Category Archives: learning

One of Microsoft’s smartest on Channel 9

Don’t take my word about it, but when I talk with developers inside Microsoft (and outside, truth be told) about who they look up to the most, Jim Gray’s name invariably comes up. Here’s a video of him on the Behind the Code show. I was in the audience, it was a real honor. That guy has more brain cells than the rest of us, I’m pretty convinced (and he’s a darn nice guy too).

Is your company seeing a bozo explosion?

Guy Kawasaki gives some great advice to those of us who work in companies “how to prevent a bozo explosion.”

#9 got a little close to home. ;-) *

Anyway, one thing that I will always appreciate about Bill Gates is that he lets me walk around Microsoft with a camcorder so I get to study one of the world’s best businesses from inside (how many business school graduates get to do that?).

And, even better, I get to meet a LOT of people from a lot of different businesses, so have collected a few of my own rules about bozo explosions.

There are a few other things I’d add to Guy’s list after studying the problem in detail:

#15: If you are a software developer and if you spend more time in meetings than writing code you might be in a bozo explosion.
#16: If the first question out of your manager’s mouth is “can this be monetized?” you might be in a bozo explosion.
#17: If the name for your product is something like “Contosa Bozo Exploder 2006” you might be in a bozo explosion.
#17B: If your product’s box has 45% more text on it than an iPod box, you might be in a bozo explosion.
#18: If, when an employee comes up with a new idea the answer back is an email with the words “business value” repeated 13 times you might be in a bozo explosion.
#19: If, when you ask a business leader “what’s your philosophy?” and they answer “huh?” well, then, you might be in a bozo explosion.
#20: If more than three people have to be consulted to spend less than $100 million to acquire a company, or build something new, then you might be in a bozo explosion. (Committeeism guarantees slowness, lack of philosophy, and lack of creativity).
#21: If your marketing team can change the spec after the development team has started development, you might be in a bozo explosion. (Or, if your development team doesn’t communicate well, or listen to, the marketing team you might be in a bozo explosion).
#22: If your company forces you to work computers built in 1999, you might be in a bozo explosion (you do realize that having two monitors has been shown by several studies to make people up to 15% more productive, right? Are you working on two or more monitors yet? I keep visiting lots of companies and am suprised to see how many companies force their workers to use small, low-resolution, single monitor setups. They are literally throwing 5% productivity down the drain. For what? A $1,000 per worker savings? It gets worse when we’re talking about software developers who have to wait minutes for their companies’ code to compile (I’ve seen so many horror stories here it isn’t funny).
#23: If your best employees leave you might be in a bozo explosion.
#24: If you’re not allowed to write on your blog that you are in the middle of a bozo explosion you might be in the middle of a bozo explosion (hint: we don’t have such a rule at Microsoft).
But, back to #9. You knew I couldn’t resist, couldn’t you? Well, I personally think that a major company (IE, one with more than 1,000 employees) that only has ONE paid blogger IS potentially a bozo factory. I personally believe every employee should blog. But, then, I’m an edge case.

The asterisk is because my employee review goals show that I’m not paid to “only blog.” I’m facing 197 emails tonight (many of which don’t have anything to do with blogging). Tomorrow I’m going to Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Strategies conference in New York to speak. And, really, my “day job” is to do videos for Channel 9 anyway. I don’t look at that as blogging. Most of my blogging is done at nights and on weekends, so Microsoft gets blogging mostly for free. Who’s the bozo here? :-)

How can you get out of being in a bozo factory? I’m seeing some best practices:

