Prosocial Networking

The Haverford Center for Careers and Professional Advancement asked me to write a post about the importance of using LinkedIn for college students to connect with alumni. Here’s what I said…

 

 

I used to think “networking” was a pejorative term, one that described the unsavory, backroom schmoozing that gave the unqualified-but-well-connected an express lane to the corner office. The scene I imagined was set at a country club, where the children of senators and industrialists would advance their careers at a white collar version of the NFL combine, putting on display critical life skills such as being able to have a functional conversation after three scotches and handling the embarrassment of your short game with grace.

The path to employment, at least in the meritocracy I wanted to believe in, was by doing well in school, writing a great cover letter describing your talents and passions, and applying to jobs through a company’s careers website. The universe, in its relentlessly rational way, would ensure that the most qualified applicants were whisked to the roles to maximize their marginal product of labor; think Milton Friedman wearing Hogwarts’ sorting hat. “Networking” was akin to cheating, giving a leg up to applicants with a coincidental personal connection to a hiring manager.

Nine years, four jobs, and an MBA later I’ve developed a more nuanced view of networking. I’d like to share with you some thoughts on the topic that I wish had been shared with me back when I was looking for my first job.

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that networking is every bit as necessary as it’s made out to be, and might even be undersold. Personally, I’d be very hesitant to hire someone without having had someone I trust vouch for them; interviews and resumes are poor substitutes for a personal recommendation. For personality fit, only the most socially inept are unable to pull themselves together to seem employable during an hour-long interview. And for subject matter expertise, interview questions tend to be very predictable. Forward me any job description and I’ll give you ten questions you’re likely to be asked. As Sun Tzu said, “Know your resume, know the position, and you will get 100 jobs.” Or something like that.

Your resume isn’t helping you stand out either. For me the resume occupies a place right next to the fax machine in the category of business practices that need to die. No useful information other than proper nouns are ever conveyed, and they’re famously filled with exaggerations at best, and outright lies at worst. Plus, let’s be honest, when you’re 22 all your resumes pretty much look the same. Nota bene: you unfortunately still need to have a resume and make it conform to certain guidelines your career counsellor can help you with. But I’m hoping future generations will be as familiar with resumes as they will be with phones that require chargers or cars that require drivers.

A much better medium for networking purposes is your LinkedIn Profile. I’ll admit that I have a particular affinity for social networking given my company, Simply Measured, provides social media analytics for marketers. But I’ve long maintained that LinkedIn is a much better way for you to display your passions, your creativity, and your personality than a resume ever will be. It’s a place to have a multimedia expression of your career ambitions; talk about what you’re most proud of, what you’d like to accomplish, link to your work around the web (tip: start a blog, if you don’t already have one.)

And now the good news: networking is not nearly as reprehensible as you think. In fact, it can be enlightening and even fulfilling. But you need to change your approach 180 degrees from where it likely is. Don’t think of networking as a means-to-an-end, where the “end” is about calling in enough favors for you to land a job. Think of it as an opportunity to learn from people about their jobs (what do you do?), their passions (why do you do this?), and their backstory (how did you get here?). If you’re anything like me, you’ll be amazed by the diverse ways people can make a living in this world; I continue to be. Another pitch for LinkedIn: you’re just a few clicks away from finding alums who are happy to share their experience and perspective with you.

But as great as the accumulation of knowledge is, there’s yet another reason why you should embrace networking: it’s an opportunity for you to help someone else. Yes, you.

If I could send one book back in time to my 22-year-old self, it would be Adam Grant’s Give and Take. I want you to read it, because I think it’ll change your outlook on networking as it did mine. In short, when you think of networking you need to harness your inner JFK: ask not what your network can do for you, ask what you can do for your network. Networking isn’t about asking for favors, and it’s not even about tit-for-tat; it’s about creating more value for others than you appropriate for yourself. And there are some ways to get started, like the 5-minute favor, for example:

  1. “Use a product and offer concise, vivid and helpful feedback.
  2. Introduce two people with a well-written email, citing a mutual interest.
  3. Read a summary and offer crisp and concrete feedback.
  4. Serve as a relevant reference for a person, product, or service.
  5. Share, comment or retweet something on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+ or other social places.
  6. Write a short, specific and laudatory note to recognize or recommend someone on LinkedIn, Yelp, or other social place.”

