While back at my mother’s house this past week, I found my old collection of PC/Computing magazines, which I used to buy monthly from a local store (we didn’t get subscriptions in Trinidad).
One of the things I found was the January 1992 edition, which included a special “Insider’s Journal” written by Ed Bott. Ed was, at the time, the Editor of PC/Computing, and he had spent some time behind-the-scenes with the development team of the first version of WordPerfect for Windows (from May to Nov of 1991) in Orem, Utah.
The article, which I read over 14 years ago, has stayed with me since the moment I read it. It describes the background events that occured in the final months of shipping WordPerfect 5.1 for Windows.
I think that this article is the beginning of my desire to go into mainstream software development. At the time, I was in my second-to-last year of High School. I had done a fair bit of programming (Basic on Apple II, and Pascal on IBM PCs, primarily), but nothing commercial.
I remember reading this article over and over again and feeling a thrill each time. The story of how they developed the product, the delays, the highs and lows, made me want to be a part of it. I’m pretty sure that at the time I thought it was nothing more than a fantasy (keep in mind that I was a high-school student on a caribbean island who pirated every piece of software I’d ever used :), but I did wonder how I could get to be a part of the WordPerfect team (these days, I think I would have to move to Ottowa, for a start).
The article includes describes many problems that I’m intimately familiar with these days: slipped schedules, the pressure of a new release of a hugely-popular product, the last few months of intense pressure, the final bugs and test passes, the importance of compatibility.
One part that made me chuckle was a discussion of how they had a whopping 180 beta testers! How the world has changed. I believe we ended up with something like 15 million beta and release candidates of IE7 (I don’t have the exact numbers to hand).
Strangely enough, those descriptions thrilled me even at the age of 17. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my career. Fifteen years later, it may not be word processors, but commercial software development is still exciting.
As an aside, while poking around to see if I could find an online version of the article, I found W.E. (Pete) Peterson’s site (“Executive Vice President” of WordPerfect at the time of the article), which hosts an online copy of his book Almost Perfect. I read through the PDF version, and found it fascinating. An interesting case study in the running a business. An important lesson I picked up was the importance of not just leading the business, but building strong relationships with the people you work with. It’s impossible to drive a vision unless the employees are with you.
Almost Perfect also provides some more insight (from a very different perspective) on an incident alluded to Ed’s article, namely the shipping of WordPerfect 5.0 (for DOS). This product was a critical stress point for the company, which had established its dominance over the word processing with WordPerfect 4.0, and hoped to re-define the category with 5.0 (which had some desktop-publishing features among many other features).
The world-wide pressure on the team led to many mistakes in the shipping of 5.0, to the point that they had to ship and update release 2 days after shipping the product. Someone dropped a couple of unimportant files off the final disk set because the product wouldn’t fit, but didn’t update the installer. The files were dropped without a re-test, the installer naturally complained that two files it expected were missing. The user could just tell the installer to skip those files and everything was fine, but needless to say, WP’s support lines went nuts.The new modules (graphics) also had many problems on some esoteric systems that were different from what they tested with. It was a bad time, but WP 5.1 fixed most of the problems and became the worldwide standard for DOS word-processing.
I also went through the other magazines to find the actual review of WordPerfect 5.1 for Windows in PC/Computing (a few months later, I believe). The reviewers loved it, praising how they had brought a much-loved product forward into the Windows world. There is an interesting sidebar titled “But is it a great Windows Application,” in which the reviewers criticize it for being somewhat of a bastard product — trying to reach forward into the Windows world, but with some inconsitencies usually tied to its need to maintain file compatibility with its DOS version, or to allow DOS users to feel comfortable in the new version — with the ultimate effect being that a Windows user would likely feel uncomfortable using the Windows version WordPerfect. A small review of WordPerfect 5.2 for Windows a year or so later was also interesting because it was made with a year of experience, and a slight tempering of excitement about WordPerfect. It was an interesting contrast to read the Word 6.0 for Windows review from around the same time which practically bubbled over with excitement.
So, my thanks — fifteen years later — to Ed Bott for his great article (P.S. now that I realize what an impact he had on my life, I ‘m now subscribed to his blog), and thanks to the WordPerfect team for having such an exciting release. 🙂