March 31, 2006
Building 21: Past, Present, FutureAs part of transferring to the Engineering Excellence group, I moved to an office in Building 21.
A little history of the Microsoft campus. In the way old days, it was a mill. A generation ago, it was called Sherwood Forest and it was where kids from nearby Interlake High went to drink. Eventually it became an office park, which featured a database company called Microrim among its tenants. When Microsoft built its initial campus in 1986 (first 4 buildings, then 2 more), it chose a spot nearby. In the early 1990s Microrim moved out and its former building was rechristened Microsoft Building 21, with Human Resources as the first tenant. It's one of the few buildings that remain from the pre-Microsoft days, Buildings 19 and 20 being the others (the cluster known as East Tech, aka Buildings 12 through 15, were torn down to make way for Buildings 34 and 35).
So today Building 21 sits as a remnant of former times. Microsoft remodelled it a bit (adding relights to the offices, for example), but it retains its original design. In particular it isn't built up of long skinny wings like most Microsoft buildings, so there are true "inside" offices (ones where even the office across the hall isn't an outside office, which defeats the purpose of having the relight). Also large parts of the exterior wall don't have windows, so some of the "outside" offices have no window. There's no underground parking. The easiest way to get from the side door to the stairs is to cut through the lobby, and the easiest way to get from my office to the kitchen is to teleport through a wall. And there's no cafeteria in the building; Microsoft originally put in a mini-cafeteria, but now that's gone and you have to walk to 34, 16/17, or 25.
That's what it's like now. But heark, for change is in the offing. The Engineering Excellence team, in its neverending quest to be the omphalos of all that is progressive at Microsoft, has been chosen as one of the test sites for the new Workplace Advantage initiative at Microsoft. Which means that this summer, more or less, Facilities will swoop down, reciprocating saws in hand, tear down all our walls, and replace them with...well, with something else. Which I am too tired to write about now, but which I will discuss soon, I promise.
March 27, 2006
The Microsoft Art CollectionMicrosoft has a fairly extensive art collection, which is scattered throughout the buildings on campus. If anyone is in Redmond on the last Thursday of the month and is curious about it, we offer tours that are open to the public. Just email artevent (the domain is the main microsoft one).
There's an artist in the collection named Thom Merrick. He has a couple of artworks in a similar style; they look something like this:
That's his 1999 work "Flying Bird". Actually it's not a photo of the painting; it's a homage, my recreation of the original, which took about 10 minutes in Corel Draw. Now, it would be cool if he had hand-painted it to look like it was a computer printout, but if you read the little tag next to the art, the medium is "pigment based ink jet print". In other words, he just printed it out on a printer (a big printer; it's about two feet wide and three feet high).
Personally I think art is what people say it is, and I'm perfectly willing to concede that this is art. He gets credit for thinking of it first, if nothing else. Sometimes you look at a work of abstract art and think "I could do that"--but in this case, I know I could do it.
Four in a Million(Or 1.5 million) ESPN has a massive online NCAA men's basketball tournament pool, which had over 1.5 million entries. Amazingly, four people actually picked Florida, George Mason, LSU and UCLA. They must have all grown up in Louisiana, gone to GMU, done graduate work in Florida, and now work in L.A. Or something.
Meanwhile at the Wynn in Las Vegas, at least one person bet $20 on George Mason to win it all, at 300-to-1 odds.
March 24, 2006
The 60% RewriteThere's been some flap about this rumor that Microsoft is going to rewrite 60% of the Vista source code. Here's one from The Inquirer (why are they calling us the Volehill? Is it a Harry Potter reference? I don't read them enough to get it).
Anyway, this augments my contention that certain members of the computer press are lacking a fundamental knowledge of how software is written, which hampers their ability to parse truth from fiction in stories like this.
First of all, it makes no sense to decide to rewrite something in order to have it ship earlier (which the article implies is the reason for the plan). You rewrite something to make it faster or more powerful or something...but NOT to make it ship sooner.
