From one (ex)Evangelist to Another

Robert Scoble: OK, so by now you’ve all seen the news that I’ve “swallowed the red pill.” Source: The Scobleizer Weblog; 4/16/2003; 4:53:11 AM.


I’m blogging you this wish for all the best at Micrsoft. I, too, swollwed the red pill many years ago. It was Pre-Matrix, most people used “Borg” references. I’ve since left on good terms. I still like and respect the company, the friends I’ve made, and fondly remember the times I had there. I believe it’s mutual. I’m still a stockholder. (So go make me some money.)

I’ll try to pass on some bits of wisdom for you that may be helpful for a future evangelist. Of course, as with anything, take what you like and ignore the rest.

1. Welcome to Microsoft. It is, as you pointed out, a fantastic place to work. It has great excitement. People know the work they do makes a difference in the lives of millions of other people. My biggest piece of advice is what I told Tod Nielsen when he offered me the job. I told him that I needed to be the voice of the customer. That I felt Microsoft wasn’t listening to the web developers that were my core constituencey at the time (when I was running the WWWAC group.) We agreed that I could be 49% for the customers and 51% for Microsoft’s interests. Well, I lied. I did mostly 50-50 the whole time I was there. Ask any of my former customers. Guess what – it made both customers and Microsoft better places (or so I’d like to believe).

1.a. Of course, detractors of Microsoft will say “sure, everytime they make an upgrade they ruin the lives of thousands of system administrators, allow viruses, etc…”  Your job – don’t ignore the detractors. They are many, and they are vocal. They are telling you what needs to be done to make the world better. As an evangelist – you get to do these things. You beg, cajole, influence, define, specify, demand, and fight to make these things better for the developers. Helping the detractors see that things are improving makes you a more effective evangelist.

1.b. Linda Stone, former VP in the MS Research Labs, told me 3 weeks into my MS career about the list. The list is a list of jabs, insults, and other nasty things she made up to categorize the way people teased her for joining Microsoft. (Not that I’m in any way implying that Linda is thin-skinned and needs help defending herself from someone teasing her.) She told me something like: “Someone says ‘Microsoft is Evil.’ I just say, well that’s a number 6. Then I tell them about something that Microsoft did that isn’t evil.”

2. You’re in a great group. I’ve worked with VicG (hi Vic!) and Robert (hey!) and they’ve been at Microsoft for a long time. (They remember when people were making fun of Windows 3.1 as a silly graphics shell. And Windows 95? It will never catch on. Right…) These guys made it happen.

2.a. They’ve also seen the ‘dark side’ of evangelism. They’ve seen the people go over the top – taking their vision and changing the company, but doing it in a way that isn’t ultimately the way to make friends, influence people, or stay at Microsoft – Assignment: Read Renegades of the Empire.  Discussion question for extra points: Push your own vision and make the company do something radical, or go along with the conventional wisdom and ship an inferior product?Or Find the middle ground. Good luck.  

2.b. Evangelize, but don’t believe your own hype. It is easy, in Redmond, surrounded by your friends, to believe the press releases, memorize the powerpoints, absorb the sales points, and sell yourself. You hone your pitches to developers, and its more credible if you believe them.

I believe one of the worst problems at certain levels of Microsoft is that there are insufficient inputs to the decision process. To managers don’t have time to read the Net, the trades, the rants of the average man. Large customers, and their needs, often unduly influence decisions that affect literally everyone.

You have to take on the task of reading the trade press, read the Net (no dot), read the worst Microsoft critic’s pages, and listen to the developers you encounter. And be their voice. (I’m beating on this point a lot, I think.)

Things don’t work as advertised. Acknowledge it. Fight to get it fixed. As in 1.a. above, it gives you credibility with your audience.

3. Share secrets. I don’t mean that you should post NDA information on the net. Share secrets regarding the passion of team members. About the fights you have internally to get the developers you represent what they want. The .NET team no doubt has people that want to make the programming platform that ‘s adopted for the next 10 years. There’s vision. There’s passion. There are conflicting points of view. Find your trusted customers, share the secrets, and get their advice. Then close the feedback loop by sharing the customer’s secret desires with the product teams. Magic happens – customer needs translate into product features. It may not happen, in fact it won’t happen as fast as you want it to. Example: There are great features (a big shout out to BretOr, TomHon, and the team) for Ad insertion in the new Windows Media Services offering in Windows Server 2003 that I was fighting for in 1999 and 2000! But they look like they were done right, and they will make Windows Media a better offering. (And, at the time, we found work-arounds and solutions that satisfied the customers that needed them.)

4. Just being there, and being a public presence by blogging, talking, etc. reminds people that not everyone at Microsoft is Bill or Steve. Most of the people have kids like you do, have a family, a house, a mortagage (unless they’re one of the ‘Microsoft millionaires’ – which are fewer and further between than people understand).

4.a. Some evangelists at Microsoft have in the past allegedly said things like “you have to win over developers because when they buy other company’s products they are taking food from the mouths of your family.” I believe that the day of people saying things like that at Microsoft is past. Know when to call Bullshit. Your competitor today is someone you’re courting tomorrow. Act like it and win respect in the industry.

Ok, I’m going to get down off my high horse now. You’ve got a fantasatic opportunity. Go get ’em. And if you want a sounding board, I’ll be right here. And if you need to know where to send all that free extra software, tshirts, and stuff hanging around your office, just drop me an email 🙂