Learning lessons from Vista delay

Think Microsoft Vista’s latest schedule slip doesn’t matter? Think again. Sure, last month’s announcement that the next version of Windows won’t be out in time for holiday sales is more an industry sideshow than a big deal for corporate IT. It’ll stunt PC sales at the end of this year and give Microsoft-haters something more to bleat about. But for most IT shops, that delay just means we’ll start testing Vista a little later.

Forget those details. Look at the big picture, and you’ll see a nasty object lesson in what happens when you (and others) put too much trust in your ability to deliver software.

That’s what Microsoft executives did. That’s also what vendors and IT industry pundits did, which is why words like “bombshell” and “unthinkable” are being tossed around to describe the “Vista slips” announcement. They believed. They trusted.

They shouldn’t have. Vista is the most complicated software product in Microsoft’s history, incorporating higher-quality standards and a new approach to software projects, and facing the same old “keep piling on the new features” culture. That’s nothing to inspire confidence in a firm delivery date.

But Vista boss Jim Allchin promised that Vista would be delivered on time. Allchin is an executive who’s well liked by his developers, and this product is his last hurrah. He staked his reputation on getting Vista out the door before he retired at the end of this year. And he believed, probably rightly, that his team would do everything in its power to make that happen.

Yes, they’re all doing their best. But they can’t work a miracle. Vista is irretrievably late. Microsoft is embarrassed again. PC makers insist that they won’t take a significant hit in holiday sales, but Wall Street analysts are already recalculating their Q4 sales estimates.

Lost revenue, lost trust, a lost reputation. That’s Vista’s legacy, even before it’s finished.

Ugly, yes? And it probably sounds familiar. Your IT shop likely has huge, challenging (and challenged) projects too. How do you avoid watching the next one become a Vista of your very own? Start with the first rule of posterior protection: underpromise and overdeliver. Or better yet: Make no promises at all.

If — pardon me, when — your boss, users or business partners demand a guaranteed deadline, give them a percentage chance that you can deliver the goods. That percentage goes up if they can accept functionality that doesn’t work in the first version. But promise nothing.

Drum into the head of every developer, user and executive that every added feature costs time, and the later it’s added, the more time it costs. And that removing features late in the game doesn’t save time; it costs time to cut that code and retest.

Ask users what their plans are for the new system: how they’ll use it, when they expect it. Then concentrate on what will be important to them. Users aren’t stupid, and most of them don’t have it in for IT. They won’t crucify you for bugs as long as there are workarounds, or for missing features as long as first-draft software does the core of what they need.

Expect to be blindsided by something. And when you hit a hard bump that delays you, tell users and management. They’ll be unhappy, but not being warned would make them even unhappier.

Keep reminding everyone that hard work later is no substitute for good design earlier, and that, as Brooks’ Law says, adding more developers makes a late project later. Encourage brilliant solutions, but don’t count on them. Promise nothing, communicate reality and stick to the plan, and you have a much better chance of avoiding your own private Vista.

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–Hayes is Computerworld (U.S.)’s senior news columnist. Contact him at [email protected].

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