Aug 16

It doesn’t have to be a crapfest

A  bit ago, this blog post crossed my Twitter feed. I read it, and while the schadenfreude made me smirk for a minute, it eventually made me feel bad.

The blog post purports to describe how a shitty shutdown dialog became a shitty shutdown dialog. But instead, it documents something I like to call “too many puppies” syndrome. If you are working on high visibility areas of a product – like the Windows Shell – like Explorer in particular, everybody has an belief that their opinion is the right direction. It’s like dogs and a fire hydrant. My point really isn’t to be derisive here, but to point out that the failure of that project does not seem to be due to any other teams. Instead, it seems to have been due to some combination of unclear goals and a fair amount of the team he was on being lost in the wilderness.

I mentioned on Twitter that, if you are familiar with the organizational structure of Windows, that you can see the cut lines of those teams in the UI. A reply to that mentioned Conway’s law – which I was unfamiliar with, but basically states that as a general concept, a system designed by an organization will reflect the structure of that organization.

But not every project is doomed to live inside its own silo. In fact, some of my favorite projects that I worked on while I was at The Firm were ones that fought the silo, and the user won. Unfortunately, this was novel then, and still feels novel now.

During the development of Windows Server 2003, Bill Veghte, a relatively new VP on the product, led a series of reviews where he had program managers (PMs) across the product walk through their feature area/user scenario, to see how it worked, didn’t work, and how things could perhaps be improved. Owning the enterprise deployment experience for Windows at the time, I had the (mis?)fortune of walking Bill through the setup and configuration experience with a bunch of people from the Windows Server team.

When I had joined the Windows “Whistler” team just before beta 2, the OS that became Windows XP was described by a teammate as a “lipstick on a chicken” release was already solidifying, and while we had big dreams of future releases like “Blackcomb” (never happened), Whistler was limited largely by time to the goal of shipping the first NT-based OS to both replace ME and the 9X family for consumers, and Windows 2000 in business.

Windows Server, on the other hand, was to ship later. (In reality, much, much later, on a branched source tree, due to the need to <ahem/> revisit XP a few times after we shipped it.) This meant that the Windows Server team could think a bit bigger about shipping the best product for their customers. These scenario reviews, which I really enjoyed attending at the time, were intended to shake out the rattles in the product and figure out how to make it better.

During my scenario review, we walked through the entire setup experience – from booting the CD to configuring the server. If you recall, this meant walking through some really ugly bits of Windows. Text-mode setup. F5 and F6 function keys to install a custom HAL or mass-storage controller drivers during text-mode setup. Formatting a disk in text-mode setup. GUI-mode setup. Fun, fun stuff.

Also, some forget, but this was the first time that Windows Server was likely to ship with different branding from the client OS. Yet the Windows client branding was… everywhere. Setup “billboards” touting OS features that were irrelevant in a server, wizards, help files, even the fact that setup was loading drivers for PCMCIA cards and other peripherals that a server would never need or use in the real world, or verbs on the shutdown menu that made no sense on a server, like standby or hibernate.

A small team of individuals on the server team owned the resulting output from these walkthroughs, which went far beyond setup, and resulted in a bunch of changes to how Windows Server was configured, managed, and more. In terms of my role, I wound up being their liaison for design change requests (DCRs) on the Windows setup team.

There were a bunch of things that were no-brainers – fixing Windows Setup to be branded with Windows Server branding, for example. And there were a ton of changes that, while good ideas, were just too invasive to change, given the timeframe that Windows Server was expected to ship in, (and that it was still tethered to XP’s codebase at that time, IIRC). So lots of things were punted out to Blackcomb, etc.

One of my favorite topics of discussion, however, became the Start menu. While Windows XP shipped with a bunch of consumer items in the Start menu, almost everything it put there was… less than optimal on a server. IE, Outlook Express, and… Movie Maker? Heck, the last DCR I had to say no to for XP was a very major customer telling us they didn’t even want movie maker in Windows XP Pro! It had no place on servers – nor did Solitaire or the Windows XP tour.