Second, imagine rewriting 60% of Vista. I mean, let's say that you divide it into 5 main pieces: base, shell, networking, filesystems, and media player. That's just something I made up and I'm not claiming it corresponds to any actual division. I missed a lot of things--but just imagine I didn't and that was a complete list, rewriting 60% of Vista means COMPLETELY REWRITING 3 of those 5. So maybe junking the shell, networking, and the filesystems and starting from scratch on those. Does that make any sense at all?
Third, this ignores the fact that Vista exists right now. There are betas you can install. New internal builds come out daily. It boots. You can surf the web. You can run applications. It supports lots of hardware. People self-host on it. It's stable. It looks nice. The demos are real. It's not 40% real and 60% needs-to-be-rewritten. It's really there.
March 23, 2006
The Secret Life of PlantsA couple of interesting articles in The New Yorker last week. The first (not online) was about a 40-year-old Manhattan money manager named Boykin Curry who is attempting to build a "Creative Person's Utopia" resort in the Dominican Republic. The second was about the fashion designer Hedi Slimane.
The interesting part was not so much the articles themselves (which were somewhat interesting, actually I found the whole issue pretty good, even discounting the Playboy centerfold montage). What I found fascinating was the random groups of friends that the two people had.
Curry (who you may vaguely remember, as I swear I do, for a book called Essays that Worked which he published as a college freshman) is assembling a list of advisors/business partners to help him fund, design, and gatekeep his Shangri-La. The list includes the football player Michael Strahan, a UN official, a couple of B-List actors, Moby, and Rich Lowry from National Review. Meanwhile, Hedi Slimane hangs out with Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys, the chief curator of P.S. 1 in New York, Gus Van Sant, and Pete Doherty of No Fixed Address.
What boggles my mind is how these random people seem to a) remain important forever and b) connect with each other. The article on Slimane actually comments on this: "[Slimane] has become a core member of that global fellowship of artists, designers, filmmakers, and pop musicians who seem always to run into one another at hotels and parties, at film festivals and art fairs, and who speak constantly of working together on projects." I suspect that a) and b) are related, and that remaining connected with people on the rise is how people remain important. I mean, the Pet Shop Boys had one huge massive worldwide hit over twenty years ago, and maybe a couple of other songs you might have heard of (if you weren't five when they came out)...yet Neil Tennant remains someone who "matters", someone that it would be notable that Hedi Slimane would be friends with, and someone who would be invited to his fashion shows and stuff. And Boykin Curry's circle get chartered trips down to the D.R. where they are fed pineapple cocktails by men in Hawaiian shirts. I assume it's inevitable, if it isn't already true, that Curry and Slimane will soon have at least one friend in common.
What does this have to do with "Snakes on a Plane"? Well, in the near future everything is going to be related to SOaP (there's a good article about the movie here; I won't bother quoting it because every word is priceless). The connection is that for whatever reason, "Snakes on a Plane" has caught the popular fancy and has been upgraded from just another movie with a stupid title to something Important. The same thing that happened to "West End Girls". And so now in the near future Boykin Curry is going to invite the producer of "Snakes on a Plane" to join his artistic coterie. And Hedi Slimane is going to hang out with the screenwriter for "Snakes on a Plane". And why is that? I just don't know.
Traffic Jam on the Road to the North PoleHere's an article about "rush hour" at the North Pole. It seems that teams who are trying to reach the North Pole (which I guess has a limited window between winter cold and summer melt) are bumping into each other, sort of. Including the Finnish Airborne Team, which evidently is not related to the Swedish Bikini Team. Looks like they need some transportation planning. Maybe an HOV lane on the ice. And an intermodal transportation center at Ward Hunt Island, complete with integrated "single fare" ticketing, would speed their journey north.
Here's a website that tracks polar trips. Fascinating reading. I suspect this was where the quote about "Bettina has been freezing all night" came from. Or maybe it was here, which seems to be related to the first one. Or I guess it was on the "Bettinas Tur" site...yes, here's the quote. I gather they use a satellite phone to call someone who updates the website.
March 20, 2006
Excellent!So, I recently switched jobs at Microsoft. I'm no longer working on Monad; I'm now on the development Engineering Excellence team.
(First of all I'll explain that there's nothing bad happening with Monad, it's still a going project, nothing has changed, except I'm not on the team anymore. The opportunity in Engineering Excellence was just one I didn't feel I could pass up.)