1) Stop having meetings. Put a 23-year-old in charge and let her ship and get out of her way. At Microsoft that’s Sanaz Ahari (and Scott Isaacs and a few others who are just kicking butt). Or, have a “meeting dictator.” At Amazon Jeff Bezos is famous for coming into meetings and challenging the team who organized the meeting “give me the three reasons why we’re having a meeting.” If they can’t answer, he leaves. Hint: it isn’t good when Jeff Bezos leaves your meeting like that.
2) Have your development team over for Xbox and pizza instead of keeping them locked in their offices during ship nights. I watched Jeff Sandquist do this and his team has done magical stuff in just a few weeks. (You’ll see their work real soon now, it blew me away when I saw it last week. It’s amazing what three developers can do in less than a month).
3) Tell your development team to do something better than the competition. Anything. And then fund it. Expect it. I’ve been watching the Virtual Earth team under Steve Lombardi and have been impressed.
4) Listen to your blog’s commenters, even if it hurts. The IE team hasn’t had the public corner turn yet, but those guys respond to every customer’s request I’ve been getting. Often within minutes (you should see the email I get and pass along). At some point that’s gonna mean they get a killer new feature that you weren’t expecting. I remember one post they had had about 1,000 comments. Or visit the IE wiki. That was started by customers. Not done by a Microsoft employee and it’s watched often by the team.
5) If your team blogs, even when it has no customers, or worse, is derided by the community, you’re on your way off of the bozo explosion. Something interesting happens when you have a conversation with people about what they want. It focuses meetings and gets things going.
6) Get great competitors. Seriously. Stuck in a bozo explosion? Watch what happens when your competitors get rid of their bozos. Everyone notices and that pushes management into action. If they don’t, then you really know you’re on a bozo explosion and that’s a good opportunity to leave.
7) Keep people from changing the spec. A few teams at Microsoft are developing by using scrum (an agile development process where you lock down the requirements for a month and keep people from changing them while you “sprint” to complete that work) and are seeing great results. One manager told me this transformed how they worked and got stuff done.
8) Reward good work. Publicly. With cash. Nothing will get more good people to want to join your team. Nothing.

How do you know you’re in a Bozo explosion? Have you been in a company that successfully has gotten out of it?

Blog Herald doesn’t understand why full-text feeds work

For the past couple of months Blog Herald has been subtly attacking me. I thought it was just one of those suckups trying to bait me to link to them but today I saw the real reason for Duncan’s tone: he thinks I don’t want him or anyone else to make money off of content (that link takes you to his post titled: Steve Rubel doesn’t get it: RSS advertising sucks).

He’s wrong about my views, but he’s not the only one (I was forwarded some email from a private mailing list where some of the participants skewered me in the same way that Blog Herald just did but in a more personal way — all because I want full-text feeds).

Ahh, I see Kent Newsome sees through Duncan’s post.

So, let’s get to it: what are my views?

1) That I won’t subscribe to any feed that isn’t full text. Well, except for my brother’s blog.
2) That treating RSS readers well will get you more Web browser readers.
3) That full-text sites will be more profitable because of this than partial-text sites.

So, let’s look at the world of RSS. First, you MUST separate the world into two buckets:

1) The way they are today.
2) The way we want them to be tomorrow.

Personally I want a world where everyone uses a feed reader and subscribes to their favorite blogs, news sites, etc. But let’s be honest. Such a world is a LONG way from being here. We could go into the reasons, but that’s for another post at another time. Let’s not rathole on this.

Instead, let’s look at how things are TODAY. Today only a very small percentage of people use RSS and RSS News Aggregators. Even if you include the people who don’t have any clue that they are using RSS (like those people who use live.com or MyYahoo to subscribe).

The reason RSS advertising doesn’t work today is:

1) The audiences are too small.
2) The audiences are too geeky and too full of smart people. Hint, those people don’t click on advertisements unless they are very targetted!

Now when I talk with audiences I see two trends: 1) Blog-heavy audiences, like the Northern Voice conference, have about 80% usage of RSS News Aggregators (these audiences do NOT represent the mainstream user). 2) Blog-lite audiences, like Ireland’s IT@Cork conference, only see about 2% RSS usage (these are far more mainstream — in fact, I’d argue that the mainstream user is far less likely to use RSS than that. Heck, if you really want to get mainstream, only about 1/6th of the world’s population even uses a computer).

