Creating software is an art. It is computer science, and engineering. It is inspiration, and perspiration. It is inherently individual yet relies on a team. Most of all, building software is a group of people coming together to conjure something into existence. Turning that into a product used by billions of people is Hardcore Software.
I have always loved reading books about building and managing complex projects. When I first became a manager in 1992, I began a tradition of gifting books in this theme to team members, and those books often found their way onto standard issue Microsoft office shelves. While many books have been written about Microsoft, most were written about the earliest days, before Windows, or with a focus on the monopoly litigation, and none were written by those who worked on the products through many product generations. What is missing is a first-person account about building software at Microsoft.
In more ways than I can count, I was lucky enough to find myself an enthusiast, a participant, and, in some contexts, a leader of Microsoft projects from relatively early times of Tools, Office, and Windows through the growth, maturing, and then disruptive days of the PC Revolution. My hope is that this work conveys the human side of building software at a scale few imagined—putting software on every desk and in every home, literally.
Hardcore Software is about the interplay across individuals, organizations, technologies, customers, and products that it takes to deliver at scale in what was a brand-new industry. Individuals are learning and growing while new organizations are built around them for the first time, and technologies are invented and turned into products inspiring customers to achieve their own goals.
There are tens of thousands of people I wish I could have written about, each of whom made incredibly valuable contributions to the teams and products described here. To those individuals I was not able to include or those I included but did not share the story you wish I shared, please know that I wanted to and probably even tried but could not write about everything I would have liked.
I worked hard to tell the story of what I saw at the PC revolution, from the vantage point I was given, and to capture the people, culture, and organization that created products used around the world by a billion people. Since most contemporary readers will have experienced Office and Windows, I intentionally did not shy away from product features and technologies as elements and actors in the story. In fact, I think that is what makes the stories both interesting and relatable.
This is a first-person account from my memories and memorabilia, along with research based on public sources. I endeavored to achieve the highest level of accuracy possible. It is a cultural history not a deep dive into corporate archives. Quotes from print journalism were taken directly from online or print, and quotes from video my best effort at transcribing. Corporate sales and other metrics were taken from annual reports or SEC filings, and team-specific numbers were my own recollections checked with others when possible. Industry-wide measures, such as PC sales, were obtained from contemporaneous first-party sources.
I often refer to my favorite saying “writing is thinking” and that held true in this work. Writing was (and is) also a labor of love. I began by creating my own personal timeline of jobs, projects, managers, teams, and so on. I added key Microsoft product releases and events (conferences, legal, reorganizations, and more) to the timeline. Then I did the same for competitors. To really experience the time period, I collected all the magazine cover stories—Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, Time, Newsweek, Economist (BillG’s favorite), as well as Byte, PC Magazine, PC World—featuring Microsoft, Apple, or major competitors. I read all the reviews of our products in trade press, enthusiast magazines, and mainstream media. I watched old videos on a VCR) of events and even HR training. Then I really got into it and started installing software on my old PCs and Macs I had in storage. I believed to really share how it felt in those early days, I needed to be writing those feelings while I was swapping floppies, crashing or rebooting for the umteenth time.
It has been a few years since I left Microsoft. Some might have wished I wrote closer to that time to answer burning questions of the moment. While these thoughts have been ruminating for years and I started writing on and off shortly after I departed, I decided to start from a blank screen about 18 months ago. What I came to realize was that time enabled me to tell a better story. The noise is filtered out and more importantly, especially for the final chapters chronicling the end of the PC revolution, the story became complete. With the most recent innovations in the industry, we now have much more clarity about where technology is heading relative to the PC revolution that started when I was in high school.
Letting some time pass helped me to filter what is important to the Microsoft story as I saw it versus what was simply exciting along some dimension. Too often, books tell stories of companies before the ending is clear. Those books don’t stand the test of time that I hope this writing does. Additionally, I set out to gain perspective on the PC journey by relocating to Silicon Valley and immersing myself in the whole other world that was so distinct from Microsoft. It was only two years into that journey when Microsoft changed CEOs and brought a clear transition to a company that today plays a different role in the technology world.
By publishing my work on Substack, it is my intention to create a collaborative, interactive and dynamic history that evolves with the help of the community. I look forward to and welcome comments and input from Microsofties and enthusiasts alike to create as accurate and compelling of a story as possible by making the best use of the platform.
The title, Hardcore Software, comes from the college recruiting tagline used when I was recruited to Microsoft (and for some time after). The poster read, “Stop fooling around. It’s time to get hardcore about software. With Microsoft.” In today’s context, this would not be the most inclusive language for recruiting, but it captures the 1980s (and later) zeitgeist of computer programming.
I benefitted enormously from a small group of Microsofties who were kind enough to read every word of complete drafts, even documenting questions and errors in spreadsheets. Thank you D.H., L.B., M.A., J.G., J.H., E.C., C.J., J.N., T.G., as well as several incredibly generous and well-known industry veterans who offered candid and helpful feedback. I am grateful for the amazing patience and work of these friends. I also want to thank the contributions I had from a professional writer and an editor. The work would not have been possible or coherent without their efforts.
Any errors are my sole responsibility. Despite the amazingly detailed and heroic efforts of reviewers and fact checkers, I want to preemptively apologize for any fact errors. I know that no matter how trivial, mistakes sting. The events described in this work were experienced deeply by tens if not thousands of people and most certainly some have differing recollections, and in reality, all of our experiences are equally true. In writing, I intentionally waited several years in the hopes that my own truth would become more settled, but still I recognize that when it comes to experiences and perspectives, especially those as personal and dramatic as shared here, the truth evolves over time—as wounds heal, bruised egos recover, and importantly as more people share feelings they did not share at the time. Errors will be tracked and recorded with my intent to set a record of facts straight as needed. Substack makes for a great platform for clarifying and correcting mistakes.
I have so many to thank I would not know where to start. Aside from my family and friends who supported me through all these experiences, there are the people I worked with sometimes from the very first days I walked on campus until the very last days. I owe everything to them and their contributions and teamwork. Thank you.
I wrote this as a tribute, my own deeply personal way of saying thank you, to all of those I was fortunate enough to work with and to all the customers and partners who were equal participants in the PC Revolution.
S.S., January 2021