REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 16, 2000 — When Brian Valentine joined the Microsoft Windows Division in December 1998, development of the company’s next-generation operating system had reached a critical stage. At the mid-point of the largest software development project in the company’s history, the 4,200-strong Windows 2000 team faced the challenge of finishing the product, finding and fixing bugs, fine-tuning new features, testing the product extensively and getting it “out the door” and into the hands of Microsoft’s customers.
“Large projects go through a natural cycle of highs and lows,” says Valentine, who serves as senior vice president of the Windows Division. “And when I joined the team, it was a very challenging time. The team was wondering if it was ever going to get done and deliver on its original goals for the project.”
Valentine immediately set to work as the “lead motivator,” helping the team overcome the stress of such a large project with top-notch organizational skills and contagious sense of humor. He established steadfast goals and priorities, and made a motto out of the phrase,
“Decisions in 10 minutes or less, or the next one is free.”
He wandered the halls and asked people,
“What is a decision? It’s a tool to remove confusion! Are you confused? If so, then make the decision and let’s move on!”
He brought in veteran project manager Iain MacDonald and charged him with dissecting the team’s goals into concrete, achievable steps. He even performed stand-up comedy routines at weekly Friday afternoon parties designed to relieve stress and raise morale.
“The idea was to let people know that first of all, we are going to get this done, and second of all, we’re going to have fun doing it,”
“I’d say, ‘We’re a long way from being done, but I can show you that today is better than yesterday, and this week is better than last week.'”
Now, a little more than a year later, the Windows 2000 team has achieved its goal. In December, they completed work on Windows 2000 and released the operating system to computer manufacturers. And this week they will celebrate the launch of the product, marking the operating system’s availability in retail stores.
“I was scared to death coming over to this job because I wasn’t sure I was going to succeed,”
But the thing that convinced me to come over here was that Windows 2000 already had a great team in place. You could say that Moshe Dunie, who had led the team to that point, had loaded the bases. I got to come in and bat ‘clean up.’ Bringing my strengths and having that great team in place was a combination I knew would allow us to get done what we needed to get done ”
Although he was responsible for leading and motivating his team, Valentine emphasizes that Windows 2000 is really the work of the 4,200 people he manages.
“There were literally thousands of great people working on this project, and they’re the ones that got it done,”
“I dressed up in cheerleader outfits and jumped around in little short skirts and pom-poms on Fridays. It wasn’t always a pretty sight, but I did it. But they’re the ones that really made it happen from a product technology standpoint.”
Colleagues describe Valentine as a great motivator who helped spur the team to achieving its goals.
“He knows how to get the team moving in a single direction, and he knows how to challenge his people to get them motivated,”
says John Gehlsen, who leads Microsoft’s Windows 2000 customer feedback programs.
“He has a way of empowering and challenging you at the same time, and I think that is what drives Microsoft people to excel.”
“He’s just makes stuff happen,”
says Nadine Kano, who manages Valentine’s public appearances.
“He’s one of the rank and file and our biggest cheerleader. Every once in a while, he says, ‘Have I told you what a great job you’re doing? It feels good to know he’s watching what people are doing at all levels of the organization and appreciates their work.”
In addition to motivating his team, Valentine is praised for his decisions as leader of the division. For example, co-workers say Valentine emphasized the need for customer feedback, and introduced an intensive corporate customer feedback program similar to the one he pioneered while working on Microsoft Exchange Server. He also improved the process for identifying and addressing bugs. In general, Valentine’s ability to make good decisions quickly was critical to the success of the project, according to colleagues.
“When you are building a product like Windows and trying to get it shipped, you need to make decisions quickly with a limited amount of data,”
“When you come to Brian with a request, he asks the right questions and then makes a decision. This makes it easier for us to make changes quickly.”
A Passion for Leading Complex Projects
While Valentine developed an early interest in computers, leading teams was a passion he discovered along the way. As a high school student, Valentine originally set his sights on a career in law and politics. But he changed his mind after being introduced to computers for the first time during a geometry course at Centralia Community College. Solving geometry problems using BASIC programming and a Teletype punch machine from the community college, he soon became intrigued by the computers at Evergreen State College to which the Teletype machine was connected.
“I didn’t understand how they were connected, and was really curious about the way it worked,”
“Soon I began driving up to Evergreen and playing on the system after school almost every day of the week. I got very interested in going up there and hanging out with all the hacky, nerdish guys at the college who were doing software development. I wanted to be like them.”