So it became a small thing that David, my peer on the server team, and I tinkered with. I threw together a mockup and sent it to him. (It looked a lot like the finished product you see in this article.) No consumer gunk. But tools that a server administrator might use regularly. David ran this and a bunch of other ideas by some MVPs at an event on campus, and even received applause for their work.

As I recall, I introduced David to Raymond Chen, the guru of all things Windows shell, and Raymond and David wound up working together to resolve several requests that the Windows Server team had in the user interface realm. In the end, Windows Server 2003 (and Server SP1, which brought x64 support) wound up being really important releases to the company, and I think they reflected the beginning of a new maturity at Microsoft on building a server product that really felt… like a server.

The important thing to remember is that there wasn’t really any sort of vehicle to reflect cross-team collaboration within the company then. (I don’t know if there is today.) It generally wasn’t in your review goals (those all usually reflected features in your team’s immediate areas), and compensation surely didn’t reflect it. I sat down with David this week, having not talked for some time, and told him how most of my favorite memories of Microsoft were working on cross-team projects where I helped other teams deliver better experiences by refining where their product/feature crossed over into our area, and sometimes beyond.

I think that if you can look deeply in a product or service that you’re building, and see Conway’s law in action, you need to take a step back. Because you’re building a product for yourself, not for your customers. Building products and services that serve your entire customer base means always collaborating, and stretching the boundaries of what defines “your team”. I believe the project cited in the original blog post I referenced above failed both because there were too many cooks, but also because it would seem that anyone with any power to control the conversation actually forgot what they were cooking.



May 15

Comments closed

I’m tired of filtering out spam from the comments. As a result, if you want to comment on a post, find me on Twitter.

Thanks for reading.

Apr 14

Measures <> data

“The reason why businesses love measures is because they mistakenly believe that measures are real, hard data.”

Karen Phelan, author of “I’m Sorry I Broke Your Company.

Mar 14

Henry Ford on watches

“As a lad he became expert as an amateur watchmaker. Disliking farm work because, “considering the results, there was too much work on the place,” he became an apprentice mechanic in Detroit, and repaired watches in a jewelry shop at night. He flirted with the idea of entering the watch manufacturing business on a large scale, “but I did not because I figured out that watches were not universal necessities.” His apprenticeship over, he served with the local representative of the Westinghouse Company, setting up and repairing their road engines.”

– Excerpt From Automotive Giants of America (iBooks)

Given the constant rumormongering about the iWatch, reading this (from a book written in 1926) amused me.

Dec 13

Walter Chrysler on Troubled Companies

“The first thing I do when I start to look into the affairs of a failing company is to study the personnel of the organization and the individuality of the men. I am concerned first of all with executives, because if their principles are not right it is useless to look for results from the men. When I have measured up in my own mind the capacity of the executives, I get out into the operation of the plant and watch the men. I look around to see how many of them are standing still and how many of them are moving around the plant. Highly paid workmen should be busy with accomplishment, not useless motion. If there is a lot of movement I know the plant is being badly operated.

I do not believe in idle machines or idle men. Outside of the idle investment involved, it is bad policy. If a man is working next to an idle machine it not only has a bad effect on him mentally, but he takes less care of his own machine because he thinks he has a ready substitute. I believe in keeping people out of temptation, for many of them cannot resist it.” – Walter Chrysler – Excerpt From Automotive Giants of America (iBooks)

Even though the above advice is almost a century old, I believe it is still quite relevant. Too many companies today waste far too much time on meetings, bureaucracy, and busywork.

Aug 13

The Szilard Dilemma

Given recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about metadata. The “Patriot”* act, signed in the hazy, fear-driven months after 9/11 was a piece of legislation that was so broad that even one of the authors now says the hoovering of telephone metadata was never the intent of the law. Law, like any type of contract, is a funny thing. It’s not so much what you say, it’s what you don’t say that matters. I was concerned about the potential exploitability of the fear-driven, rushed passage of such a law – turns out I was right.

At Microsoft, the Security Development Lifecycle (SDL) is deployed across the company as a method to build software which is secure by design. A core tenet of this process involves threat modeling. Simplistically, with threat modeling, you create scenarios and examine all possible exploits for your software design, and work to mitigate them ahead of time. Just as importantly, with threat modeling, you also wind up with have a model to work from when your software does wind up being exploited down the line.

