When Satya Nadella took the reins of Microsoft, he made it his personal mission to reform the company’s culture. No more infighting or squabbling, he said; he wanted everybody rowing in the same metaphorical direction. It’s harder than it might sound.
In a practical sense, Microsoft’s 47,000-some-odd programmers around the world all have their own tools, their own systems, and their own ways of getting things done. It introduces a lot of friction when and if those teams work together.
Take Windows, for example. It has 4,000 programmers working on a massive, 300 gigabyte project containing over 3.5 million lines of code, Microsoft Technical Fellow Brian Harry tells Business Insider. Until recently, that code was split across 40 different “repositories,” or “repos,” which are systems for storing code for a team to use.
On Wednesday, Microsoft announced some major progress on that front. Over the last three months, Harry’s team has been working on an initiative called the “One Engineering System,” which combines those 40 repos, so 3,500 out of those 4,000 Windows engineers are now working in sync on a new, standardised system for code collaboration.
The idea is to make it easier for programmers to work together — which is important when you have a newfound focus on shipping out new Windows updates twice a year, if not more often. And it’s a sign of things to come.
“This move is part of a broader effort at Microsoft,” says Harry. “Our goal is to evolve our culture along with [our systems].”
Harry’s team came up with something called the Git Virtual File System (GVFS), based on the same free “Git” software at the core of hot startups like GitHub and GitLab, but customised to suit Microsoft’s massive size.
Basically, Git keeps track of who made what changes to the code, and when, making it much easier to work with large teams. It’s called a “revision control system.” If you’re interested, Microsoft has released GFVS as a free open source download.
Before GVFS, teams were relying on a hodgepodge of tools, including revision control from companies like Perforce, to get their work done.
Now, with everyone on the same page, Microsoft can create a more “social experience” among engineers, says Harry. With GVFS as the common backbone, it’s easier than ever for teams to share code with each other, swap ideas, and provide feedback, he says. The hope is that it will “help drive cultural change,” says Harry.
Engineers are very set in their ways, as Harry notes, and there’s definitely been some growing pains as the GVFS comes online and into action. But Git is a common enough standard that programmers have adapted pretty quickly, he says, and the system has largely handled the strain of that massive Windows code base pretty well, Harry says.
GFVS will be rolled out to the remaining 500 Windows engineers over the next few months, and then perhaps Office and everywhere else in Microsoft, too. Considering that Windows is a “massive product,” with “massive machinery,” he suggests that GFVS’ first three months will turn out to have been the hardest.
“In some ways, Windows is our biggest and hardest customer,” says Harry.
To smooth the transition, Harry says, he applied some of Nadella’s principles to the project. He made the 1ES plan, and the design documents for GFVS, available to anybody in the company to comment on and improve. Back in February, he brought “thousands” of engineers together for a “1ES Day” to talk the plan out in public.
But something kind of funny is happening, Harry says: The longer GFVS is available, the worse feedback his team is getting from Microsoft engineers.
Counterintuitively, Harry says this is actually encouraging. He purposely kept expectations for GFVS low, because he know it could be “tremendously disruptive” and didn’t want to sabotage himself by overselling it. The feedback is getting worse, he says, because they actually see the potential of it now, and their expectations are going up. Now, his team is working hard to improve it for everybody.
“It’s such a large-scale system,” says Harry. “It is still a work in progress.”
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