At Microsoft, is age more than just a number?

Is age is more than just a number when it comes to tech innovation and ideas? As we enter the 10s, the majority of top leaders at Microsoft are in their 40s and 50s. Are they too old to keep Microsoft at the cutting edge in our Tweet-happy, Foursquare-obsessed world?

I'm not a big one for New Year's resolutions, but I do reflect at the end of each year on what happened and what's to come next. I leaf through my virtual correspondence folders, reflecting on memorable reader notes, both good and bad. In my "Trolls, Zealots and Other *#@&^#%+s folder," I noticed a few e-mails (mostly from Mac users, for some reason) advising me to go back and sit in my rocker and leave tech punditry to the younger generation.

That got me thinking -- not about following the advice of those obviously concerned and caring fanboys -- but about whether age is more than just a number when it comes to tech innovation and ideas. As we enter the 10s, the majority of top leaders at Microsoft are in their 40s and 50s. Are they too old to keep Microsoft at the cutting edge in our Tweet-happy, Foursquare-obsessed world? Is Microsoft a place where Generation Y/Millennials will want to join and stay in the coming years?

I'm not the only one pondering these questions. Microsoft's top brass are, too. Among this past fall's batch of ThinkWeek papers (employee-authored papers on various cultural, technical and other topics important to Microsoft's future) was one entitled "Are You Ready for Generation Y?: Motivating and retaining Generation Y through managerial paradigm shift and the adoption of Enterprise Social Media tools." I had a chance to read the 14-page "External Version" (i.e., approved for non-Microsoft employees) of this paper, courtesy of its author, Prem Kumar, Operations Manager with Microsoft's Online Systems Division.

The external version of this paper omits a lot of the juicy details that we Microsoft watchers would love to see. But the copy I saw still included some interesting tidbits.

Kumar's premise is Microsoft needs to make some changes to attract and keep younger workers, and company officials realize this. He noted:

"Microsoft’s three-year retention rate for entry-level hires is at 78% in 2009 while entry-level hiring is down 58.4% from 2008 to 2009 (BusinessWeek 2009). That being said, the retention of young talent is still a huge focus at Microsoft. This focus will become even more important when the economy turns."

The traditional corporate "motivators" aren't as of as much importance to Generation Y, he said. He surveyed fifteen 23 to 29 year-olds who worked at Microsoft, other big companies and startups, in addition to performing other interviews and research. From his findings:

"My research has shown that 401ks, salaries and other forms of monetary compensation are less important to Generation Y retention than fruitful collaboration with peers, recognition of work, opportunities for growth and the idea of “being a part of something”. These young employees are less averse to change and will tirelessly seek environments that promote these activities, leaving those that don’t."

Kumar offered a few calls to action, aimed at "people managers" at the company. Among them:

  • Start a Reverse Mentoring Program To utilize Millennials’ confidence, desire for growth, desire for being a part of something and technical skills (a tutoring for older employees program or something along those lines)
  • Assign workspace with Millennials in close proximity with one another
  • Feedback, Feedback, Feedback: "Though Millennials don’t like to be micro-managed, they love feedback," Kumar said. He listed regular, structured 1:1’s, informal reviews official corporate-wide ones, and the use of online tools.
  • Incorporate informal recognition programs: Millennials have "grown up in a system where they are recognized for their achievements, small and large and continuing that in the workplace can be fun and easy," Kumar advised.
  • Greater incorporation of social media tools and technologies in the corporate setting, providing "instant access to information," as well as externally to interact with non-employees

I've been privileged to get to know a number of Generation Y bloggers who cover Microsoft in the course of my work and have learned a lot from them. I've also, in the past year, (while kicking and screaming all the way) come to know and love Twitter. I'm not ready for that rocking chair, and I doubt folks like Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie or Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie are, either.

What's your take? Is Microsoft still a place younger employees want to and will want to work? Is the 40/50-something leadership there open enough to new ideas? If not, what could and should Microsoft's managers do differently? (If your answer is fire CEO Steve Ballmer, put your comment over here and don't clutter up this Talkback thread, please!)

(Rocking chair photo: Courtesy of Serim Yilmaz)

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