Microsoft layoffs impact Exchange technical writers - where now for documentation?

All layoffs have their ugly side, some more so than others. Last week, Microsoft completed round 2 of its current layoff exercise and the axe fell on some of those who have helped the Exchange community to understand and deploy the technology over the years. Although I understand the mechanics and reasoning behind layoffs better than most, I don't think this was a smart move.

I know far too much about the mechanics of corporate layoffs. Acquired through bitter experience working at executive level in DEC, Compaq, HP, and EDS, I know that all layoffs are horribly painful exercises, even if some of those who are laid off end up with better positions at other companies. There’s just something dreadful about informing someone that their work at a company has come to a sudden end and that they are about to be detached from the corporate body.

Which brings me to last week’s news that Microsoft had laid off several prominent Exchange technical writers among the 2,100 who received pink slips in the second round of reductions since the Nokia acquisition. Writers who worked in the areas of high availability, information protection (retention policies, eDiscovery, and so on), and hybrid connectivity were affected. From the reports that I have received, It seems like the cuts descended on writers who work remotely more so than those based in Redmond.

One particular layoff came as a complete shock as it concerned a high-profile individual who has done more than most to evangelize the cause of native Exchange high availability to the customer base through presentations at many conferences around the world.

Layoffs theoretically allow companies to pay off those who are no longer contributing. At least, that’s the common wisdom. The idea is that companies will become more efficient by discarding low performers, the 5-10% of the workforce who cannot be convinced to up their game and must therefore be moved on to allow the true potential of those who remain to be liberated and so drive company performance to greater heights.

The truth is often different. Humans are imperfect creatures at the best of times. Those who assess people for redeployment, to be let go, to seek other opportunities, or whatever HR euphemism is concocted to disguise the true nature of the exercise make mistakes in their selections. Sometimes the errors are due to a lack of awareness of those being considered. Sometimes it’s a case of office politics where favorites are protected and others penalized. And sometimes it’s simply a matter of selecting a victim to meet a goal set by senior management.

I know that Microsoft let other writers associated with Exchange go last week too and that saddens me as well. I am pained not only for the individuals concerned but also for the message that appears to be conveyed in these actions. Don’t expect any more deep technical content to be created for Exchange 2013 or any future version. Everything will be in the cloud anyway and you don’t need to worry your little heads about the details because Office 365 will take care of everything. And so on.

It’s not as if Exchange remains a technology with nothing more to explain. For example, Managed Availability remains a black box that is impenetrable to many who cannot understand the influence the subsystem exerts on their servers.  In addition, we have a new major version of Exchange coming next year and I’m sure that a few details will need to be documented about co-existence, migration, deployment, and changes made to the DAG. You know, topics that need to be covered in-depth.

Any reasonable writer can generate content to order and that content can be generated by writers anywhere in the world. But writers who generate accurate, literate, insightful, and coherent content make a difference to the technologists who consume the content found in TechNet and the EHLO blog. Laying off the people who can help customers understand and utilize technology might save a few dollars but it seems like a tacky and tawdry approach for a very profitable company to take.

Eliminating some technical writing jobs is not the point. What’s really upsetting is that subliminal message that Microsoft is no longer interested in providing the very best technical information to its customers. That’s something that all of us should be worried about – unless of course, you really are due to be absorbed by the cloud and can therefore rely on the Kool-Aid. You’ll need it.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 7

on Sep 25, 2014

Wow. This is not good. The pessimist in me thinks this is how the "Cloud-First" approach will be pushed more to on-prem customers. The optimist in me wants to think that there won't be a major dip in official documentation on TechNet, though the more in-depth content we receive on the EHLO Blog may suffer.

So I know you won't want to share any names, but are we talking about someone with an alliterative S name? Or maybe someone who was originally from the UK and settled in the US (who may have done a swap of goods with you at MEC)?

