Story Pitch: Microsoft's "flattened" Windows 7 team and what it means for business

Dear Steven Sinofsky, Jon DeVaan, and Frank Shaw:

(For those who don’t know, Frank Shaw is the guy who, at Waggener Edstrom, runs the Microsoft PR account there, and Steven Sinofsky and Jon DeVaan runs Microsoft’s Windows team. Steven and Jon blog on the Windows 7 engineering blog and Frank keeps a personal blog too).

I’ve been keeping in touch with a few of my friends on the Microsoft Windows 7 team. The sources I have are developers, not leaders, but they’ve been telling me about how Steven changed some major things on the team (they aren’t willing to go on the record yet, which is what this note to the three here is about).

Here’s a list of structural changes to the Windows team at Microsoft I’ve heard about:

1. The teams now are flatter. There are far fewer levels between developers who build the product and you (er, Sinofsky).
2. You’ve moved all the developers onto a single floor. You’ve also done that for program managers and testers.
3. You’ve asked for, and gotten, teams to stay silent in public about coming features.

These three changes are, I hear, bringing huge changes in terms of team morale and getting stuff shipped faster and in better quality.

Here’s what I’m hearing:

1. Developers no longer need to “escalate” up problems four or more levels. That’s because they usually are only two or three levels away from you. This provides a few major benefits. First, more things are worked out lower down. No one wants to be called into your office to decide on things. Second, even when an escalation is needed things get settled out much faster. One guy told me about a time when he was eight levels away from Jim Allchin. He told me that devs aren’t more than four levels away now.
2. Moving all the devs onto a single floor has changed Microsoft’s culture. It used to be that the “program manager, tester, dev” team structure was very important, today, thanks to email and other communication systems it’s less important. Now I’m hearing that devs are sharing information among themselves, which is making things move faster and keeping morale higher.
3. I’m hearing that the reason that things haven’t leaked about Windows 7 yet (Microsoft used to leak like the Titanic) is that team members feel much better about the management lately and are less likely to play political games. I remember hearing about political games where teams would leak details about what they are working on to provide some public pressure to ensure their stuff would get included in Windows in the past. Even if that’s not true, it’s interesting that the leaks have stopped.

So, why is this a story pitch?

Well, it goes back to my “how do I want to work with PR?” rant a couple weeks back — I’m trying to innovate my relationship with PR teams, and thought it might be fun to try doing this in public instead of doing the usual thing and trying to find a cool story angle and begging for access in private. There are upsides to that approach (other journalists don’t get wind of a cool story) but I’ve always liked doing things in public. Fewer misunderstandings and, also, my readers get to see what’s going on so my reporting both gets better and also has fewer conflicts of interest in it.

To those from other companies, Twitter me if you’d like me to take this approach with you, too. :-)

This is a story that I think needs much more research than talking to a few devs over beer.

I don’t have enough sources, and don’t have anyone willing to go on the record with attribution yet. So, that’s why I need your help to really understand if these changes are correct (I might have them wrong since I only have a handful or two of sources who are helping me get ready for the PDC and are telling me about some of these changes).

I would love to spend a few months researching this story and would love to write up an article for Fast Company Magazine (or have a journalist come along with me to write that up) as well as get my video cameras a look into how Windows 7 is being built and how these management changes are totally improving how employees on the Windows team are seeing their roles.

Some other parts of the story that I’d like to cover:

1. I’m hearing that there’s some very cool stuff that will be shown at the Professional Developer’s Conference (Microsoft’s big developer conference) and that, unlike when Longhorn was shown off, that this stuff will actually be based on shipping code — so the chances that we’ll get shown something cool, then have it pulled from the product later because it couldn’t be built are non-existent. I’d love to have a look at the new stuff before the PDC so that I could have a video ready to run at the PDC about the new technologies that are coming.
2. It’s clear that Apple has had a deep effect on the Windows 7 team. I’d like to interview team members and executives about the discussions you’ve had internally about Apple (we’ve seen some emails here and there leak out from execs) and discover how you’re going to compete (and market against) Apple.
3. Since I work for FastCompany magazine, I’d like to understand the changes on the team, how it made (or didn’t make) you more agile and how the changes delivered (or didn’t deliver) value to customers. Translation: how is Microsoft using these changes to be “fast” again (something I didn’t think would happen so soon, truth be told). I’d love to have interviews with you and other team members about key learnings and what could be passed along as “best practices” for the entire tech industry.

I can hear some objections.

1. You might not be ready to let an outside journalist into meet with team members because that would increase the chances that stuff would leak before you’re ready to have it leak. Well, that is a chance, yes, but I plan on being around the industry for a while and would rather be invited back to cover other versions of Windows and other things Microsoft is going to do in the future. I promise I won’t even do a “this made me cry” blog post, like I did with the WorldWide Telescope when I saw that early.
2. You might think I am not a good fit for such a story. That’s a risk I’ll have to take in going public in this way (cause now I’ve tipped everyone off to what will probably be one of the most important business stories of 2009/2010). If you don’t think I’m good, there are lots of journalists who cover the tech industry who would love the chance to study the Windows team in detail and understand these changes. I can think of tons of names of journalists who would love to cover this story. Some of whom include (not a complete list): David Kirkpatrick at Fortune. Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet. Michael Arrington at TechCrunch. Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read/Write Web. Chris Anderson at Wired. Dan Farber at CBSi. Or, Fast Company’s own Ellen McGirt, who does a lot of the cover stories there. And, let’s not forget Microsoft’s own Channel 9 team. In fact, it’d be fun to do a joint project with them since I expect that an internal team would get a LOT more access than anyone from the outside would.
3. You might want to hold such a story because of the chances that it would hype up the world too early, too soon, or would reveal some new technologies before you’re ready to evolve that. That’s true, but this story needs to be reported on over the next 12 months to really understand the changes and build up a good database of stories to edit into a piece, either for the magazine or for online video. That’s why a joint project might be good, along with an embargoed blogger/journalist you trust.
4. You might not want the world to see how the sausage is made, especially if it is giving you a competitive advantage. Apple’s secrecy, for instance, does more than just build hype for its products: it keeps you from really studying their teams and management decisions to look for best practices. That’s a risk you’ll have to take and maybe that’s also something that Microsoft might like to donate to the industry anyway just to be a good leader and to give business students a new thing to study. It’s not everyday that someone gets to reorganize a team of such size and scale.

My plea to you is to let someone into study these changes over a long range of time (I’d love to come up and hang out with the Windows 7 team a half dozen times over the next year, if I was given a chance) because these changes are simply too important to not let the world study them. If you don’t like me for the job, invite one of the other journalists in so that this knowledge isn’t lost — I’m sure it has impacts to other business leaders who are managing large teams and who are trying to remake their companies to be more agile and ship higher quality products. Imagine if General Motors or Procter and Gamble wanted to study the changes you’ve made and what impact they had. How would they if you don’t let a journalist in to document what you’re trying to do.

Anyway, keep up the great blogging, it’s fun to get looks into what you’re trying to do, and either way I’ll see you at the Professional Developer Conference in late October.