But, now, how do you get traffic to visit your content? Well, I’ve been studying that too. There are a few ways:

1) Get your content listed on a news site with a lot of flow. Something like Yahoo or Google or MSN’s news page. Not many of us have access to that. With one exception that I’ll note below.
2) Get a journalist with a lot of flow to link to you. When the New York Times links to you you’ll get lots of flow.
3) Get lots of bloggers to link to you. I do get lots of flow when lots of bloggers link to me.
4) Get the memetrackers like Digg, Memeorandum, TailRank, Slashdot etc to link to you.

Yeah, there are probably others, but in terms of buckets of how you get traffic, these are the major ones.

OK, you might be reading my words in an RSS aggregator, right? What happens when you click on a link? It takes you to a Web browser, right?

Ahhh! That’s how you can make money!

Aside, there are at least three ways content owners today make money off of advertising:

1) Show a banner ad when you visit the page (the content owner gets paid everytime you visit that page. For instance, I just went to cnn.com and there’s a banner ad there and they probably got a few cents from my visit.
2) Click-to-pay advertising. You see all those Google ads all over the place? Chris Pirillo’s blog, for instance, has Google ads (so does Blog Herald). These sites only get paid if you actually click on the advertising. For instance, some of the words you click on can be worth up to $60 PER CLICK to Google and other advertising companies (like Mortgages). 
3) Interruptive advertising. News.com uses a lot of these kinds of ads. They are Flash movies that fly over the page, or pop up, or run across the page until you click their close or “skip” buttons. These are also paid by impression, or everytime you load the browser up. 

Anyway, back to traffic. To get it, first you should appease the connectors. Er, the bloggers, the journalists, and the geeks.

You see, when I get together with journalists their RSS usage is WAY WAY WAY higher than the rest of the population. Journalists are like me. They sift through lots of information looking for the gems for their readers. That’s how they build audiences. RSS lets people read about 10 times the amount of content than if you just use a Web browser. That’s why journalists, connectors, bloggers, geeks who care about productivity, etc use RSS. It’s also why advertising in RSS isn’t yet working. These people aren’t good targets for loosely-targetted advertising.

Here’s a question: if you were an advertising company, what advertisement would you put into this post? One for diapers? Digital cameras? RSS aggregators?

Most of the algorithms for advertising would just look at the words I typed. So, now you’ll get ads for all the above. Loosely-targetted. This isn’t like going to a search engine and actively searching for, say, digital camera info, and getting a Nikon advertisement. Geeks, connectors, journalists LIKE that kind of advertising. But we don’t like interruptive styles of advertising. Which is what we get in RSS feeds today.

So, how does anyone make any money?

Well, let’s stay in TODAY’S world. In today’s world you get journalists, geeks, bloggers, connectors, to read your content and link to it. That’ll bring a larger audience to visit your Web page. How do you do that? Serve out full-text RSS. Why? Cause by doing that you treat the connector with the most possible respect and give him/her the easiest way to consume your content and link to it.

Then you put advertising on your page. That could be a banner ad. That could be a Google AdSense block (or Yahoo or MSN’s equivilent). Or you could even be really rude and put a Flash ad interstitial (I’ve seen more and more of this kind of “interruptive” advertising). Or, you could get really creative like Honda did and create advertising people will link to as content itself.

Since only a small percentage of your audience will be using RSS (even if you’re a tech blogger, less than half of your audience will be using RSS on the average day) you’ll make money.

Now, the fear is that the model will go away tomorrow thanks to RSS being built into IE 7, Safari, Firefox, Opera and other browsers. Whoa! Alert, alert, if that happens that means the unwashed masses won’t be seeing your interstitial Flash advertisements anymore, or refreshing your banner ads, or seeing your Google AdSense blocks.

