« Software + Services = ? | Main | "The Sound of Music" Was Great! »

September 09, 2007

Dave Cutler Wins the Bill Gates Award

At the Company Meeting, it was announced that Dave Cutler won the new Bill Gates Award, which is meant to recognize those who have made the absolute highest contributions to Microsoft (the award will be given only in years in which a suitable candidate emerges, and Bill has promised to return to present it. It is different from the Gates Award for Global Health, which is given by his Foundation and is sometimes referred to incorrectly as the "Bill Gates Award"). I have previously written that Microsoft has too many of these awards; Cutler earlier this year won a TCN Award which was meant to be the supreme award for contributions to Microsoft, but now the Bill Gates Award is the new ultra-supreme award for contributions to Microsoft. Notwithstanding that, Cutler certainly deserves any accolades that Microsoft chooses to heap upon him; if you want to show that an engineering honor really has meaning you have to give it to Cutler first, then everybody else can get in line behind him.

I had the privilege of working under Cutler for about 4 years, working on the first two versions of Windows NT. Looking back, I can appreciate how lucky it was that I spent some of my formative years in that group, where Cutler had imposed quality engineering discipline as a basic fact of existence. I know that sounds sappy and I'm not usually given to such mawkish sentiment, but in this case it is justified. In the overlay of The Soul of a New Machine onto the early development of NT, Cutler obviously fills the Tom West role of gruff-but-caring leader, but he was also in there everyday hacking on the core of the kernel.

Earlier in the Company meeting they showed a quick snippet of Cutler walking on stage to accept the TCN Award, accepting the applause with the typical expression he displays in such situations (which is best described by quoting Porky Pine: "I almost feel like smiling myself"). And I felt a big goofy smile creeping onto my face. Cutler was not actually at the Company Meeting to accept the award, but he recorded a nice thank you message.

When Bill Gates was introducing the winner of his eponymous award, he mentioned something about how if you ever broke the build you certainly knew Dave. Which leads me to my favorite Dave Cutler story. At one point during the development of NT, Cutler decided to sit in the build lab and personally supervise all checkins to the source code tree, to inspire people to be a bit more careful about breaking the build. Well, one fine day there was a break in the Build Verification Tests, which was eventually traced down to my code (breaking the BVTs, which tended to ferret out interactions between different components that might be hard to find on your personal test machine, was considered somewhat of an occupational hazard and not in itself evidence of shoddy work). I debugged the problem in the lab and figured out that the problem was not initializing a variable to zero. So I told Cutler I would go back to my office to fix it, which I promptly did by zipping across the hall, checking out the file, adding an "= 0" to the declaration of the variable, then checking it back in. After I returned to the lab and announced that the problem was fixed, Cutler synced the files onto the official build machine and started to build it--at which point it was revealed that my change didn't even compile. It turns out that the variable in question was a 64-bit integer, which back in the day was a struct with two 32-bit integers in it, so the initialization had to look like "= { 0, 0 }". Of course it was obvious that I had not even compiled the change before checking it in, which was a no-no. Cutler decided to just fix it and check it in directly from the build machine (which was unusual). Every checkin has a comment associated with it (which is stored permanently), and when Cutler checked it in he started typing the comment "fix Adam's fuc"...but then gave me a mischievous grin, backspaced that out, and just wrote "fix build break".

My other favorite Cutler story happened one time when Paul Maritz was standing the lobby of building 2 with some external customers, and here comes Dave Cutler stomping along the well-worn path between the build lab and his office, scowl firmly affixed to his face as he mulled over some engineering transgression committed by the troops. Paul Maritz, in a possibly ill-advised move, stopped Cutler and introduced him to the customers. I happened to wander by at this moment and remember thinking to myself, "Well, that's the end of Microsoft's relationship with whatever company those guys are from." But Cutler stopped, smiled, extended his hand, and chatted with them for several minutes as if he had not a care in the world.

And Cutler was also the person who originated the Weekly Integration Meetings, or WIMs which long before they turned into an excuse to order piles of catered food on Fridays, were simply a Tom Westian attempt to integrate the team members who had come from Digital with the Microsoft newbies like myself. Cutler has a bit of a reputation as a grumpy guy, but while it's true that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, in my experience he was never anything but friendly and helpful.

So congratulations to Dave, and I mean it when I say it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Posted by AdamBa at September 9, 2007 09:23 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


You're so lucky to have worked with a legend. Along with Jim Allchin, Cutler is the Microsoft employee I'd like to meet most. His low-profile nature is both admirable and frustrating to me... I think he represents Microsoft at its best, yet while he's an internal hero, he's little-known outside Redmond's walls. People always look at me like I've lost my mind when bringing up quotes like those from here:


"Windows-NT is VMS reimplemented."

"Cutler once described [UNIX] as a 'junk OS designed by a committee of Ph.D.s.'"

If more people knew about him and the history behind NT, I think Windows (and Microsoft) wouldn't be the default favorite punching bag in technology discussions. I don't know if that "Mr. anti-UNIX" rebelliousness is more fantasy than reality, but it sure makes for a good story!

Posted by: Blu at September 10, 2007 02:07 PM

I've read various Dave Cutler stories on blogs over the years and the Soul of a New Machine / Tom West comparison sometimes comes up. What I don't understand, however, is why Microsoft employees hardly ever mention the "Show Stopper!" book by G. Pascal Zachary? From the outside looking in it seems a bit like Fightclub. The first rule of Microsoft is that you never talk about "Show Stopper!"

I know the book is out of print but it's still easy to find and, for me at least, it was a compelling look at how WinNT came to be. Is it inaccurate or is there just a general sense of embarrassment around the level of internal conflict the book exposes? Or maybe something different?

Posted by: Andrew at September 12, 2007 09:20 AM

I haven't noticed any tendency to avoid talking about "Showstopper!". I guess it just doesn't come up much.

Having worked on the team at that time, there is nothing in there that is "inaccurate". However Zachary didn't understand the technology so he tended to misunderstand the relative importance of things. And since he wasn't present at the time, unlike Tracy Kidder, he couldn't figure out what was important just by watching how people reacted. So you don't get an accurate picture of what mattered and what didn't.

I don't think there is any embarrassment over how the group is depicted. But he definitely focused on the minority of the team that had "issues". We weren't all addicted to hookers, going through a divorce and/or nervous breakdown, etc but those are the stories he told.

The book does include a lot of backstory and description of meetings with Bill Gates which I was not involved in, so I found all that interesting. I was just inspired to look through the book and it does bring back some memories...ahhh, the SCSI Bug, good times, good times.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at September 12, 2007 10:02 PM