June 25, 2007
The Engineering Excellence & Trustworthy Computing Forum This WeekIf you work at Microsoft, this is a great opportunity to (as the announcement mail put it) "share best practices, connect with peers, and celebrate the achievements of our inventive employees."
I blogged about the Forum 2 years ago, before I worked in Engineering Excellence (last year I didn't talk too much about it, except a mention in this article, although I attended almost the entire thing). This year I am involved in 2 of the sessions: I am giving a talk entitled "Quality for Managers" on Wednesday at 11 am, and I am the moderator of the "Cross-Discipline Scrum Panel" on Friday at 1 pm. That last one is going to be webcast internally, due to high registration. There are lots of other great talks at the Forum, including keynotes from Bill and Steve, so I encourage all employees to spend some time there this week.
June 22, 2007
Ken Griffey ReturnsKen Griffey, Jr. returns to Seattle tonight when the Cincinnati Reds come to town.
There is some debate about whether the fans will boo him or not. Personally, although I think Alex Rodriguez is a beneath contempt and will boo him at Safeco until he retires (and possibly after that, a la "Potvin Sucks" at New York Rangers games), I have no such feelings towards Ken Griffey, Randy Johnson, or any of the other stars who deserted Seattle in the 1990s. So when Griffey's name is announced I plan to cheer loudly (we'll be at one of the games this weekend) and a tear may come to my eye. Griffey, in particular, really did save baseball in Seattle, but more generally I choose to remember the good times from a player's stay here, and not worry about how it ended.
Except for A-Rod. He's a %$#^&@*.
June 20, 2007
520 Traffic MessMicrosoft had a brown bag today where they invited the Washington DOT to come in and talk about the plans to replace the 520 bridge, which connects Redmond with Seattle.
When I moved to Seattle in 1990, I lived on the Seattle side of the lake, in Capitol Hill. My commute to work was 20 minutes, no matter what time; traffic wasn't an issue going from Seattle to Redmond. Coming home, there were occasionally some slowdowns between, say, 5 pm and 6 pm, but sometimes there weren't, and if you left a little early or a little late (I tended to leave a little late in those days) then the traffic on 520 wasn't an issue.
Today, if you drive westbound (Redmond to Seattle) over the bridge between about 3 pm and 8 pm you should expect heavy traffic, and between 5 and 7 expect it to take at least an hour to get downtown. That's on good days; it seems that lately every day has been bad, and each time I drive I say to myself, "This is the worst traffic I have ever seen on 520", only have it topped the next time. You can look at a Puget Sound Traffic map to see how things are going; during rush hour expect 520 westbound to be solid "black" (stop and go) from before 405 to the bridge.
Seattle, when I moved here, may have been the last great place in the country--beautiful scenery, nice weather, a software industry ready to explode, and little traffic congestion. Now the traffic is terrible, will likely never get better, and that may be it: there will never be another "great undiscovered city" in the United States. Oh well!
At the brown bag today people were getting a bit irate when it was pointed out that even if things go smoothly and voters approve a large "Roads & Transit" tax package this fall, it will probably take 10 years before a new bridge opens (the DOT has a project website if you want more info on it). A couple of people made the comment that this was going to start hurting Microsoft, because people will quit to avoid having such a nightmare commute (although Google has basically the same commute). I made this same point in an article I wrote about 4 1/2 years ago about the future of Microsoft: "There's an external issue, which is that Seattle might become a less desirable place to live than it has been. The highway system is terribly congested and the public transit system is inadequate, but the state is in an anti-tax mode so there is no money to fix those problems." Not much has changed there, except people might just be desperate enough to vote to fix it. It doesn't help that Microsoft, trying to get out from under the antitrust thumb in the late 1990s, started a right-wing advocacy group which supported Republican candidates (the FIN seems to have morphed a bit and is now mostly supporting generally good Internet safety kinds of issues, but who knows how many conservative crackpots it boosted into office back in the day).
One problem with the current 520 is that up until 405, there is a "2 person or more" carpool lane on the right side, then there is no carpool lane under 405, then after 405 there is a "3 person or more" carpool lane on the right side (it's restricted to 3 or more in that section because it's really just the shoulder of the road, repurposed into a carpool lane, so they don't want a lot of traffic in it). One of the things that the DOT people mentioned was that they were studying moving the carpool lane to the left side, because right now the lane gets hopelessly mingled with people getting off at 405 (to add to the problem, there is an entrance to 520 just before 405, and an exit just after, so there are two more "weaves" to deal with). Moving it to the left would allow carpools to bypass the 405 mess, but then they would need to weave to the right to get to the "3 or more" carpool lanes leading up to the bridge, since those have to stay on the right shoulder (the bridge itself has no carpool lanes, which is one of the reasons they want to replace it). The DOT people were pointing out that this would be a huge problem since the weave disrupts traffic, but I thought of a solution: put a traffic light on the highway at the point where you would need to go from "2 person carpool lane on the left" to "3 person carpool lane on the right". Have the light activated only by buses and only when traffic is moving below a certain speed; the light would stop the general purpose lanes and allow the bus to continue through. Since it would only stop traffic long enough for the bus to get through and it would only activate when traffic was crawling, it wouldn't really slow down the flow of traffic in the general purpose lanes (since in the time it took a bus to weave over the cars that had made the light before it changed wouldn't advance very far ahead of the stopped ones).
