Inside the Head of the Giant

Israeli Aliza Tamir gives a rare glimpse into Microsoft's decision-making process

Aliza Tamir, head of business planning at Microsoft, has had a very busy year. This was her first year at Microsoft's world headquarters in the Redmond suburb of Seattle, Washington. After being in charge of sales and customer service in Israel, serving as Microsoft Israel CEO Arie Scope's right hand in establishing the company's local branch and dealing with Microsoft's Israeli clients, Tamir transferred to the company's world headquarters last year to figure out how to measure the success of the company's sales and marketing efforts in every country. In other words, she is now examining the performance of her former colleagues.

It is not easy for an organization like Microsoft, with over 50,000 employees worldwide, to make each and every employee toe the line. Discipline at Microsoft, like in other giant American corporations, is almost military. Without systems and structured procedures that go right down to the ground in an organized fashion, it is very easy to lose control. The world headquarters is therefore divided into two large divisions that work separately but cooperate with one another constantly.

The first group consists of seven business groups, divided according to products: servers, Office products, small and medium business solutions, etc. The second division is headed by Kevin Johnson, number three in the Microsoft hierarchy, after Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates. This division is responsible for the field - for the Microsoft branches scattered among 27 countries around the world, and the five regions into which those countries are organized. Johnson has a small headquarters of his own, with seven managers who help him make the right connections between the field and the business groups that develop products. Tamir, 38, is one of these seven. Her position is defined as business planning manager. In an organization based on technology, changing the business focus is very dynamic.

Every year there are changes in the criteria according to which the various countries' performance is judged, and their goals are altered. Adjustments to the market's needs must be swift, so Microsoft has developed a method for checking the countries' performance. The method is structured but flexible enough to change every year in keeping with the company's business focus. When Tamir first arrived at Redmond at the end of August last year, she was asked to submit a plan by mid-September for the points that would be examined this year.

In a recent interview, Tamir gave Haaretz a rare glimpse into the decision-making and internal review process at Microsoft.

"The first stage is the Mid-Year Review, an event that is held in January," she explains. "Microsoft's fiscal year goes from July 1 to June 30, so January is considered the middle of the year.

"The review event lasts two weeks and is very intensive. Thirty of the most senior executives at Microsoft's world headquarters, including the heads of the various business groups, convene in an isolated cabin at a vacation village in the forest outside Seattle. Ballmer heads the whole group.

"The executives meet in the village's conference room to hear the head of [Microsoft's operations in] each country or region, and executives who fly in for the meetings must prepare a presentation of 30 slides showing the exact measurements for examining their business results, customer satisfaction and the workers' focus.

"The managers in each country plan their presentations weeks in advance, because this is their most important annual test," notes Tamir. "The data are collected not only from sales figures, but also from surveys conducted among employees and customers." Tamir is the person who decides the content of the 30 slides.

Israel's Arie Scope does not come to the conference in Seattle. He sends his report in the required format to his regional manager in Paris, where all the data from Europe is collated, along with the data from the Middle East and America. The regional manager then goes to Seattle to report to Ballmer.

"Each manager stands alone facing Ballmer's team for six or seven hours," relates Tamir, "with Ballmer asking an occasional pointed question and then summing up the manager's performance, for better or for worse, at the end of the session. The team members get perhaps two hours of sleep each night during those two weeks of intensive round-the-clock meetings."

Tamir says the guidelines for measuring the managers' performance are very strict. Anyone who does not meet the company's goals will be shown the door. This strictness is most likely what has brought the company success year after year. "At Microsoft you are allowed to make a mistake just once," says Tamir. "If you don't learn the lessons and make a second mistake, you're in very bad shape."

Conclusions are drawn from the two-week review and are used in the preparations for the next conference - the PRISM, or Priority Setting Meeting, held in March. "Two hundred senior managers from the Seattle headquarters and around the world are invited for four days of deliberations and presentations," explains Tamir, "with the goal being the formulation of the company's strategy for the next 18 months."

Four weeks later in April, a virtual meeting is held between all the Microsoft branches worldwide, called the WWSMM, or worldwide sales and marketing meeting. A strategic paper is prepared for each main business group at Microsoft, and these papers are sent to the field via the Internet, with no face to face meetings until July, when 1,000 sales, marketing and service managers from around the world convene in New Orleans for the MGB - the Microsoft Global Meeting. For an entire week, Microsoft executives explain how to implement the strategic papers sent to them in April. After Gates opens the conference, the employees are split into groups for workshops and training sessions. Microsoft also publishes its business results for the year at this conference.

For this coming January Tamir is preparing a new series of slides.

"What I have succeeded in changing in this process," says Tamir, "is that instead of first discussing the figures presented by the manager of each country, we will open with a discussion of his general strategy for that year and the specific problems of his region, and only afterward will look at the figures."

Tamir is in daily contact with Johnson, and participates in quarterly meetings run by Ballmer. She sees Gates in the elevator almost every day, since their offices are on the same floor of the headquarters building, but she has almost no business contact with him. Tamir has moved to the U.S. with her family for three years, and views her options as being open when she returns to Israel. She was 22 when she first set out on the technology road, as Scope's secretary when he was still working for Hewlett Packard. As her career developed, she transferred to Microsoft together with Scope to set up Microsoft Israel.

Today, after a year in her job overseas, Tamir says the hardest aspects of coming to the U.S. were adjusting to the different mentalities between Israelis and Americans, and working only in English. Microsoft's strict work culture was no problem at all - Tamir has been in the organization for 14 years already, and has been judged by the same criteria that she is creating today.