G Pascal Zachary Showstopper

Santa always replenishes my reading pile with lots of coveted books discovered over the year. So it’s a good thing that I’ve just finished up a few books that I received last Christmas including G. Pascal Zachary’s “Showstopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft”.

At the very outset of my computer career, I devoured Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine” about the development of a breakthrough mini-computer (hardware and software) and I thought that this account of NT would be a similar tale told in the familiar environs of my erstwhile employer of a decade and a half. Furthermore, Windows NT was pivotal to my career at Microsoft. When I was working at Kenan Systems, we decided to jump on the NT band wagon early. Its design points of melding the networking of Netware with the applications serving of Unix and the ease to use GUI of a Mac seemed like too much of a winner for me. It was a compelling choice as a future platform not only for computing, but for my professional success as well. Windows NT represented the breakthrough of Microsoft beyond the desktop and it all areas of corporate computing which drove its second burst of growth in the late 1990s. And the culmination of my career at Microsoft was to oversee the UK’s nearly $1 billion server business based on the technology family that Windows NT ultimately wrought.

I’ve already written about the balancing act between Leadership and Management in the computing and Microsoft world (“The Bill-Steve Leader-Manager Partnership”) so it was no surprise when Zachary’s account included a number of illustrations of this duality. A constant wrestling between the lure of better performance and capability upsides versus the downsides of project delays and introducing ‘showstopper’ bugs’…

“In Muglia’s view, this was a classic battle between the idealist and pragmatist. ‘Rashid thought like a scientist. He thought about what’s possible. He made the kernel pageable and said, ‘Let’s see what breaks.’ By contrast, “Cutler weighed the situation as an engineer. He wanted to design the solution in advance – figure out beforehand what’s pageable and what isn’t – because that’s how you achieve robustness.”

Leaders think about what is possible and see what breaks. Managers think about what works and design the solution. Both together are needed to innovate without showstoppers.