Developers Can Party As Hard As They Work
Psst . . . Do you want to know a secret?
Computer geeks can party.
It isn't always pretty, but the team that created Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system know how to have some fun.
True, this is the same team of overachievers - most of them in their 20s or 30s - who spent most of their waking hours for the past three years toiling over 10 million lines of computer code.
But, hey, when they come out for light, the men and women of Windows 95 can hoot it up as well as the cast from "Animal House."
"We know how to work hard, but we know how to play hard, too," said Rick Waddell, 48, a testing manager affectionately known as "pops" because he is one of the older team members.
Remember when Windows 95 went "golden" July 14? That's the day Microsoft shipped its new operating system to the duplication manufacturers. Three years of long hours, stress, frustration and elation blew off like the champagne corks on the Dom Perignon.
Soon, the giddy team of 400 Win95ers drenched themselves in 170 bottles of the French bubbly ($79.99 per bottle at Costco), reportedly a favorite of Bill Gates, Microsoft's 39-year-old chairman.
The team swiftly melted into a crude version of the Merry Pranksters, or, for some, Conan-as-geek warriors. In that '90s spirit of Attila, they trashed offices, turned over desks, smeared strawberries, taco sauce and whipped cream over their bodies, uprooted office plants and splashed and frolicked in the fountains.
"It's not a good idea to give 400 computer geeks 170 bottles of Dom Perignon in 15 minutes," Waddell said. "People were trashed in half an hour. I was blind in three."
The showstopper was the team's popular leader, David Cole, chief of Windows 95 programmers, riding on a Suzuki motorcycle through the carpeted halls of Building 5.
As the Aug. 24 launch date for Windows 95 nears, the halls of Buildings 4 and 5 - where programmers created Microsoft's next-generation operating system - are relatively quiet. Their baby is now in the hands of the marketers. Many team members are vacationing or waiting for the next project.
"It's been an absolute thrill to be on something this evolutionary and revolutionary," Waddell said. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. Once in a lifetime shot, and I'm glad I got my shot."
It wasn't long ago when the team was entrenched in the "Death March," the final, stress-filled push to complete the operating system. Team members gutted through grueling, seven-day schedules, spending most of their days and nights scrunched in their offices working out last-minute glitches.
They sacrificed their personal and family lives, and they endured the elation and frustration of creating a product that everyone knew would be the centerpiece of the company's future.
"There's a time when it's really fun and a time when it's really painful," said Eric Straub, 32, a Windows 95 group manager.
Managers tended to exploit the emotional highs and lows, harnessing the energy to the company's advantage. Production came first, but nearly anything was tolerated as long as it motivated team members. The company even has a "morale" budget for such occasions - money for things like champagne.
"We've got some characters on this team, that's for sure," said Cole, 33. "We've got some hard cores who are extremely dedicated and intense people to work with. Their focus and drive is to create great products and get stuff done.
"But they know how to blow off steam. You can't be hard core all of the time. If they're not working, they're out riding their bikes, playing basketball or breaking their bones.
"Part of my management philosophy is to get the most out of them and keep them on a creative edge. When you work people that hard, you have to play hard, too, or they end up burning out from the pressure."
Waddell has worked for several Fortune 50 companies as a computer designer or programmer. Those companies would never allow the kinds of "festivities" that Microsoft tolerates. "But none of these companies have experienced the success that Microsoft has," Waddell said. "I can't imagine Big Blue (IBM) doing a party like this."
During the most tension-filled times, several team members took out their frustrations on some stuffed animals, including their unofficial pink bunny mascot.
"We've got some stuffed bunnies with burnt fur on their backs, and there's a stuffed bear with his neck blown off," said David D'Souza, 29, a software developer. "Some of the guys would take their frustrations out on the pink bunnies - kicking them around and hanging them outside windows or from trees."
Once Cole reserved a movie theater at Crossroads in Bellevue so the whole team could watch the opening of "Die Hard 3." Bad movie night every Monday became a must for many. They would see such films as "Blown Away," "Sniper" and "True Lies."
David Adler, a software development manager for the Windows 95 team, took his team to Renton to play "paint ball," a game where people shoot each other with toy guns.
"We were always looking for ways for people to blow off some steam," Adler said. "One of my guys laid three shots right at my chest at close range. You know you've been hit. It stings. He said he was sorry, but he was grinning - just like I was grinning when I shot my boss."
Cole even dressed in a pink bunny suit for an Easter beer party and was seen hopping around the hallways. For the troops to see a hard-driven manager like Cole sporting long pink ears and a white cotton tail, it added a human and amusing touch.
"That gives the team something to talk about," Cole said.
Managers also took their teams off campus for dinners or lunches, where the team could discuss issues or problems outside of work. Management would listen and approve of ideas - even risky ones - if they seemed plausible.
During the Death March phase, the team was having trouble getting other software applications to run smoothly with Windows 95. Someone suggested going to Egghead Software to buy up every software program so they could test each one.
Cole approved. Team members jumped in his truck and bought one of everything. Total bill: $15,000.
"The beauty of that is the execution," said Bill Veghte, 28, a program manager. "Backing up the pickup truck to the building and everyone strolling out. That sort of thing has a tremendous emotional response."
The team spent long days together in close quarters, often writing code or hunting for bugs in groups of two and three in cramped, sometimes windowless offices.
Tensions, at times, flared.
"People would get so frustrated and stressed out that we ended up having huge flame debates (loud arguments) about totally meaningless points because they're kind of harmless things to argue about," said Laura Butler, 25, a software developer.
But although much of the time was spent staring at computer screens, changing and verifying the code, software developers would emerge from their cubbyholes to discuss an idea or problem.
"They could be writing code on a white board, on scraps of paper or all on the computer," Adler said. "A lot of times you'll see developers together, kicking ideas around. It's very unstructured. It's almost creative."
"We work off each other - that's how ideas get spawned," Waddell said. "Many ideas for Win95 were created in the hallways."
Microsoft's unstructured environment produces good ideas and good programming solutions because people are free to be creative, Waddell said. When the people know their craziness is tolerated, it inspires them to work harder.
"I know Microsoft will give me the freedom to get my job done," he said. "In some cases, that may be unorthodox. But when you know no boundaries, nothing is impossible."
Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.