It doesn’t have to be a crapfest

A  bit ago, this blog post crossed my Twitter feed. I read it, and while the schadenfreude made me smirk for a minute, it eventually made me feel bad.

The blog post purports to describe how a shitty shutdown dialog became a shitty shutdown dialog. But instead, it documents something I like to call “too many puppies” syndrome. If you are working on high visibility areas of a product – like the Windows Shell – like Explorer in particular, everybody has an belief that their opinion is the right direction. It’s like dogs and a fire hydrant. My point really isn’t to be derisive here, but to point out that the failure of that project does not seem to be due to any other teams. Instead, it seems to have been due to some combination of unclear goals and a fair amount of the team he was on being lost in the wilderness.

I mentioned on Twitter that, if you are familiar with the organizational structure of Windows, that you can see the cut lines of those teams in the UI. A reply to that mentioned Conway’s law – which I was unfamiliar with, but basically states that as a general concept, a system designed by an organization will reflect the structure of that organization.

But not every project is doomed to live inside its own silo. In fact, some of my favorite projects that I worked on while I was at The Firm were ones that fought the silo, and the user won. Unfortunately, this was novel then, and still feels novel now.

During the development of Windows Server 2003, Bill Veghte, a relatively new VP on the product, led a series of reviews where he had program managers (PMs) across the product walk through their feature area/user scenario, to see how it worked, didn’t work, and how things could perhaps be improved. Owning the enterprise deployment experience for Windows at the time, I had the (mis?)fortune of walking Bill through the setup and configuration experience with a bunch of people from the Windows Server team.

When I had joined the Windows “Whistler” team just before beta 2, the OS that became Windows XP was described by a teammate as a “lipstick on a chicken” release was already solidifying, and while we had big dreams of future releases like “Blackcomb” (never happened), Whistler was limited largely by time to the goal of shipping the first NT-based OS to both replace ME and the 9X family for consumers, and Windows 2000 in business.

Windows Server, on the other hand, was to ship later. (In reality, much, much later, on a branched source tree, due to the need to <ahem/> revisit XP a few times after we shipped it.) This meant that the Windows Server team could think a bit bigger about shipping the best product for their customers. These scenario reviews, which I really enjoyed attending at the time, were intended to shake out the rattles in the product and figure out how to make it better.

During my scenario review, we walked through the entire setup experience – from booting the CD to configuring the server. If you recall, this meant walking through some really ugly bits of Windows. Text-mode setup. F5 and F6 function keys to install a custom HAL or mass-storage controller drivers during text-mode setup. Formatting a disk in text-mode setup. GUI-mode setup. Fun, fun stuff.

Also, some forget, but this was the first time that Windows Server was likely to ship with different branding from the client OS. Yet the Windows client branding was… everywhere. Setup “billboards” touting OS features that were irrelevant in a server, wizards, help files, even the fact that setup was loading drivers for PCMCIA cards and other peripherals that a server would never need or use in the real world, or verbs on the shutdown menu that made no sense on a server, like standby or hibernate.

A small team of individuals on the server team owned the resulting output from these walkthroughs, which went far beyond setup, and resulted in a bunch of changes to how Windows Server was configured, managed, and more. In terms of my role, I wound up being their liaison for design change requests (DCRs) on the Windows setup team.

There were a bunch of things that were no-brainers – fixing Windows Setup to be branded with Windows Server branding, for example. And there were a ton of changes that, while good ideas, were just too invasive to change, given the timeframe that Windows Server was expected to ship in, (and that it was still tethered to XP’s codebase at that time, IIRC). So lots of things were punted out to Blackcomb, etc.

One of my favorite topics of discussion, however, became the Start menu. While Windows XP shipped with a bunch of consumer items in the Start menu, almost everything it put there was… less than optimal on a server. IE, Outlook Express, and… Movie Maker? Heck, the last DCR I had to say no to for XP was a very major customer telling us they didn’t even want movie maker in Windows XP Pro! It had no place on servers – nor did Solitaire or the Windows XP tour.

So it became a small thing that David, my peer on the server team, and I tinkered with. I threw together a mockup and sent it to him. (It looked a lot like the finished product you see in this article.) No consumer gunk. But tools that a server administrator might use regularly. David ran this and a bunch of other ideas by some MVPs at an event on campus, and even received applause for their work.

As I recall, I introduced David to Raymond Chen, the guru of all things Windows shell, and Raymond and David wound up working together to resolve several requests that the Windows Server team had in the user interface realm. In the end, Windows Server 2003 (and Server SP1, which brought x64 support) wound up being really important releases to the company, and I think they reflected the beginning of a new maturity at Microsoft on building a server product that really felt… like a server.

The important thing to remember is that there wasn’t really any sort of vehicle to reflect cross-team collaboration within the company then. (I don’t know if there is today.) It generally wasn’t in your review goals (those all usually reflected features in your team’s immediate areas), and compensation surely didn’t reflect it. I sat down with David this week, having not talked for some time, and told him how most of my favorite memories of Microsoft were working on cross-team projects where I helped other teams deliver better experiences by refining where their product/feature crossed over into our area, and sometimes beyond.

I think that if you can look deeply in a product or service that you’re building, and see Conway’s law in action, you need to take a step back. Because you’re building a product for yourself, not for your customers. Building products and services that serve your entire customer base means always collaborating, and stretching the boundaries of what defines “your team”. I believe the project cited in the original blog post I referenced above failed both because there were too many cooks, but also because it would seem that anyone with any power to control the conversation actually forgot what they were cooking.



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