Andre's Blog

Personal blog of Andre Perusse

Showstopper!

I just finished reading a rather interesting book called Showstopper! written by G. Pascal Zachary in 1994. The book chronicles the development of Windows NT from its inception in the fall of 1988 until its first release in the summer of 1993. It is exceptionally well written, focusing more on the people involved and less on the actual technology being created. In fact, you don't really have to be a technology enthusiast to enjoy the book. Every page is filled with the heartaches and triumphs of the hundreds of programmers, testers, builders, and program managers involved in the creation of this brand new operating system.


People and personalities play a very strong role in this book. The book's primary focus is on the uber-architect and team lead of NT, David Cutler, who on page 2 already has a broken finger and a cracked toe from taking out his frustrations on the walls of Building Two at the Microsoft campus in Redmond. Throughout the book he is portrayed as a dark, brooding drill sergeant who is feared by many and regarded as a hero by others. Cutler came to Microsoft from Digital Equipment Corporation where he and his team developed the VMS operating system that ran on DEC's Vax computers, released in 1977. At Microsoft, Cutler rules his team with an iron fist and he has a unique vision for this new operating system: it will run on multiple hardware platforms. Up until this time, an operating system was strongly tied to the hardware it ran on. Even UNIX had so many flavours that any software written for it had to be built with a specific version in mind. Though NT started out with a promise of being able to run OS/2 programs (OS/2 was a joint operating system venture between Microsoft and IBM), the commercial failure of OS/2 had the team change gears so that NT would run older DOS and Windows programs instead. The OS/2 debacle showed that customers weren't willing to leave their old programs behind (OS/2 couldn't run programs written for DOS or Windows).


The original schedule for NT called for it to be released in March of 1991. However, many things conspired to push this ship date back by more than two years. The initial CPU targeted for the new OS was Intel's doomed i860 RISC chip, which really didn't exist in any commercial form - the NT team had to assemble their own hardware to fashion an i860 computer on which to run the earliest versions of the OS. The team later had to switch gears to Intel's mainstream x86 series and the new MIPS chips. OS/2 compatibility was dropped in favour of DOS/Windows compatibility. The new file system (NTFS) was delayed by the need to retain compatibility with older file systems. The size of the team mushroomed over the life of the project, and there were several turf wars between various teams, divisions, and program managers.


Over the life of the project, many personal relationships were destroyed as team members spent countless hours at the Microsoft campus. Spouses and children were relegated to second place in favour of the new operating system that would define Microsoft's future. Stock options made millionaires out of many on the team, though some left giving up hundreds of thousands in vested stock just to retain their sanity. Throughout it all Cutler is there watching over everything, making his demands and demanding from his team, cursing and swearing, punching walls, sticking to his guns and making few compromises. At the end of the book I found myself asking, "Why is it that so many great leaders have to be such large assholes?" Honestly, does greatness have to exact such a hefty price?


Though you may not be a fan of Microsoft or Windows NT, it is largely irrelevant as the most interesting aspect of the book is the multitude of personalities and their interactions with each other. And though the book is over 10 years old, it still holds some fascinating insights into the development of large software programs.

Comments (2) -

  • Darth Mac

    12/28/2006 10:53:01 PM |

    Couple of thoughts...
    1) He doesn't sound like a great leader if he's breaking toes kicking things...
    2) Sounds like a typical software Bataan Death March
    3) Nice to see they've never been able to ship an OS on time
    4) I think I'll wait for the movie rather than read the book... ;)

  • greggzachary@hotmail.com

    2/10/2007 12:27:36 PM |

    thanks for reading. I am the author. Amazing to me that you found this small classic, now out of print, after all these years
    regards, G. Pascal Zachary

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