Codename Nostalgia, or Go Speed Racer Go!

One of the great things to do in my neighborhood is to head over to Central Cinema, a small movie theater that serves food and drinks, and which has decidedly eclectic tastes. The best thing they do, speaking as a parent, is their “Cartoon Happy Hour” every Thursday where they show a wide range of cartoons for kids (and parents) to enjoy. It’s been a great opportunity to introduce my kids to cartoons that I watched as a kid (Hong Kong Phooey! Tom and Jerry! Looney Toons!) that they might not otherwise get to see.

Recently they’ve shown several episodes of Speed Racer, a cartoon that my mom would never let me watch because it was “too violent.” (Compared to modern cartoons, it’s positively milquetoast.) So it was fun to finally watch it with the kid, but when the theme song came on it triggered a nostalgia of an entirely different sort.

It reminded me of that day, long ago, when I actually got to pick the codename for a product. Looking back now, I’m not exactly sure why I was so keen to pick a codename–it’s not like it’s prestigious or anything–but I definitely was. I wanted to set the name for a whole product cycle, really wanted to. And when the cycle for Access ’97 came along, I got my chance, for two reasons. The first was that most of the team had split off to do a re-write of Access that was supposed to ship after Access ’95 but then got pushed back to after Access ’97 (and then cancelled), so pretty much all of the senior people were no longer on my team. And because Access ’97 was supposed to be a placeholder until the rewrite was finished, it was decided that the bulk of the work on the release was going to be solving the major performance issues we incurred moving from 16-bit Windows 3.1 to 32-bit Windows 95/NT.

Since I was heading up the performance work, I saw my chance and pushed to pick the codename. Of course, picking a codename wasn’t that easy–what would be cool name that would go with the idea of speed? That’s when Speed Racer flashed in my mind, and so the codename for the release became “Mach5,” named after Speed Racer’s car. In the pre-YouTube days, I even got a VHS tape of a Speed Racer episode and went over to Microsoft Studios to get them to convert the theme song to an AVI so I could send it around to the team. (Boy, was I a bit of a geek.) Mission accomplished.

Now, of course, you could never pick a codename like that. In our litigious society, people sue over codenames. I actually saw this in action–there was an old internal project at Microsoft that borrowed its name from a well-known company that makes little plastic bricks. Even though the tool was completely internal and never used or discussed publicly, the codename somehow ended up on some stray public document. The company in question was alerted to the use of the name, the lawyers got involved (so I heard), and in short order the tool was renamed to an innocuous acronym.

So… place names and colors it is, then!

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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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