Microsoft: A Highly Motivated Environment

Software Practitioner 

 Issue: September/October 1996

Barry Boehm observed that numerous productivity studies have found that motivation is the largest single contributor to productivity (Software Engineering Economics, Prentice-Hall, 1981). It is hardly a coincidence, then, that the most successful software company in the world has continually succeeded in motivating its development teams to extreme degrees. Stories of 10-, 14-, even 18-hour days are common at Microsoft, as are stories of people who live in their offices for weeks at a time (Steve Maguire, Debugging the Development Process, Microsoft Press, 1995). I have seen fold-out couches, cots, and sleeping bags in offices at Microsoft. I know of one developer who had a Murphy bed custom-made to fit his office. Dave Moore, Microsoft’s director of development, described a typical day at Microsoft like this: “Wake up, go to work, do some work. ‘Oh, I’m hungry.’ Go down and eat some breakfast. Do some work. ‘Oh, I’m hungry.’ Eat some lunch. Work until you drop. Drive home. Sleep” (Michael Cusumano and Richard Selby, Microsoft Secrets, Free Press, 1995).

In its local area, Microsoft is known as “The Velvet Sweatshop,” which suggests that, if anything, Microsoft might be doing too good a job of motivating its employees.

How does Microsoft achieve such a high level of motivation? It’s simple. Microsoft explicitly focuses on morale. Each group at Microsoft has a morale budget that can be used for anything the group wants to use it for. Some groups buy movie-theater style popcorn poppers. Some groups go skiing or go bowling or have a cookout. Some groups make T-shirts. Some groups rent a whole movie theater for a private screening of their favorite movie.

While Microsoft was still involved with OS/2, the OS/2 development group requested that the company install a washer and dryer in their building so that they wouldn’t have to go home to do their laundry. Although the group never got its washer and dryer, the message was clear: this team wanted to work. It didn’t ask for promotions, more money, bigger offices, or fancy carpet; it asked for management to remove every conceivable roadblock so that it could concentrate on shipping a product.

When I first began consulting at Microsoft, I was pleasantly surprised to find how much time each day I could actually spend working. Every floor in every building has a supply room stocked with common and not-so-common office supplies. You just take what you need, and you don’t even need to sign anything. Most other supplies are only an email message away. If you need office equipment–bookcases, whiteboards, and so on–you just send email, put a note on the wall where you want the office furniture, and within 24 hours someone will have installed the furniture in your office. If you have a computer problem, you call the company’s help desk and within an hour or two a knowledgeable computer technician will have fixed your problem. They lend you a computer if necessary, and they will even swap your hard disk into the loaner to minimize downtime.

Microsoft also makes extensive use of non-monetary rewards. I spent a year at Microsoft working on Windows 3.1. During that time, I received three team T-shirts, a team rugby shirt, a team beach towel and a team mouse pad. I also took part in a nice team dinner on the local “Dinner Train” and another dinner at a upscale restaurant. If I had been an employee, I would also have received a few more shirts, a Microsoft watch, a plaque for participating in the project, and a big Lucite “Ship-It” award for shipping the product. The total value of this stuff is probably only two or three hundred dollars, but as Tom Peters and Robert Waterman say in In Search of Excellence (Warner Books, 1982), companies with excellent motivation don’t miss any opportunity to shower their employees with non-monetary rewards.

Microsoft doesn’t ignore developers’ personal lives, either. During the time I was there, the developer who had the office next to mine had his 10-year-old daughter come by every day after school. She did her homework quietly in his office while he worked. No one at the company even raised an eyebrow.

Motivating yourself and other employees is part of the Microsoft corporate culture. Microsoft doesn’t have an explicit practice of asking team members to commit or “sign up” for a project, but it isn’t uncommon for an employee who expresses doubt about meeting a deadline to be asked whether he or she is signed up. Microsoft avoids the problem of phony-sounding management motivational speeches because, as often as not, the question doesn’t come from a manager; it comes from the person who will have to do the work if the person in question doesn’t do it.

In addition to providing explicit support for morale, Microsoft gladly trades other factors to keep morale high, sometimes trading them in ways that would make other companies shudder (Pascal Zachary, Showstopper!, Free Press, 1994). I’ve seen Microsoft team managers and team leaders trade methodological purity, programming discipline, control over the product specification, control over the schedule, management visibility — almost anything — to benefit morale.

Whatever you might think of the effects this approach has on other project factors, the effect on motivation and morale — and consequently on Microsoft’s success — speaks for itself.

Author: Steve McConnell, Construx Software  |  More articles