Microsoft Technology Summit- mts08

Microsoft Piggy Bank

So… I spent most of last week in Redmond, on the Microsoft campus, attending the fourth ‘Microsoft Tech Summit.’ The name is sort of misleading. It does describe the subject matter fairly well- the presentations were mostly pretty technical, and they were very much about Microsoft. And it was summit-sized- maybe 40 people.

What the name doesn’t point out is that everyone in the audience was (to some degree or another) a Microsoft skeptic, and almost everyone was in some way a user or developer of open source technologies (the rest were flash/adobe people). Microsoft’s stated goal in organizing it (and the reason why most of us came) was to have a conversation between two (historically hostile) communities, not a series of pitches.

It didn’t necessarily work that way. On our side, it wasn’t the most friendly audience ever- the backchannel was announced as #brainwashcamp. And you know MS isn’t just going to sit on their hands and behave like a non-profit, so questions with that assumption (which were plentiful) were not very productive. On their side, to quote Paul Jones (a good man, despite his UNC handicap):

reflection on #mts08: MSFT folks are most comfortable providing information from above. the attendees most comfortable in conversation.

Lots of very big slide decks, and I think more importantly, often an underlying assumption about how software is done- that you build your cathedral and then go out into the world to pitch it. Design is deeply researched and well thought out, but often not iterative or interactive. Given the impressive nature of a lot of the software they are building, and the massive numbers of people they generally have to engage with, this approach isn’t necessarily a bad one for them. The costs of being a true bazaar would be very high, and it might not scale to the complexities of some of their problems.

But the attendees were generally very much from the bazaar- we wanted to chat, haggle, build a relationship. I think many (esp. the web 2.0 guys) deeply believe that even the deepest problems can be solved by ad hoc relationships amongst communities and volunteers- something some of the MS folks were clearly deeply skeptical about, coloring their response to our comments and questions. There was lots of tension around the assumptions about the role of community, role of trust, relative importance of technological features v. genuine community building, etc. I’m not saying Microsoft was wrong about their assumptions on any of these counts- but breaking through the assumptions (on both sides) made the conversation hard at times. Big, big gaps to cross- sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

And so the mix sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t. The best presentations were from those who came out of open communities before going to Microsoft, like John Lam- genuine desire there to have conversation in the best Cluetrain sense of the word. But others were not so great- either because of the subject matter (were we really going to have much useful feedback for the IIS guy?) or because the speaker didn’t seem to know why they were there except to redo the same set of slides. Still, I’m sure this is a radical change from 10 years ago. They’re slowly adapting to (and coopting) the most useful and efficient parts of community-centric development; I hope that the rest of the industry can be as (or more) effective in learning from (and improving on) what MS does.

Personal impressions

  • I’m glad I went; while it did confirm some preexisting biases, it also gave me much deeper appreciation for the size and scope of what Microsoft does, for the complexity inherent in dealing with a company driving towards 100K employees, and for the real innovation taking place in some parts of the company.
  • When the conversations were great, they were great. Really enjoyed talking with Anand, Guido, and Peter during the days, and many others after-hours.
  • It was a great chance to meet non-MS people as well; was good to finally meet Chris Messina in person, and lots of other great people as well- Tara, whurley, David Recordon, etc., etc. Sadly did not really get to chat much with Anil.
  • I am physically and emotionally drained. Physically for obvious reasons (jet lag, long hours in conference room, drinking heavily) and emotionally for others- just a lot of work sometimes to translate between my worldview/assumptions and the MS worldview/assumptions.
  • not a whole lot of ‘us v. the world’ visible, but it came through some times- lots of subtle emphasis on competing, and the EU is… not very popular. Still, sounds like it was better than last year as reported by Jeff, Pia, and Samir. (Not sure if this represents real change or just speaker selection bias.)
  • I am more convinced than ever that twitter has a terrible signal:narcissism ratio, but I did find the constraint to be a useful way to moderate/constrain my own tendency to be verbose. Certainly if I’d tried to liveblog the thing I’d have been even more thoroughly destroyed at the end than I was.

Tech notes

  • if there was one dominant tech theme, it was integration, integration, integration- taking really complex stuff and hiding it (with various degrees of success) behind sophisticated tools.
  • lots of apparently genuine embracing going on; extending was more low key (and usually looking more like integrating than extending.)
  • seem to deeply believe in the CLR/DLR language model- came up repeatedly in presentations, even those that nominally weren’t about languages.
  • there is definitely an embrace of community-generated stuff- ruby, python, community-created games. It is straight out of the Von Hippel playbook- embracing innovation above your platform strengthens the platform and benefits your customers.
  • No presentation from the core OS team, which was sort of disappointing. No lawyers either; apparently Brad Smith was… at Columbia Law. (Not surprising; audience was mostly more technical, though also very social- mostly not stereotypical geeks, and included one marketing guy, me, and one uber-librarian. ;)

Suggestions to Microsoft for the next one

  • Presentations have to go both ways. I realize it might be hard for you to gin up an audience at the right level, but even if it is just to your evangelists, having the audience members talk about what they do and how they do it would likely have been really informative for your people. I shouldn’t have been explaining our view on the patent thing to just Anand; lots of MS people should have seen the openid guys talk about how they build standards, etc. Like the MS presentations, the presentations themselves might not have been useful- but the conversations it spawned would have enlightened about personal style and worldview as well as technology.
  • I think a full-blown bar camp is not necessarily the best idea- it might end up spreading people too thin. But it is worth trying.
  • Might work better with fewer topics. On the one hand, I realize lots of people want to do this kind of outreach, but more time for deeper conversation on more carefully selected topics1 might have been more useful for both sides.
  • I might try to select attendees more carefully. There were people there skeptical because of Microsoft’s worldview, and there were people there who just thought that flash was better than silverlight (or whatever.) The groups wanted different things, and it showed when people were bored at various points.
  • The best 2+ day conference like this I’ve ever been to realized the days would be long and ended each day with a demo that was relevant but totally lighthearted/fun- something you could enjoy and talk about over dinner, but not think too hard about. The robotics talk, for example, might have been a nice way to close out a day, had it been about 1/2 the serious content and contained substantially more real robots. :) That may have been what you were going for with the NBC talk, but it lacked a certain, you know, ‘demo’ :)
  • I’d urge every speaker to think hard about what they want to know from a group like us. What can we offer them besides a potential market? Most speakers didn’t seem to know; or at least, it didn’t guide their presentations. So I imagine many of them didn’t get much out of it- not really a surprise.
  • going beyond this summit: buy every person in the company Presentation Zen. Right now. Except John Lam, he’s fine already.

Disclosure: MS paid for my travel and food (though oddly not internet at the hotel) and allowed me to shop at the (heavily discounted) company store, where I picked up a keyboard and the most ironic thing in the store- the piggy bank.

  1. really, IIS- going to be a total no-go for the open source folks, though not the java/flash folks []