Some senior executives are afraid to provide feedback, because they know that their feedback will be given too much weight

I recall a conversation I had with Steve Sinofsky, back when he was in charge of Windows. As you might expect, he gets to see early versions of a lot of things, his laptop is running dogfood everything, and everybody is asking for feedback.

And he rarely gives any.¹

Not because he's a jerk, but because he understands that if he provides any feedback, it will get magnified from an idea to a suggestion to a recommendation to a direct order

"Why isn't there a Frobnicate button right next to the Widget? The main reason I go to that page is to find a Widget to frobnicate."

This becomes "Steve wants to add a Frobnicate button right next to the Widget", and then "Steve says we have to add a Frobnicate button right next to the Widget".

I guess, if he is moved to make a suggestion or share an idea, he can mention it to somebody and add "Tell the XYZ team, but don't tell them it came from me." I don't know if that's what he actually does.

¹ Presumably he gives feedback on the functionality as a whole, but today I'm talking about feedback on the level of feature requests or tweaks, like how the UI should be laid out, or the order of the pages in a wizard, or whether a wizard should be used at all.

² I hesitate to mention that at the time Exchange was being developed, the Ctrl+F standard did not yet exist. Try it: Fire up your archived copy of Windows 95, launch Notepad or Wordpad or whatever, and hit Ctrl+F. Nothing happens. At the time, the standard hotkey for Find was F3. (And, in fact, many applications today still accept F3 as a shortcut for Find.)

Comments (26)
  1. smf says:

    When you are in charge of something you are often so far removed from it that you don’t understand the correct solution to any particular problem. Bad managers will try to use their position to influence decisions as they think they need to justify their salary.

  2. Boris says:

    I suppose the fix is simply to make his feedback through standardized anonymous channels like everyone else. Steve Sinofsky wouldn’t be the only employee dogfooding everything, and dogfooding implies feedback by definition. The username shouldn’t really matter.

  3. pete.d says:

    Not a bad idea. Frankly, providing feedback from outside the main engineering group is always a perilous prospect, even if you’re _not_ the head honcho. I still today feel the weight of my perceived responsibility for pushing the Win32 printing API toward its brokenness, due to feedback I provided back in the early 90’s regarding the problematic way printer drivers were including global data in the document-specific DEVMODE data structure.

    Rather than fix it the way I thought they would (i.e. exclude global data from document-specific data structures entirely), they split the API into calls where sometimes you got global data and sometimes you didn’t. So now we have an API that still (in some cases) stores global data in a document-specific data structure, and is also now harder to understand (because now you have to remember which function to call to get or validate your document-specific data structure, depending on whether you are about to print or about to save the document).

    Basically: rather than being closely involved in the design process of the bug fix, I threw a suggestion over the wall and (incorrectly) trusted the receiving team to do the right thing with it.

    Over the years, I’ve come to understand that this occurs a great deal in user-feedback scenarios for software development. It’s quite unfortunate; software design turns into a sort of “telephone” game, where a suggestion goes in one end, and pops out at the other in a completely unrecognizable form.

    I can imagine that if an engineering team knows suggestions are coming from the boss, this normal problem just becomes magnified by an order of magnitude or two.

  4. A lot of applications use F3 as “Find Next”; many other applications have settled on Ctrl+G for that.

    1. BZ says:

      When F3 is Find Next, it defaults to Find if there is no previous find. I believe for a long time Notepad had no shortcut for Find (F3 for Find Next may or may not have been there, but I don’t remember it being there).

      1. Neil says:

        Notepad on Windows 95 does have F3 for Find Next, but nothing for Find (although as you say, the first time you press F3, it summons the Find dialog anyway).

  5. Always refreshing to see thoughtful people in charge of large organizations (or segments thereof).

  6. Alex Cohn says:

    Some while ago, the Soviet ruler was Nikita Khrushchev. Once he was riding in his black limo through a Moscow boulevard, and said to one of his aids : “this street is narrow”. In few days, the plans for cutting off all the trees of the boulevard to make it an 8-lane autobahn were prepared. Nobody doubted that this move, aimed to destroy one of the beautiful and historically important city landmarks, could not be stopped.

    As the legend goes, there was an old prominent architect, who no longer worked in the office. This brave man said: “let me only approach Khrushchev, I must tell him that this will be a disaster. I am so old, and sick. If they take me to KGB, I will quickly die in jail”.