Microsoft has Engineering Excellence teams for the various disciplines: development, test, program management, user experience, etc. I am working on the development EE team, the one that works with software developers. There are 5 of us "knowledge engineers" (as we are known) and we basically all do the same variety of things. Which includes: delivering training, developing new training, working on the engineering handbook, consulting back to product groups, and whatever other projects need doing. You could summarize the job as applying human performance technology to the Microsoft software developer.
I'm extremely excited about the team because it gives me a chance to think about things that I have spent a lot of my free time on in the past--as evidenced by my writing books that discussed them. How Microsoft develops software, how we interview, how the disciplines interact, how you debug software, etc, etc. Now I can actually do this as my real job and have a chance to affect the way the whole company operates, not just one group. I get to read a lot and try a lot of stuff out. In a sense I am switching from the program management discipline back to development, but the job is pretty PM-ish. I blogged previously about making Microsoft more professional (and the Engineering Excellence team is the one that put on the EE/TWC Forum that was discussed in that post). Of course it's a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w process to affect change at a company as large as Microsoft, but I'm looking forward to taking my best shot.
March 16, 2006
Greetings from the Sick BaySo we were up at Whistler a few weeks ago for 5 days of fun-in-the-sun, and on the first run of the second day my wife fell while snowboarding and broke both her wrists. They had to bring her down the mountain on a toboggan, then they drove her to the Whistler Health Care Centre where they did what is called a "reduction" on both wrists. Basically they anesthetize the arm, pull the wrist out, pop the bones back into a rough approximation of the right place, then let the whole assembly snap back together. It's one of those things that where you get better with practice and luckily I think the doctors at Whistler get a lot of practice. In fact at the Health Centre there was a line of people with splinted wrists getting ready to have reductions (it had not snowed for a couple weeks to the hill was icy).
So there was my wife with casts on both wrists, unable to perform many basic operations such as getting dressed, preparing food, etc. We did stay the rest of the week since the kids were having fun. This was 3+ weeks ago and I had to take most of 2 weeks off to help take care of her. Just this week I'm back at work essentially full-time. Luckily she did not need surgery despite her right wrist being described by a surgeon here as "pulverized".
Meanwhile, our 6-year-old son had his adenoids and tonsils removed on Monday. Just like in What Do People DO All Day? It's very simple surgery but he is under general anesthesia so it was a bit nerve-wracking for us (although they claim the risk from the anesthesia is about the same as the risk from driving to the hospital). Anyway he came through fine and is now at home powering through the popsicles and ice cream. Since I am now at work I have to leave a couple of bowls of pre-scooped ice cream for my wife to deliver to him.
Also our 4-year-old son has a wart on the bottom of each foot. It's not too terrible but they are a pain to get off. We put these special band-aids on, which inevitably get moved around under his sock as he runs around on his appointed rounds.
And my car battery died also. Boohoo.
March 13, 2006
Art Show: "The Future of Children: Childhood Obesity"The Future of Children, which is some sort of think tank at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, is running a photography exhibit on childhood obesity. In this country nearly one child in three is overweight or obese; although those terms are subject to intepretation, the rates have doubled in the last 30 years (I'll avoid the temptation to use expression like "weighty matter", "food for thought", "something to chew on", etc).
According to the website, "The photographers, Joan Liftin and Craig Terry, were commissioned to document the environment in our society which has contributed to the enormous problem of childhood obesity." Liftin's pictures are more direct than Terry's, but all are interesting (and it's Terry's picture above that I find the most compelling--the older girl is already completely under the thrall of the TV, but the younger girl is at the very instant of conversion, sitting facing away from the television but having just turned her head towards it, and you sense that the plastic rings that have just dropped from her fingers will henceforth go unplayed with for a long time, and she will soon--ugh, it's almost painful to consider--swing her feet around). The exhibit runs through March 31. You have to travel to Princeton to see it live, but you can look at the photo gallery to see the pictures online (there are 13 pictures in all).
March 10, 2006
Not Pre-Washing the Dishwasher DishesAs you probably know there are two kinds of people in the world...those who pre-wash their dishes before they put them in the dishwasher, and those who don't.