As a practice, threat modeling requires one to consider the absolute worst end results that can come about by the creation of the system being examined. When we look at the “Patriot” act, it is obvious that no threat modeling occurred prior to the drafting and passage of the legislature. Just as importantly, even with their supposed oversight of the NSA’s actions, legislators renewed the act again in 2011 without forcing the NSA to curtail overly broad metadata gathering.

In the US, the goals of the shareholder are often at odds with the goal of the citizen. The shareholder wants to see YoY earnings growth, all too often with little concern about how much that growth costs in terms of the environment, employee retention, or even long-term sustainability of the business. It’s about here and now. In a Gordon Gekko-ish tone, it’s often about greed. The citizen wants to see businesses grow, but not by impeding on their rights, cutting their salary or survivability, or by harming the long-term potential of the republic (which I believe includes the environment).

Politicians in the US all too often reward the companies which helped finance their election, even if doing so results in harming the interests of individual citizens or the republic or state at large. Referred to as soft corruption, money in to the system is used to affect purchasing or policy outbound. We see this happen all the time – for example, individuals who used to head the Department of Homeland Security enthusiastically lobbying the DHS to deploy full-body scanners en masse, without disclosing that he is being paid by manufacturers of the devices – and despite the fact that millions of dollars of these devices would wind up being junked. This isn’t new – as I mentioned yesterday, Thomas Jefferson alluded to the same greed-driven, myopic decision making happening 200 years ago.

The interests of the intelligence community (and the businesses that sell them technology) are often also at odds with the interest of the citizen. IBM gleefully sent executives on a junket to lobby for the passage of CISPA, a cyber-security bill whose creator may have even had conflicts of interest in the passage of. One can only imagine the back-door lobbying that IT companies providing infrastructure to the NSA did ahead of the “Patriot” act renewal in 2011.

As we stand back and consider the NSA’s massive metadata harvesting machine, it’s easy enough to see how we got here.

  1. A bill passed without adequate consideration for the risks it was creating (versus the ones it was attempting to mitigate).
  2. An intelligence community that will do whatever it takes, including going right up to the creepy line and beyond in terms of of how the founding documents of our country, and the “Patriot” act can be interpreted.
  3. Many business will often do whatever it takes to sell technology, software, and services to the intelligence community, without regard to the harm they are causing to the republic and the rights of citizens.

All of these steps happened (and can and will likely happen again) without any regard to the chilling effect they have on civil liberties, are likely to have on the adoption of cloud services sold by US companies, or the long-term harm they do to the trust of citizens in their country, and the stability of the republic overall.

When creating anything, whether it is software, technology, anything… envision the worst possible scenario for its exploitation. Imagine malevolent actors with more hunger for power or money than integrity. Imagine being Leo Szilard, a brilliant scientist. Contemplating the risks of a nuclear chain reaction being used by others to create a bomb, and defensively sending President Roosevelt a letter about the technology and the risks against your country. Your action in turn results in the Manhattan Project, with the technology ironically headed towards offensive use as a military device against civilians against the wishes of you and many of your peers. The result? Your petition is ignored, you and your peers are investigated and penalized, and your prediction of an arms race that can’t be won comes to fruition.

Here we find ourselves in 2013, hurtling drones around the world, killing supposed bad actors, without any consideration of the fact that this action invites a response in kind down the road when bad actors can obtain adequate technology and return the favor. We try to stop people from printing guns; as if people looking to break the law will only buy 3D printers that are legal. Same with 3D key replicators or devices that can easily unlock and start many kinds of vehicles. The velocity of technological change is continuing to accelerate, faster than ever before. An incredibly large number of innovations in the recent past (including the technologies used by the NSA to process this volume of (meta)data) invite require us to understand the ethical ramifications of them before we bring them up and put them into place; and when these technologies are exploited, analyze the ethical reasons behind why. Our evolving world requires us to think long-term, and consider the ramifications of our actions before we begin.

*I always write the name of this piece of… legislation this way, in quotes. This law overreached and damaged our republic. It also even damaged the meaning of the word ‘patriot’.

