Comparing Google, Microsoft to Netscape, IBM and Predicting Legal ‘Piracy’

Blogs are providing an unprecedented look inside organizations in the Internet age. Via blogs run by current and former employees and associates we can now see aspects of major technology companies that otherwise would only be visible to a few insiders.

While it is fun to position these companies against one another for sport. Looking at the historic difficulties these firms have experienced, they’ve often proven to be their own worst enemies. In fact, you’d almost expect to see on the wall of each of the CEOs a plaque with the words “We’ve seen the enemy and it is US!”

It’s not just companies, it’s also trade organizations. Let’s add to the list of those doing harm unto themselves the Motion Picture Association of America and Recording Industry Association of America. These groups have, historically, done more to alienate their members’ customers than I have ever seen done by anyone, and they currently seem hell-bent on a path for a government backlash, where the U.S. might just legalize the file-sharing practice that is currently considered piracy.

Google: Channeling Netscape

There appears to be a clear trend going on with Google. You get a sense of a management team struggling to conceal a deep fear that folks will discover the firm is a one-trick pony and that the executives don’t have the experience needed to run a large company. The best historical example of this in recent years was Netscape, which did itself in by trying too hard to conceal its incompetence.

Reading between the lines you can see the frustration in Google employees, who are starting to realize they won’t be buying Ferraris or castles and know that recently issued stock options will be worth less than the paper they are printed on for the foreseeable future.

Google sees its executive team less and less as heroes and more as clueless idiots trying to cover up what they don’t know by coming up with ever more risky plans in the hope that quantity can make up for the lack of quality in policies and strategies.

I can picture these employees sitting back in their chairs, frustrated that they can’t fire their executives and put competent people in those jobs. I have news for those who think this way: You are killing your company.

No executive is perfect and the Peter Principle is alive and well in virtually every company you might hope to work for. Your executives desperately need your help, not your smug criticism. Yes, perhaps your leaders are in over their heads, but that is why they hired you.

Building a company, or killing it, is a team effort. Most of Google’s employees have benefited from one hell of a good idea. Now it is time to give back — you didn’t win the lottery by being hired, you need to work to ensure your future because, if you don’t, you’ll be wondering where your next paycheck will be coming from. Like the Netscape folks, you’ll soon be talking about what might have been.

Accept the responsibility, Google staffers. Life is neither fair nor easy and it is time to stop complaining and use that energy to make a difference. Google has within it the power to be great, but, without everyone working to that end it will simply share Netscape’s fate and become just a bad memory in a few years.

Microsoft: Following IBM to Become the Next Dinosaur

Microsoft is vastly larger then Google and, as a result, there are a massive number of blogs from existing, former and temporary employees that discuss the frustrations of working at that company. There is no company, in my view, on the planet that has more potential, for good or for bad, than Microsoft.

For the rank and file there is a sense that the politics have gotten out of hand, that it is better to be an expert at kissing butt than it is to do great work. Stories of inept managers who spend their time taking credit for others’ work and screw ups at all levels that are destroying key Microsoft offerings appear to circulate both widely and freely.

For the temporary employees there is a dichotomy between those that believe that not being a full time employee makes for a much better life, and others that indicate temps are thought of as second class citizens who effectively have to sit at the back of the bus. In fact there is a strong undercurrent of discrimination which, while not associated with race or religion, is tied to the nature of your employment there.

Across all groups there seems to be a sharp divide between those that think everything the company does is perfect and those that see Microsoft as a train wreck in progress. Executives are either demi-gods who can do no wrong or dinosaurs being circled by vultures looking to take those dinosaurs’ jobs when they become extinct.

Backstabbing appears a near art form and there appears to be little to support the common thread that most, apparently, do like to work there. I’ve seen people leave Microsoft for other firms who, after seeing how the new firm is run, don’t think so badly of Microsoft anymore. In fact, many return to the company with a new perspective.

Transitional Period

I worked for IBM previously, and the situation there was eerily similar. The expectation is often that executive management is responsible for everything, that work has to be fair, and that the goal of a company is to make the employee happy. Staff members often see problems as someone else’s responsibility and believe employee surveys are actually accurate measures of employee satisfaction.