So being your typical low-grade OCD programmer, I have always been a dedicated pre-washer. If I had a spatula, say, that had cake batter, I would wash it (with soap and sponge) until it was basically clean, then put it in the dishwasher. Dinner plates I would run under water and rub with my fingers until almost everything was off. Etc. I refused to believe that however much the dishwasher turned into a raging inferno of suds, it just couldn't match good ol' elbow grease. Plus, I was troubled by the thought of the caked-on stuff that is washed off. Wouldn't it just swirl around the dishwasher and stick to the other dishes? It just seemed so unclean.
But, finally, I read one too many articles in Consumer Reports about how modern dishwashers were really good and you didn't need to pre-wash at all, just get rid of the big chunks of food and let the dishwasher take care of the rest. So I started gradually doing less pre-washing. But I was still running the water to do some pre-washing, which defeated the purpose. About a week ago I made the vow that I would load the dishwasher without running any water. That was basically my enforcement plan: if I could get something off by a quick scrape then fine, but I wasn't going to work hard, because without running water there isn't much you can do to a lot of the caked-on gunk.
Let me tell you, it was tough the first time I put a peanut-butter covered knife in there...or a cup full of maple syrup...or a bowl cake with dried chili. But, I have to say that CR is right. The dishwasher is a freaking crucible of cleanliness. I don't know where the heck all that goop goes, but the dishes come out clean as a whistle, and I'm saving water to boot.
March 08, 2006
Microsoft's New Pinball Wizard: Robert ScobleIn the book The Soul of a New Machine, Tom West talks about a game they played at Data General called Pinball. The rule of Pinball is simple: "If you win, you get to play again." Meaning, if you work on a project that is successful, then you get to make demands for people, space, equipment, etc. for your next project.
Microsoft, for better or for worse, doesn’t emphasize winning quite the same way. The rule of Pinball at Microsoft could be more accurately stated as: "If you get tokens, you get to play". Meaning, if you can convince the leadership of the company that a project is worthwhile, then you get to ask for the resources you need to accomplish it.
This view posits that the company runs an internal marketplace, in which you can receive compensation for your credibility and ideas; not compensation in the form of money (although that can follow indirectly), but compensation in the form of the ability to pursue a favorite project. The conversation (in the Cluetrain sense) for this marketplace involves making presentations to interested parties, executive sponsors, and ultimately up to Bill and Steve to get approval. However, it is an imperfect market conversation because the customer for this internal discussion is not the end-user customer of Microsoft. End users will only see projects once they have gotten well beyond this phase, and (more importantly) customers have no vote on whether projects do get beyond this phase, and never have the ability to see and comment on projects which are in the formative stages and competing for resources within Microsoft.
Now, something has come along which has the potential to change that. That something is Robert Scoble. He has created another way to get traction for a project. If you can get Scoble interested in your prototype, so that he blogs about it, does a Channel 9 video, etc. then beyond the immediate satisfaction of recognition, you have the potential to push it closer to the more significant goal of executive approval. In the end Scoble cannot greenlight any projects, but he can throw significant weight behind them. External users can weigh in on the merits and deficiencies of an idea, and early-stage communities can form around them much sooner than in the current system. Plus, the conversation is now taking place (at least partly) on a public blog, so it is much more transparent.
The aim of a compensation system should be to align the goals of individual employees with the goals of the company and the needs of customers. We'll leave aside the question of whether the current "compensation" system (talking, still, about compensation in the form if being allowed to work on a project you want) encourages good behavior, and also the broader question of whether Microsoft's salary/stock/bonus/review/etc compensation system achieves this goal. We now have a new Scoble-based way of playing Pinball Microsoft-style. Will the new system work better than the old one?
I don't really know; the system is still forming, so I'll just throw it out as something to think about. Certainly the new system tilts the field in favor of projects that personally appeal to Robert Scoble: gadgets, social networking, RSS, etc. Then again, the existing system is tilted in favor of projects that personally appealed to Bill Gates. I won't argue against Microsoft's past results, but it could be that if Microsoft is going to target one Average Joe User, then Robert Scoble is a better one than Bill Gates.
