Thursday, June 15, 2006

Views of Vista

The real story behind the massive delays of Microsoft's new computer operating system, Vista, from an anonymous MS engineer:
Vista.  The term stirs the imagination to conceive of beautiful possibilities just around the corner.  And "just around the corner" is what Windows Vista has been, and has remained, for the past two years.  In this time, Vista has suffered a series of high-profile delays, including most recently the announcement that it would be delayed until 2007.  The largest software project in mankind's history now threatens to also be the longest.

Admittedly, this essay would be easier written for Slashdot, where taut lines divide the world crisply into black and white.  "Vista is a bloated piece of crap," my furry little penguin would opine, "written by the bumbling serfs of an evil capitalistic megalomaniac."  But that'd be dead wrong.  The truth is far more nuanced than that.  Deeper than that.  More subtle than that.

1. truth-resistance

When a vice president in Windows asks you whether your team will ship on time, they might well have asked you whether they look fat in their new Armani suit.  The answer to the question is deeply meaningful to them.  It's certainly true in some sense that they genuinely want to know.  But in a very important other sense, in a sense that you'll come to regret night after night if you get it wrong, there's really only one answer you can give.

After months of hearing of how a certain influential team in Windows was going to cause the Vista release to slip, I, full of abstract self-righteous misgivings as a stockholder, had at last the chance to speak with two of the team's key managers, asking them how they could be so, please-excuse-the-term, I-don't-mean-its-value-laden-connotation, ignorant as to proper estimation of software schedules.  Turns out they're actually great project managers.  They knew months in advance that the schedule would never work.  So they told their VP.  And he, possibly influenced by one too many instances where engineering re-routes power to the warp core, thus completing the heretofore impossible six-hour task in a mere three, summarily sent the managers back to "figure out how to make it work."  The managers re-estimated, nipped and tucked, liposuctioned, did everything short of a lobotomy – and still did not have a schedule that fit.  The VP was not pleased.  "You're smart people.  Find a way!"  This went back and forth for weeks, whereupon the intrepid managers finally understood how to get past the dilemma.  They simply stopped telling the truth.  "Sure, everything fits.  We cut and cut, and here we are.  Vista by August or bust.  You got it, boss."

2. group indecision

There are too many cooks in the kitchen.  Too many vice presidents, in reporting structures too narrow.  When I was in Windows, I reported to Alec, who reported to Peter, to Bill, Rick, Will, Jim, Steve, and Bill.  Remember that there were two layers of people under me as well, making a total path depth of 11 people from Bill Gates down to any developer on my team.

This isn't necessarily bad, except sometimes the cooks flash-mob one corner of the kitchen.  I once sat in a schedule review meeting with at least six VPs and ten general managers.  When that many people have a say, things get confusing.  Not to mention, since so many bosses are in the room, there are often negotiations between project managers prior to such meetings to make sure that no one ends up looking bad.  "Bob, I'm giving you a heads-up that I'm going to say that your team's component, which we depend on, was late."  "That's fine, Sandy, but please be clear that the unforeseen delays were caused by a third party, not my team."

3. controllability

We shouldn't forget despite all this that Windows Vista remains the largest concerted software project in human history.  The types of software management issues being dealt with by Windows leaders are hard problems, problems that no other company has solved successfully.  The solutions to these challenges are certainly not trivial.
 

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