THE COMPLETE TITLE of In Search of Stupidity includes the phrase “High- Tech Marketing Disasters,” and from these words you might conclude that it’s a firm’s marketers who usually bear the chief responsibility for major corporate catastrophes. This isn’t true. To be worthy of mention in this book, it took the combined efforts of personnel in upper management, development, sales, and marketing, all fiercely dedicated to ignoring common sense, the blatantly obvious, and the lessons of the past. Major failure doesn’t just happen: To achieve it, everyone must pull together as a team.
Chapter 4 of In Search of Stupidity helps drive this point home. For MicroPro to plummet from the software industry’s pinnacle to permanent oblivion took a) upper management’s mishandling of development and market timing, b) the marketing department’s idiotic decision to create a fatal product-positioning conflict, and c) the development team’s dimwitted decision to rewrite perfectly good code at a critical time because it wanted to write even better code that no one really needed. A magnificent example of different groups within a company all cooperating to ensure disaster.
In this spirit, I’ve decided to include selected portions of an interview with Joel Spolsky that ran on SoftwareMarketSolution (http:// www.softwaremarketsolution.com), a website sponsored by the author of this book that provides resources and information on products and services of interest to high-tech marketers. (By the way, this interview was “picked up” by Slashdot [http://www.slashdot.org], a website dedicated to technology, coding, open source, and all things nerd. It generated a considerable amount of comment and controversy. You can search the Slashdot archives to read what other people thought and gain further insight into Joel’s opinions.)
I regard Joel Spolsky, president and one of the founders of Fog Creek Software (http://www.fogcreek.com), as one of the industry’s most fascinating personalities. He worked at Microsoft from 1991 to 1994 and has more than 10 years of experience managing the software development process. As a program manager on the Microsoft Excel team, Joel designed Excel Basic and drove Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) strategy. His website, Joel on Software (http:// www.JoelonSoftware.com), is visited by thousands of developers worldwide every day. His first book, User Interface Design for Programmers (Apress, 2001), was reviewed on SoftwareMarketSolution, and I regard it as a must-have for anyone involved in developing and marketing software.
Why this interview? If you’ve ever worked on the software side of high technology, you’ve probably experienced the following: After a careful analysis of your product’s capabilities, the competition, and the current state of the market, a development and marketing plan is created. Release time frames are discussed and agreed upon. Elaborate project management templates are built, and milestones are set. You post the ship date up on a wall where everyone in your group can see it, and your team begins to work like crazed beavers to meet your target. Then, as the magic day looms nearer, ominous sounds emit from development. Whispers of “crufty code” and “bad architecture” are overheard. Talk of “hard decisions” that “need to be made” starts to wend its way through the company grapevine. People, especially the programmers, walk by the wall on which you’ve mounted the ship date, pause, shake their heads, and keep walking.
Finally, the grim truth is disgorged. At a solemn meeting, development tells everyone the bad news. The code base of the current product is a mess. Despite the best and heroic efforts of the programmers, they’ve been unable to fix the ancient, bug-ridden, fly-bespeckled piece of trash foisted on them by an unfeeling management. No other option remains. The bullet must be bitten. The gut must be sucked up. The Rubicon must be crossed. And as that sinking feeling gathers in your stomach and gains momentum as it plunges toward your bowels, you realize that you already know what you’re about to hear. And you already know that, after hearing it, you’ll be groping blindly back to your cubicle, your vision impeded by the flow of tears coursing down your face, your eyes reddened by the sharp sting of saline. And you’ve already accepted it’s time to get your resume out and polished, because the next few financial quarters are going to be very, very ugly.
And then they say it. The product requires a ground-up rewrite. No other option exists.
Oh, you haven’t been through this yet? Well, just wait. You will. However, as you’ll learn, what you’re going to be told may very well not be true. After reading this interview, you’ll be in a better position to protect your vision and your career in the wonderful world of high tech. And now . . .
An Interview with Joel Spolsky...