At Microsoft, is age more than just a number?

At Microsoft, is age more than just a number?

Summary: 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?

TOPICS: Microsoft

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)

Topic: Microsoft


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    What Kumar found was exactly what we (20 somethings) in the early 80's said when we were asked (on opinion surveys) what motivated us. The reason for discounting compensation a bit may be different then than now, but the other reasons are the same.
  • Ageism: It happens and its getting worse

    Your coworkers may smile and appear cordial, but if you are among the 'gray-haired' ranks, beware of those smiles.

    Especially the younger ones. Quite often, the sincerity just isn't there when you poke a hole through their thin veneer.

    Truthfully, younger Folk will just not like you, simply because of your age, and in the workplace that has insidious ways of working against you no matter how good you are.

    It's kind of like the TV show Survivor, only worse.

    Good Luck to the senior MS staff--have your 'golden parachutes' ready.

    Happy New Year Mary Jo, Everyone.
    D T Schmitz
    • Have to disagree here as well.

      In my experience, gray hair won't automatically earn you respect... but I haven't seen cases where it's diminished it. It doesn't take long to figure out which "old timers" really know their stuff and are "with the program." In fact, many of them have invaluable experience to share. Some of the more overly confident newcomers may take a little while to realize they're the ones with some catching up to do. Figuring that out is a valuable lesson in of itself.
      • Color me jaded. It happens. Trust me.

        D T Schmitz
    • Absolutely Correct

      The large Japanese company I've worked for the last four years--they acquired the American company that was home for the previous twenty one years--really trashed it's older staff. They offered a sadly weak buy out package to everyone over 62 then a month later offered a similar package to everyone over 60. The few who didn't take the buy out, having been warned that it might not be offered again, were shortly fired along with most of the over 55 staff. The dumping ratio was about 30 older worker to 5 younger.

      I am contractually obligated to not name this scandalous company, but they do have a mostly young staff. I noticed at the technical staff' Christmas luncheon that, aside from me, the old man of the group was 53.
      • If they indeed fired people of a certain age...

        they've broken the law. Any contract you have with them does not
        preclude your notifying the proper authorities.
        • Which is probably why

          they kept a few token oldies. Smoke-screen, so that when asked "Did you fire everyone over "x" age, they can answer 'No'." After that, the defence will be asked to prove their claim... Smoke and Mirrors.

          The "old guy" is cheaper to retain than defending a class action on age discrimination.

          Let us know if the wheel-chair and shawl are comfortable.

          Oh, and then they will get rid of you in 18 months' time, just a few weeks after the time for filing under statute of limitations has expired... Yep - I'd wager $50 on it.
  • RE: At Microsoft, is age more than just a number?

    Those call to actions are good suggestions but besides that is needs an attitude change where mgmt will genuinely listen. People can easily see thru is a sham if the exercise is done for exercise sake. Authenticity and empowerment are much needed in big corps.
  • The best and brightest go to Google or Apple

    Why would a top prospect in 2010 even consider joining
    Microsoft if they have the a job opportunity at Google or
    Apple? Because they like the weather in Seattle better?

    The only entry level people MS can get these days are those
    who Google and Apple don't want and haven't found an
    exciting start-up either.
    Ted T.
    • Really? Do a search

      and you'd be surprised at the amount of top level people, The 'best and the brightest' either leaving Google, or passing them up staight out to go to other places, Microsoft included.

      Sure if both prospects are equal, I might pass up cold Wahington weather for that of sunny California, but there are quite a few that would rather be part of moving an MS forward, then being stuck in some low level programming job at Google.

      The best and the brightest don't want to work for Google, either. It true, and it's happening as we speak.
      John Zern
    • Not my experience

      I interviewed at Google a few years ago and wasn't interested. There are a lot more factors to consider than you seem to have accounted for.

      Microsoft's culture is a much better fit for me. If I wanted to feel like I was still in college and practically live on campus I'd go back to school. If I wanted to be treated like a cog in a machine, interchangeable with others at management's whim, maybe Google would be just right.

      If I were to leave Microsoft it'd be for something far more interesting than Google or Apple... and I won't lie and say I haven't on occassion been tempted.
      • I did look at Google first

        When I was at university, thinking about future jobs and entering the real world, I happened to go to an event in Google's London offices. They have extremely nice offices and excellent food.

