Microsoft Technology Summit- mts08

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 []

29 thoughts on “Microsoft Technology Summit- mts08”

  1. Luis Villa, who managed to quickly dismiss me and others who care about open source by saying “almost everyone was in some way a user or developer of open source technologies (the rest were flash/adobe people)“. Nice way to form alliances.http://tieguy.org/blog/2008/03/29/microsoft-technology-summit-mts08/The company I run is built on open source technologies, for both commercial and philosophical reasons. I use flash because it’s the best way to deliver the service to my costumers. The rest is python, mysql, php, apache, jabber, java, django, bsd

  2. Standards Australia announce their OOXML decision, prompting discussion, phone calls from journalists, etc. The batteries in my keyboard and mouse die at exactly the same time. During the Microsoft Technology Summit last year,like Luis, I bought one of the only things worth buying at the Redmond campus employee shop: A Microsoft keyboard (and mouse). Today, we push pixels. Tomorrow, we move mountains!

  3. Standards Australia announce their OOXML decision, prompting discussion, phone calls from journalists, etc. The batteries in my keyboard and mouse die at exactly the same time. During the Microsoft Technology Summit last year,like Luis, I bought one of the only things worth buying at the Redmond campus employee shop: A Microsoft keyboard (and mouse). Today, we push pixels. Tomorrow, we move mountains!

  4. Standards Australia announce their OOXML decision, prompting discussion, phone calls from journalists, etc. The batteries in my keyboard and mouse die at exactly the same time. During the Microsoft Technology Summit last year,like Luis, I bought one of the only things worth buying at the Redmond campus employee shop: A Microsoft keyboard (and mouse). Today, we push pixels. Tomorrow, we move mountains!

  5. Standards Australia announce their OOXML decision, prompting discussion, phone calls from journalists, etc. The batteries in my keyboard and mouse die at exactly the same time. During the Microsoft Technology Summit last year,like Luis, I bought one of the only things worth buying at the Redmond campus employee shop: A Microsoft keyboard (and mouse). Today, we push pixels. Tomorrow, we move mountains!

  6. Standards Australia announce their OOXML decision, prompting discussion, phone calls from journalists, etc. The batteries in my keyboard and mouse die at exactly the same time. During the Microsoft Technology Summit last year,like Luis, I bought one of the only things worth buying at the Redmond campus employee shop: A Microsoft keyboard (and mouse). Today, we push pixels. Tomorrow, we move mountains!

  7. m still having family fun and worshiping at the church of BBall — Davidson trailing Kansas by only 2 at the half. In the meantime, here are some links: Remember that our schedule was pretty packed.Luis Villa who is in Law School at Columbia having been at Gnome before that blogs (and tweets) as tieguyAdam Keys lets his inner MSFT fanboy loose as he explains why Scott Guthrie and the new ASP.NET MVC framework are important as The Real Adam (he has the Real meme but hasn’t he seen Rails and other framworks?). To be fair to Adam, he is mostly fan

  8. For your own sake, please remove that image and replace it with something that isn’t 2.5MB, or at least use a thumbnail :D I’d hate to have your bandwidth bill… ;)

  9. Yeah, I’m sorry we only got to talk on IRC even though we were both present! Good news, though, I’m based in NYC — we should catch up in person here sometime.

  10. No flying chairs; one shot of him looking like he was going to throw something, and otherwise, lots of fairly positive comments on Ballmer-as-businessman.

    re: moonlight/flash- I do think that it is undeniable that C# has forced Java to get more active, so silverlight isn’t a bad thing, I suppose. But I’m very uncomfortable with tools that are going to have such deep integration with their less competitive (read: monopolistic) platforms.

  11. Nice wrap-up Luis. To be honest, I’m surprised that last year’s feedback about more of a full-duplex conversation was not taken more seriously. Anyway, the best part is the conversations after the presentations so kudos to MS for getting all those folks together!