So get out there. Make your LinkedIn profile a place for ambition and expression, and use the service to find people you can learn from and add value to. Need more specific suggestions? Well, you know where to find me: http://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanaisenberg

So long, and thanks for all the SWAG

Today is my last day at Microsoft.

It’s been quite a journey from my first visit to Redmond three years ago. But after a summer internship and 18 months on the job full time, it’s time for Microsoft & me to part ways.

This may come as a surprise to many of you who knew how passionate I was about the company and my future there. I was one of the first people who’d enthusiastically show you the features of my Windows Phone, and would even use “Bing” as a verb. It was a place I saw myself for the long haul. I’ll write again sometime soon with some more of the details around my decision to leave, which I think could be helpful for Microsoft’s leaders, recruiters, and prospective employees to hear.

In short, I left because I just wasn’t able to find a way to make a meaningful contribution. I had great teammates, had a wonderful manager, and the hours were reasonable relative to the pay. But while Microsoft is at a critical moment of transition, and has many interesting problems to solve, I just wasn’t able to find a role where I felt I could make a difference. And there’s too much work to be done in the world, too many problems left unsolved, to not make a contribution.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Microsoft is a bad place to work, or that I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I returned someday farther down the road. Microsoft is a fascinating institution, one that I would argue has contributed more to the widespread adoption of technology than any other company in history. Few organizations can set a goal as audacious as “a PC on every desk and in every home,” and achieve it in the developed world within a couple of decades. It has truly been a privilege to experience working at such a momentous company, and with so many wonderful people.

While I’m disappointed that my career at Microsoft didn’t go the way I had hoped, I couldn’t be more thrilled about my next adventure: I’ll be joining Simply Measured, a social media analytics company right here in Seattle. I’ll be bringing my passion for technology, data, and building businesses and products to the social media industry, which I’ll be writing more about in the posts to come. I’m exhilarated to be part of the journey Simply Measured is on.

Let me leave you with some words of wisdom that I’ve been telling myself a lot during this process. From the man who set the standard for classy exits when no one would have faulted him bitterness, Conan O’Brien signed off saying:

Don’t be cynical – it doesn’t lead anywhere.
Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.
But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.

To the next set of amazing things.

Alt+F+X

 






End of an Error

During my summer internship at Microsoft in 2011, our VP had lunch with the ten of us in her organization who were part of the program. It was an opportunity for us to share with her what we were working on, and a chance for us to ask her questions about her experience and the future of the company. I remember one intern asked her what she would change about Microsoft if she could.

“Someone forwarded me an email the other day,” she said. “It was a cartoon of the org charts of the various tech companies. Have you seen this?”

We knew immediately what she was talking about – this cartoon had made the rounds in the tech recruiting circles. We laughed in affirmation. Yes, Apple completely revolved around Steve Jobs; Google seemed super disorganized.

“Well, I think they got it right,” she said. “And I think we could do without the guns.”

The way I see it, there are two big factors that led to a culture characterized by such internal conflict. The first is the fact that the various divisions at Microsoft were managed as six separate P&Ls, as if Microsoft were no more than a holding company. That’s partly due to an outdated business model and, as I’ve previously argued, partly due to the legal environment in which Microsoft was forced to operate for more than a decade. Ballmer’s “One Microsoft” strategy is supposed to remedy this by grouping products by functional areas (operating systems & devices, application & services, etc.) rather than have each product group operate completely independently.

The second and, I think, most significant factor is the stack ranking of employees as part of the annual performance review process. For those unfamiliar with the system, it was one whereby employees were ranked against each other to fight for scarce rating scores forced to a curve. I won’t go into details about it here, just because I think they’re kind of boring, and are about as useful as studying the org chart of the Soviet economic bureau, the mechanics of medieval torture devices, or other discarded tools of human suffering. Last year Vanity Fair published this article that does an OK job describing the system; while they mess up a few details they nail the pernicious impact this has had on collaboration and creativity. If enough readers want me to elaborate I could do a separate post on how stack ranking was actually implemented.