        I applied for Google because of their offices. I applied for Microsoft as an afterthought because one of my housemates mentioned he was applying to them.

        I couldn't give those as reasons for wanting to join a company in the interviews, so I did my homework and looked into what the jobs would actually entail. I'm now really glad I ended up in Microsoft (which also has nice offices and nice food). I want to be involved in a company that's primary focus is making technology not selling advertising space.
        • Followers, not Innovators...

          You joined a company which rarely comes up with an original idea, they are past their prime. I hope they didn't give you stock options...
          • Really?

            >>You joined a company which rarely comes up with an original idea,
            they are past their prime.
            Ram U
    • Sorry dude

      But that is simply not true.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • Read the blog, had nothing to ad and then....

    came across this:

    This is a prime example of the old managers at MS not having vision, and therefore not getting much respect from genY. MS has had the pieces:

    Windows mobile, check
    Zune, check
    Xbox 360, check

    If MS had any vision at all, they could have developed a killer mobiles device, like the iPhone or Android devices, including good mobile gaming. They spend 10B a year on research, but don't seem to get much for it. They could have done major damage to both PSP and NDS, held the iPhone and Android at bay, but are just too old and set in their ways to come up with anything cool and ground breaking.

    Finally, they seem to want to go in that direction, but it is probably going to be too late and too weak.

    MS is like the old battle ships of WW2. Wars are not fought that way any longer and MS is not able to really be in the fight.
    • I'll have to disagree.

      MS isn't a hardware for profit company, like Apple. You blame MS for missing the phone thing, when you should really be comparing Apple to Sony.

      MS I can forgive for not coming up with an "iphone" (thought they had OS's for the smartphone market, so tell me what so different about the iPhone?) but Sony, they had all the pieces and more, as they [b]own[/b] [i]media content[/i].

      They should have had the vision as they had:

      Sony Erricson: Check
      MP3 players: check
      PlayStation: check
      Sony Entertainment: Check
      Manufacturing: Check

      Yet they and others that compete [i]directlly[/i] with Apple (MS really doesn't in terms of core products) missed the boat.

      So to say that "old folks" at MS missed that which younger people [i]trained[/i] in hardware based products at other companies missed is really not a fair comparison.

      Because MS's primary focus is software, not hardware.
      John Zern
      • Disagree

        I will not argue about Sony. They have their own problems.

        Regarding MS, their responsibility is to make money for the shareholders, and if that "forces" them into HW then it does (besides they make HW when it suits them). To take your argument to its logical conclusion, if open source starts to make real inroads in the desktop/notebook market, I guess MS should just give up and "die", because their business (SW) is no longer viable.

        You make the strategic moves you have to make in order to protect and grow your business. The problem with MS is that they are failing to do that. That is why they have been stagnating. And I attribute that directly to those in charge, and age is at least one important factor.
      • MS & Mobile...

        MS has been in the mobile software business for 15 years and the best they did was some crappy software and ring tones. Along coms Google with their Android OS and it blows Windows Mobile out of the water, it's like day and night. Ditto for their IE browser...
    • True ...


      MS is like the old battle ships of WW2. Wars are not fought that way any longer and MS is not able to really be in the fight.


      Yes, and MS is trying to fight on too many fronts. They tried to get into too many areas - starting with MS Word to knock out Wordperfect and with each new software or technology coming out, MS wanted to take over. They succeeded in some but a lot of them just fell by the wayside

      Like all would-be conquerors, MS has spread itself too thin and is getting battle-worn while the new upstarts, barbarians so to say, are hammering on the "gates (no pun intended) of Rome".

      Will the MS empire fall? Pretty likely, I think. Like other empires, MS is held down by what it expanded on - domination by exercising its power and influence - and, in so doing, have trodden on too many (allies included).

      All ancient Empires have shrunk and though still influential, like the UK, Germany, Japan and possibly even Italy, their heydays have passed.

      Like GM, it's almost foregone that MS will pass and shrink to become part of the global IT community but no longer wielding the power and fear that it held for the past decade or so.

      GM is on the comeback trail with a more socially and environmentally friendly culture. Will GM achieve the clout of old? It's very doubtful as the past was too much based on power and arrogance. Ford, luckily, saw the light early on and started down a new path of reliability and even economy in contrast to GM. Though not quite the giant of past, Ford has survived and is growing.

      If MS execs are smart, they should take a page out of Ford's book.