The NT Story

Showstopper!, by G. Pascal Zachary is an account of the creation of Microsoft Windows NT, one of the most complex software projects ever undertaken, even to this day. It highlights David Cutler—NT’s brilliant and, at times, brutally aggressive chief architect—and his rather unique ability to both inspire awe and fear in his team of over 200 people as they worked for 5 years on a $150 million budget to complete the colossal project.

With the monumental scope of the NT project and the expectations of CEO Bill Gates riding high, the pressure on Dave Cutler and his NT team was incredible. To fine tune the operating system and coordinate the efforts of more than 200 people, tens of thousands of man hours were needed, and many of these hours were worked under the stress of severe “crunch mode.”

One chapter in Zachary’s book entitled “Death March” provides us with an uncanny glimpse into the NT office during the 6 months leading up to ship date.

Dave Cutler, as the project manager in charge of NT, led by example. In the office from 6 a.m. to late into the night nearly 7 days a week, the engineers working under him felt compelled to do the same. Kyle Shannon and Mitchell Duncan, two engineers in charge of the Build Lab in the months leading up to the ship deadline saw Cutler as a sort of “hero.” “Even shrill criticism from Cutler, while it stung badly, was taken as a badge of honor; it was rewarding simply to be noticed by him. ‘He only yells at people he likes,’ Shannon said”. Cutler’s charisma and work ethic accrued him the NT team’s utmost respect, and as a result, many engineers were fully willing to live in “crunch mode” for weeks on end while the fight to meet the ship deadline waged on.

A disorderly sleeping bag in a corner

To stay on top of things in the Build Lab, Duncan often found himself sleeping nights in his office. Even then he was still hounded during the night by code writers shouting that they needed another build. Duncan was one of many NT team members whose nerves and resilience were tested to the extreme during this “death march.”

Writing software is time consuming, and the complexities and challenges therein which faced the NT software engineers presented a rather large roadblock on the way to the project’s completion. For many of the engineers on the team, NT was the project that would make or break their careers, so everyone involved expected nothing less than perfect—overcoming these roadblocks was a priority for everyone.

Computers held an intense hold over many of the NT team members’ lives, “...presenting a palatable alternative to human companionship. Many code writers agreed that their enthusiasm for computing bordered on obsession.” NT programmer Bob Day and his wife Terri found their relationship strained by the demands of the project and the mesmerizing hold the code seemed to have over Bob. “I felt hostility toward the computer,” Terri said. “It was like the computer was the other woman. It really felt like that.”

NT team members’ reasons for working long hours differed, but the consequences during the “death march” were similar for all: “strained relations with lovers and friends, spouses and children.”

An excellent example of the “crunch time” devotion many engineers had towards the NT project can be found in Microsoft-newcomer Eric Fogelin’s story:

As a work in progress, NT posed special difficulties for Eric Fogelin, who had been chosen in late 1990 to lead the group producing manuals on the operating program. For the July release he wanted to issue and encyclopedic account of NT’s innards, but “that’s hard to do when the program isn’t finished.” He hired a platoon of freelance writers to describe the various pieces of NT, editing their work and along with a few staffers, stitching together the end result. He even wrote some of the manual himself.

Early in the push, Fogelin was a whirlwind, doing the jobs of three people and ready to take on more. His colleagues marveled at his capacity for toil. With Microsoft roughly doubling its sales and profits annually, a zealous worker such as Fogelin rarely saw a stop sign or breathed the stale smell of bureaucracy. Though he took care of only a tiny part of one of the world’s biggest software projects, Fogelin held so much authority—and received so little scrutiny—that “it felt like I had my own small business.”

This made Fogelin happy. Then one morning he awoke in terror. He rattled off the books he’d promised his group would deliver in time for the July conference. There were four reference books, a separate guide to designing applications, seven books on various programming tools and a single volume on general coding techniques—thirteen books in call.

Fogelin panicked. He feared he’d miss the deadline, which was of course unthinkable. Applications writers might tolerate sundry glitches in NT itself, but without documentation they were lost. Fogelin girded himself. “I don’t have to be a one-man army,” he thought. Though it ran against the grain, he asked for help. His boss agreed, spreading the work around.

Fogelin had learned an important and simple lesson: “How to ask for help.”

In the final push for the July release however, he found little chance to practice his new skill. He worked every day during the month of June, some days for as long as twenty hours. He took most of his meals at Microsoft; the cafeterias on campus served breakfast and lunch, and a special meal was prepared for those working late on NT in Building Two. Since he lived on an island about ninety minutes away, requiring a ferry ride to and from work, Fogelin never went home for thirty days during the height of the p ush. He slept on a cheap green cot he’d bought. It was nothing more than a thin piece of canvas stretched over a narrow metal frame. By day it stood upright near his desk, a sturdy reminder of the forfeiture of creature comforts for the soul of a computer program.

Exhausted, his mind addled from too little sleep, Fogelin at least new his cherished manuals would go out with the July release.

-excerpt from Showstopper!

When NT finally shipped, team members and their families welcomed the close to a blistering chapter in their lives. NT team members were happy, but “too drained to celebrate.” Some engineers left the experience feeling bitter about it all. Darryl Havens, a founding member of the NT team, blamed the project for his breakup with his fiancée.

The NT project had been a shock for everyone involved—many of the engineers had been hired by Microsoft straight out of college—and as a result, many people resolved to “never accept long hours so uncritically.” While the NT project turned out to be a success, the sacrifice of body, family, and mind made by many of the engineers should force large corporations to take an introspective look at how it treats its employees.