The Vision Thing

Early in my career at Microsoft, I was part of one of the biggest development disasters at Microsoft (no, not Windows Vista), called WinFS. WinFS was an attempt to bring the benefits of schema and relational databases to the Windows file system. I never worked directly on WinFS but since I was part of the SQL Server organization during that time (I worked in Reporting Services), I got to see it from birth to death. I won’t go over all of the specifics here but if you want some of the gory details, the Wikipedia article has a pretty good overview of the technology specifics. The WinFS effort was started around 1999 as the successor to the planned storage layer of Cairo and died in 2006 after consuming many thousands of hours of efforts from really smart engineers.

I suspected from early on that the project was doomed to failure. What made me think this? Because when I would ask anyone involved with the project the question “What is it?”, I would get a very different answer. Some people would say that it was the database embedded in the operating system. Others would say that it was XML in the database. Other answers included a SQL-based file system, an object/relational mapping layer, rich storage for Office apps, a file system metadata indexer, .NET in the database, etc. It’s not that these weren’t useful technologies (many of them shipped outside the WinFS project), it’s that there wasn’t a singular vision driving the project to completion. Because no one could identify the essence of the project, it made it really hard to make any decisions about what should or shouldn’t be included.

So, why do I bring this topic up? Because I think it provides a barometer for other projects that may be headed towards certain doom. If you can’t boil down what your project is about (and everyone is be able to say what it is) then it’s probably not going to be successful. I would argue that even a single, incorrect goal is better than a wide variety of semi-correct goals. You can always change the course of a team headed in a unified direction but trying to corral a team headed in every direction is pretty much impossible.

Comments (11)

  1. Me says:

    It's a desktop, its a tablet, it's an app store platform, its a start menu, its a workstation, its a consumer platform, its…

  2. Brian – it is funny how many times you hear this but it never really sinks in.  Viewed from the perspective of something with as much potential as WinFS, it becomes startlingly clear.

  3. theCoach says:

    BillG today on Reddit gave a shout out to WinFS as the tech he wished had shipped.

  4. Larry says:

    WinfS was the truth and MS continue working it. Knowing MS you guys will invent it and fives years from now someone will make it perfect and you will have to play catach up… ie. smartphones and tablets

  5. ThrowAChair says:

    The core problem was about a technology looking for a problem. Then, we had to coordinate a crazy CTO, David Vaskevitch, who did not know how to manage or articulate with promises and requirements coming from Windows, Office and the SQL organization. Then, while all of this was going on Hailstorm was another idea that really said storage and synchronization and schema was cloud-based first. This was all about technology, not about building a great product for users and it was too many chefs in the kitchen.

  6. psychodad says:

    Sweet memories…. And of course the managers in charge were handsomely rewarded for that abject failure.

  7. Me, I would actually disagree about Windows 8. To me (not a member of the Windows team), Windows 8 is all about the tablet form factor. Yes, there is a desktop mode included but that's because it takes a long time to build up a new ecosystem. It's like when a video game console includes a backward compatibility mode to run older games until the new ones catch up.

  8. Alan Dye says:

    Thanks for sharing, Brian! I was right there with you (in SQL, not RS obviously) and came to many of the same conclusions. Even if there are extensive capabilities and folks using different terminology to explain a project, if there isn't a coherent and consistent goal, you're pretty much doomed to herding cats (and we all know what a pile of litter that leads to…)

  9. steves says:

    isn't this a higher management decision? Someone with vision, responsibility and authority to see a worthwhile goal from their resources and the opportunities around them?

  10. Thanks for the feedback, Steve. Good managers certainly possess vision, responsibility, and authority. However, Microsoft isn't really a "top-down" organization so an essential part of success is getting everyone on board.