(The DOT has done a similar carpool switcheroo in the past; the carpool lanes on 405 used to be on the right. If you've ever wondered, "Gee why is the carpool flyover ramp from 405 south to 90 west on the right side of 405, when the carpool lanes are on the left"--that's why.)
My REAL solution to the 520 bridge mess is to make the entire bridge be HOT, that is, free to high-occupancy vehicles and charging a toll to single-occupancy ones. Because in the end, the solution is to put more people in the same number of vehicles. This would either cut traffic, raise a lot of money, or both. It's a good enough idea to guarantee that it will never happen.
June 18, 2007
One-Page Slide DecksIn February I took a class called "Advanced Presentation Design" from a professor at Catholic University named Andrew Abela. Abela teaches a method of presentation design called "Extreme Presentation", and in fact has a blog of the same name. Extreme Presentation is roughly as "extreme" as Extreme Programming, but it makes a snappy name (the phrase "Extreme Blogging", for some mysterious reason, only gets about 1000 hits on the Web).
Abela teaches a 10-step process about how to design your presentation, which I won't get into here (I understand he is writing a book about it). It's an interesting approach, but the really fascinating part of his class is the number of slides he recommends creating for a presentation. The number he recommends is "as few as you can possibly have", and according to him the ideal slide deck would have a single slide with everything on it. So you are thinking WTF, how can the audience see that? Which brings me to his REAL point: in almost every presentation situation, per Abela, you should NOT be presenting from a projected slide deck: you should be presenting from a printed slide deck.
He described there being two types of presentation styles: Ballroom and Conference Room. The Ballroom style is where you are presenting to a large room, primarily one-way, to inform and entertain (see Wedding, You Are The Best Man At A). For this, although he wants you to go through the 10 steps, he basically falls back on the Beyond Bullet Points advice: little text, use diagrams and photos and all that, one slide per minute or thereabouts (he’s not actually against bullet points per se, if they work in context).
The Conference Room style is where you are presenting to a smaller audience, in a two-way interactive dialogue, and you want to engage people or persuade them to change behavior. This is Abela’s real passion. Here he wants as few slides as possible (ideally one), with as much detail as possible (he claims you really can’t have too much detail). Only go to multiple slides if it just won’t fit on one. AND PRINT IT OUT. Forget projecting the slides, they are too dense. Don’t view them on your laptop either, the printed page gives you much better contrast (as Edward Tufte has pointed out). Print out the slide, walk the audience through it, and discuss. If your slides pass the “squint test” (where the slide looks like what it is trying to communicate--easier to see than explain, go to Abela's blog for examples), then the audience will grok their overall meaning at first glance, and won’t be scared by the detail. He also commented that if you do this, people will be looking down at the slide, not at you, so you can literally be reading from a prepared script as you guide them, and they won’t notice. Also this makes controversial subjects easier to discuss because it feels more like a gathering of equals instead of a presenter and an audience.
Abela said that 95% of presentations should be done in the Conference Room style, but instead 95% are done in the Ballroom style. And he really feels that the Conference Room style is the way to go if you are going to convince someone of something.
In our EE courses we are definitely about the convincing and teaching part, not the wedding slide show thing. So it would seem to make sense to try this style. We have some courses that are perfect candidates: a series we teach for more senior developers at Microsoft, which meet once a week for 90 minutes at a time. We already have only 5 or 6 slides for the half hour, so I took a shot at converting one of these classes ("Development at Microsoft for Expert Developers", to be precise) to the Extreme Presentation style: one slide per week, printed and handed out. Here is one of the slides (for week 2 out of 5), fuzzed out to avoid leaking confidential MS info:
The topic that week was "Standing for Quality", and I set up the slide as "the road to quality" (GET IT?), where each box is linked by a little bit of road, which might be hard to see. If you see that I think it passes the squint test reasonably well. It better, because a lot of the test is 8 point type, so it looks a bit daunting at first glance. The part at the bottom of the slide is homework that we assign the students to do each week in between classes. So they get the slide and the homework in one place; they can take notes on the slides if they want, and I imagine people carefully saving their copies each week for future reference (I have a vivid imagination).
