More Microsoft exec departures mark end of a Windows era

With Jon DeVaan and Grant George officially retired and most of rest of Windows 8 team out to pasture, Microsoft silently acknowledges complete lack of faith in Windows 8.

Two of the people who saved Windows — Jon DeVaan and Grant George, who delivered Windows 7 from the jaws of Windows infamy — left the company earlier this week. Two more — Julie Larson-Green and Jensen Harris — whom many blame, er, “credit” with the Office ribbon and Windows tinker toy tiles, have found new homes buried deep in corporate nowhere land. Former Windows chief Steve Sinofsky jumped ship more than a year ago, probably because he was denied Ballmer’s CEO brass ring. And Antoine Leblond of the original Office 95-2007/Windows 7-8 inner circle remains missing in action.

These departures/transfers not only solidify a complete housecleaning of the Windows effort, they mark the end of a “monolithic Windows” era. It’s becoming clear that future versions of the Win7 desktop may get a nip here and a tuck there, but massive improvements aren’t likely. More important, the breakup of the old crew sends as clear a sign as any that the powers-that-be at Microsoft realize Windows 8 screwed up big time: The whole management team responsible for Windows 8 has just hung out the “gone fishing” sign.

It’s a pity, in many ways.

Microsoft has raised many great, legendary software engineers, and I for one would put DeVaan at the head of the list, up there with Charles Simonyi, the developer uber-guru who hired DeVaan. From DeVaan’s early days working on Excel 1.0, through Office 2000, on to “the 10-foot interface” and before-its-time UltimateTV, the Gates-driven Engineering Excellence effort, then replacing the mythical Brian Valentine as head of Windows development in 2006, shipping Vista SP1, Win7, Win8, and Win8.1, DeVaan has spent 30 years defining and refining big-project software engineering, school of hard knocks style. He’s also very quiet … and (as I learned many years ago in Las Vegas) he drives a mean simulated Harley. Fittingly, DeVaan announced his retirement on his personal Facebook page.

DeVaan was Sinofsky’s boss for many years. Most telling is this reminiscence from Sinofsky, as told in GeekWire:

Back in the early 1990s the use of garbage collection was more theoretical than practical (it is used broadly today in .Net and scripting languages), but I was really into it having just come from graduate school (the theoretical). I went to see Jon to convince him of the virtues of using GC in Excel as we explored using it in our first C++ tools. He was open-minded and then patiently showed me the tiny number of bugs in Excel that were rooted in memory management problems and also showed me just how memory efficient Excel was all due to the amazing coding and engineering the team did. At once I learned the limits of theory, the pragmatic engineering Jon exhibited, as well as his patience and openness to new ideas from a ‘new guy.’

Don’t feel too bad for DeVaan. He sold 307,200 shares of Microsoft stock on April 21, netting $7.8 million. At the time, he still had 549,986 shares left, worth more than $20 million. With his experience, skills set, and street cred, he has a whole lot of future to look forward to.

George is, if anything, even more reticent than DeVaan. Although he’s often pegged as “the guy in charge of Windows testing” — and Office testing before that — the description doesn’t do him justice. George championed a very different collaborative and automated approach to testing and QA that’s since been mimicked by many other organizations: He developed, in effect, a metatesting regimen that advanced the art. He and his teams break things, and break them good. Few people realize that Microsoft hires almost as many testers as they do software engineers. Under George’s tutelage, testers at Microsoft are coders — period.

George is also at the heart (you might call him the ultimate consumer) of Microsoft’s infamous telemetry data. A report in 2009 — one of George’s few published efforts that reached the general public — describes how he and his teams tested to maximize application backward compatibility in Windows 7, relying in no small part on telemetry. Another report, also from 2009, talked about device support and testing in Win7.

Five years ago, Microsoft Press published a book entitled “How We Test Software at Microsoft,” by Alan Page, Ken Johnston, and Bj Rollison. Here’s a quote from George, included in that book, that speaks volumes about his mindset:

Tester DNA has to include a natural ability to do systems level thinking, skills in problem decomposition, a passion for quality, and a love of finding out how something works and then how to break it. … Now that is what makes up a tester that makes them different from a developer. The way we combine that DNA with engineering skills is by testing software. The name we choose should reflect this but also be attractive to the engineers we want to hire. Something that shows we use development skills to drive testing.

Sinofsky, DeVaan, and George as a team go all the way back to Office 95. Sinofsky left a year ago. As of Jan. 1, both DeVaan and George have left the building — er, campus.

There’s been speculation online about how DeVaan and George were “forced out,” but that’s a crude and facile comment. Claiming the departures had anything to do with “Terry Myerson’s wrath” shows a distinct lack of understanding about the situation. I’ve seen no indication that Myerson’s upset with DeVaan or George (although Sinofsky’s another story altogether). Mostly, the departure of the two veterans reflects a major shift in the direction Windows will take. DeVaan and George have the experience to make the old monolithic Windows hum, but Myerson’s whistling a different tune.