Those are two that come to mind when reading your blog, and they would indeed be huge losses for first-party content. Don't get me wrong, the MVP community does great work and shares great content as well (including many articles that I have bookmarked), but TechNet is gospel for us.
How can we follow Official First-Party Content if it is now lacking? :(

on Sep 25, 2014

Some of the folks affected by the cuts asked me to keep their names out of this post; others were quite happy to be cited. To keep everyone happy, I decided to go along the path of not identifying anyone. But you can read your own into the text and come up with your own candidates for people who might have spoken at many conferences in the past and had been well known for their work in evangelizing topics such as high availability and managed availability in Exchange 2013. Not to take away from the others who were cut, all of whom played their part in the general improvement in the quality and coverage of Exchange documentation since the bad old days of Exchange 2000-2003.

on Sep 25, 2014

If people don't know what the product does, don't expect them to discover that it does it. Getting rid of excellent documentation isn't just shooting oneself in the foot, it's amputating the leg and then using it to bludgeon yourself into unconsciousness.

on Sep 26, 2014

I couldn't agree more.

I knew some of the individuals affected better than others. But I know the caliber of everyone that was laid off. Regardless of what some number cruncher at Microsoft thinks, they created massive gaps by letting these people go.

And there are certainly plenty of gaps in documentation for Microsoft's cloud offerings. Microsoft's opinion that we do not need to look behind the curtain is an issue for a different day, because so many gaps exist in front of the curtain. Customers and support professionals can have a hard time finding solid technical detail on how clients interact with Office 365. These writers were sorely needed by Microsoft.

It is hard to see this happening to Exchange. It is like watching a long time friend get sick. Microsoft may think that they are offering customers the best option by putting Exchange on-premise second to Office 365. But 2/3 of my customers walk away feeling like Microsoft is cramming Office 365 down customers proverbial throats.

Only time will tell, but I certainly do not like the changes I see.

on Sep 27, 2014

OSG lost many writers who were exceptional. None of it makes sense (and this is coming from someone who has been through corporate layoffs twice in my life). The bad news is the third round still looms.

on Sep 30, 2014

One person certainly comes to mind for the High Profile staff you mentioned.
I certainly hope that it isn't the case.

This is very disappointing, not for just this one, but all of those in the Exchange Team.

on Oct 1, 2014

For context, I am the Active Directory Administrator and Exchange Admin for a large Health Care provider with around 16,000 years. An IT professional for around 23 years.

This makes me want to weep. What the new Microsoft CEO seems to fail to internalize is that Microsoft didn't just get to where they are today be creating cool products, but by the actions of it's heroes. For much of my professional Microsoft life, I'm going to say, the last 20 years - the excellence of dealing with Microsoft engineers has left me feeling a little ’star-struck’. This impression comes from working with several PFEs and frankly, most top tier support engineers I have ever had on the phone (especially in India).

I realize that this article is about technical writers, and not support engineers or PFEs, but the author is right, this is about an ecosystem. An ecosystem that supports the connection between customers, R&D, PFE, Support, TechNet and those Microsoft staff that finish work at 5 pm and then continue to work because they love what they do and want to be part of a community reach that includes blogs, and all the passionate enthusiasm that we get from events like TechEd.

That's why some folks in my organization will never understand how magical TechEd is, they think its just a dog-n-pony show. I am probably letting my feelings get carried away, but what I'm talking about is that ‘spark’, that somewhat intangible thing that makes/made Microsoft different from all the other shitty vendors I have to work with.

Anyway, that is enough! Maybe I will have dreams tonight of Bill Gates returning and sorting things out. That man that was called the devil, but turned out to be the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known, and the man who's departure as CEO signaled the day that Microsoft forgot what was important, - or perhaps without sentimentality - understood the connection between the enthusiastic partnership between end-user ENGINEERS and the ENGINEERS at Microsoft. Try creating an accounting spreadsheet that demonstrates that!

Just my 2 cents

Mick

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Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro. His latest books are Office 365 for Exchange Professionals (eBook, May 2015) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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