But it’s a new era at Microsoft, with our head of HR having announced that stack ranking has come to an end! While details on the new performance & development system are scarce, I’m in the camp that says there’s no possible way it could be worse than the old one. In short, the new system gives managers more freedom to compensate their people without fitting them to a curve (i.e., forcing someone to take the fall.) I’m a big believer that there’s no better system for an efficient allocation of resources than giving local actors the resources and authority to invest as they see fit. On that front, we’re taking steps in the right direction.

But the big question I have is how long will it take to undo the damage stack ranking has caused to Microsoft’s culture? Two decades later the economies formerly part of the Soviet Union are still struggling to develop free market dynamics and the institutions that support them. At Microsoft, those in positions of influence are those who previously excelled in the old system that emphasized competition over collaboration. Adam Grant had another fascinating article today on a similar topic: how much can a system change your behavior, versus how much do certain types of people select into a given system? I’m hopeful that the change we’ve made frees us to be the creative and collaborative organization we aspire to be.

Major Questions

It’s been about a decade since I thought much about choosing a college major. But for the last year I’ve been involved with the Microsoft Apprentice Program, which pairs Microsoft employees with high school seniors, so I’ve been spending more time thinking about the college application process lately. And last week on Haverford’s Alumni LinkedIn Group, there was robust discussion of this blog post, which asked, “What advice do you have for sophomores who are getting ready to choose a major?” My college isn’t one with a strong tradition of preparing students for careers in business (as opposed to academia, law, government, etc.) so I’m happy to play the part of the career-minded business student interpreting this question about college majors in a professional context.

I feel it’s become popular to say that what you major in doesn’t matter, that you can have any career with any major, and that you should follow your passion whatever it is. The “10,000 hours to mastery” theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell posits that success follows dedication – do something you love, or else you’ll never put in the hours needed to excel.

I can certainly see the appeal of such a worldview – hasn’t the modern world placed enough pressure on our young people? Do we need to burden them now with the career concerns they’ll spend the next several decades of their lives worrying about? We all know plenty of career switchers, and even more whose current careers have little to do with their undergraduate studies. Certainly we can afford our college students four years of pure academic inquiry without the dirty business of making a living encroaching on their studies.

I’m not going to argue that college sophomores should blindly flock to the college majors that create the highest earners and shun those at the bottom (see below). I do think it’s something more of our college students should at least take into consideration, but there’s certainly a baseline of interest and aptitude required for success in any field.

I’m not going to argue for any specific major over any other. What’s more important than your major is the skillset you develop as part of your coursework. The way I see it, there are only two skills you need to develop in school:

  1. Communicate Effectively. Learn to write well, become a functional-if-not-proficient public speaker, and understand the basic concepts for how people learn and digest information. No one ever said, “Wow, that person is really brilliant but not very articulate.” Formulating a great idea is worthless if it dies in transmission.
  2. Analyze Data. Become comfortable working with numbers and extracting meaning from them. At its core business decisions are about making predictions regarding the future, and how you can change that future given your actions. Few business decisions require a Ph.D in Statistics, but virtually all require thoughtful analysis of numerical information.

If your college coursework develops these two skills, you’ve laid a foundation for a successful career in business. You can still major in Art History if you take a few courses in Stats, Econ, or other quantitative subjects. Similarly, if you major in Chemistry you should round out your experience with courses in Literature, History, or other humanities.

Outside of those two skills, don’t worry about it – learn as much as you can about what excites you the most. Learn to be an adult. Learn to be a good citizen of communities both local and global. Find out who you are as a person.

I’ll leave you with a quote I heard on the Ted Radio Hour last week: “Passion isn’t something you follow; it’s something you bring with you.”

Vote for Alan

I just got back from Philadelphia where I had the pleasure of meeting with first year MBA students at Wharton to discuss internship opportunities at Microsoft. We do an While it was my shortest transcontinental trip to date (on the ground for 25-hours), I was able to chat with a lot of students and was encouraged to see that MBA students’ interest in Microsoft specifically and technology generally has only increased over the last couple of years.

