On last Friday's edition of the Wall Street Journal Online, Robert A. Guth did this excellent piece about Microsoft's fight with internal demons and their efforts to remake themselves. According to Guth's article, Microsoft in July of 2004 declared the Longhorn project and their entire development process broken. Chief Windows architect Jim Allchin told Bill Gates that Longhorn (the next version of Windows Operating System) "was so complex its writers would never be able to make it run properly". After a lot of coaxing and arm twisting, Microsoft tossed out years of work on Longhorn and went back to basics.
Microsoft embarked on a radical shift in the way they developed software and any engineer who objected was told "Is your code perfect? Are you perfect? If not, you should shut up and support this effort". Microsoft developed automated testing tools that automatically rejected overly buggy code and any Engineer guilty of writing too much buggy code "was tossed in 'bug jail' and were banned from writing new code."
These efforts allowed Microsoft to reduce the time it takes to make new Longhorn builds to just a few days and "install a workable version of the system on their PCs four days before Christmas". An even better indicator of their success was that the recent beta of Longhorn (now renamed to Vista) released July of this year resulted in several times fewer bugs than what was traditionally expected of any Windows beta operating system. The new development system was so successful that even the Microsoft Office team adopted some of the tools to improve Office code.
Even with these successes, Jim Allchin was still not satisfied and was quoted saying "There're weaknesses in everything we're doing today, but it's such a huge step up from where we were." Last week's sweeping reorganization to deal with the new challenges that Microsoft faces is an expansion of this effort to remake Microsoft. This isn't the first time Microsoft was forced to do some soul searching, Bill Gates sent out this memo to the entire Microsoft staff in January of 2002 and launched the Trustworthy Computing initiative that yielded a more secure Windows 2003 server and Windows XP SP2. While these efforts are still a work in progress and are not where they need to be, they show a company willing to change and willing to improve.
There will always be those who will dismiss this whole thing as a publicity stunt and there will always be those who will selectively quote Microsoft executives admitting faults in Windows products to bash them. But it is a sign of strength anytime a person or company can openly admit faults, especially when they can follow through and correct many of them. In my experience, success is never accidental especially when it is maintained over a long period of time. It takes a lot of strength to say our process is broken, our software is too buggy, and we need to start over. This is why Microsoft has been successful over the years and will continue to succeed so long as they're willing to improve and adjust with the times.