Following his junior year of college in 1982, Valentine landed a summer job developing Unix-based software for an energy management control system project led by an Eastern Washington University professor.
“I worked about 110 hours a week that summer, and I kept working full-time during my senior year in college. I rarely went to class my senior year. But when it was over, I had some really great experience in systems-level programming on Unix computers, which in those days was hot. We were Unix kernel hacks all the way.”
After graduating in 1983, Valentine joined Intel Corp. as a software developer in the company’s Santa Clara tools division. He later transferred to Hillsboro, Ore., where he continued working as a software engineer.
“Intel is a pretty rigorous process-oriented company, so I learned a lot of good things there about project management,”
Paul Maritz, a co-worker at Intel who later moved to Microsoft, invited Valentine to join the company in 1987, three years before Microsoft launched Windows 3.0.
“The one issue I had while working at Intel was that being a software engineer wasn’t the top engineering job at the company in those days,”
“And I wanted to be a software guy, so what better company to come to than Microsoft? That’s why I made the decision to come here.”
Valentine first served as a test manager for Microsoft’s LAN Manager group. He later worked on Microsoft Mail 3.0, then became general manager of the Microsoft Exchange group, delivering Microsoft Exchange Server versions 4.0, 5.0 and 5.5.
“What Exchange taught me were the skills to manage those large, long, complex projects and to keep morale up and keep people motivated,”
“It also taught me that you need to dig in and make low-level priority decisions while at the same time keep a high-level view.”
In December 1998, Jim Allchin, who was then Microsoft’s senior vice president of the Personal and Business Systems Group, approached Valentine and invited him to lead the Windows 2000 team. Allchin was searching for someone to take the project
when Dunie decided to step back, take a breather and spend more time with his family.
“My talent is to draw on the negative energy and turn it into positive energy in a way that’s motivating and fun for people,”
“That’s what the project needed at that point in time, so I knew I could add value to the team. Because a great team was already in place, much of the core work was done before I arrived. What was needed was a fresh face to fine-tune the process, build morale and create the energy to reach the finish line. Jim asked me to fill that role.”
The General Patton of Software Development
Leaning on a wooden baseball bat as he talks, Valentine describes the challenge of guiding 4,200 employees worldwide as they worked on the most ambitious software project in Microsoft history. Dressed in jeans, a short-sleeve polo shirt and sneakers, Valentine’s manner is as informal as his attire. He’s both personable and approachable, and punctuates the conversation with personal stories and keen wit. A
sign and a tear-off Weekly World News calendar sit prominently on Valentine’s desk, a testament to his sense of humor. Valentine laughs as he explains his habit of sharing Weekly World News articles with engineers at the Friday meetings to remind them that there is life outside of Microsoft,
“even if that life is alien visitors from different planets.”
“It’s important to understand that no product can be produced without quality people, and people need to be motivated to create great products,”
“Since day one, the people on the Windows 2000 team have contributed the highest quality of software development work. My contribution was to take the stress off, loosen the group up and make them laugh again.”
Asked to discuss Microsoft’s goals for Windows 2000, Valentine rapidly fires off the top four. Goal number one, he says, was to make Windows 2000 the most reliable operating system in the market, so that it never crashes or needs to reboot, and the most scalable, so that it can accommodate the growing needs of businesses. Goal number two was to make it an ideal platform for companies to conduct business in a connected manner over the Internet. Goal number three was to reduce the cost of maintaining Windows by making the operating system easier to manage and reducing total cost of ownership. And goal number four was to make it an ideal platform for running business applications.
There were numerous other goals, he explains, but those were the main four. All four goals are interrelated. For example, Windows 2000 must be easy to manage if it’s to serve as an optimal Internet platform. And it must be reliable if it’s to serve as the platform of choice for running business applications.
“If your payroll system crashes half way through running the checks, and it takes you two days to get it back up, employees aren’t going to be happy,”
“And if your order entry system is crashing all the time, you’re going to lose money. If your online e-commerce application can’t take Internet scale, your competition is just one click away. By significantly increasing reliability, scalability, manageability and availability in Windows 2000, we have made it the best operating system platform for businesses of all sizes running Internet or intranet applications and services.”
It’s not enough to establish goals, Valentine says. The goals must be understood throughout the team to ensure every person is focusing their work on the correct priorities. Jokingly compared to General George S. Patton by his co-workers, Valentine describes the challenge of quickly communicating the team’s priorities to 4,200 workers worldwide while ensuring they don’t lose sight of their contributions to the project.
