Author Archives: Tobint

Actualization and Collaboration

When I came to Microsoft over 5 years ago, I was lucky enough to find a side project to work on with some really smart people who, to this day, I consider to be my closest confidants at the company — Erik Porter and Ernie Booth. I can’t get into details entirely about the project except to say that many of our innovations and ideas can now be seen across the company in various forms such as the Kinect,  customizable 3D avatars in Xbox consoles, and some stuff in Bing maps that was added and later removed.  The project started off with Ernie and Erik discussing a project they had in mind. When I spoke with Erik about an idea I had, he felt there were similarities that could benefit and he introduced me to Ernie. We worked very well together as a trio. Ernie served as the optimist of the group, I the pessimist and Erik the neutral party. We worked late into the evenings talking about our ideas day in and day out. Shortly before submissions were due, we decided to put a Think Week paper together on our work. For those of you unfamiliar with Think Week., here is what Bill Gates says about the process:

Right now, I’m getting ready for Think Week. In May, I’ll go off for a week and read 100 or more papers from Microsoft employees that examine issues related to the company and the future of technology. I’ve been doing this for over 12 years. It used to be an all-paper process in which I was the only one doing the reading and commenting. Today the whole process is digital and open to the entire company.

We hastily put our research into an organized format, captured some screen shots, itterated a few times and prepared to submit our paper. As it happened, the submission deadline for the Think Week paper fell the day after there were massive wind storms and widespread power outages across the PacNW (including Microsoft campus) that made travel nearly impossible. We managed to find the one building with network access, huddled in the hallway and submitted our paper together. We hoped that we would at least get some comment of validation for our work and we walked away knowing that Mr. Gates would not be reading our papers for at least a few weeks.

Imagine my surprise when I got a voicemail from Erik one afternoon proclaiming that Mr. Gates had commented and I needed to read it and call him.

We were suprised that Mr. Gates read our paper and responded quite early — several weeks before his actual “Think Week”. He only did this on a few papers. His feedback was not only positive, it was glowingly positive and filled us with hope and confidence.

Ernie, Erik and I continued to collaborate and we used the positive feedback we had received from our hero to gain us meetings with several executives in the company. We were on a roll.  I was sent as a representative of Microsoft to a few standards meetings, conferences, etc. We continued pitching our ideas to several parts of the company. Xbox, Windows,  Silverlight/Expression,  Bing/Virtual Earth, Microsoft Games, Office and even our own HR department. We continued refining and adding to our pitch. We took internal courses that helped us learn how to better present our ideas. We learned how to use third parties who could act as our “insider” to help us refine and then pitch to our target audience. We gathered support from any place we could get it and even got some significant  funding for hardware, software and the like. Somewhere in the bowels of the data center lie three servers that were purchased for us.  We filed over a dozen patents in and around our ideas. We worked with Microsoft research and anyone who had even a remote relationship with what we had planned.

I can’t speak for Erik and Ernie but I was, as psychologists Goldstein and Maslow might say, self-actualized — firing on all cylinders, energized, pumped and primed for rapid advancement.

Flash forward to today. I am working at MSDN. I love the people here. I get along well with everyone. However, we all have our own goals and none of them are tied together in a meaningful , day-to-day way. We have no means to energize each other. Each of us have our own tasks. I have no one to bounce ideas off of and to receive their input which in turn will further accelerate another’s thinking.  This is what I’m missing. People who I can work with on a day-to-day basis and work on ideas, then capture them in a document.

I’ve been thinking about how to manufacture that feeling again. I want to collaborate with the community on how to work on my next generation of MSDN News. But I’m afraid even that may be difficult as I’m sure no one or two individuals could meet on a regular basis each day. I’d appreciate any thoughts from the community about how I can collaborate in a meaningful way.

Metro Bus, I think I love you. But I wanna know for sure.

Most of my life, I have disliked riding the bus. “Dislike” doesn’t really capture the feeling. It’s more like, a deep loathing. Growing up in my small rural town west of Pittsburgh, riding the bus to my elementary or middle school usually entailed waiting for what seemed like forever at the bus stopwhile engaging in mischief with others and getting into the fairly-regular fight with one of the neighborhood kids — sometimes the bullies and sometimes your own friends. Sure, there was the occasional game of “touch” football that you got to partake in, if by “touch” you mean full-contact, sorry-about-the-stitches, boy-that-parking-lot-managed-to-give-you-a-lot-of-road-rash and the like. Due to these goings on, I tended to walk to school a good bit. It was 0.5 miles to walk to my elementary school with a bus stop about the same distance away. It seemed to make sense that I could avoid the wait at the bus stop and use that time to walk. By the time I switched to my middle school a mile away, I didn’t think twice — I just walked. And thus began my dislike for buses.