One reason I love going back for recruiting is I always get great questions from students. They’re a great barometer for what about the company is top-of-mind outside of the Redmond bubble. For example, relatively few students asked about the re-org and how it was impacting our work, despite it being a frequent topic of speculation for many of us at the company. But lots of students wanted to talk about our search for a new CEO, and what follows is a longer form explanation of what I told them.

While I think the smart money is on Stephen Elop, I want our next CEO to be Alan Mulally. I don’t have anything against Elop, I just haven’t read an entire book dedicated to his work as I have with Mulally. And after doing so, I think Alan would be perfectly suited to fix three core aspects of Microsoft that I think are broken.

 

Expertise in Manufacturing

While Mulally may not have spent his career building software, I would argue that manufacturing experience is even more in demand at Microsoft. A former aerospace engineer who has worked on some of the largest, most complex products ever constructed, he can help us become the world class hardware maker we aspire to be. We have a hundred-thousand people that can help him understand what he needs to know about the software business. What we need is someone who can help us prevent another $1 billion write-down from making more Surfaces than the market wanted.

Willing to Kill the Sacred Cows

At Ford, Mulally saw that there were too many brands that were diminishing the power of the Blue Oval. Some of these were legacy brands that had served their purpose in the past but were no longer profitable (Mercury), and others were vanity foreign brands that the Board cherished but were of dubious value to the company (Jaguar, Volvo, Aston Martin). Shutting down or selling these brands were difficult options for dealers and board members to stomach. But this consolidation was crucial to his One Ford strategy of improving the efficiency of marketing, product development, and manufacturing, in which he was eventually successful.

At Microsoft, our sacred cow is on-premises software. We need a leader who’s willing to make the tough decisions to transform us to a services world. Currently we talk a lot about the importance of the cloud, but we’re addicted to the on-premises revenue to make our quarterly numbers. An example of this is how we compensate our field sellers for cloud versus on-premises deals. While the Customer Lifetime Value of cloud services is higher than our on-prem equivalents, we don’t pay our sellers on the CLV; we pay them on the revenue generated for that year. This is an area where Amazon excels. Your Kindle doesn’t cost $79 to make; they’re losing money when they ship that to you. But they’re smart enough to know they’re not getting rich by selling devices, they’re getting rich by selling media those devices help you purchase. Similarly, we need someone who’s willing to have a lower-than-expected quarterly earnings call as we shift to the cloud in order to drive our long term goals, and to instill that ethos in every part of the organization.

Transform a Company’s Approach to Competition.

When Mulally first got to Ford, all of his top executives would be driven home each night in a Jaguar. This disturbed him for three reasons: they were only experiencing the company’s own products, they weren’t even experiencing its core product, and they weren’t even driving themselves! How could they possibly put themselves in the shoes of a customer? What Mulally did to change this culture was to buy a fleet of competitive automobiles, and insist that his top lieutenants drive one home each night and evaluate the experience.

Because Microsoft makes a product in just about every technology market, it’s easy for us to exist completely within our ecosystem both as business users and consumers. And many of us do. While I happen to love my Windows Phone, for example, there are few things that irk me more than when one Microsoft employee chastises another for having an iPhone. Steve Ballmer has said before that he wants all Microsoft employees to be using and evangelizing our products, saying that we are the company’s best salespeople. I completely disagree. First of all, most of us are terrible salespeople. Second, we should be our company’s best competitive research team. It’s alarming to me the number of executives that have never owned an iPhone, had a Gmail address, or used SalesForce.com in a previous job. Where our competitors are ahead, we need to face reality and close the gap. Where we’re ahead, we need to shout it from the mountaintops! But it’s difficult to do either if we don’t live in the same technological world as our customers do.

I’d be remiss not to mention my own general manager is actually a major proponent of experiencing the competition’s products, not just talking-the-talk but also walking around with an iPhone and using an iMac at home. We need more of that. Once in a while we need to run meetings with WebEx, use Evernote for a week, and try prepping for a business review using nothing but Google Docs. Competitive intelligence shouldn’t be a specialized role, as it is today, but a part of every Softie’s job.