I've taught 4 of the 5 weeks so far and I think the course is going better than it has in the past, in that the students seem more engaged and are having better discussions. One advantage of having everything on one slide is that you can range around the slide at will, talking about what interests the students and jumping to another topic if the conversation flows naturally to it. We haven't finished the course so the students haven't submitted their evaluations yet, but I'm hopeful they will be positive (or more positive than usual, to be precise).
Which reminds me, if you work at Microshmoo and you want to see some pretty good examples of graphical design, go to [our internal IT site with "/epe" appended"] and look at the Everyday Productivity Education site that you get redirected to. These are prepared guides on various topics related to productivity, computer setup, new employee orientation, security, remote access, meetings, and whatnot (the guide on whatnot is particularly oh never mind). These are really well done and they have pictures of everything, so when it says "click here in Outlook" it shows you the actual menu you are clicking on. Worth checking out if you've got the cardkey.
June 12, 2007
Microsoft's Art CollectionThere was a brief article about Microsoft's art collection on cnn.com today.
The reason I point this out is because the first picture on the slide show (also shown at left) is a piece of the gigantic Sol LeWitt mural in the Building 34 cafeteria. This mural, astute readers of this blog may recall, figured in the denouement of "The Microsoft Code", my epic from last year (just over a year ago, in fact).
In the intervening year, LeWitt died. The Wikipedia entry does not mention his cause of death, which is either a suspicious indication of a coverup by the protectors of Mini-Microsoft's identity, or just an oversight.
June 10, 2007
Wizard RockSo I was watching MTV2 or something last weekend and heard the latest harbinger of the apocalypse. They had a little piece about Wizard Rock. These are bands with names like Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys (and presumably Ron and the Weasleys, Hermione and the Grangers, etc), the Whomping Willows, the Parselmouths, etc. Evidently they really get into it, and typically write songs from the point of view of the character that inspired the band's name.
You can search the web as well as I can, but here is a MTV article about the phenomenon. There is also a website myspace page that links to a whole bunch of other groups, including (I can't resist!) The Leaky Cauldrons, Dobby and the House Elves, The Prisoners of Azkaban, and The Quidditch Pitch Incident (which is actually funny).
I suppose it's not particularly different from Nerdcore Hip-Hop. In fact some of the bands performed at a fan convention in May, according to Wikipedia (so it's at least 60-40 that it actually happened), just like the Nerdcore show I went to after PAX last August. Except of course Nerdcore is cool, and Wizard Rock is...ummm...well, whatever.
June 07, 2007
The WPA Remodel, Week 4We're now in the fourth week of the remodel of Building 21, so I've been an officeless nomad for that long.
The remodel itself seems to be going fine; they have razed the affected part of the second floor down to the concrete, and last time I poked my nose in they were busy framing the new layout (although many of the walls will be "demountable", evidently some of them will be permanent).
On a personal level, I've been teaching some, so on those days I just go to the classroom and there's no difference. Even on non-teaching days I've generally had at least one meeting on campus, so I've gone in most of the day to get permanent high-bandwidth corpnet connection, rather than rely on RAS (which is slower and has been flaky for me recently). I've mostly been squatting in a lab we have in building 24 which currently isn't being used, but I've also had times where I set up shop in the inside atrium in building 17. My favorite roosting spot is currently the offices we have in WestPark, where part of the team moved. WestPark is a clump of low-rise office buildings in downtown Redmond (if you drive from City Hall to Sunrise Donuts, it's what's in between). Microsoft has space in one of the buildings and part of it is temporarily given over to Engineerig Excellence, in a mix of offices and cubicles. There are unused cubicles (and even the people assigned to cubicles aren't around much), so I can settle down for a solid day. Because it's a Microsoft site is has printers, free soda, office supplies, and all that. Best of all, it has a vending machine that has Coffee Crisp in it. What is Coffee Crisp you ask? Hoho! Is there a Wikipedia page on it? Is a frog's ass watertight? So already this is the Best. Microsoft office. Ever.
Our team dynamic has been affected a bit by not seeing each other. We used to have a daily standup meeting, plus a weekly meeting. The first week we missed the weekly meeting and were trying to do the standup by phone, but people got lax on that. Well, just after one week apart I could sense that emails were getting a bit more snippy, and I was concerned we would verge into open career warfare by the end of 4 months. So, we were careful to really focus on trying to attend the daily and weekly meetings, and things seem to be better. The larger EE team is also working on some events to get everybody together (this Friday we have "beer and munchies in the classroom"), but since we didn't tend to talk to them as much anyway, it's not as big a difference. We also happened to have an event yesterday for our entire VP's organization, which was a barbecue (catered by Dixie's BBQ!) on the sports fields, but it turned out to be a cold, rainy day, so we all huddled under a tent hoping to win one of the Trustworthy Computing fleece tops they were raffling off so we could put it on to keep warm. Although that wasn't a bad thing, a common enemy (Mother Nature in this case) can lead to good discussion and bonding on the team.
