Book Review: Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft

I enjoy books about tech history and business. I also enjoy biographies. So, Showstopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary was a perfect fit for me. It has a compelling software business narrative, backed up by significant author access to the major players, and features non-stop action throughout most of the book.

Showstopper, written in 1994, is a book about the building of Windows NT, one of the last still-in-use desktop operating systems to be developed from scratch (Windows NT remains the underpinnings of Windows 10). Zachary had incredible access. He was able to interview all of the major players involved in NT development, including David Cutler, the project’s lead, and Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft at the time. It provides real insight into the market landscape at the time, the challenges that Windows NT faced, and what is was like for regular software developers and management to laboriously crank out NT over many sleepless nights throughout a period of roughly four years.

Zachary does a good job balancing vignettes about management with vignettes covering lowly software developers, testers, and their families during development. He pays attention to the human story. What was the toll of the breakneck development schedule and the high pressure environment on families and worker mental health? He clearly did his research, took the time to interview everyone relevant that was involved, and weaved their respective narratives into a cohesive largely chronological whole.

Where Showstopper falls short is in Zachary’s understanding of the technology. While seemingly written for a mainstream audience, I imagine most readers today, like me, will be software developers. From the beginning it was clear to me that Zachary did not fully grasp all of the software development technology that a book like this inevitably needs to cover. Or if he did, he dumbed it down too much for my liking. He did his best, and I think if I were a mainstream reader, his explanations would actually be quite good: just enough to give me a basic understanding. But as a software developer, I was left wanting.

The parts of Showstopper I liked least were the first thirty pages, largely covering Cutler’s career at Digital, and the Afterword in the 2008 edition with Zachary pontificating about 2008 Microsoft. I think Showstopper was at its best when reporting on the week-by-week challenges and worker vignettes during NT development, and at its worst when trying to analyze the big picture. Another problem with the book is that it tries to cover too many characters. It was easy to lose track of who was who. You will be treated to many mini-biographies, which while interesting, are not enough to get you invested in each of the players.

Despite its flaws, Showstopper! is worth reading because it pulls back the covers of a Herculean software project in human terms. If you are interested in computer software history or the business history of Microsoft in the early 1990s, it’s a must read. Software developers with an appreciation of computer history will find it compelling and enthralling, if they make it past page thirty.

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I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.