This isn’t just a major cultural issue, but a strategic one as well: what is our relationship going to be with our competitors? As we become more vertically integrated (i.e., making our own hardware) are we going to mimic the Apple model and become a more closed platform? How actively are we going to push our services onto our competitors’ devices? (e.g., Office on iPad). Will we continue to “first and best on Windows” mantra? Should our first-party applications (Office, Skype, Yammer, Outlook.com) have a superior experience on our own operating systems as a way of luring consumers into our ecosystem? Or should our services be available on all platforms, leaving our devices to fend for themselves?

My hope is for the latter. I want us to redouble our commitment to develop first-class experiences for our customers by delivering our applications to users regardless of what device they’re on. We should also have a compelling set of devices that excite users, and provide them with a differentiated operating system experience superior to what they can find elsewhere. But too much of the world has migrated away from our products for us to force customers into an all-or-nothing decision. We need to deliver value to our customers where they are, not where we want them to be.

A frequent criticism I hear of Mulally is that he’s too old (68 years old). But I’d argue that the areas where we need help are cultural as much as anything else, and that he was able to have an incredible impact on Ford in 3-5 years. The Mulally era wouldn’t need to last for 10-15 years, but could set us up for success for decades to come.

Either way, I can’t wait to find out who the next CEO will be and the strategic direction in which they will take the company. Who’s your candidate of choice? What are the most important issues you think they need to tackle?

 

The Data Desert

You hear a lot about the data deluge these days. There’s this notion that organizations are just drowning in data, making it difficult to filter out what’s important – to separate the signal from the noise. Yet in my first year at Microsoft, I couldn’t disagree more – we work in a data desert.


What we have is an abundance of reports. You might say they’re the same thing, and that I’m just picking fights over semantics. But here’s how I view the difference between data and reports:

  • Data are the raw building blocks of analysis. You use data to answer the question you have right now.
  • Reports are summarized data. They almost always are the answer to a question that someone else had in the past, but seldom are the answer to the question you have right now.

If you want to answer a question there are a dozen reports I could point you to. But data itself is relatively difficult to come by, at least in any usable way. Let’s consider a relatively basic question: how many more customers are buying servers this quarter relative to last year? Use our sales database (MS Sales), you say! After all, it’s data right from the source – as far as raw data goes, MS Sales is sushi grade.

The problem with using a database such as MS Sales for analytics, however, is that it’s a transactional data system (designed to get bills out the door, recognize revenue for financial reporting, etc.) that we’re using for business insights. And the reason why it matters becomes pretty clear if you try and count the number of customers who purchased a server this quarter – you’ll find a whole bunch of negative numbers for returns or billing mistakes, which you need to manually remove if you have any hope of getting to the right answer.

The fact that our data aren’t clean is one problem. But even they were, we would still suffer from the second major problem – our data are even more siloed than our product groups are. The relationship between any two databases (say, MS Sales and our deployment databases) make the collaboration between Office and Windows seem like John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Heaven forbid you try to answer a question that requires data from two locations such as “what is the long-run ROI on the Business Investment Funds I’ve invested over the past few years? Have those customers actually deployed and added more seats to their agreement?” Now you’re cleaning up at least two sets of data, and hoping there’s a common field for your =vlookup. Oh, and you want to run that analysis against next quarter? Have fun starting from scratch – that little “refresh all” button on Excel’s data tab isn’t for you.

These two issues (1) data aren’t clean and (2) data aren’t joined are just the symptoms – the root cause is that as much as we like to think so, we’re don’t have a data-driven culture. And it’s imperative that we become one or else we’ll never survive in a devices & services world (or at least the services part). Many of our main competitors (e.g., Google, Amazon, Salesforce) are crushing us on the ability to quickly analyze and act upon data. And that’s not just because they have access to better data or better tools. It’s because they have a culture of analytics, one where business users aren’t just empowered to do their own analysis – they’re expected to. We’ve outsourced far too much of our analytical thinking that it’s no longer a core competency, and we need to get that back.

