My first job performance reviews, first as a dishwasher and borderline incompetent kitchen robot for a minor restaurant chain, and then writing video games for Atari, were short and sweet. Every year or so I would sit down in my manager’s office and he’d say, “We think you’re doing a great job. Here’s a pay raise.” That was it. It only took a couple of minutes. We didn’t have a long talk about objectives, or chat about what had gone right or wrong, or make a strategy for the next year. There were no head games or bullshit politics. Just: Everything’s fine, no problems. Here, have some money. I still consider this to be a state of innocence, and possibly an ideal. It was stress-free and I had no worries. I had a similar experience working as an intern for the federal government: Every once in a while they’d increment my GS rating and I’d get a little more money (not much, it was the government).
At Apple I was introduced to the torture of writing a self review. This was an genius application of laziness on the part of management: Each employee had to write down what they had done, be honest about their accomplishments and failures, and hope for the best. Apple actually seemed to care what you wrote, but in the end it was all classic backward-looking stuff. “You did good, no problems. Here, have some money.” Like washing dishes or writing video games or being a very junior government drone, there was nothing about objectives or future plans. (This was in the 80s and 90s, and I don’t know what reviews at Apple were like under return-of-Steve or if they changed in the post-Steve era. It’s possible they use chemical interrogation now. I could totally see that).
At Microsoft I sweated through years of similar self-reviews before learning the truth: By the time you were done with all the self-purging and 3AM panic attacks and had finally excreted the perfect gem of a critical but not /too/ critical self review, well, by that time all the numbers had been decided a month earlier in secret meetings and whatever was coming your way, candy or stick, was already a done deal. Short of your running nekkid through the lobby or installing Linux on your workstation, your review wasn’t going to change. You could write pretty much anything (“All work and no play make this developer a dull boy. All work and…”) and the only time it mattered was when you went looking for a new position inside the company and your new management got curious about the kind of drivel you’d written about yourself. The self review itself was “post-hoc, ergo propter hoc” bullshit, a substrate for your manager to justify what the secret meetings had decided. And at its core, the process was about humiliation and sowing self-doubt.
I went through three or four revisions of the performance system at Microsoft, and it became clear that the changes didn’t really matter much. The only invariant that counted was that unless you had a good manager, a real fighter ready to lay down honor and do personal combat for his or her direct reports, you got screwed. The tweaks to the review system just altered the details of how you got screwed, or how you came under special screwtiny [sic], and did nothing to fix the underlying screwedness of the review system’s philosophical base. The road to success at Microsoft was to put yourself under a champion.
It gets more fucked up than that, but you’ve already heard most of it from various articles on Slate, et al, and the threads on Mini Microsoft. There are truths buried in the Mini Microsoft comments, though they are submerged by rants, name-calling and taunting.
I quit Microsoft over two years ago, and it took a whole year to get some perspective (I wrote a lot of this soon after quitting, and I’m quite happy I never published it; many of the paragraphs simply did a crescendo into incoherent ASCII screams of frustration and anger). I think that many of Microsoft’s technical failures in the last decade can be root caused in a review system that rewarded bad behavior, put the wrong people in positions of power, mis-identified the people that Microsoft should have kicked out, and caused the wrong people to get sick of things and leave. Maybe the new review system does the job; I keep hearing good things.