    So he arrived to some completely unrelated event where Khrushchev was present, and asked the straightforward question: “Do you know that turning the Boulevard into an 8-lane freeway is a crime against the history of the city?” And Khrushchev said “WHAT?” And quickly it turned out that all plans and preparations were made without ever checking whether he really meant anything with his matter-of-fact remark.

    This legend should be taken to proportion; sure, no senior executive in a major corporation can cause dangers comparable to a Soviet ruler’s evil will.

    1. dave says:

      See also: “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”.

  7. Where I work, developers do not see the name of the beta tester who filed the report. It is deemed an unnecessary violation of privacy. Only Overwatch can tell and she is very tight-lipped. So, if Steve was my boss, he could probably file his report and we would have rejected it without knowing it was his.

    As I always say, Microsoft has a lot of room for improvements. A huge lot.

    1. McBucket says:

      Where I work, we keep contact information in the ticket, so that — whether it’s a fellow employee (of any rank), beta tester or just normal customer — we can contact them if we have questions about what they want, and ultimately, when there’s a build available for them that contains the fix, which is not infrequently within a few days.

      I’ve never heard of anyone complaining that this was an invasion of privacy, but I suppose that may depend on the nature of the software and one’s customers.

      1. Oh, we can contact them any time we need. Only we don’t know who we are talking to. It is like sitting in a conference room where everyone is wearing masks, only not as creepy. Besides privacy, this curbs all kinds of ad hominem treatment, both in favor and against the person.

  8. Billy O'Neal says:

    I like the new styling for how to draw keyboard keys :D

  9. Your note (2) says that Ctrl+F didn’t exist yet, but your linked article says, “Rewind to 1995. […] Back in those days, the Ctrl+F keyboard shortcut did indeed call up the Find dialog, in accordance with convention.” Is it the linked article that was wrong?

    I always remember F3 being the convention for Find Next, but Ctrl+F for Find.

  10. Søren Mors says:

    Regarding Ctrl-F, in a danish locale that key is used for bold (called “fed” in danish). As a developer used to working with some localized software, and some not so localized (say Word and Visual Studio) this causes endless minor frustration.

  11. Ray Koopa says:

    Even though I’m pretty sure you might have called him “Steve” on purpose at work, shouldn’t it be his correct name “Steven Sinofsky” in the introducing sentence, or is the internet wrong about his first name? ;o

    1. John Ludlow says:

      Steve is short for Steven. So while the internet is not wrong, neither is Raymond. Many western names can be shortened:

      Chris == Christopher
      Jon == Jonathon (note that this is not the same as John, with an h)
      Jo == Joanne or Joanna
      Joe == Joseph
      Ray == Raymond

      The key thing is whether the person is OK with you using that form of their name

      1. Ray Koopa says:

        Ah, I see; I was just a bit confused when I read a shortened first name together with his formal last name in the first sentence.

  12. exchange development blog team says:

    It’s not just people in upper management positions, it’s people whose names are recognised in a field. If there was some discussion about algorithms and someone called Donald Knuth made a comment about which algorithm to use, it’d pretty much end the discussion because everyone would assume that Knuth is the ultimate authority on that (which he probably is, actually).

    This is why I always post under an alias in the forums I contribute to, if I’m talking crap I want people to tell me about it, not just assume that it must be good because of the name attached to it.

    1. Nick says:

      You just have to keep inventing new aliases as your alias gains too much clout.

      1. Wayne says:

        And now I am left wondering who “Dave” really is. Solomon? Cutler?

        1. exchange development blog team says:

          I’m not a Microsoft person (don’t try guessing :-), but my name is strongly associated with a particular field, which is also the one I comment on the most.

          Others use aliases for this reason as well. The one that springs immediately to mind is lawyers, so they can offer an opinion on a subject without it being taken as legal advice.

    2. Boris says:

      Based on the information on his website, I wouldn’t expect Donald Knuth to have any time for forums, so the name would probably come off as a joke.

  13. jader3rd says:

    This might shoot my chance of become an executive. I swear, if I ever get any say as to what happens to Outlook, the highest priority for shipping whatever the next release will be, is having Ctrl+F to be Find instead of Forward. I understand that Ctrl+F makes sense for Forward, but it’s massively inconsistent with every other program in existence!

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