Neal Freeland

Engineering/marketing manager, family guy. My personal blog with a few work thoughts mixed in.

Scrum and the Art of War

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After the US military dispatched Saddam’s hapless Iraqi Army in a brilliant show of high-tech mobile warfare, the insurgency made it clear that we were facing a new kind of enemy. Instead of dug-in tanks and massed troops, we were confronted with hidden roadside bombs and scattered guerrillas. Unfortunately, our modern tanks and jet fighters, so useful in the first battles, proved less so in subsequent ones. We needed different gear, and quickly.
Unfortunately again, the way the military typically designs new equipment reminds me of how Microsoft upgrades Windows: it’s done very, very slowly. It works like this: the the insurgents aren’t too happy about Uncle Sam being in country, so they strew the theater with roadside bombs; Joe (as in GI Joe) has to investigate every pile of crap by crawling forward on his belly, often getting the snot kicked out of him in the process; damage reports make their way to the Pentagon, and a General sends a Colonel out to investigate; the Colonel files a report identifying that Joe needs a better way to examine bombs; the General orders the supply corps to write a spec and get at least three contractors to bid on it; a contractor is selected and a product is designed, built, and tested; and then, finally, often a year or more later, the thing shows up on the battlefield only to have Joe say "What the f**k is this?" When the next roadside bomb is suspected, there’s Joe again crawling forward on his belly to check it out.
The Army, though, is smart enough to notice this problem and react, which is why it created the Rapid Engineering Force (REF) and hired my friend Bill Cohen as an on-site contract engineer. Bill lived with the soldiers and listened to their daily problems. He then fiddled around in his engineering lab and came up with prototypes which immediately went out on patrol. That same day he got feedback on what did or didn’t work, which he incorporated into his next design. He built expected things like clandestine cameras to track the bad guys at night, and even some crazy stuff like a device to blow trash off the road (since a bomb might be hidden inside). Whatever the soldiers said they needed – high or low tech – Bill and his teammates did what they could to help. Bill’s biggest success was a bomb disposal robot which has gone on hundreds of missions all over Iraq. Wired magazine recently ran a story on his robot, and the Army is in the process of procuring 300 more of them (see photos).
Microsoft is facing the same problem as the Army prior to REF. When Vista ships next year it will be over five years after the launch of XP. That’s just too long between versions of the operating system. Our five step engineer cycle – plan, design, build, test, deploy – has broken down under the weight of our code and scale of our business. We had to spend almost an entire year on SP2 to fix security vulnerabilities in XP, and Firefox has forced us to release Internet Explorer 7.0 prior to Vista. There are too many stakeholders and we spend so much time locked up in the planning cycle that we seem to never get around to the most important part which is the actual coding.
On my products – Windows Live and MSN Homepage – we’ve discarded the old engineering model in favor of a methodology called Scrum. Just like Bill in Iraq, we have a small team that rapidly makes decisions, builds wacky prototypes, deploys them quickly, and then gets feedback from users on how to make our services better. It’s not a perfect method, but if it’s good enough for the Army in time of war, it should be good enough for Microsoft in the struggle for the hearts and minds of web surfers.
Baghdad Bomb Squad, Wired Magazine, November 2005

Written by nealfreeland

December 30, 2005 at 3:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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