March 07, 2006
TwinningThere's a word they use in Canada (probably by way of England) for converting a 2-lane highway (one lane each way) to a 4-lane highway (two lanes each way). The word is "twinning".
For example, the highway from Calgary to Lake Louise is being twinned, and the highway north from Edmonton is going to be twinned (that's right, NORTH from Edmonton, meaning the chance of this affecting any reader of this blog is slim to none).
While going to and from Whistler, we drove through some of the construction work involved in twinning the highway up to Whistler (or twinning some of it and improving the rest) and also saw a sign that they were planning to twin highway 15 from the border up to the Trans Canada (thus making it an even better way to bypass Vancouver).
Note that twinning is not the same as limited access. A twinned highway can still have lights and driveways (New Jersey has some of these, likes routes 1 and 22: 55 mph with traffic lights and people turning left in front of you). So route 15 will be twinned but route 1 (the Trans Canada) around Vancouver is limited access (although the part in North Vancouver is hardly up to U.S. Interstate standards, he sniffs huffily).
March 03, 2006
Gillette and MicrosoftI'm a sucker for the latest-and-greatest Gillette razors. I've followed them from the Mach 3 to the Mach 3 Turbo to the M3 Power to the M3 Power Nitro. Those all had 3 blades, with varying degrees of vibrating handset and Star Wars inspired design. Now, Gillette has introduced the Fusion, which has 5 blades (they skipped from 3 to 5 because Schick came out with the 4-bladed Quattro). In fact the Fusion has a 6th "precision trimmer blade", on tbe back, ostensibly for trimming around edges like sideburns and beards.
Partly I switch because I'm a geek, and partly because Costco always upgrades their stock to the latest so that's what I buy (and I assume, without checking too carefully, that Gillette is still following the original "cheap razors, expensive blades" plan, so buying a new razor with blades doesn't cost much more than just buying refill blades--except that the next generation always costs more than the current one).
Now, Microsoft has something in common with Gillette (Microsoft is big enough now that it has something in common with most companies--makes it convenient for us navel-gazing bloggers). The issue is that the biggest competition for new versions of Microsoft's mainstay products (Windows and Office) are the current versions, which people are happy enough with to be disinclined to upgrade. Gillette owns about 70% of the razor market, way ahead of Schick (in a random twist, Gillette owns Duracell and Energizer owns Schick, so they also compete in the battery market). So the biggest reason for people not to upgade to Gillette's latest and greatest is the fact that they are reasonably happy with the current offering.
Gillette, so far, has approached this with the same approach Microsoft has taken, which is to add more and more features to the product (technologically worthy features, but possibly ones that people don't really care about), and then market the bejeezus out of it (check out the Flash-heavy website for the Fusion--is that Teri Hatcher granting me "Level 5+1 Access"?) In fact you could argue that each blade is sort of like a component of Office...your basic 3-bladed razor is Word, Excel and Powerpoint, adding a battery is like a deeper integration of the products, and a 5-bladed one adds in Publisher and Access; the extra blade on the back must be Outlook (there's Outlook's slogan right there: "easily trim sideburns, shave under the nose and shape facial hair"). Plus selling expensive blades is sort of akin to subscription-based software. It's mind-boggling, but probably true, that somewhere in a Gillette R&D lab some brainy science guys are working on a 6-bladed razor. For the next version of Office, Microsoft is trying to get away from this treadmill and make some more fundamental changes in the Office experience. Is Gillette preparing a similar leap? I'll keep my eye on the shelves of Costco.
March 01, 2006
Ken Moss Playing in a World Poker Tour EventKen Moss, General Manager in MSN Search, is playing in the Bay 101 Shooting Star event. He wrote a blog entry about the first day, which he survived knocking out Paul Darden (a professional player) in the process. If you read his blog entry, I'm the friend who dragged him off to see the World Series final table in 2003, so I guess I get some credit for this (no share of the profit though, Ken is earning that on his own).
They should be shuffling up and dealing for Day 2 right now. Hmmm, wonder what kind of ads this entry is going to inspire Kanoodle to serve up. Most of my comment spam is about Texas Hold 'Em anyway. That's right texas hold 'em poker world series world poker tour poker online spam spam spam.