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Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Breaking Windows

Moishe Lettvin told me that Breaking Windows was a great book about the internal politics inside Microsoft during the time of the internet browser wars. At that time, two camps emerged inside Microsoft: Brad Silverberg's "Internet Doves" team advocated competing on an equal basis, and adopting the internet as the new programming model. Jim Allchin's "Windows Hawks" wanted to tie everything back to Windows, still Microsoft's #1 revenue generator and franchise today. (Disclosure: as a poor starving grad. student at UW, Brad Silverberg once gave Pardo and I a ride to the start of a mountain bike ride, rode with us masterfully --- through water that came up to our knees, no less, and then bought us all burgers for dinner)

The book's organized by people, rather than by timeline, which makes the narrative really confusing at times: the windows monopoly trial was revisited no less than three times, each time with a different character in play. The book's subtitle is How Bill Gates Fumbled The Future of Microsoft, and indeed, there's a lot of analysis of Bill Gates' approach to corporate strategy: everything had to tie back to windows, even Internet Explorer 4, and that led to the entire bundling charade that gave us a big trial with David Boies. The trial coverage was very well done, and Bank even got Boies to talk about how he would have approached the trial differently as the Microsoft counsel if he had been on the other side.

One thing that surprised me was that Bank portrays Gates' departure from Microsoft as CEO as being an ouster, rather than a voluntary relinquishing of the reins. That wasn't obvious to me from the press coverage at the time, and given that Microsoft's stock price at the time was incredibly high, I'm not sure how much credibility to give it.

Another interesting bit to read is how sympathetic Bank was to Steve Ballmer, who's been much vilified in the press for his antics. Then there's comments and complaints that should be very familiar to anyone who's seen a relatively small company grow a bit too fast:
Many of the processes that worked when Microsoft was small didn't "scale" now that it was big. Half of the nearly forty thousand employees had been hired during the previous five years. Internal issues were consuming more and more time---people complained about the need to respond to nearly a hundred e-mail messages a day, to attend endless, repetitive "off-sites" to adjust to yet another reorganization. Don't hire any more people, many employees told Ballmer. Don't make the company any bigger or we're all going to leave.
Both old-timers and newcomers were frustrated by the increasing volume of internal politics...

What impressed me from 1995 to 1998 was how quickly Microsoft pivoted to come from behind in the browser wars to utterly dominating and crushing Netscape. As someone who was working at a small internet startup at that time, I can testify that it wasn't just about being technically superior, but also at that time Microsoft approached even small companies with a degree of humility that was surprising to us, given their reputation. It was gratifying to me to see that this turnaround was largely master-minded by Brad Silverberg, who struck me as a nice guy in my one fleeting encounter with him. Nevertheless, for his heretical ideas for suggesting that Windows take a back seat in favor for a full-on internet-first approach, Silverberg was ousted, his team dismantled, and he quit in frustration. One can only speculate how different things would have been if he had been allowed to run with his idea and what was obviously an incredibly well-executing team.

Microsoft was smart enough to put Silverberg on a retainer so he wouldn't go to a competitor, and eventually tried to offer Silverberg his old job back. Yet Silverberg turned Ballmer's offer down:
"The company is so wrapped up in its shorts that it can't get anything done," he sighed in an e-mail to Ben Slivka, his old ally from the browser and Java battles. Microsoft might stil be loaded with brainpower, but it was getting only pennies on the dollar. "So much IQ is wasted.

When I first joined Google, I asked one of the execs a question: "Did Google feel that it had anything to learn from any other companies in its space?" The answer I got back surprised me with its arrogance: "No, there's no other precedent for having to deal with scale as much as we are." Reading this book made me realize that the exec was wrong. There's plenty to learn from Microsoft's mistakes, and it's too bad that many companies seem doomed to repeat them, though perhaps from a different angle.

Regardless, this book is compelling and while confusing at times, a fun read. Recommended.

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