There are some groups that are doing a better job of this than others. At the Digital Marketing Summit a few months ago, the Outlook.com/SkyDrive team presented some very good work they had done around targeted messaging to their users based on the features they had not yet used in the service. And the Surface/Microsoft Stores team presented a great use of experimentation to test versions of the website flow to drive conversion rates. It’s probably not surprising that online services like Windows Live and an e-commerce platform such as the MS Stores are the best examples I’ve seen here. But as more of our previously on-premises software moves to the cloud, we need to build that same muscle in every part of the company.

Is your organization using its data well? How do you do it? What suggestions do you have for instilling a data-driven culture?

Gretta the Jetta

Several months ago, I gave my friend Lauren a ride home from work for the first time. We’ve been friends since business school, and we both live in the same neighborhood and work in the same building – but I usually take the Connector so seldom have a chance to carpool on the way home.

About halfway home she says, “So…I guess I’ve never been in your car before,” followed by a long pause. “But I really respect the fact that you didn’t feel the need to buy a really nice car after business school.”

I thought this comment was notable for two reasons. First, it was probably the most hilarious compliment (yes, that’s how I’m choosing to take it) that I’d been paid in a while. And second, I hadn’t really noticed that I wasn’t driving a nice car. In the same way that you don’t really notice that you need glasses, or that your favorite shirt is getting a little threadbare.

What do you mean the car is old? Barely gone 100,000 miles, and runs like a charm. I got her brand new just a couple…err, 11 years ago. Has it been that long? Man, this car’s not the only one getting old…

A couple Sundays ago, Katie and I went for a hike.

We had been talking in the abstract about the possibility of getting a new car someday. Like when cars can fly or drive themselves. But the signs were becoming clearer that we could use a new car sooner rather than later. On a recent trip to Lake Chelan, our alternator died – leaving me stranded a hundred miles from home with a dead battery alone (Katie bussed back to Seattle with my parents to catch an early morning flight back to Boston.) We needed new tires, we could use AWD and some more storage for ski gear. And between the traffic and the hills, driving in Seattle turns out to be a crummy place to have a stick-shift.

Short story shorter, on the way home from our hike we test drove some cars, read some reviews, and bought a new CR-V.

The trade-in value of the Jetta was the primary focus of negotiations. But for some reason, it didn’t quite hit me that we’d be leaving her there that night, that when I closed the door in the customer parking spot I’d never drive the Jetta again. I got a little teary-eyed. I wasn’t quite ready for this.

I’m fully willing to acknowledge that getting sentimental about any inanimate object is pretty silly, especially a car, which isn’t exactly my favorite mode of transportation. But while a depreciating asset, and way to get from Point A to Point B, I can’t help feel that saying goodbye to the Jetta in some ways saying goodbye to an era.

It’s the era in which I went to college, in which I met Katie, and many of the other most important people in my life. I became an adult (or at least closer to one.)

“Congratulations,” our Honda sales rep said as I handed him over the keys to the Jetta and a wave of memories flew by. I remember going down to the Jersey Shore with Matt & Jesse from our summer HCA apartments in 2002. Driving home with Lee & Pete on college breaks, listening to Rockwell Church along the way (“things are looking up from here”…)
Making record time from Dartmouth, MA to Williston, VT to see Katie during the summers; getting my first-and-only speeding ticket from the New Hampshire State Police. Listening to Stephen Kellogg sing “dead dogs on the highway on the way to New Orleans…” in the Shenandoah Valley as we drove from New England to make our new home in the Crescent City.

I remember the gas station on St. Charles Ave first thing in the morning on Saturday, August 27th 2005. There was a line 20 cars deep for gasoline, but no one getting diesel my TDI needed. Inpatient customers in line yelled at me that I couldn’t just put diesel in the car to skip the line. Chatting with the attendant while filling up, he said they have a 4800 gallon tank of gasoline below the station – they had already sold 4500 gallons that day, and it was just before 9AM. We didn’t have to fill up again until we reached Austin’s South Congress Street.

She wore 4 license plates, traveled to 23 of the United States and visited two provinces of Canada. She brought us to beautiful destinations, took us on wonderful adventures, and helped us escape from peril.

Gretta the Jetta, you will be missed.

[the old and the new]

 

[shipping out West]

 

[crossing 100k miles in Whistler, BC]