  12. Luis, it was great meeting you out there. Would love to keep in touch here in NY. FYI… it might make you happy to know that everyone on the field evangelism team (the guys in the back of the room), just received a copy of the Presentation Zen book about a month ago. :)

  13. Samir: yeah, I had expected better. At least there was no one openly antagonistic to free software, as you said you got last time. :) Oh, and it sounds like they might respond to the same criticisms this time by making it a bar camp next time. We’ll see how that goes. :)

    Peter: yes, definitely great to meet you. You’re the second person to make the Presentation Zen comment, but it gives me only mixed comfort. In my world (bazaar-land) every developer – not just the evangelists – is expected to be able to communicate. This is certainly not true (the slides at the average free software conference are abysmal too) but it’s at least something almost everyone aspires to. This not only helps outreach, but it helps the product too- if everyone at some point communicates to users directly, you end up with a much more realistic understanding of needs and use than if all communications are moderated through layers of sales guys, evangelists, and product managers.

  14. […] keyboard and mouse die at exactly the same time. During the Microsoft Technology Summit last year, like Luis, I bought one of the only things worth buying at the Redmond campus employee shop: A Microsoft […]

  15. I’m curious, why wouldn’t you have feedback for the “IIS guy”? (yep, that’s me!) As a self-proclaimed open source advocate, I’d think you would want to emulate the same kind of transparency and inclusivity the community evangelizes.

  16. Bill: it wasn’t that we wouldn’t share, it’s that we would probably have very little to share- which I think was reflected in the vast number of questions that basically boiled down to ‘why isn’t this just an Apache config tool?’ Perhaps you found that useful feedback, in which case I apologize :) But it seemed to me that it was probably useless to you and to me, and frankly much less useful (for all parties) than some of the other discussions we had.

    Now, I admit I have a slightly harder time explaining why this might be the case- why I intuitively singled out IIS in the way I did. I think IIS’s problem is that it seems that it is wisely understood that Apache is pretty much best of breed. I’ve never heard any Apache user say ‘I wish I was using IIS.’ This is fairly unique- even in open source, people say ‘I wish I had LINQ to solve this problem’ or ‘the MS IDEs are really slick.’ And even if the firefox people are disdainful of IE, they at least acknowledge that IE is important. So talking with the LINQ folks, or the IDE people, or the C# people, was interesting. Not to say that there wasn’t a gap there, but the gap was radically smaller than it was for IIS, and hence there was radically more useful communication to be had.

    But maybe that’s just me- you should definitely talk to others who were there as well, and possibly you did find it interesting and useful- in which case, I’m glad to be wrong, and I hope you enjoyed it enough to do it again :)

  17. Thanks for the reply Luis. I do agree that comments about ‘why isn’t this an apache config tool’ were not terribly useful. :) I guess I’m still curious as to why you would originally say “were we really going to have much useful feedback for the IIS guy?” and yet then claim “I think IIS’s problem is that it seems that it is wisely understood that Apache is pretty much best of breed.”. If Apache is so clearly ahead of IIS, it would seem there would be plenty of feedback to give the IIS team. And you realize that by not engaging you only reinforce the negative feedback loop (if there is such a thing in the open source community) that IIS is clearly inferior.

    In any case, as a user of both Apache and IIS I’ve shared my thoughts about Apache vs. IIS7 which you may be interested in reading here: http://blogs.iis.net/bills/archive/2007/05/07/iis-vs-apache.aspx

  18. Bill: I completely hear what you’re getting at, and I really regret having come across that way- I was imprecise and it showed.

    I should note here that part of the problem here may be that I’m not a web guy, so my views may be biased because I just don’t think about the space much.

    Asking me why I prefer Java over C# is like asking me why I prefer wine over beer: it’s something I can articulate; I’ve thought about the issues, played with the code, etc.

    Asking me why I prefer Apache is like asking me why I prefer air: there may be alternatives, but I’ve never given them even the slightest bit of thought, so I couldn’t really articulate why air might be better. So saying Apache was ‘best of breed’ is probably not what I should have said- it’s more like (at least in my mind) Apache is so entrenched that I couldn’t even tell you anymore why it is entrenched- it Just Is.

    (I should note that I think this is rare. I’d have tons of discussion fodder for Linux, or WordPress, or GNOME, or languages, or editors… just about any other software I use. Apache is unusual, so maybe it is just me.)

  19. Others on MTS08…

    I’m still having family fun and worshiping at the church of BBall — Davidson trailing Kansas by only 2 at the half. In the meantime, here are some links: Remember that our schedule was pretty packed. Luis Villa who is in Law School at Colum…

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