Flash forward to my adult life. When I flew into a city, I always rented a car. Taking public transportation was out of the question for me. It was a bus, a train, or anything of the sort really made me feel ill. I hated flying but considering I couldn’t simply skip the “stop” and walk to my destination, I had to grin and bear it. In April of 2009, I decided for the first time in my life that I was flying to a city where I didn’t want to have to drive. I flew into Philadelphia for the Philly.NET code camp to give a presentation on Domain-specific languages and to spend some time with my cousins working/teaching at UPenn. I got off the flight, grabbed my bag and headed for the train into town. Expecting the dreaded feeling, I instead felt this immediate sense of freedom. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to park my car, how safe it would be, how I would negotiate the nights festivities spent out while  leaving my car and having to find my way back to it later. I was free to go wherever the transit could take me. For the first time in my life, I picked up a few train and bus schedules and I was in perfect bliss. Of course, my cousin Donna Ann found this very amusing as she’s been using transportation of this sort for some time.

In that same year, I had moved back to my home town temporarily to help my parents while they recovered from consecutive knee replacement surgeries. It was a good time for me to spend with family after some messy personal business. When I decided to move back to the Seattle area, I gave my parents my truck. In part it was because it was getting old and wasn’t worth shipping across the country again. In other sense I felt I could use the exercise a bike and the occasional walk would provide. But I also remembered that sense of freedom from a vehicle that I was looking forward to achieving again. I arrived in Redmond and didn’t have a car. I immediately purchased a bike and some basics and started walking and riding everywhere. I told myself that I might buy a car but only after I lost 20 pounds. I lost 22 pounds in about three weeks. I also rode the bus everywhere my bike or legs wouldn’t reasonably carry me in the time I had available. I found it fascinating how many new places I found to eat that I didn’t even know existed. The pace of life slowed considerably and I was ecstatic about that. I was in no rush to get anywhere. There was no stress of burning gas while being stuck in traffic. I could sit on the bus and read or surf the web on my phone while the bus driver did all the work.

Then I bought a car. I didn’t it mostly convincing myself I’d just use it for those random trips to places where a bus, my bike or my legs weren’t practical. Of course, none of this turned out to be true. About a month after getting my car, I started dating the most amazing woman I have ever met in my life. That’s no exageration. To this day, two years later, my heart mealts just to hear her voice on the phone. I’d do anything for her. Of course, that means I drive everywhere with her. We go to Seattle to watch the opera or catch a comedy show at the Paramount or just to stroll along Alki “beach”. My days of more primitive transportation were pretty much done.

A few weeks ago, I got a bug in my ass to start saving as much money as I could. I also wanted to use more common sense means of getting around. Using my car to transport me the measly 4 miles each way to work burned more gas than was really worth it. Parking my car in my parking garage at home is a pain too. Once you lose one of the good (read: wide) spots in my garage, you’re stuck trying to force your way into spots that were made only to satisfy Redmond requirements for parking spots per capita and not really to fit a real car into. Since I got home at strange times of the day, I could never guarantee that I would get a good spot and that just made me want to stay home once I got in each day from work.

One of my old housemates who lives in the building next door to mine asked me if I wanted to hop a bus to Kirkland and go for a walk down by Marina Park one day. I thought it would be fun and I wanted to catch up with my old friend so we did. It suddenly dawned on me that the “bus thing” was still an option. I decided to start taking it. I started taking it this past week everywhere that it made sense to. I’ve taken the bus to the gym, from the gym to work, to work from home, and from work to home. Most of this, of course, is without cost to me since Microsoft provides us with an Orca card for our travel many of those trips are covered with the card. I think I love this “bus thing” all over again.

Of course, I live on the “east side” of Lake Washington where the bus is pretty tame. I can’t say that a bus trip in West Seattle would be nearly as calming or enjoyable. I even got a small taste of that the other day in Bellevue. As I was getting ready to board the bus, a woman coming down the stairs yelled “This is FUCKING STUPID!” As she stood about 6 inches from my face. Being a contrarian her sentiments were shared by me — if only I had understood the target of her angst, I might have agreed with her! The woman was clearly not right in the head as her eyes darted around a bit and she wandered off muttering to herself. I boarded the bus only to see everyone looking at me inquisitively as if I was going to be able to explain what happened. Not wanting to let them down, I said “Wait, am I getting on in Bellevue, or on the west side?” This was met with laughter — the approval I was looking for before I could sit. Then I realized, of course, that this person who just exited the bus may have left a “present” in the seat as often happens in public transport. I opted to stand instead. Hmm. The downsides to the bus came screaming back.