Jul 13

Nimblstand – the laptop deconstructed

During 2012, I used my iPad as the primary device for writing most of the time  on the road. I also used a new stand with it, which proved quite useful when both writing with it on my lap and while on planes to and from conferences. For the longest time, I regularly had to answer the question, “Where can I get one?” – only to wind up disappointing them since I had a prototype and you couldn’t buy it yet.  I went all of 30 minutes at the SharePoint Conference last year before another person asked me what kind of stand I was using – his words, I kid you not, were “that thing is a work of art”. Now you can buy one too.

The Nimblstand (don’t forget to forget the ‘e’) is a stand for the iPad that makes the most of the iPad and an Apple bluetooth keyboard. I’ve sworn by the Apple bluetooth keyboard for years as a companion to my iPad. I hate to compromise with any smaller keyboard, and the Apple on-screen keyboard, while handy for quick typing, is useless when trying to type at length. For almost a year, since I bought my iPad (2), I had used an Origami case with it and my Apple keyboard. But the Nimblstand provides an interesting alternative to it. Combine it with with the fact that the velcro on my Origami had begun to fail, and my Nimblstand prototype came along at just the right time.

So what IS the Nimblstand? It is a simple product which enables you to carry a stand for your iPad, and directly incorporates an Apple bluetooth keyboard and a Wacom Bamboo stylus. The keyboard slides into the stand, and the stylus can either be stored inside the stand when not in use, or placed next to the iPad when being used.

Here you can see what the Nimblstand looks like:


As you can see, the stand itself supports two angles for the iPad. The first, when using the keyboard, is a traditional laptop angle (also similar to the Surface RT kickstand), and another more banked angle where the stand is reversed, where the user is either not using a keyboard, or is using the on-screen keyboard. It’s a great stand, and works with numerous devices, not just iPads. The stand is light in weight, but durable, very versatile, and (a point proudly made by my friend who has spent so much of his personal time to perfect this product) even made in the United States. The Nimblstand is now available from nimblstand.com and sells for $49.95 for the stand, or $66.95, for the stand and an included Wacom Bamboo stylus (Apple bluetooth keyboard sold separately).

Apr 13

“Bring this country to its knees…”

“It’s increasingly likely that a small group of well-financed people are going to be able to really bring this country to its knees.”

I couldn’t agree more, which is why we shouldn’t let them be re-elected. Anyone willing to grab a pitchfork and stab the rule of law in the name of fear doesn’t deserve to hold office in this country.


Fox News: Republican lawmaker defends call to torture

(Linked from USA Today)




Apr 13

Learn one weird old trick to reducing your disappointment in life

Stop buying more stuff, believing that buying more stuff will make you happy.


Happy Earth Day.

Apr 13

A few of my favorite movies (or: Hollywood – death by 1,000 paper cuts)

Over a year ago, I wrote a missive about how idiotic Hollywood’s “Rental Window” was. Luckily, things have changed, and now you can easily stream a movie from almost any streaming service the same day it comes out on Blu-ray and DVD.

I kid. You know that’s never going to happen. I recall as a kid when we wanted to rent a movie on VHS, we had to go to the video store and see if they a) stocked it or b) had a copy in stock (or were all out). If you really wanted a movie, say for a child’s birthday party or similar, you might have to hit several video stores before you could find a copy (and hopefully it wasn’t the copy with the spot of the tape that was bent or demagnetized. TRACKING!!! SOMEBODY ADJUST THE TRACKING!

But I digress. My point is that we’ve come more than 30 years into the future from when that era started, yet we haven’t moved at all. I was out with some friends the other day, and mentioned a few of my favorite movies. They asked for a list, and I thought – sure, in fact, I’ll add links to streamable versions for those I can.

But the insanity that is trying to find streamed movies results in so much chaos. There are dozens of streaming services, each with different catalogs. And some movies – either because they’re too old, or the studio is holding them hostage for a later day, aren’t available on streaming, only on shiny media.

Enter Can I Stream It?, a service that attempts to tell you where you can stream (or rent) movies. It’s an IMDB of movie availability, and also has apps available for several platforms.

Here are some of my favorite drama or suspense movies:

Here are some of my favorite comedy movies (I accept no liability if you watch them and hate them):