Microsoft is in transition, from the founding teams to those that will carry the firm forward. IBM lost a great deal of power when it went through this kind of transition. I spent a good chunk of my life there learning the whys and hows of the IBM fall and, to net it out, it was because employees from top to bottom stopped working for the company and started working for themselves.

Yep, it was all about measurements (which were poorly set), the next promotion, or protecting a pension rather than building the best damn products and creating the happiest customers in the world. As a result IBM lost the support of its customers, key employees left for greener pastures, and those that were left got laid off and saw their pensions pillaged by executives, who were ever more focused on getting their bonuses at the cost of IBM’s future.

Watching IBM sell its PC company and seeing the CEO get a US$20 million check made me feel like weeping. A slow death is what happens when executives focus too much on personal compensation.

Microsoft, along with a number of other companies, is clearly on a similar path and the only way to avoid it is for everyone to step back, take a breath, decide what is really important and do it.

Over the last 10 years while covering the company I’ve seen Microsoft almost do many incredible things. Recently it has seemed the firm’s most valued employee skill was coming up with ever more creative excuses for not getting the job done. What happened to its PDAs, wireless monitors, MP3 players, living room PCs, personal media centers, etc… ?

Legal Piracy

I’ll close with my prediction that, unless something changes, what we now consider to be media piracy will one day become legal. Between the MPAA and RIAA I’ve never seen a bigger disconnect between what they are supposedly trying to do and what they are actually doing. In their efforts to combat piracy they are showcasing how power can be misused. The result is a growing world trend to legalize piracy to protect children and parents.

The latest instance of this is the emergence of an apparently legal high quality piracy site in Sweden called “The Pirate Bay,” which is becoming the only place to find movies you can’t even buy in stores. Top titles include “Inside Man,” “Fearless,” “Ultraviolet,” and “Failure to Launch.” A political party is forming in Sweden around this concept. France seems well on the way to legalizing this behavior as well.

Companies and organizations often forget that as one age group transitions out of leadership positions and the next generation transitions in, rules change. Kids currently view downloading tunes and movies as a privilege they would like to continue. In addition, an ageing group of boomers wants to be able to watch movies at home and not feel threatened for doing so. Sometimes you can hold onto something so tight you kill it and that, to me, appears to be what is happening here.

Unless the industry can find a way to reward and encourage legal behavior while enabling the things their customers want to do, they will lose what they were trying to protect and the only people they’ll be able to legitimately blame is themselves.

The Goal Is to Make a Difference

The similarities here are that folks are focused on the wrong things, attacking the wrong people and simply not stepping up and getting the job done. How many employees hired out of school feel that their new company should be fair, that the “grade” is what is important, and that their leaders should be more like their parents? I’ve got news for some of you folks: your CEO is not your mother, and it is the quality of the job you do, not the amount of the bonus you get that is important to you and your company long term.

Look at little Apple, all but dead in the mid 1990s. It took a little leadership and a lot of folks more interested in getting the job done than in increasing their own personal wealth to restore that company. Apple may be far from perfect, but when it comes to implementation it has set a high bar that every one of us can aspire to reach.

Trust me when I say that riding a company down is no fun, and blaming your co-workers and managers doesn’t help. Instead of whining or searching for that perfect excuse find a way to make a real difference by getting the job done right.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

1 Comment

  • One of the worst aspects of today’s IBM is that its processes seem almost deliberately designed to ensure that IBMers inflict more pain on each other than on IBM’s competitors.
    Take the annual evaluation process where managers are now mandated to allocate a certain proportion of employees a ‘3’ grade. Get two of those in a row and you’re out. At the same time, the pressure is on managers to do these evaluations in an increasingly slapdash way. So there is an increasing number of injustices.
    The company’s pension changes are also pitting IBMer against IBMer. The long-termers are unhappy because their pensions are being eroded and they think things are going to get worse. But the newer IBMers are also unhappy because it’s now clear to them how much worse their own pension prospects are, compared even to the Ts and Cs of the long-termers’ revised pension deals.
    The sad fact is that a. IBM HR is now measured largely on employee costs, and b. whenever IBM Finance devises another scheme to hit the employees’ pockets, it never allows for the possibility that declining morale might lead to declining sales.

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