In the early 1980’s I worked at Burroughs. At the time Burroughs was the second largest computer company in the world (behind only IBM in size) and growing strongly. I lucked into one of the most interesting projects in the company - working on a programmer’s workbench for mainframe programming with the user interface to run on desktop computers.

In the end the experience was more educational than productive. Despite a wealth of bright people and interesting ideas, practically none of the software projects made it out the door. Management was the problem. Burroughs had in the 1960’s and 1970’s fielded some really innovative hardware and software. The resulting success generated a wave of growth that carried the company through to the early 1980’s. Looking back I see that the company’s revenues started to drop a year or so after I’d left.

I have seen similar patterns in other companies with a history of strong growth. Strong growth means a lot of new people in management, and you tend to end up with a lot of not-very-good management. Lots of folks interested in avoiding risks and looking good means the company ends up not taking the risks needed to stay competitive.

Reading the Bill Gates book from several years back, I got the impression he had both terrific work experience in building Microsoft, and very shallow experience in not ever working for anything but his own company. Is this mixture coming back to haunt Microsoft? Windows was Microsoft’s big (and well-earned) success. Office was a substantial and credible add-on success. Since then the incremental add-ons are successively less inspiring.

Wired News: Growing Up: Microsoft Turns 30 If successful, such changes could help alleviate complaints that employee productivity is being slowed by management hoops that require too many layers of approval.

Can we take this to mean that Microsoft is suffering from the same sort of success/growth/management problem?