Those of us who work in software live in a world of lean practices. We are encouraged to prototype, fail fast and iterate. We have seen software-based companies go from an idea in a kid’s brain to a billion dollar business in the time it would have taken him to get a college degree. Of course, those are the outliers on the positive side. For every extremely successful software project there are a large number of failed ones that we’ll never hear about.
There are also projects that managed to survive only because they had the backing of an already successful company, flush with cash. Microsoft Word for Windows could be a good example. Not many people know the story of what would become one of the most widely used software products ever. I learned about it from a case study for my Software Project Management class in 1997, what follows is my summary (original here, or Google it).
Gates put three real hotshots on the project. Hunt, who had single-handedly written the first version of PC Word, became the project manager. Arthurs, who had a Ph.D. in psychology, was responsible for user interface and documentation. Hermann had been at Wang and was supposed to know the word processor business inside and out.
Opus got into a mode that I call “Infinite Defects,” When you put a lot of schedule pressure on developers, they tend to do the minimum amount of work necessary on a feature. When it works well enough to demonstrate, they consider it done and the feature is checked off on the schedule. The inevitable bugs months later are seen as unrelated. Even worse, by the time the bugs are discovered, the developers can’t remember their code so it takes them a lot longer to fix. Furthermore, the schedule is thrown off because that feature was supposed to be finished.