Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Putting a human face on Microsoft

In the past, I've written about Brand Harmony, the struggles customers of big corporations often endure, and how interactions (or "touch points") between companies and customers play a significant role in how companies are perceived and ultimately whether or not they are successful at what they do. If customers enjoy interacting with your company, your product, your services, they're likely to continue to remain your customers (and likely to tell their friends). If customers dread working with you, they're likely to bail at the first opportunity (and five times as likely to tell their friends).

Earlier today, I came across a blog where one of my team's early adopting customers, pws, blogged his experience at my product's Technology Adoption Program event. The posts are here, here, here, and here.

These were a few highlights, which made me really happy to read:

“But most of all I was impressed with the Microsoft staff. They genuinely cared about what we had to say, the needs we had to meet, and what we thought of their product. They took notes with eagerness, whether we said we loved a feature or thought something was stupid, or too complex, or not complex enough. They really took the time to make us feel like we had a say in where the product was going, both from a look and feel standpoint and from a roadmap overview.”

“Today was filled with more meetings, more debriefing, more hands on. I can't say enough about having the opportunity to sit side by side with Microsoft technical people while we go through the product, giving input and learning about why things were put together the way they were. Just having that input, being able to ask why this button is where it is, why this dialogue box is the way it is, has been the most rewarding part of the whole experience.”

“One of the things that impresses me about the Microsoft campus is the ethnic diversity. I don't know if it's a reflection of the area, of intentional Microsoft hiring practices, or perhaps a bit of everything. Perhaps most of all it's a reflection of my insular Midwest upbringing, where seeing families from other countries is unusual.”

“I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: The Microsoft employees were great. They were genuinely interested in what we had to say and took our criticisms and comments seriously. They certainly went out of their way to make us feel welcome and wanted. The specialist that was assigned to us even showed up at the hotel this morning, to make sure we did not want to go to the Microsoft Store like we had discussed previously.”

“The last day of the event happened to be the same day as the big Microsoft yearly meeting, so all of the employees involved with the TAP gave that up to get our input and finish out the week. Maybe they'd all seen Bill speak before.”

“The entire experience has energized my thoughts about the product we're looking at and where it could help take us. I must admit it has also softened me a bit to Mictosoft in general. I'll always bleed red, but I'm no longer baised against the blue just because it's blue.”

Truth be told, I was having a pretty stressful morning before I came across these comments. They instantly brightened up my day, and I forwarded them on to the rest of my team (then I went back to debugging pre-release code, but more intent than ever before on solving my problem).

When it comes to the customer, advertising dollars and cheesy 1-page magazine ads can't buy the impact an experience like this will have on an enterprise customer making big technology bets and purchasing decisions. And while we may not be able to reach every customer individually in this way, professionals talk and word of mouth is a powerful thing.

When it comes to the people pouring their lives into building the software, no paycheck, bonus, and certainly no off-site team-building morale event can muster up as much passion and motivation around building a high quality product as this kind of encouraging feedback from the human beings who use (or will use) what you are creating.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

For the computer nerd who has everything...

I'm in awe of this eStarling digital picture frame.

It supports POP3 and RSS, so you can email it your photos, or have it stream them from a photo site like Flickr.


A little bit of network television irony

NBC has caved to religious leaders and network affiliates and will be censoring an upcoming concert special which included scenes of Madonna on a cross.

It's a rather pathetic decision, given NBC's persistence in outbidding CBS in a near-record licensing fee to obtain the rights to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip this season, a show which lambasts TV networks for caving to the pressure of the religious right. The show features "NBS", a TV network which institutes a policy of charging a 20% "cowardice fee" to advertisers who left under boycott pressure from the Christian right but then returned after the boycotted shows turned out to be successful (more on wikipedia).

I guess NBC is no NBS, and HBO will remain the place to be for content that may risk irking the Christian right.