“It’s not hard in the Windows group to make people feel like they’re working on something pretty important to our customers, our company and the computer industry,”
“The challenge is to make sure they’re working on the right things, and to make them feel they have impact and recognition, as opposed to being lost in a sea of bodies.”
Valentine used e-mail to accomplish that goal. He has learned that the more you can make a team feel like a team, or
“a family working together,”
as he says, the harder they will work toward the goals of the project. He sent frequent matter-of-fact e-mails describing the team’s accomplishments, poking fun where needed, sharing positive feedback from customers and kept the focus on what remained to be done.
“I was trying to instill a family attitude in the group and that is a big challenge, but if you can do it, you can get a lot of people really motivated,”
Testing the Limits of Windows 2000
In addition to setting stringent goals for Windows 2000 and communicating them to his workers, Valentine ensured the Windows 2000 team devoted more resources to testing the operating system than any product in Microsoft history. More than half of the 4,200 employees working on the product were testers, Valentine says, and their goal was to ensure that Windows 2000 met significantly more stringent criteria for stability, quality, performance and reliability than any previous Windows product.
The team also established
to ensure that Windows 2000 works well with leading desktop productivity applications, server applications, hardware systems and devices and business applications. And they established swat teams to travel to companies to ensure that Windows 2000 is compatible with custom software applications developed by corporations to meet their unique business needs.
“The custom corporate line of business applications were a challenge because every company has a different set,”
“So we had to put together swat teams that went to those companies for four or five days at a time and tested those applications on site. By doing this, it enabled us to build a great partnership with our customers.”
The Windows Division also set up
to make sure that Windows 2000 performed optimally under high levels of use. It assigned teams to inspect the code for bugs, and it set up labs worldwide that outside software and hardware manufacturers could use to test their own applications and devices.
“It was an industry-wide program around Windows 2000 compatibility and quality,”
Finally, the Windows 2000 team sent more than 750,000 copies of Windows 2000 to beta testers so they could use the product and provide feedback. It established a Rapid Deployment Program (RDP) to allow a broad range of companies and solution providers to use the product and provide feedback. And it set up a Joint Development Program (JDP) to help more than 50 large corporations and Internet companies deploy Windows 2000 and provide feedback on a detailed scale.
“The development team ran the JDP program to get enterprise customers to test and extensively deploy Windows 2000 in production before we shipped it and to give feedback directly to the development team,” Valentine says.”
These companies would come in and use our test labs for weeks at a time and help us emulate their corporate environments. The RDP program is an initiative out of our marketing group. The goal there has been to help early adopter customers with their rollouts. We also have a lot of solution providers in the RDP, so we taught them how to deploy Windows 2000 — now they can do rollouts for all of their customers.”
Valentine says the end result is a product that’s well suited for all companies ranging from small businesses all the way up to large enterprises delivering large numbers of applications and services.
“Because of its reliability and manageability, Windows 2000 is an obvious choice for businesses of any size,”
“People are going to be pleasantly surprised with the quality and reliability of the system because we set the bar so high.”
Turning Visions into Shippable Products
While Windows 2000 is available in retail stores, Valentine says the team’s work on the product is far from over.
“When it ships, it’s only just the start,”
“That’s the irony–or really, the fun. It’s not done until businesses everywhere are running on Windows 2000 or some generation of Windows 2000. So if we need to fill gaps, we’ll fill the gaps and continue to do whatever we can to make sure Windows 2000 is successful.”
Valentine sees his work on Windows 2000 as the biggest challenge of his career, noting that his work on Exchange Server 4.0 was a close second.
“Most people, if they’re lucky, get one big challenge in their career. But I’ve been lucky to have two of these in mine. Of the two, this was by far the biggest challenge. And I’m even luckier to face that challenge with a super-talented team of people, not only at Microsoft but also with the customers and partners that contributed to Windows 2000.”
So what lies beyond Windows 2000? Valentine says he personally looks forward to watching the changes that will occur as the world goes increasingly digital and wireless.
“We’re just at the beginning, and I think the digital world is going to change the way almost everything works, whether it’s business relationships, consumer relationships or people relationships,”
“From a technological standpoint, it’s very exciting, and I’m almost mad I was born 40 years too early.”
Despite his fascination with the pace of technological development, Valentine says he sees himself as a leader of visionaries — not a visionary himself.
“My pleasures don’t necessarily come from being a visionary,”
“My pleasures come from leading a great team of visionaries toward goals and accomplishments that meet the requirements of customers. I enjoy helping smart people accomplish their vision — I enjoy getting stuff done.”