Microspeak: Level-set

In mathematics, a level set is the set of points at which a function takes a particular value. This has nothing to do with the way the term is used at Microsoft.

In fact, the way the term is used at Microsoft, I have no idea what it means. But here are citations. The first is from an upper-level executive:

Before we start the meeting, let me level-set. Here's what we plan to accomplish today.

The next is from a presentation to a large group on some investigative work a team undertook. After the presenter spent a few minutes discussing the background of the problem:

That's some level-setting on the hardware we had available for investigation.

Here are some citations from presentation slide decks:


  • ...
  • Pre-work check and Level Set
  • ...

Initial Data gathering and Level Setting

Teams share solution overviews, roadmaps and architecture views with each other to level set.

(Notice that level-set is as a verb.)

From what I can gather, level-setting is some sort of blend of expectation-setting and calibration.

Comments (18)
  1. Mark says:

    From those citations, to me it sounds like tried to say "set the scene" but missed. I.e. to give some background about something, or to put something into context.

  2. GWO says:

    (Notice that level-set is as a verb.)

    No, notice that "set" is a verb, and "level" here is the thing that is being set.  Like "scene setting", being the act of setting a scene, as "goal setting" is the act of setting goals, "level setting" is the act of setting a level.

    The level of what? Well, that depends on context – for the hardware it'll probably be a level of voltage or the value of some hardware register. For the meeting, its the level of planning/achievement one hopes to achieve at the meating.

  3. Mott555 says:


    I instantly thought of a carpenter's level. I'm not sure how to verbalize it but it almost makes sense in that context.

  4. NUXI says:

    From that context it sounds like its something similar to making sure everyone is on the same page or getting everyone up to speed.

  5. Mark (The Other Mark) says:

    We use it as establishing a baseline of expectations- In fact, the phrase is almost always "Level set expectations". To level set expectations, you explain what you will do for a project, what you can asist with but someone else needs to do, and what you cannot do. It probably means "set the level of expectations", but some middle mananger heard "Level-set" from a Math guy once, though "That sounds cool, I'll (mis)-use it elsewhere!"

    I'm not really sure what "Level setting hardware" would be, unless the presenter was trying to explain what hardware was available so people understood what steps were taken/not taken? For example, we didn't realize the problem with Ramadigifrat Coprocessors because none of the test equipment has one.

  6. Tim says:

    I haven't worked at Microsoft in 15 years but I assume the "level" is referring to job levels ie pay scales.  When I was there we used to refer to engineers as "Level X" (I can't remember the actual scale) and that generally gave you a sense of what you could expect from them.  By analogy then, setting the level of a meeting or hardware would give you a sense what you would expect from it.

  7. Ryan says:

    I think Maurits is bang on.  As a musician "setting levels" (where the level to be set is the gain adjustment on each channel) is a very familiar phrase for me and the context of your examples above matches perfectly.

  8. DG says:

    I would +1 GWO comment

  9. jmthomas says:

    A "Level Set" is done to assure that all participants share a common base of knowledge, generally about status or history or capability.  "Lets do a level set so that everyone knows how much progress we've made".  "Lets do a level set on the new hardware to make sure everyone knows its status".

    We were using "Level Set" 30 years ago in the aerospace industry.  "Set" means to "make and adjustment" or "bring to a specified value".  "Level" generally meant "shared knowledge".

  10. TimG says:

    > A "Level Set" is done to assure that all participants share a common base of knowledge, generally about status or history or capability.

    For example, the definition of the term "level set."

  11. John says:

    I'm with HiTechHiTouch there. It has been used where I've worked to basically bring everybody up to the same level of knowledge / background on something before digging deeper or announcing progress etc.

    For the same reasons it's also commonly tied to the concept of expectations to ensure that all parties gave the same understanding of a project's goals.


  12. I assumed it came from the audio world; the actor says his line (or "test: one, two three") and the sound engineer *sets* the gain on the actor's mike so that, when done, all of the audio is at around the same *level*.

  13. Anonymous Coward says:

    This is nail-pulling material.

  14. Anonymous says:


    [That Web site gives it as a noun, but at Microsoft, it's never used as a noun. -Raymond]
  15. cheong00 says:

    If I just heard the word, I would expect it means something like what NUXI suggested.

  16. metafonzie says:

    Allright, the truth is that this feature is a bug-farm. So lets level-set here. We should be dogfooding the beta releases more and making sure that PMs report through to their seniors in the event of an planned unplanned outage. Teams should also look at recycling bits and leveraging hipos such that we achieve shorter release cadences.

  17. Bear says:

    If I may be so bold, I'm suggesting that it comes from audio:   when an audio engineer sets the levels in a multitrack recording setting, he's setting the gain on all the different sources so they share the same reference level.

  18. steveg says:

    I think the boss is saying he wants to play Lode Runner with customised levels.

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