And shame on Madonna for going along with the decision.. doesn't seem like something she would've done 15 years ago...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A spectrum of complacency

I'm a little overwhelmed with my new job as a software development engineer. The project I'm working on is a huge platform in and of itself, and it can get really frustrating building a software platform and building software on the platform at the same time, because nothing will ever work right the first few tries.. and when changes are made to the platform, it causes a domino effect of other changes that must be made to accommodate.

Most of my software development experience isn't with Microsoft technologies (think C++, Perl, PHP, MySQL, bash/tcsh, Linux as opposed to C#, ASP, MS SQL, PowerShell, and Windows).

Most of my software development experience has also been working on smaller projects in college or small consulting/hobby gigs. Building scalable enterprise server software is certainly a different beast.

So, it's been overwhelming and brain-draining, but at the same time incredibly exciting and educational. Some days I think to myself, "What did I get myself into? Am I really good enough for this?" Then I look back at all the jobs I've ever had, and realize that every great one had me thinking that same exact thing for the entire first 4-6 weeks.

Great jobs take you out of the complacent end of the spectrum and drop you into the overwhelmed end. I suspect there's some ever-challenging, constantly-evolving job out there that keeps one from slipping too far into complacency, but I've yet to experience one myself. My observation is that as people get better at and more accustomed to what they do, it becomes less challenging, exciting, interesting, motivating, educational - until they switch or re-invent their role (or unless they are constantly re-inventing and truly on the lookout for challenge and change, which might require a truly special role and organization).

So for now, I find myself "drinking from the firehose" again (that's some official Microsoft HR lingo for ya).

Anyway, enough work talk. Here are some cool things I've clipped over the week and thought cool to share:

This Sony Bravia ad featuring massive paint explosions is awesome - taking a whopping 10 days and 250 people to film.

Apple shipped new iPods with a Windows virus. Instead of simply owning the mistake, they place blame on Microsoft and Apple's "contract manufacturers". This blew my mind. Even the Microsoft-hating Slashdot crowd saw through it in their comments.

Paul Graham has written a new essay entitled The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups. It looks yummy, and I plan to read it this weekend.

I'm pondering buying this Day Of The Week clock for my office.

Have a great weekend!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My MP3 Collection: Then and Now

I'm more or less a product of the digital revolution. I feel lame even using such a phrase today, but it was trendy during my tween years in the mid 90s (around the time Wired magazine launched), so let's just go with it. Back then, digitizing music was all the rage. I remember ripping my cds and burning mixes onto thick gold/green CDs after buying a 1x Smart and Friendly CD recorder. I remember crossing my fingers while burning discs hoping that the CDR buffer wouldn't fill up, requiring me to start all over again with a new $1 CD. I remember how the CDs wouldn't play in my car, or most other audio CD players.. but I didn't really care because burning my own CDs was just so damn cool.

Around the same time, I began growing my digital music collection. Local bulletin board systems, and later the web, ftp sites, irc, Napster, and other channels provided an unlimited amount of music, available for download for free. After amassing tens of gigabytes of MP3s, and later hundreds of gigabytes of MP3s (I stopped before it became terabytes of MP3s), I'd take my hard drive, or sometimes my entire computer, over to a friend's place or to a LAN party, and we'd swap.. doubling, or sometimes tripling or quadrupling our music collections.

The amount of music you had on your computer equated to how hardcore you were in most geek circles. But at the end of the day, it was a bit silly, because I never really listened to most of the music I had on my computers. And when I did, it was a really bad experience, because there were tens of thousands of songs, and they were never quite organized. This got a little better with the introduction of MP3 ID tags, which allowed each file to be tagged with some metadata such as the artist, album, song name, etc. But of course, these were never correct or consistent across tens of thousands of songs. People would use (and still do use) tools to try to fix the tags in bulk, and in the process would often screw them up further. It'd be impossible to queue up all of my Alanis Morissette songs, because the artist tag for each song would spell Alanis and Morissette differently.

But, we all still put up with this, and most people I've talked to from my generation still put up with it. Why? Because having amassed so much music is just so damn cool, and because it was all free (nevermind the time and stress required to organize or build playlists when listening to it)!

