Organizational Awareness

I’ve found myself a bit stalled in writing my memoir, so I’m going to post a few stories here in the hopes of breaking free of writer’s block…

The use of first names and email aliases at Microsoft could easily lead to confusion for new employees. A few weeks into my first summer (1999) at Microsoft, the interns received an email from a Steven Sinofsky, announcing that there would be a party later that month “at Jillians.” The email was a bit short on details beyond the date and time, and I wanted to make a good impression. I’d hate to show up at some big shot’s fancy house in jeans and a T-shirt only to discover that corporate parties are always formal affairs. So I emailed Steven and asked “will the party at Jillian’s house require formal wear?”

A few minutes later, while musing that it was nicely progressive for Microsoft to have some executive named “Jillian” who had a male secretary/assistant named “Steven,” it occurred to me that I didn’t know who Jillian was or what she products she owned. Fortunately, at Microsoft, the Outlook Address Book (aka the GAL, Global Address List) contains both full names and titles, so I quickly looked up Steven to see who he worked for.

My heart leapt into my throat when I saw Steven’s title. It wasn’t “Administrative Aide,” “Executive Assistant,” or anything else I might have guessed. “Vice President” it said simply. With mounting alarm, I turned around to ask my office-mate: “Um, who’s Jillian?” He looked confused. “You know, the intern party’s at her place?” I clarified.

I watched as comprehension and then amusement dawned. “Oh, Jillian’s is a sports bar and billiards parlor downtown” he replied. Seeing the horror on my face, he continued “Why do you ask?”

I swiveled back to my computer and went to Outlook’s Sent Items folder to confirm that I had indeed made a huge fool of myself. I began frantically hunting through Outlook’s menus… surely there was some way to fix this. The command “Recall this message” leapt off the screen and for the first time in minutes my pulse began to slow. I invoked the command and gave a silent thanks to whomever had invented such a useful feature.

It was weeks before I learned that the way “Recall this message” works tends to increase the likelihood that someone will read your message. Instead of simply deleting the message, it instead sends the recipient a message indicating that you would like to recall your prior message, and requests their permission to delete the original. Most recipients, I expect, then immediately go read the original to see why you deemed a recall necessary. Fortunately for my fragile ego, either Steven didn’t do that, or he took pity on me and simply didn’t reply.

After this experience, I never replied to an email from someone I didn’t know without first consulting the GAL.

Postscript

It was around 8am on a Saturday morning in the winter of 2010 and I’d just woken up. I got an email directly from Steven asking a deeply technical question (restrictions on Unicode endianness when parsing a Mark-of-the-Web in HTML) about some code he was writing. I was seriously impressed, both in that he was clearly writing code, but also that he’d somehow known exactly the most suitable person to send his question to, far down the organizational ladder. I confirmed the limitation and mentioned how inspirational I found it to be working in an organization where my Vice President wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

The afternoon, I was reminiscing about that incident and my first-ever mail to Steven… then I got a sinking feeling. Popping open the GAL, I confirmed my recollection that he’d been promoted to President the year before. He never corrected me.

Organizational Awareness

2 thoughts on “Organizational Awareness

  1. Similar story: An unnamed manager I’ll call Mr. F received an email from someone they didn’t recognize I’ll call Asker. Asker wanted a very large bug fix / small feature request from Mr. F. With similar wisdom described in Eric’s post, Mr. F looked up Asker in the GAL and saw their title as some sort of admin. Mr. F replied to Asker with a terse and not-so friendly reply regarding their feature request. Mr. F found out the next day from his manager that Asker reports directly to BillG and was essentially a PM responsible for getting things done on BillG’s behalf. Mr. F learned to not only look at the title in the GAL but to whom they report. Also, they DID fix that bug.

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  2. Okay I’ll share mine just so it isn’t lost completely to time. I interned at MSFT in 2004. Back then, at the end of the summer, senior interns were invited to BillG’s house for a party — along with their respective VP. My VP was Chris Jones, who was out on paternity leave, so I asked the nice folks in HR who were organizing the party if it would be okay if my Director came instead. A couple of hours later, I got a mail from a very senior person in HR asking *me*, stupid PM intern, for the very approval that I was seeking! Turns out my title in the GAL was “INTERN PROGRAM MANAGER”, which can be read, correctly, at least two different ways. I got a kick out of it.

    And also, that time I got the quarterly financials 2 weeks in advance because my email address was similar to a former VP’s. What a laugh!

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