Why is this man smiling?

In a comment to my griping about having to come up with 3 strengths and weaknesses for my performance review, Scott Mitchell pointed at one of Joel’s older articles entitled “Incentive Pay Considered Harmful.” I must have missed Joel’s posting the first time around, but I did get a chuckle out of reading his rant against the Ship-It Award (or, as some people called it “the Sh*t-It Award”). One amusing thing was that Joel didn’t tell the whole story, though. He says:

The Ship It program was announced with an incredible amount of internal fanfare and hoopla at a big company picnic. For weeks before the event, teaser posters appeared all over the corporate campus with a picture of Bill Gates and the words “Why is this man smiling?” I’m not sure what that meant. Was Bill smiling because he was happy that we now had an incentive to ship software?

There weren’t just teaser posters – every employee in the company also got a silly yellow and orange button with a pixellated picture of Bill Gates smiling on it. I’m looking at mine right now, and I distinctly remember when I picked it up from my mailslot, thinking “what the hell is this for?” I think I came in the weekend they were distributed and happened to pick mine up. What happened next may be completely apocrpyhal, but I believe that by the next morning the uncollected buttons (and, I guess, the posters) made a sudden disappearance from the campus. The story that I heard was that the “why is this man smiling?” campaign hadn’t been fully cleared with management and someone with a lot of clout went ballistic when they saw it and made them recall all the paraphanalia. So, the fact that I actually had my button was… well, it really meant nothing, but I’ve held on to it nonetheless.

Anyway, the really amusing thing is that while Joel has nothing but contempt for the program (as did most everyone else at the time, including myself), in my view it’s turned out to be a net positive. As far as incentives go, Joel’s right – it makes absolutely no difference. But Ship-It awards now function as a kind of institutional memory for those of us who’ve been around for a while. I’ll confess that I can never remember exactly when some version of some product I worked on shipped, and now I don’t have to. The ship date for Access 97 – November 18th, 1996 – is sitting right there on my shelf to remind me. It’s also a quick shorthand introduction to people when you go to their office: multiple Ship-It plaques = oldtimer. You can also see people’s histories within the company (“Oh, so you used to work on Windows and then Office…”) or the history of products within the company (VB 6.0 shipped July 1, 1998. VB 2002 shipped January 15, 2002. Between lies quite a tale.) So, yeah, it’s something that didn’t fulfill its intended, misguided purpose but I think it redeemed itself in the end in some small way, despite the scorn that was heaped on it originally. I’m glad I have mine and wouldn’t give them up.

As for the rest of the article slagging on the idea of performance reviews, I can only fall back on Churchill’s immortal quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” There’s no question that performance reviews can have terrible effects, but what’s the alternative? Give everyone a pat on the head, say “nice work” and send them off to a nap with some warm milk and cookies? This isn’t to say that there aren’t better or worse ways to do performance reviews, but it seems cheap to dispatch them without suggesting some alternative…


14 thoughts on “Why is this man smiling?

  1. Jeff Atwood

    < ![CDATA[Joel is k-rad, but he's no Demarco. I'm surprised you aren't referring to your well-worn copy of PeopleWare, which has a far more thoughtful treatment of this topic: — page 184 In his 1982 book Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming set forth his now widely followed "Fourteen Points." Hidden among them, almost as an afterthought, is point 12B: Remove barriers that rob people in management and in
    engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This

    means [among other things] abolishment of the annual

    or merit rating and of management by objectives.

    Even people who think of themselves as Deming-ites have trouble with this one. They are left gasping, What the hell are we supposed to do instead? Deming’s point is that MBO and its ilk are managerial copouts. By using simplistic extrinsic motivators to goad performance, managers excuse themselves from harder matters such as investment, direct personal motivation, thoughtful team-formation, staff retention, and ongoing analysis and redesign of work procedures. Our point here is somewhat more limited: Any action that rewards team members differentially is likely to foster competition. Managers need to take steps to decrease or counteract this effect.


    also see "Measuring with your eyes closed", pg 60]]>

  2. paulvick

    I have no complaints about my compensation, but I’m afraid that I can’t retire to Aruba for the rest of my life just yet… I haven’t been around _that_ long.

  3. Leigh Kendall

    < ![CDATA[>>I'm afraid that I can't retire to Aruba for the rest of my life just yet... I haven't been around _that_ long. << Good! 😉 We need folks like you figthing for VB… just make sure that _when_ you do retire, you’ve appointed a like-minded successor! Funny story BTW…]]>

  4. Joel Spolsky

    < ![CDATA[hmm, I came here to yell at you for that disgraceful patent and then I notice that you're quoting me 🙂 Paul, not sure if you remember, before Microsoft had ShipIt awards, you could tell the old-timers because they had shrinkwrapped boxed products of everything they had ever shipped on their bookshelves. The Shipit stupidity replaced a genuine form of employees being recognized for shipping a product (being given a copy of the shrinkwrapped box) with a ersatz form of recognition which made it pretty clear that management didn’t even know that employees were already motivated for shipping software. And it’s a classic case of gold-starism. It was universally derided by the hard core old-school developers that make Microsoft what it is today. The new-age Microsoft programmer, the one who thinks that the purpose of the USPTO is to grant monopolies on 5-letter keywords that do the same thing as earlier 3-letter keywords from the 1959 edition of lisp, might enjoy the gold stars. For those of you joining in, it was called S*hit-it because that’s how the VP of Applications Mike Maples referred to it in the email announcing it.]]>

  5. paulvick

    < ![CDATA[Joel, it's been quite a while since you've actually worked here, so maybe you're getting us confused with someone else. I've got boxes for every product I've shipped up on my shelf as well as the Ship It awards, courtesy of the teams that I've worked for. So I'm not sure what you're talking about there. I don’t think this really has anything to do with old-school vs. new-school (especially given that we literally graduated from the same school at pretty much the same time). I think it’s more a grumpy "nothing was good as the good old days" attitude versus a relaxed "life is imperfect, deal with it" attitude. Was the program silly? Yes, of course, it was, as I indicated above. But rather than choosing to view it in apocalyptic "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" terms, I choose to view it in what, to me, seems to be a more sane (and humane) way. It was a silly idea that, in the end, had some small net positive and not really any net negative. So what’s the big friggin’ deal? Life’s a lot more fun once you realize that sometimes it’s a joke.

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  8. Stock Options Ruled

    < ![CDATA[I have one. Maybe I can sell it on ebay someday. What do you think they are worth? I found this blog googling to see if they are worth anything. ( 98, 98se, 98me, NT4.0, W2K) Balmer always came across as a prick. Gates was something special. End of an era dude. Ex Microsoft Dev lead

  9. Stock Options Ruled

    < ![CDATA[MSN It’s the internet incarnation of that ‘object’ lurking in the bottom of every drawer that has snapped off something, or was an extra part in a zip lock bag somewhere at the dawn of time – and you just can’t throw away in case you find out it actually has a function. ]]>

  10. Stock Options Ruled

    < ![CDATA[ "This isn't to say that there aren't better or worse ways to do performance reviews, but it seems cheap to dispatch them without suggesting some alternative" Why? Nice use of the word dispatch though. I have an image of a little ‘performace review character’ getting a bullet in the back of the neck. A truly pointless ritual turd floated up from the bowels of hell by the toilet water that is was and ever shall be HR. Marketing is just a mere urinal cake in comparison with them. ]]>

  11. Stock Options Ruled

    < ![CDATA[For a final giggle try searching the fully expaned win32 samples for words like f**k and s**t. My favourite was "I don’t know what the f**k this does"


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