Michael Fortin

2011 Outstanding Technical Leadership
Fortin’s technical leadership has revolutionized the way performance is measured and understood, a focus that has led to dramatic improvements in the Windows operating system.

An impressive combination of exemplary technical skills, an outstanding leadership style, and keen foresight have made Distinguished Engineer Mike Fortin into one of Microsoft’s preeminent performance specialists, and now the 2011 recipient of the Outstanding Technical Leadership award.

As Director of Development for Microsoft® Windows® Fundamentals, Fortin ensures that the industry’s predominant operating system runs with optimum efficiency, compatibility, scalability, reliability, and simplicity. But it’s not a one-man show by any means. “I’ve always felt that team recognition should take prominence over individual attention,” says Fortin, who came to Microsoft from IBM in 1997. At that time the team working on what became Windows 2000 was led by Wael Bahaa-El-Din, a recently retired Technical Fellow whom Fortin still holds in high regard for his own ability to communicate the priority of performance and core quality, and to structure influential teams and efforts.

Building on Bahaa-El-Din’s legacy, Fortin helped transition the team from “being reactive to organization changes” to establishing a proactive analytic pattern that reshaped how performance was measured. Beginning with Windows 2000, and then through Windows XP and Windows Server® 2003, Fortin helped bring performance into ever-greater prominence by conducting a myriad of individual technical experts toward a common goal. When colleagues outside the core-performance circle questioned his this-will-get-the-job-done perspective, Fortin often resorted to some persuasive data-bolstered salesmanship. “Though we’re always looking to let the data speak for itself, there’s a little bit of a ‘trust us’ aspect to it, too,” he says.

Mike’s team introduced many engineering system improvements that became a standard part of the Windows engineering process, including a system known as “The Gates.” This scalable system transformed minute changes on the development level into the macro improvements central to the resounding success of Windows 7, which has become the fastest selling Operating System of all time. Fortin and his team also extended the quality focus out to industry partners in new ways, who have in return improved the quality of their software and hardware offerings.

Quality, Fortin admits, can be an elusive goal. “We have natural tension points between different attributes of quality,” he explains. “A performance optimization can only be made if it doesn’t compromise reliability, security, or user experience too much. These qualities all need to be balanced at all times—and having that balance in mind at the beginning is very helpful. It leads to being planful in respect to what we do.”

While admitting there’s still a ways to go in making balanced quality tradeoffs understood all the way out to developers’ desktops, Fortin feels “we’ve come a long, long way.”

“The thing that makes me most proud of Windows 7 is that pretty much every code-developing Microsoft engineer was looking at it from a perspective of efficiency this time,” he told Microsoft’s Channel 9.

Fortin is also renowned as a hands-on leader who handles the minutiae of traces, code and design as adroitly as he manages a team. “I work best when I understand the details of how a system is put together,” he says. “I learned a while ago that I can prototype, decompose, and disassemble things to learn what our next steps should be, but I can’t go all the way and develop code we’re going to ship in the product.”

Deciding what to work on, Fortin says, is the most important part of his job. “I ask a simple question as I drive to work each morning: What’s the most important thing to work on today?” He then translates his priorities to his team, breaking down day-by-day objectives in the context of his overarching strategy. As a team leader, Mike Fortin still adheres to the “very simple” management style he picked up early in his career: “You’re only as good as your people, and your people are only as good as their tools. Making good people efficient and effective is the road to success.” With Windows 7, that’s a royal road indeed.

Watch our Behind-the-Code broadcasts to learn more about Fortin.

View Fortin’s official press profile.