June 03, 2007
Attack of the [Beep]ing TechnologyNow that our kids are a bit older and tend to sleep late (after 7 am or so) or at least amuse themselves when they wake up, a long weekend can be an opportunity to sleep in a little bit. Sadly, my Memorial Day weekend dreams of snoozing were unceremoniously cut short because every day at precisely 5:40 am I was woken up by an alarm clock going off. Worse, it was an alarm clock that beeped for 20 seconds, then turned itself off.
(OK, time for an aside here...who designs an alarm clock that turns itself off after 20 seconds? I mean, what is the point of that? First of all, some people will sleep through it, or not fully wake up before it turns off. And in this scenario, where it is going off and you don't know where it is, it's terrible. I can imagine someone thinking, "Well, somebody might leave it on by accident, so we should make the alarm short"...but if you follow that scenario one more step, turning off after 20 seconds is a lousy choice. I'm not saying it's bad to have an alarm turn itself off--I think that my beside alarm turns itself off after 10 minutes or an hour or something--but make it at least 5 minutes.)
A couple of times I staggered out of bed to try to find the thing, but I couldn't. And of course once I did that I couldn't get back to sleep. The problem is that each of the kids have alarm clocks next to their beds, plus at one point we bought them all Lego alarm clocks, which were probably buried somewhere in a pile of Lego in the playroom, and have an "alarm on" switch that is very easy to nudge on by accident. So I spent a good part of the weekend tearing the house upside down looking for alarm clocks, then setting them to go off and comparing the sound and duration of the alarm to the foggy memory that haunted my nightmares. I found all four Lego alarms, plus a couple of others, but none of them had been set (in fact the batteries were dead on the ones that weren't in active use).
This is part of a larger problem, which is the number of mysterious beeping pieces of technology we have around us. I suppose when designing a single object it might make some sense to have it beep at certain times (like when the battery is running down). If you have a cell phone in your pocket and it starts to beep, you will look at it and it will have some visual indication of why it is beeping. But if the cell phone is your son's phone and he has left it turned on and then it slid behind some piece of furniture, hearing a short beep every 5 minutes is only going to produce the perfect combination of annoyance and powerlessness to drive you insane. The things we have that beep in our house include all of our cell phones when they run out of power, the alarm system if the power gets disconnected, the microwave if you don't open it after cooking something, the fire alarms if the battery is dying, and possibly the dryer when the cycle ends. We also have a new fridge and who knows if it has a beep buried deep in its circuitry, waiting to spring forth to charm our ears at some unknown future date and time. We have literally spent an hour stalking an unknown beep, trying first to get a handle on its frequency (thankfully, most of these technological inanities at least repeat themselves on a regular pattern), then moving through the house eliminating rooms until we have the thing narrowed down to a space small enough to permit a floor-to-ceiling search for all things silicon.
Luckily I had described my 5:40 am plight to my wife, and on Tuesday morning she jumped up when it went off and discovered that the alarm was actually on my jogging watch, which was in our bathroom. Ahhh, love is indeed a wonderful thing (presumably exhausted from my sleep-deprived weekend, I slept through all of this). The watch is normally in a drawer, but she had pulled it out the previous week to time herself washing our daughter's hair (for reasons I won't get into) and had left it on the counter, so it was then loud enough to wake me up in its brief chirping. My problem was solved and I can now get the sleep I deserve.
The really depressing thing about my jogging watch is that I think it has actually been beeping like that for months, if not years. I have a vague memory, from about a year ago, of concocting a theory that the newspaper delivery guy was tossing the paper against our front door and waking me up, and the time I recall was also 5:40 am. And since it's an LCD watch, the battery lasts forever, more or less. So the cursed thing may have been doing it for years, waking me up whenever the right threshhold of its location and my wakefulness was crossed. It reminds me of one of those awful stories like "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant, where someone's life is ruined for years by something that didn't have to happen (when I first read that story I spent months wracked with sympathy for its imaginary sufferers). Have I really been losing one or two hours of sleep every night for years because of my jogging watch? Is it possible that the cumulative damage to my health exceeds whatever benefits I've accrued from running for all those years? Well, probably not, but I'd rather not think about it too much.