OK, in such a world advertising will have to change. But, let’s be honest, what percentage of people will use RSS in such a world? I’d argue that it’ll be a small percentage for a very long time. My mom just doesn’t read enough sites to care about RSS. I doubt she will until she gets into blogging (which is possible, but I don’t expect it anytime soon).

Plus, what makes the usage model of reading a Web page in an aggregator so different from reading it in a browser window? Why couldn’t Google put the same AdSense block into RSS that it puts next to Chris Pirillo’s content, for instance? Oh, wait, Google is already doing that.

But, that’s also ratholing in an argument that really deserves its own post.

What people who say that full-text RSS hurts their advertising possibilities don’t get is that if you treat connectors, bloggers, journalists better, you’ll get MORE audience to your Web pages, which will get you more advertising hits.

Or am I missing something here? Either way, you can call me all the names you want, but I won’t subscribe to partial text feeds. Yes, I’m more likely to link to Web pages that also serve full-text feeds out. But don’t mistake my demand that my content providers treat me better with some theory that I don’t want them to make money. That simply isn’t true and represents the worst of “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” kind of anti-change thinking. If you want to make money in this new world you are far more likely to do so by working with your best customers to find new ways to build audiences and serve better advertising toward them.

The one exception above? The folks who run Yahoo, MSN, and Microsoft’s main pages are heavy users of RSS. Why? Cause they are paid to find the best content. If they aren’t using RSS aggregators today I’d argue they should be fired. Why? Cause they aren’t being as productive as someone else (I can prove that an editor who reads content in an RSS aggregator is far more productive than someone who only uses a Web browser).

But, what do you think? Are content providers going to gain anything to tell connectors, journalists, bloggers to screw off?

PS: Dave Winer has an interesting post this morning on why formats like RSS 2.0 work.

Back to my passions

Hey, Guy, how come you haven’t invited me over for breakfast? I thought you were my friend! :-)

Seriously, though, if you’re a company or a blogger and want a link, you don’t need to suck up. Just go to my comment and post your freaking URL along with a pitch of why your blog, software, new idea, etc rocks. But more on that in a bit.

Anyway, this weekend was really incredible. Our party was just over the top.

I find myself asking “now what?”

I’m asking myself what’ll get me excited to get out of bed tomorrow. Thanks to Rick Segal for putting that question in my head (he took Patrick and I out for sushi and we spent a bit of time talking life and technology).
Passion. It’s coming up in lots of conversations.

Today I had lunch with the team from Ether.com. I’m not allowed to say what they showed me, but I saw the fire in their eyes (that’s program manager Ron Hirson on left, and developer and co-founder Scott Faber on right). The passion for building something that changes the world. If you’re someone who sells your time and want a new way to do that (like, say, a lawyer does) then you should sign up for their beta.

I love that passion! It’s why I love hanging out with geeks. People who build things. People who put it all on the line. Who risk everything for an idea.

We need more people like that. Enough talking about me. Who’s the geek sitting tonight in a dark room typing code into a keyboard and hitting F5 to see how much further they’ve gotten in their dreams?

But, back to the Guy Kawasaki post: why suck up to anyone? If you are good, people will notice. They’ll stand in line overnight to buy your product. Word will get around. All you need is a few people to kick it off (and they don’t need to be the A list either).

I get bummed out when I hear people assume that getting me (or other A listers, or even someone who really has huge influence like Walt Mossberg or Steven Levy) to write about them will make their company.

Here’s a little secret: want to get me passionate about something? Get every single person in my life passionate about it.

Why did I return my Cingular aircard and buy a Verizon EVDO one? Cause my friends were passionate. My readers were passionate. And they were right. At Oakland my Cingular card would barely work. Verizon has five bars here and is fast, fast, fast.
Why did I try CoComment? It’s not cause Laurent took me skiing. Well, that helped. But I started hearing about CoComment from other people at the LIFT conference. Laurent didn’t come to the “A list” first. He just was passing them out to anyone. Passion. It’s not about sucking up.

