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Some people just want to be cannonballs


Microsofts best practice could be placing the best programming talent outside its orbit, says Richard Donkin

I was at one of those human resources conferences the other day that are run by HR people for HR people; the sort of conference where the people on the platform exemplars of their profession terrify their audience with statements about the speed of change, the need to move with the times and a general appeal to lesser HR managers to either shape up or shove off.

The most polished of these paragons of best practice was a Microsoft manager who stressed the importance of good recruiting practices to create an environment where great people do their best work. Her slides showed a cluster of circles highlighting great hires, great jobs and great managers adding up to what was inevitably a great company.

It was all good positive stuff. She quoted the New York Times saying that Microsofts only factory asset is its human imagination. She quoted Bill Gates, Microsofts chairman, outlining a policy of recruiting people with potential over people with experience because potential is more valuable in the long run. The company was truly elitist in its hiring, so much so that, according to Steve Ballmer, Microsofts chief executive, Most times the best hire is a no hire. It sounded like the corporate equivalent of the old Surprise pea advertisement where only the smallest, sweetest peas were picked straight from the pod. The cannonballs would never get in.

How do they make these great hires? Well, Microsoft believes that, As hire As and Bs hire Cs. The idea here is that top people only want to work with other top people, whereas second-raters feel more comfortable and secure if they recruit third-raters. There may be something in this but I couldnt help feeling that, as the talk went on, and we were drip-fed even more gush about Microsoft employees being passionate about their work, loving their jobs and deriving immense personal satisfaction from what seemed their every working breath, that I would rather go off and join the Moonies.

The next day I was reading a book about Linus Torvalds, the Finnish-born originator of the Linux computer operating system, and discovered that I had not been alone. If Microsoft was so great, I wondered, how come Torvalds and thousands of other adherents to the Linux system, wouldnt touch the company with a barge pole?

Torvalds and his army of supporters believe that computer software is so important to the future of the world that it is wrong to make a secret of a systems source code. So Torvalds allows open access to his Linux system. As a result, the system has been developed and improved by thousands of computer code enthusiasts in what he says is the largest collaborative project in the history of the world... dedicated to building the best and most beautiful technology that is available to anyone who wants it.

Open sourcing, popularised before the development of Linux, by another coding pioneer, Richard Stallman, has become nothing less than an ideology underpinning the working practices of some of the most inventive programmers on the planet. These people are committed to finding the best way of doing what they do. Many of them are simply not motivated by the large salaries and equity packages offered by companies like Microsoft. Sure, some of them have been lured by head-hunters who trawl the credit lists attached to various programs. But many retain a dedication to developing software free from any commercial protectionism that might seek to restrict the flow of ideas.

When I originally posted Linux I felt I was following in the footsteps of centuries of scientists and other academics who built their work on the foundations of others on the shoulders of giants in the words of Isaac Newton, says Torvalds in the book.

Microsofts HR practitioners can justifiably feel confident they are blazing a trail that professionals in other industries must follow. But if I were one of its HR managers I might feel a little niggled that some of the most talented people in programming have placed themselves deliberately outside the Microsoft orbit. Theyre happy to be cannonballs. Perhaps its the biggest lesson that anyone in the staffing business can learn morality counts more than money for someone who stands on the shoulders of giants.

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Richard Donkin is editor of FTCareerPoint.com