Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, in his very first newspaper column two weeks ago, humbly reminded us that he helped write the first software program for a microcomputer.
Shucks, Gates said, that was way back in 1975 when he was just a pale sophomore at Harvard University.
My how times have changed at the world’s largest software maker.
Gates is now rich enough to buy Harvard, and writing code for a new operating system takes hundreds of programmers enslaved by leaders who make Genghis Khan look like a sissy.
At least that’s the image portrayed by Wall Street Journal reporter G. Pascal Zachary in his recent book, “Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft.” (The Free Press, N.Y. $23.)
Zachary logged countless hours and interviewed 138 named sources during the Redmond-based company’s five-year trek to create an operating system that would replace DOS and Windows and run on any personal computer in the world.
As we now know, the company fell short of that goal, in part, because bright guy Gates thought the ultimate computer platform would be run on a 386 chip. The 486 and Pentium have since made the 386 virtually obsolete.
But the project kept alive Microsoft’s dream for a universal operating system. After several delays, Microsoft this year expects to release Windows 95, the daughter of NT that the company believes will drive the next generation of super-fast personal computers and their networks.
Like NT (New Technology), Zachary’s tale is a bit of a let down, since the project neither failed nor became wildly successful. He spends most of 312 pages describing the pathetic lives of programmers who sold their souls for a chance to ride Microsoft stock options to riches.
Marriages failed. Careers imploded. Life crashed when the computer did, and meeting corporate deadlines became more important than raising children.
Led by madman programmer David Cutler, NT designers lived in a perverse world where they slept under their desk and called themselves the Undead. Workers referred to testing their programs as “eating your own dog food.”
Cutler, a taskmaster who skipped his father’s funeral, was uncontrollable, gunning people down with so much profanity and intimidation that he’s the best reason to keep this book away from your boss.
Zachary wants us to believe that NT was an achievement equivalent to building Grand Coulee Dam. Gates dumped a whopping $150 million into the program, which amassed 5.6 million lines of code. More than 30,000 bugs - many called showstoppers for their ability to hold up release of NT - were deftly eliminated in the final days before release in 1993.
While those statistics may impress computer junkies, they are overshadowed by Showstopper’s real achievement - a betrayal of Microsoft’s greedy, stop-atnothing corporate culture.
Management consultants like to praise Gates for his so-called “controlled chaos.” But Showstopper! portrays that chaos as a living hell that keeps Microsoft on top of the heap - and the millions rolling in.
That’s something Gates probably won’t brag about in future columns.