Checking In with Joel Spolsky on Microsoft Software

Q&A: The former Microsoft employee and software-development pundit shares his two cents on what's going on with Microsoft.

If you work at Microsoft (or are part of the Redmond ecosystem), Joel Spolsky probably needs no introduction. And its not because his company, Fog Creek Software, is a household name. But Spolsky (known in Microsoft circles as just-plain Joel, or "The Joel") is one of the characters whose words have had serious impact on Microsoft, especially this past year.

Spolsky is a former Softie himself. From 1991 to 1994, he was first a program manager on Excel, and later a Microsoft Consulting Services employee, specializing in Excel. He founded Fog Creek, a software vendor and consultancy that develops software-management products, among others, in 2000.

Spolskys blog, known as "Joel on Software," is a must-read among many Microsoft employees, as well as among the development/programming community in general.

This past June, Spolsky wrote an article titled "How Microsoft Lost the API War" that is still a hot discussion topic in Microsoft circles. Spolskys premise: Microsoft has decided that backward compatibility should play second fiddle to new features.

But HTML, not Win32, is the API around which the world is building. So, Microsoft is making this risky choice at its own peril, and to developers and customers dismay.

Check out the "Joel on Software" blog and Joels classic "How Microsoft Lost the API War."

Spolsky spoke with Microsoft Watch Editor Mary Jo Foley in September. Heres an edited transcript of our conversation with Joel. The full version originally appeared in the Sept. 23 and Oct. 1 issues of the Microsoft Watch newsletter.

Im curious. Why do you think your words carry so much weight among the Microsoft folks? After all, you havent worked there for nearly a decade. And youre just one software developer.

One of the reasons I get read there is the people I worked with on the Excel team are or have been, to a large extent, the leadership of the company now. I worked with Brian McDonald on Project; Lewis Levin, Chris Capossela, Ben Waldman. A lot of people had the connection with Excel.

I think at some point they realized that Excel didnt need that much help, and Excel became the farm team for the rest of the company. The thinking was, "We dont have to isolate all the good people in Office. It has enough market share. Maybe Office can struggle a little bit and we can farm out the talent elsewhere."

Since you left Microsoft in the mid-1990s, how do you think theyve changed? Is there any similarity now to Microsoft where you once worked?

The similarity is its still the same products that make the money. [CEO] Steve Ballmer used to get up and shout "Word, Excel, DOS, the mouse, Windows." That was at sales meetings, when he was the head of sales.

His point was, Dont get confused by all these developers in Redmond coming up with these random little products like SQL Server. These five products are where we make all the money. I dont have any inside information, but it still seems like its pretty clear that this is where Microsoft still makes its money.

Microsoft has a lot of troubles steering the company. If you look at InfoPath and talk to developers on it, they had that thing ready to go years ago. But they couldnt release it, because they had to do all this "Office stuff"—things like customizable tool bars, VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) and lots and lots of other things like that.

The cross of being a good Office application which took 90 percent of their time is whats called the "strategy tax." And that makes them a much less nimble company, I think.


To read the full story on Microsoft Watch,

click here.