Except for one holdout, all of the old Office/Windows inner circle has publicly left the Windows 8 happy hunting ground:

  • Julie Larson-Green, of ribbon and tile fame, left Windows in the July reorg, landing as head of the newly formed Devices and Studio Engineering group, which at the time included “all hardware development and supply chain from the smallest to the largest devices we build … studios experiences including all games, music, video, and other entertainment.” Sometime in the next few months, though, Steven Elop is coming home to roost in the Devices niche, bringing Nokia’s mobile business — and 32,000 or so employees — along with him. It isn’t at all clear at this point how Elop’s devices match up with Larson-Green’s devices, although his (possibly apocryphal) reported willingness to cut Xbox loose certainly didn’t win him any friends among the other “devices” side of the family.
  • Jensen Harris, who deserves much of the “credit” for new user interface design in Office and Windows 8, formally left the Windows group last month to join the Bing team. Although I tend to think of Bing as being located organizationally somewhat north of eastern Siberia, I have to keep reminding myself that Satya Nadella — a current long-shot contender for the Microsoft CEO crown — left Bing less than three years ago. Another sign of the times: Almost a month after his transfer, Harris’s personal blog still lists him in his old Windows position.
  • Tami Reller, marketing and finance honcho on the Windows team, has gone on to much more ambitious pursuits. In July she was named the new executive VP of marketing for all of Microsoft.
  • Michael Angiulo, who also arrived as a Friend of Sinofsky (FOS) from the Office team, made his mark on the Windows 8 release by leading an animated presentation at last year’s Build conference and the Windows 8 launch. He was in charge of bringing Win8 religion to the OEM masses, as well as overseeing the Surface effort. With OEMs dissing Win8 openly and the Surface falling with a thud, he hasn’t had a good year. At last report, per his LinkedIn site, he’s corporate VP of Xbox hardware, apparently reporting to Larson-Green.

Two more key members of the Windows 8 management team face severe career changes in short order. Neither made it into the Win8 limelight through the FOS/Office vector, but they’re both tarred — rightly or wrongly — with the Windows 8 brush.

  • Chris Jones was in charge of Windows Live — which is now dead — as well as Hotmail, SkyDrive, and Messenger, all of which are in various stages of molting. He was the sole managerial holdover from the Vista team that remained at the start of the Sinofsky era. Right now, it’s unclear how (or if) he’ll participate in the next versions of Windows.
  • As head of the Internet Explorer team, Dean Hachamovich contributed to the Windows 8 effort, but he was always viewed as something of an outsider — which isn’t necessarily bad. In November, Hachamovich announced he was headed to greener pastures, but details about his next stint at “something new” inside Microsoft have never been fleshed out. We’ll certainly see more of him, in a different role, in the future.

That leaves the holdout:

  • Where in the world is Antoine Leblond? He took over when Sinofsky left the Office effort, and shipped Office 2010. Then he jumped to the Windows group, FOS in 2010, and was given the dubious honor of keeping Windows Update and other Windows Web services running. Bloomberg’s Dina Bass reported in September that he had been switched over to “lining up applications for Windows 8,” a thankless task if ever there was one. Of course, Windows chief Terry Myerson knows all about WinRT apps, and as best I can tell he’s not said a word about Leblond in the new Windows organization. That’s too bad, because as much as many of us enjoy sniping at Leblond’s blog posts, he’s been a refreshingly straightforward spokesperson for Microsoft all through the Windows 7 and Windows 8 years.

Looking back on all of the recent shifts, I’m struck by four observations.

First, the lack of a Microsoft CEO heir (or at least the public announcement of an heir) hasn’t ground Myerson to a halt. He’s clearly moving ahead with his vision of where Windows should go.

Second, the anticipated triumvirate of new Windows versions may be disappointing for Windows desktop users. We don’t know for sure, but it looks like Microsoft will deliver a “modern” Metro (perhaps “Mod”?) version of Windows aimed for phones and tablets, a “consumer” version that may or may not look like Windows 8.1, and a “traditional” old fogey’s version of the desktop. With the old Windows management team gone, it’s going to be difficult bringing significant new features to the old fogey’s version — although the Windows Server folks may surprise us.

Third, many long-time Windows developers must be looking for greener pastures. That may not be bad, as Myerson clearly has a very different vision for Windows’ future.

Fourth — this is the point that strikes me hardest — the wholesale dismemberment of the Windows 8/8.1 management team says in no uncertain terms that the higher-ups at Microsoft, whomever they may be, are extremely disappointed with Windows 8.

I, for one, find that conclusion refreshing.

Via: infoworld


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