… My reward? A $1000 dollar bonus and an $800 dollar raise.
The world was unfair, and I was a victim.
I remember talking to a friend of mine who was an old-timer at the company (she started fours years ahead of me in 1991). She was sympathetic, but wise. She told me that she knew I would do well in the long run, and not to worry about it. This wise women of 26 told me that careers will have ups and downs, but in the end, everything evens out.
I didn’t believe her, but she was right. My career has had its ups and downs, but overall, it has gone pretty well, and as I’ve grown, I’ve learned how to take control of what kind of work I want to do, and what kind of worker I want to be.
What I needed, was perspective. And I’ve echoed my friend’s advice to dozens of others over the years (and have already done so many times in recent weeks).
The next time you’re upset with how you’re being treated at work, ask yourself if it’s a glitch in the road, or a trend you need to avoid. If it’s a trend, don’t whine. Fix it, or find a new job. If it’s a glitch, sulk for a moment, if needed, and then move on. Your career isn’t defined in a moment – or even a year. Have some perspective.