When Vic Gundotra first asked me “would you consider working at Microsoft?” I never thought that he'd give me access to the deepest, darkest, secrets of Microsoft's future business strategy.
I'm sure Tom Peters would love to have seen what I've seen for the past six months. The business schools will be talking about stuff I witnessed for the next decade.
Can you handle this? Are you really ready to know how Microsoft develops software for Longhorn?
It's simple: the graphic designers are now in charge.
“Oh, Scoble, give me a break!” I can hear all of you moaning together. OK, that's a little untrue, but gotta be flashy to get you hooked. I learned that little trick in journalism school. Heck, so did Tom Peters. Most of the companies he wrote about in his first book “In Search of Excellence” have not done so well since the early 1980s (obviously his best selling book didn't find much that was excellent). But, hear me out.
I've been very lucky to have been dropped into one of the most talented teams of software developers that exist in the world. Let's go back and look through all the literature about how Microsoft works.
There really are a few keys to Microsoft's continued success and there have been entire books written on most of them. Decentralized management style. Small, highly skilled teams. Access to great information internally and externally. Customer-centric planning. Cross-team communication. The Program Manager position especially has been written about extensively.
All of these remain very important to the culture inside Microsoft. I am thinking through how to write about the Program Manager position, for instance. I watched Jeff Sandquist guide and motivate his team of a handful of developers to ship a cool app in less than six months (the PDC 2003 Community Environment). He even sent me to Program Manager school for a day so I could learn more about the position. The term Program Manager comes from the task of “managing programmers,” for instance. In school I learned some of the tricks of motivating programmers (pizza and Coke does help!)
Take away the program manager from a project (or have one that isn't so skilled at guiding and motivating) and the project would fall apart.
But, I already knew program managers are important. In this weblog, I'm focusing on things that have changed from the past. And there I keep coming back to graphic designers.
I've been interviewing people all around the company. Trying to figure out how Microsoft works and how it's changing its approach to software.
I keep coming back to graphic designers. Now, we don't call them that. On the team I'm a part of we call them “Program Designers.” The title really hides what they do and how important they are.
The program designer I got to watch up close is David Shadle. He's a guy who'd make Alan Cooper proud. He does all sorts of things at Microsoft, from logos, to signs, to software interface designs.
I first met David in a meeting about the Community Environment app (back then we called it “Vibe!”) right after I started at Microsoft. Since I was the blogger, I played the role of “customer” (er, PDC attendee). I told them the kinds of information I'd like to have access to.
I told them I wanted access to information so that I could write a better blog. I wanted access to people. Slides. Schedules. News. etc.
Then David would get up, write on the board a potential interface, and ask “you mean something that looks like this?”
And we'd have a conversation. The programmers were there too. The network architect. And we'd all start talking about the tradeoffs to be made with each design. “We can't program that using .NET” a programmer would answer after David put up one of his wilder ideas. The thing is, he knew his stuff and would push back “I know you can do this.” He was right and that's why that app came out with an innovative design that didn't look like Excel.
Now, I know what some of you are gonna say: “but that app didn't work right on my Tablet and if you guys had stuck with a more traditional design it would have.” That's true, but we were trying to push the boundaries and with a five-person team working under extreme deadlines and spending only a part of their time on this app. For those of you who haven't seen it yet, there's some screen shots here (Scroll down to see them). You can see that it looked quite different than a normal Windows app usually looked. I found it quite usable, as well as nice to look at.
Anyway, if we didn't have someone like David on our team, we would have ended up with an app that was far less usable and that didn't look half as nice as it turned out.
So, what's the lesson for the future of software design? I think we're in the middle of a radical shift in software design. No longer is it OK to develop apps that look ugly and gray. The Web and video games have raised the bar.
Soon we'll see a day where every app has a graphic designer in charge of the design process. Already we're seeing some people worried that Longhorn lets developers do “too much” on the screen. I heard the same worries in early days when people were first getting Macs. Graphic designers were writing articles about “overuse of fonts.” I remember some people would design fliers with 15 different fonts on them.
But, we all knew those weren't the professionals. Now even the amateur desktop publishers know better than to use a couple of fonts on a document. We'll go through the same thing with software on Longhorn. Longhorn will make it very easy to develop interfaces that look wacky.
How do you make sure your software project exploits Longhorn, but doesn't look wacky? Get a graphic designer on your team and put them in charge! [The Scobleizer Weblog]