My Microsoft Book Report

by | General

I’m a frequent customer at one of my favorite independent bookstores here in Portland, Oregon, Powells Bookstore and I stumbled across a fantastic non-fiction book by Fred Moody, “I Sing the Body Electronic”.

I first read it quite a few years ago, and remember I quite enjoyed it, but I must have either misplaced it or loaned it to someone else. When I saw it sitting in the technology section of the bookstore, I immediately grabbed it and began reading it from cover to cover.

It’s no longer in print, but you can easily find lots of used copies on Amazon via independent booksellers. It’s well worth a read to anyone interested in software development and technology in general.

In the early 1990s, Fred Moody came up with the idea of spending a full year shadowing a software development team at Microsoft, as they went about creating from scratch, a brad new multimedia encyclopedia for kids that ended up being Exploreapedia (codenamed “Sendak”).

I’m sure that when the book was first published, it was marketed as a groundbreaking and bold new book that covered the hot new field of electronic “multimedia”.

If there’s one type of book topic that ages horribly as soon as it hits the bookshelves, it’s technology. I’ve stopped purchasing most paper version books that cover various technology contents like software development and architecture just for this very reason.

At least when I purchase them as e-books, they don’t take up valuable physical space in my house.

Fred Moody’s book is no exception to this rule. When was the last time you remember anyone getting excited about “multimedia”?

For anyone not familiar with what multimedia was all about, it’s useful to understand the historical context of what was going on back around 1992-1993, when Fred Moody was researching and writing his book.

The internet, as we know it, was just about to be born in the form of the HTML spec created by computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee and the introduction of the world’s first internet browser, Mosaic.

But the book takes place barely a year before this happens. At the time, personal computers were beginning to adopt CD-ROM technology, which introduced a major data storage format that allowed software developers to pack hugely more amounts of video and sound content (hence the term ‘multimedia’) into a software application.

It opened up new opportunities for more sophisticated and powerful software in business and entertainment. Computer games were suddenly packed with much more visual and audio content.

CD-ROM technology was probably the first technological milestone event that spelled the doom for the traditional publishing industry, especially in the field of paper based encyclopedia sets.

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, and then CEO at the time, immediately saw lucrative new financial opportunities in CD-ROM multimedia technology, and desired to see Microsoft break new ground in the field of electronic encyclopedias.

He predicted huge consumer demand for CD-ROM based encyclopedia products based off several assumptions. Unlike traditional paper encyclopedia sets, CD-ROM based encyclopedia products barely took up any physical space in your home.

And unlike paper based encyclopedia sets, you could pack tons of dynamic audio and visual content into an electronic version.

Instead of just reading about Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, you could actually watch and listen to the actual video and audio footage of Dr. King making his speech. Instead of just reading dry passages of text content and static pictures in a traditional book based encyclopedia, you could pop a CD-ROM based version into your personal computer and get a much richer and dynamic learning experience.

This is exactly why Bill Gates fully supported this new software category, which spurred the Multimedia division of Microsoft to get into high gear and begin creating new consumer software products that would help to fulfill Mr. Gates’s vision about multimedia software products.

It is within this historical context that the book begins. It’s also interesting to note this book was written at a time just before the Internet really took off, and just before Microsoft as a company, became the worldwide software company juggernaut we know about today.

The author, Fred Moody, got permission from Microsoft to shadow one of the software development teams responsible for creating a new CD-ROM based encyclopedia for children.

He attended every informal and formal meeting the Sendak (the codename for their product) team conducted and literally shadowed each team member as they went about performing their everyday duties.

The Sendak team consisted of the key following members:

Caralyn Bjerke: Project Manager

Kevin Gammill: Lead Software Developer

It’s interesting to note that at the time the events of this book took place, the early 1990s, the primary software development methodology around, revolved around traditional Waterfall development.

For those unfamiliar with Waterfall methodology, it’s a software development process that focuses in breaking down an entire software project into distinct phases.

Each phase of a project must be completed before the next successive phase begins.

The four major phases of Waterfall typically follow this pattern:

  1. Design phase
  2. Implementation phase
  3. Testing phase
  4. Documentation phase

The design phase is usually the first step in a waterfall driven software project. When we say design, we’re typically referring to all activity that ultimately leads to a project spec that details all the project requirements that needs to go into creating a final software product deliverable.

Once the design phase is complete, then and ONLY then can the next phase begin. And so on and so on.

Which is why it’s referred to as “waterfall” development…each phase, spills down to the next phase.

The book’s author, Fred Moody, chronicles the entire Waterfall development encyclopedia project, from inception to completion, including the nervous “pitch meeting” to Bill Gates himself, to convince him to greenlight their project and provide the funding and human resources to bring the project to completion.

What the book slowly but steadily reveals are all the tribulations and problems the Sendak team struggle with, all while under the pressure cooker of the looming deadline to deliver their final product by a certain drop dead date.

You quickly learn of the friction and conflicts between the designers and the technical programmers who are required to implement the wishes of the designers.

The designers complain that the programmers always say something can’t be done, and the programmers complain that the designers ask for things that are impossible to implement.

Even a software juggernaut company like Microsoft is not immune to the struggles of software development.

As the pressure cooker of their project deadline gets closer and closer, you learn about the personal conflicts between each of the team members.

The ultimate takeaway I got from the book, reaffirmed some of my suspicions being a professional software developer.

Waterfall development methodology used to be the de facto standard of creating software until agile and scrum came along. And I know, without a doubt, that some new methodology will eventually replace agile and scrum.

Yet while technology and development methodologies will always evolve and change, it’s ultimately human conflicts and foibles that will always be present to behind the challenges and difficulty of software development.

That’s about it for my book report. Definitely worth doing a little digging to find a used copy either at your local favorite brick and mortar store, or somewhere online.

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