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I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year with Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier Paperback – July 1, 1996
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An outsider is allowed into the labyrinth to watch a Microsoft multimedia project from conception to partial completion. If you are interested in understanding Microsoft's strengths--and weaknesses--breaking into new markets, this is a must-read book. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Freelance writer Moody spent the year from December 1992 through December 1993 with six members of a Microsoft unit that was developing a children's multimedia reference product named Sendak. As he was given virtually unlimited access to the group, Moody is able to present a week-by-week account of the trials and tribulations of each team member as they try to make Sendak a viable product. In describing the inner workings of Microsoft, Moody reveals a company not immune to the corporate politics and personality conflicts that afflict huge companies, but one that nevertheless is willing to push the boundaries of technology, driven by chairman Bill Gates's obsession with staying ahead of the competition. Indeed, Moody's accounts of meetings with Gates are compelling. A fast-paced read that does not get bogged down in technical jargon, the book suffers from one flaw: Sendak was far from finished when Moody's year with Microsoft was up, so he describes its completion and launch?the product was shipped in November 1994 under the name Explorapedia?in relatively few pages. 50,000 first printing.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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The book follows a group of 20 somethings from the initial ideas of the multimedia project (called Sendak until it's official name of Explorapedia was chosen,) through to almost the delivery stage. And there are two over-riding themes that contribute to the almost failure of the project: unclear lines of control, and indecisiveness.
Let's look at these in turn.
Production Manager, Project Manager, Art Director, Lead Programmer and Chief Coffee Maker. (Okay, I make that last one up.) Throughout the multimedia project detailed in this book, the roles people undertook always seemed to be fluid in their meaning and responsibilities. One reason for this was that, as Microsoft was growing so fast, internal people were often promoted over external hires and so some quite young staff ended up in fairly senior positions. People who once worked as equals, were now supervisor and the supervised. Which might not be a bad thing, but without the proper training, could be quite catastrophic in the personal and professional relationships of all those involved. Here, this was experienced as the previous Art Director on another project was now the Producer (or the other way around, or the Production Manager - I should have taken notes while reading it,) and it wasn't always clear who had what responsibility. So, one person was sometimes butting in and doing the other's work, and as the project went on, there would be re-organisation after re-organisation which lead to mass confusion about who exactly the decision makers were.
We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning
to form up into teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later
in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and
a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress
while producing confusion, and demoralisation.
-- Petronius Arbiter, 210 B.C.
It just seemed to be the Microsoft Way.
The other problem with this project was the scope of what was being produced. The clearest voice of reason in all of this was the cranky programmer, who knew quite well when things had to be decided, and not changed in order to have the code finished and tested to meet the ship date. The programmer, as one of the final steps in the design and development process, always appeared to be the one that had slipped and missed their milestones, rather than the designers who had missed their deadlines at the beginning of the project because of an inability to make a decision, and stick to it.
And here's where the traditional Project Management Methodology and also Agile Project Management Methodology can fail: once a decision has been made, even though it's software, it costs a lot to go back and re-engineer something. This project almost failed because the scope was a wibbly-wobbly thing that the team never really got a hold on, wrestled to the ground and took control of. As such, late in the design and early development stages, fundamental changes were introduced that changed the game (literally.)
So, what can be learned from this? Make sure that the client (even an internal client) knows that a change in scope means changes in time and cost. It's an immutable law of Project Management, and I know we all know it, but sometimes we need to state the obvious. Also, experience pays off - in software development most people are in their 20s, and now that I'm not any more, I can look back and see how inexperienced I used to be, and how much there really is to learn about process management.
The project shipped, many people were burnt out, angry, demoralised and just plain over it. But in the end, as we all know, we just get back up again and walk into the maelstrom for one more go, because we believe this time it will be better - it just has to be,
Finally, one criticism of the book: I kept getting lost with regards to who was who. Sometimes the author would use a person's given name, and then later in the book, their family name, and then back again. So, as people changed positions, I didn't know who the Project Manager was from the Producer to the Production Manager. It's a small quibble, and really in the end it doesn't distract from the book.
Actually, I think Fred Moody missed seeing the real benefit to Microsoft of the Explorapedia project. While Moody focussed on chronicling the damage created by the personality conflicts and differences in communication styles, he missed seeing the positive consequences of tackling a project like this which pushes the envelope of existing technology.
For instance, here is my take on two of the "problems" described by Moody:
1: In the beginning, there was no software developer assigned fulltime to the project.
Positive result: The designers, who were mostly Mac people, designed the encyclopedia to use Mac-like features, such as sprites with transparent backgrounds. This was not available on the PC at that time, but the positive end result is that when the PC designers finally started work on the encyclopedia, they were forced to come up with solutions that emulated Mac-like graphics features on the PC, solutions which inevitably expanded the capabilities of the PC and brought it closer to the Mac graphics benchmark.
2: Software tools such as Merismus and SPAM were not fully available when the project started.
Positive result: This may be the largest contributor for the project's slipped schedule, but the benefit of developing the tools concurrently with the application is that the development of tool features is driven by the immediate needs of the innovative application. Otherwise, the Merismus and SPAM tools would probably have been developed looking backwards to the Encarta project, as in "gee, Encarta would have been a lot easier to do with this tool." Instead, motivated by the needs of Explorapedia, the new tools were driven towards making succeeding generations of software easier to develop, rather than preceding generations.
Applying this to my field, hardware development, it illustrates the value of starting a project even if, in the beginning, it does not appear to be feasible within the current state of the art. After all, somebody has to define the state of the art; it might as well be your project. And the shape of a new tool cannot be defined until you know the size and shape of the problem it must solve. Also, as with Mac graphics on a PC, it helps to have a target to shoot for, and the knowledge that it's been done before.
To be critical of this book, I would say that a lot of Moody's focus is on communication conflicts: the analytical developers don't value the artistic designers, the women don't manage conflict like the men do, the permanent employees dismiss the contract workers. Another author, Deborah Tannen, has covered this ground with more insight, and Moody's descriptions of conflict between individuals are much easier to understand when reviewed from Tannen's point of view. For the most part, Moody settles for a gossipy telling of all the dirt that went on between people, with little revelation for what caused the conflicts, how they might have been avoided, and why the project succeeded in spite of those challenges. In the end, his revelation is that the project teams are deliberately given impossible goals by Bill Gates, with the intent that every team member, perceiving his last project to be a failure, goes on to other projects with the idea that they must work extra hard to overcome the stigma of that last failure. I doubt that even Bill Gates is that Machiavellian.