It’s about being so excited by what you’ve built that you’ll tell anyone. Remember Flickr? Two years ago Stewart Butterfield was so excited that he was just pulling anyone who would listen aside at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference and showing them his stuff. That passion won me over as a customer and continues winning me over to this day. (Although he better watch out, cause Albert Lai of Bubbleshare is even more passionate than Stewart was!).

So, don’t suck up, get excited!

PS: are you excited about something you’ve built? Just post it here. Don’t send me email. If you send me email your excitement might get lost in my inbox. 133 emails to go.

The flattening of the press world

A dirty little secret about PR: they give certain press “exclusives” to try to get the story out better. This still goes on all the time. Why does Walt Mossberg or Steven Levy write about something before everyone else does? Cause PR types work with them to build trust, build relationships, and then reward that trust with an exclusive.

Trouble is that the world of PR is changing. Back in the 1980s you only needed to deal with a few people to get the message out. But now a kid sitting in Australia with only a handful of readers can go from obscurity to the front page of the New York Times in, what, 48 hours? (I’ve seen pretty much just that happen).

Now every single one of us has the power to have “the exclusive.” It really is messing with PR team’s heads as they try to deal with this new world of 20,000,000 people who can make or break your PR plans. It was so much easier back when you only needed to deal with a few hundred or less.

What am I talking about? Well, look at Ed Bott’s article in ZDNet. There are two forces arguing these issues inside of Microsoft. I’m here at the Blog Business Summit’s editorial meeting and I’m hearing stories of the same thing playing out all over the place. “Do we treat bloggers as press?” If so, how?

Are we seeing the death of the exclusive? I hope so. That’s what I’m fighting for. The “Z list” should have access to info as soon as the “A list” does.

I just want NDA rules that apply the same to everyone. What do you think?

Update: Chris Pirillo writes that the scoop no longer exists. Oh, Chris, we all want credit for our work! But, he’s right. To me it’s just “are you part of the conversation?” Do you want to be and are you being locked out? Then let’s fix that!

Joel warns entrepreneurs

This is a good warning for entrepreneurs. Think that getting talked about on blogs is a good thing? Joel Spolsky says that this could work against you (talks about 30 Boxes that I found interesting). I don’t agree with Joel’s thesis that people only give companies one chance, but you could have guessed that.

That just hasn’t been proven by history. Lots of products sucked on the first version and then later on went on to be great businesses. Both Macintosh 1984 edition and Windows 1.0 sucked raw eggs, for instance.

It took my dad at least 50 tries before he switched from AltaVista to Google. He thought Google sucked raw eggs when he first saw it.

I found this comment pretty funny, though: “So people aren’t really building calendars to sell to people like me who need calendars: they’re building calendar companies to sell to Yahoo!, which, for some reason, has given up on the old concept of hiring programmers to write code, and is going with this new age concept of buying entire companies on the hopes that they might contain a good programmer or two, which, by the way, is a sure sign of trouble for a technology company.”

I keep hearing that companies like these are built to flip, but when you talk with entrepreneurs in this space, they tell me that’s not their motivation. Now, of course if someone comes and waves a check in their face I’m sure they’ll at least sit down and talk, but that doesn’t seem to be driving the folks behind 30 folders (I asked, believe me!)

Truth is big companies don’t acquire companies unless they have something useful. Believe me, I’m pushing to get a few companies acquired and it’s REALLY HARD. There’s one company that a group of us have been pushing to get acquired and we’ve been working on that for more than a year.

If you really want to get acquired you better be prepared to go it all the way by yourself first. In fact, what makes an acquisition more likely? One thing: a growing pool of passionate customers.

There’s nothing that gets executives at big companies excited more. (Look at the other acquisitions Yahoo has made, for instance. Del.icio.us. Flickr. Or look at the ones Google has made. Google Earth. Picasa. They all had growing pools of passionate customers/users).

More commentary on Joel’s post is linked to over on Memeorandum.