REDMOND, Wash., July 3, 2000 — The metaphor for success in the business world is a ladder — each rung representing a promotion, and every employee reaching for the next one up. It often works fine. At a bank, for example, any ambitious teller may aspire to become a vice president, or higher.
On the other hand, there are many organizations where there is no ladder. A star pitcher on a professional baseball team, for example, may not want to be vice president of the American League. His ambition may be to win the World Series or earn a place on the All-Star team.
So it goes for software engineers. At Microsoft, the engineers who write the software are extremely valuable players. But for them, winning means creating the world’s best computer programs, not necessarily becoming a high-level manager. And yet, the Microsoft corporate ladder leads to vice president.
Thinking that it could do more for its technical stars, Microsoft has created an internal honor:
The title was given recently to 16 Microsoft engineers who have excelled.
“I think it is very important for any company to develop their people on a career path that is best matched with the talents of the individual,”
said Mark Lucovksy, a member of the first group of Distinguished Engineers, and one of six original members of the team that created NT/Windows 2000.
“I am not a budget guy, would never be good at deciding who should be paid what,”
“Somehow I have been able to avoid being a manager and have been able to stay an engineer, stay engaged in writing code. The fact that Microsoft created the DE classification is encouraging because they now are formally recognizing that there should be executive-level positions without executive-level management responsibility.”
With his new title, Lucovsky didn’t get a budget, fancy office or an administrative assistant, and he’s just fine with that.
“I think that this is exactly the point,”
“The DE promotion is not supposed to change anything. In another way, however, the DE promotion is gratifying because it is Microsoft’s way of formally telling me that my work and my contributions to the company are very important, as important as a VP managing 1,000-plus people. They have been saying this for years with bonuses, options, level promotions, and other perks, but saying it on paper with a DE promotion is different.”
Peter Spiro, another of Microsoft’s new Distinguished Engineers, manages the core SQL Server engineering team. In all, he’s been working on database software for 15 years, including 10 years as a hands-on developer and three to four years as an architect He has been a manager for the last two or three years.
“Microsoft has generally been quite successful at allowing talented people to continue working in the domain that challenges and excites them,”
“I have all sorts of very senior people in my team working as individual contributors. This is extremely important. In a sense, engineers are really craftsmen. They love what they’re doing; they’re driven to produce the best possible product.”
Spiro is not convinced, however, that the new title will change much for the dedicated professionals.
“I’ve found that the best engineers take a particular job or role because they’re interested in certain aspects of the job; they want to learn something from the job, they want the challenge,”
“They’re not thinking about getting up the corporate ladder and whether this job will help them. So getting promoted is just a side effect of doing great work. The promo can’t be your goal.”
By establishing the new position, Microsoft recognizes that the value of engineers comes through their technical contributions rather than their ability to manage large groups, according to Chuck Thacker, a Distinguished Engineer who recently joined the Emerging Technologies group.
“I think the net effect of this will be that top technical contributors will be less inclined to switch to becoming mediocre managers.”
To Anders Hejlsberg, a Distinguished Engineer currently working on the developer tools for the new .NET platform, the best form of recognition you can get
“is that of your peers and the people you respect, so I’m obviously quite honored and pleased. I don’t really expect it to change my daily life, though. My passion has always been the engineering side of software development, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Too often, says Hejlsberg, employees who advance do less and less of the engineering work that embodies their talent and passion.
“Many organizations do not realize or act on this dilemma, and as a result they end up underutilizing their key technical people,”
“With the new Distinguished Engineer program, I feel that Microsoft has actively engaged to create an environment where our top engineers can continue to grow and do what they do best: Writing great software.”