But in the last few months, the way I listen to music and manage my music collection has completely changed. I signed up for an URGE subscription, and after realizing I could now download and stream unlimited music, at home or at work, and listen to it on my iriver clix whenever I want wherever I go, I decided to delete the tens of thousands of songs I had amassed over the years off my computers.

The new way I manage my music goes something like this...

When I hear about some cool new artist or band (from a friend, a magazine, a web site, URGE recommendations, etc), I go check them out on URGE, and stream one of their highest rated songs (URGE has community ratings). If I like it, I just download 2-3 songs (or if I REALLY love it, I download all of their albums). I do this a couple times a week, and then sync up my iriver clix. I then take my clix with me in the car and to the gym, and listen to a hodgepodge of the music - sometimes by album, artist, genre, etc. When I really like a song, I rate it on my clix. When I sync back up my clix next time, the ratings make it back to my computer.

Every now and then, when I'm bored, I'll look at all the stuff I've rated really highly, and go download more songs from the same artists (or even the same record labels for indie and foreign music!), or I'll delete the stuff I've rated really lowly. Sometimes I'll use Windows Media Player or my clix to just play an ad-hoc playlist of my highest rated songs.

I've found since doing this, my music collection is fresher, more fun to listen to, and easier to manage and just generally enjoy. And, it takes up less space!

Most people I've talked to my age who grew up ripping and trading music are reluctant to subscribe to a service for $10-$15/month and get unlimited music because they can only play the music for as long as they subscribe. But $10-$15/month is less than the price of 1 CD, and I download 10-20 CDs of new music a month now (something I never did before, or thought I'd even be interested in doing). The biggest complaint among my friends who use services like the iTunes music store is that they've sunk huge amounts of money into buying songs that they can only pay in iTunes and on their iPods. So they continue to sink more and more money into it, which seems counter-intuitive, but I suppose is actually right in-line with human nature (like gamblers who keep sinking more money as their losses grow). With services like URGE, you can walk away and try a new service any time. I might buy a Zune when they come out, and if I decide to stop using my clix and URGE in favor of my Zune and the Zune Marketplace, I won't feel too bad cancelling a subscription versus not being able to play hundreds or thousands of sunk dollars of iTunes or PlaysForSure downloaded music on it.

Wrapping up my thoughts... it's no longer about how much music one has amassed (in fact, I long ago threw out all the CD cases I used to display prominently on bookshelves). It's about having fresh, personalized, and easily- and well-organized music at your fingertips whenever/wherever you want it, and not being locked in to any service or medium.

There's also still a ways to go in this area. I'd love for the personalization of my music (explicit and implicit ratings, recommendations, etc) to be available everywhere/anytime too via server-side storage and APIs so I could post lists on my blog. I'd love to be able to note down a band on the fly (say, using my Smartphone), and then be reminded to check out their music next time I was online at home or at work. I'd love to be able to instantly share a song I love with a friend so they can check it out (Zune is banking on this feature). I'd love to be able to play my URGE subscription music in my living room on my Xbox 360.

Have you found creative ways to explore and manage music? I'm interested in hearing about them.. Are you still stuck in the "I've got a terabyte of MP3s on my raid array" mentality? Why?

Monday, October 02, 2006

On Fasting...

One of the most intriguing things I've come across in my diverse work environment is the practice of fasting. Sometimes, I'll stop by someone's office and ask him or her if they want to grab some lunch, and they'll be like, "i can't eat today", or "sorry, it's Monday".

At first this perplexed me, but by now I've just gotten used to it. It turns out that a lot of people fast for a lot of reasons. We don't see it in our everday lives here very often, but it goes on.. and it's quite interesting.

Today is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. I decided to fast - for a few reasons - but partly because it's been a long time since I've experienced 25 hours without food or water, and it was something I wanted to experience again.

Anyhow, while I don't quite feel like digging into all of the places my mind has taken me throughout my fast right here on my blog, I do suggest you try fasting too. It's quite interesting and important to experience what it feels like to be hungry, and it brings a clarity of mind that I don't remember being able to regularly achieve.