Cat5bird Seat

The Human Face of Microsoft

Microsoft has found an innovative way to get fast feedback from customers -- blogs.

Now that Em C. Pea has packed her bags and moseyed on down the road to Timbuktu to write about teeny-tiny things (I personally suspect the rumored uses of diamond dust in nanotechnology had something to do with her decision), the editors here at MCPmag Online have asked me to step into this monthly space.

I suspect this has less to do with my wide-reaching knowledge of the industry and more to do with the fact that they’ve seen me liquored up at a conference or three and know that I can be generally counted on to say intemperate things about hardware, software, personalities, or corporations that draw my ire. Whatever the reason, I’m glad to be here, and I’ll try to be at least modestly entertaining even if I don’t have the far-reaching real-life experience of my immediate predecessor.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about Microsoft today. It's always been obvious to anyone who cared to think about it that Microsoft is a company made up of real people. We haven't yet reached the point where software writes and tests itself, so intellectually we've always known that somewhere in Redmond there are a horde of industrious developers and testers and managers all working away at the next versions of Windows and SQL Server and Visual Studio and Office and all the rest. Some of us have even had the good fortune to visit the corporate campus and eat lunch with the Microsofties or play foosball with them or even crack a beer at the end of a product ship cycle.

But for most of Microsoft's customers, the human face has long been hidden behind a corporate presence that remains, no matter how much it's dressed up by marketing campaigns, just another big company. (Or, depending on your point of view, a worse-than-usual big company: Micro$oft. Mickeysoft. "The Borg.")

That picture is changing now, and as with so many other changes in IT over the last decade, the blame falls squarely on the metaphorical shoulders of the Internet. With a connection to the net, and a few clicks of the mouse, you can now be reading the thoughts of thousands of Microsoft employees any time you like. The fancy name for this effect is "disintermediation," but why go for seven syllables of Latin when there's a blunt neologism that works just as well: blogs.

The last time I saw rough figures on it, there were about two thousand Microsoft employees blogging. Out of a total headcount of around 57,000, that's a pretty significant number. Though the bloggers are concentrated in the Developer Division, you can find folks from a variety of teams participating. They're not all grunts, either.

S. Somasegar, the VP of the Developer Division, is a frequent blogger at http://blogs.msdn.com/somasegar/archive/2004/08/01/204540.aspx. Some Microsoft bloggers post exclusively about their work, some write about their home lives as well. A few, like the infamous Robert Scoble (http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011/) seem to have blogging as their main job description.

If you want a sense of how much blogging has taken off at Microsoft, cruise over to http://blogs.msdn.com. You'll find thousands of posts by hundreds of bloggers. As I write this, the most recent items cover a 100-mile bicycle ride, a review of an anthropology book, hiding code from the debugger, training the Pocket PC transcriber, how to get SharePoint for free, linguistics on Star Trek, the basics of Avalon applications ... you get the idea. Spend some time reading Microsoft blogs and you'll get a mix of hardcore technical information (much of which is available nowhere else) and a sense of the real people who build this stuff.

So, that's what we get out of Microsoft's blogging presence, out here on our end of the wires. But what about Microsoft? Shouldn't all those guys and gals be, you know, writing software instead of wasting time on the Internet?

Actually, no. A little careful reading makes it apparent that Microsoft is benefiting from the blogging activity too. Even aside from the public relations aspect of proving that they're just folks doing stuff (and not Big Scary Monopolists out to crush and rend smaller companies), many of the smart people at Microsoft are clearly using blogs, with their built-in comment feedback mechanisms, as a two-way communications channel with the company's customers.

For instance, consider the pricing of Visual Studio Team System. When the first announcements were made, various VSTS developers and managers quickly found their blogs' comments assailed by long-time MSDN subscribers who felt they were getting a raw deal. Discussion ensued, and ultimately the pricing model changed, with breaks for renewing subscribers and the addition of a five-user version of Team Foundation Server to the various MSDN packages. Without the blogs, none of this would have happened: Microsoft wouldn't have known of the customer dissatisfaction waiting to explode, and the team wouldn't have been able to take steps to defuse the problem. Or, at best, they could have taken steps after shipping the product and then putting together time-consuming focus groups to find out why people were unhappy.

I could point out other incidents where blog conversations have affected the feature set of Visual Studio 2005, gotten the attention of high-up managers to Microsoft, or provoked public clarifications of confusing policies, but I think you get the idea. By being willing to put its employees out in public, and letting them interact directly with customers, Microsoft is reaping the benefits of an incredibly rapid feedback channel. Now, even if you don't go to conferences or make it to Redmond for usability testing, you have your own chance to make your voice heard: it's as close as your computer keyboard. It's going to be interesting to watch how this molds software releases in the next few years. Personally, I'm looking forward to the results.

Do you read Microsoft blogs at all? Or is this just more droppings from the hype machine as far as you're concerned? Comments and suggestions are welcome welcome at MikeG1@larkfarm.com.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy, MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, is a former MCP columnist and the author of numerous development books.

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