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.