Cultural change at Microsoft, or, "What was the point in keeping quiet?"

In an anonymous comment on “Patch for tcserver.exe memory leak on Tablet PC - at last!”, zzz asks:

What was the point in “keeping quiet”? Is there some kind of NDA that stops from stating the obvious thing (holy cow we have a bug in our perfect product!) that everyone knows about? You could have instead tried to work with the tablet pc community - as it seems that it otherwise takes media attention to give such bug some deserved attention.

This is a good question, and my reasoning probably deserves a wider audience than just a comment-reply, so here goes. There'll be a plea for feedback at the end :)

  1. The Tablet PC community actually knew about the bug and the kill-two-processes-then-restart-one workaround back in May 2004 - see this link from Orlowski's original article. So I wasn't saying anything new, I was just saying it as a Microsoft employee. Despite/because of this, my post rapidly became the top Google hit for “tcserver.exe”.

  2. No, there's no NDA, but there does seem to be a general unwritten rule that you don't pile on to bug reports about another team's product. If it had been my own team, or the Tablet PC team had been blogging back then, I'd have been much more aggressive. Instead I decided to work from the inside, rather than the outside.

  3. If you break rule #2, you run the risk of getting unwelcome notice from the other team, journalists (and then our public relations people), and finally your boss. Sometimes this is worth it, sometimes it isn't, but ultimately it's a personal judgement call. I've skirted close a couple of times over the past year and figured my boss was losing patience with giving me political air cover, so I let this one slide...

  4. Pre-announcing patches is almost always a bad idea, because they typically take longer to test than you first think. This definitely happened here. Do you think the anonymous spokesman who said this back in February is feeling good about himself?

    “Progress is being made and there'll be an update soon,” a spokesman told us. “For now, we advise users to reboot the machine on a daily basis,” he added.

  5. Finally, media attention does work as a forcing function in these situations. Media attention gets executive attention, which in turn percolates down and results in change priorities. It’s a fact of life.

Here endeth the self-justification. Am I happy about how long it took to get this fixed? No. Would I do it the same way again? No – but that’s because we have at least one Tablet PC tester blogging, and I could engage on his blog rather than going through “the usual channels”. Do I think I did the right thing at the time? Probably — at least if I wanted to keep blogging :)

What do my readers think? Should I have risked all back then? Pushed the Tablet PC team for greater transparency? Done so from the inside or the outside? In short, how do you make cultural change happen in your job?