My (Terrifying) Meeting with Bill Gates

This being Halloween and all, I thought I would relate one of the most frightening experiences I’ve had in my two decades working at Microsoft. I was reminded of it this weekend when we had a small reunion for everyone who’s worked on Access over it’s 25-or-so year history–it was a bit of old home week, seeing people who in some cases I haven’t seen in well over a decade and a half.

Anyway, it reminded me of an old practice at Microsoft called the “BillG review,” which was a (I think) twice-yearly meeting every major product team had with Bill Gates. They’d go over their progress since the last meeting, talk about their future plans, and give him the chance to ask questions and give direction. As one can imagine, this was a really huge deal (especially back in the days when Microsoft was still a 12,000 person company). A bad BillG review could be extremely traumatic, especially since Bill was not particularly known for his warm-and-fuzziness, nor did he suffer fools gladly. It could also radically alter product plans, depending on whether he agreed with what you were doing or not.

For most of my time in Access, I was too junior to actually attend these reviews, much less give any part of the presentation. I’d mostly just hear about it in the form of a flurry of design changes after each one. But by the time we’d gotten to working on Access ’97, a large majority of the senior folks had split off from the team to work on an ill-fated rewrite of Access. The main focus of Access ’97 was doing something about all the performance we’d lost moving to 32-bit (i.e. Windows 95) and integrating COM and VBA for the first time, and I had self-elected myself to be in charge of the development side of that effort. So when it came time to do the BillG review, I was tapped to give part of the presentation on the performance work. I was also there to throw to the lions in the eventuality that Bill started drilling in on some highly technical question, as he was famous for doing (c.f. Joel’s discussion of his first BillG review).

So the day of the review rolls around and I show up at Bill’s executive conference room with the rest of the team and various Access leaders. Of course, Bill’s running late, so Tod Nielsen (who was Access business unit manager at the time, I believe) decides to entertain us with colorful stories of BillG reviews past. And he decides to tell us the story of the final Omega BillG review.

Now, Omega was the desktop database project that preceded Access. They worked on it for about a year and a half (I think) before it got cancelled, all the code was thrown out, and they restarted on a new project that became Access. I wasn’t around for Omega, but I had heard lots of horror stories about it getting cancelled from people who’d been on that team. As you can imagine, then, the final BillG review for Omega was probably not a particularly happy event.

As I remember Tod telling it, he said that they were going through a list of what wasn’t going well with Omega when, all of a sudden, Bill loses it and starts swearing. “Get f–king recruiting in here, I want f–king recruiting in here right now!” Everyone’s a bit puzzled (and worried), and so they say, “OK, Bill, why do you want recruiting?” He replies, “Because I want to find out what f–king colleges we recruited you guys from and tell them not to f–king recruit there any more because they clearly produce f–king idiots!” Ouch. At that point, the team knew the review was over, so I they basically said, “All right, Bill, we’ll let you calm down and talk to you later,” and left. Tod thought the whole thing was hilarious… now. (It’s also possible he embellished the story a bit, I can’t testify to the veracity of his tale…)

Of course, as the person who was about to present about the primary feature of Access 97 to Bill f–king Gates, I was absolutely terrified. Great, I thought, I’m totally screwed. I’m going to die. Thankfully, Bill showed up, we did the review, and aside from one tense moment, everything went extremely smoothly. Then I got to sit and listen while Bill and the VPs sat around for a little while and discussed when they were going to merge our division in with Office, like they were moving pieces around on a chess board. Fascinating.

Not coincidentally, my other “scariest story” from my time at Microsoft also involves Bill Gates, but that’s a story for another time…

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How on earth do normal people learn C++?

I’m asking this seriously. How?

One dirty little secret around Microsoft is how little “real” C++ code is written around here. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that when C++ was first coming into it’s own there were a number of high profile projects that enthusiastically adopted C++ but ran into a lot of problems. Some of those problems had to do with the immaturity of the tools (produced by Microsoft), some of them had to do with a lack of experience with C++ (since, of course, it was relatively new at the time), and some of them had to do with the “when you have a hammer…” effect. The end result is that although a lot of projects I’ve worked on have had “.cpp” file extensions on their source code, in many cases you could rename the extension to “.c” and it would compile with very few changes.

Lately, though, I’ve been having to do a lot more modern-ish C++ programming, and while I have an amazed respect for the sheer amount of power available to the C++ programmer nowadays, I am also baffled how anyone can actually understand what the hell they are doing half the time. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like I get by pretty well in C++, but then I spent a decade designing a OOP language, building a compiler for it, and debugging the whole thing. There are lots of times when I’ve been able to survive in C++ only because I can fall back on a mental type system model that was built up through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. I wonder how people who haven’t had that particular experience actually grok a lot (sometimes, any) of what C++ does.

I’m guessing people just throw a lot of code at the wall until something sticks, or maybe just copy and paste from Stack Overflow. I don’t know. But, seriously, sometimes I think you should have a license before you should be allowed to attempt C++.

Either that, or I’m just being dense. Sadly, that’s always a possibility.

On TypeScript and writing maintainable JavaScript programs…

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been using TypeScript quite heavily for some internal prototyping that I’ve been doing. As such, I’m starting to form various opinions about it, and overall I really like it (which makes sense, given my background). One thing I’ve been thinking about lately, though, is the quote from Anders Hejlsberg that ricocheted around a while back and which obviously prefigured the TypeScript work:

No, you can write large programs in JavaScript. You just can’t maintain them.

Clearly, TypeScript is intended as an answer to this problem, and I’ve found that it definitely helps me keep my program more in line and not have it wander off in some strange direction I didn’t intend. But it also doesn’t “solve” the problem of maintaining large JavaScript programs any more than the invention of the hammer “solved” the problem of building large buildings. If I don’t follow my usual rules of thumb when programming (think about what I’m doing, keep my code clean, review and rewrite, etc.), my TypeScript code becomes spaghetti just as quickly as my JavaScript code ever did.

Ultimately, the problem is that a tool is only ever as good as the person wielding it. In that sense, I disagree with Anders’s sentiment above–I think it’s entirely possible to write very large codebases in JavaScript that are maintainable, it just requires a somewhat higher degree of discipline and effort than in a language like TypeScript. And the delta of effort between the two languages isn’t as high as those of us who work in the language space would often like to believe. If TypeScript catches on (and I hope it does), there’s probably going to be vastly more bad code written in TypeScript than good code. The difference from JavaScript is that it’ll just have more type annotations…

 

Undoing some of the damage…

OK, well, this is a bit embarrassing, but here goes: you know how I threw away the accumulated blogging of nearly seven years (a.k.a. Hitting the Big Red Switch) in favor of a clean slate?

I realized maybe that I went… a little bit overboard.

Having just now completed what I can only describe as one of the more trying periods of my life (getting separated, getting divorced, selling a house, along with some questionable career decisions, none of them experiences I can recommend to anyone), I can look back and say with some conviction that my decision to drop my blog history was motivated in no small part by a desire to wipe my entire slate clean. Unfortunately, I think I ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater since there were some genuinely useful stuff back in there. (And a lot of stuff that I’m sure no one will ever care about again, if they ever did.)

At any rate, I sucked it up, pulled out the data backup and ported all the blog posts over to WordPress. So my entire blog history has been restored. Yay! There are still some image links I’m working to restore, but by and large it’s all there. So enjoy!

(I realize it’s been quiet around here. Not much I can say about the stuff I’ve been working on (sooner rather than later, I hope), although you should really check out some of the cool stuff that some of my coworkers have been doing with TypeScript. It’s awesome!)