Metro Bus, I think I love you, but I wanna know for sure! Tell me about your crazy public transportation stories.

#MIX11 Day 2 Impressions

Yesterday was the second official day of the MIX11 conference. It was quite clear from the audience reaction that the second keynote was far more interesting and appreciated than day 1. There was an energy in the air that was palpable.

Customers seemed to love each and every part of the keynote — from the virtual 3D ScottGu to the Blue Angels web site being developed in HTML5 and Silverlight. The applause was thundering. I encourage you to go check out the recorded keynote here:

I had a lot of fun talking with developers from all over the world about what they were working on, what they were interested in seeing at Mix and what they thought about the conference so far. I’m always amazed at how inventive our customers are with our software. More so, I’m always happy to see the passions that come out when geeks of various walks of life come together to talk about the field of software development.

I also had the opportunity to watch the Channel 9 booth live as Miguel de Icaza sparred with Scott Hanselman about open source development. The laughs were frequent but more importantly, I think developers had the opportunity to see different views on the same community by both of these dynamic individuals.
I attended the “Future of Windows Phone 7″ presentation to see all of the fantastic features we are adding to the “Mango” release of Windows Phone 7. The list seemed endless. The presentation was literally an hour long presentation that listed the features of the phone that were coming up without much deep dive. From being able to take screen shots to having direct access to the hardware sensors, to the inclusion of new sensors, the list was amazing and should make for a great update to the Windows Phone 7 developer story.

Just as I did the day before, I spent breakfast speaking with developers about what they saw in the sessions the day before. Kevin Griffin said that he attended the Deep Dive into HTML5 and Graphics/3D with Silverlight 5. He said that he enjoyed it, but “it was like watching a DirectX or XNA 3D talk for the first time.” Apparently he felt the session level was misidentified as level 300 when the content was actually level 100. Kevin also said that the HTML5 Canvas discussion proved that it was “tedious to do cool stuff. We need good tooling in order to do that stuff right. Browser support is wonky.” He was referring to the disparity of support between each of the browsers. Of course I’ve known Kevin a long time and I couldn’t resist ribbing him about his new acquisition of a Windows Phone 7 device. He picked one up yesterday and just started learning to develop. I jokingly asked him what was taking him so long to develop his app. “Most good developers I know can have an app ready to submit to the marketplace within hours of getting their device. What’s your problem?”. Of course Kevin is no slouch and he immediately responded “well, I keep trying to use MSDN to learn how to develop my app — that might be my problem.” Yeah, Kevin can give the barbs as well as he can take them.

The MIX11 attendee party was apparently “successful” in all senses of the word last night. I was unfortunately unable to go as I’ve been sick all week. I took this opportunity to rest. Based on the looks of the crowd this morning, they didn’t let the party affect them too much. They all seem attentive.

I’m looking forward to this last day of presentations. However, the MIX11 experience doesn’t end when I get on my flight. We will all be able to “attend” the presentations at Mix online when the session recordings are posted at

Thanks for reading!

Day 1 #Mix11 Impressions — From the Customer

I had the opportunity to sit down with a number of MVPs last night and this morning at breakfast to discuss what they learned at the Mix conference on day one. I wanted to get a sense for what we were doing right and what we needed to improve upon. I thought I would share those thoughts with the public and ask for your input. If you are at the conference, feel free to find me and give me your feedback or leave a comment here and I’ll be glad to start a dialog with you.

Last night I spoke with Dave Ward in depth about his experience. He spoke overall positively about the conference. He said that the keynote wasn’t as exciting as he would have expected but he was overall really pleased with the conference. He attended a breakout session titled “50 ways to speed up your HTML.” He said that they actually covered 57 tips in the session time which is amazing. Dave said that the session was awesome and that he learned at least 2 or 3 things. I laughed and told him “You do realize that leaves you with about a 5% retention rate, right?” Of course he said that he knew a lot of the other things that were discussed but that he was overall very impressed with the quality of the session.

VanThis morning I had the opportunity to speak with Van Van Lowe about his experience with the conference. He said that he too was very happy with the conference and that Mix is his favorite. When I asked what he liked most about Mix that he didn’t see at PDC, he indicated that he enjoyed the web focus because he is a web developer. Strangely enough, I met Van at PDC 2010 while talking with Scott Hanselman. Needless to say this guy gets around to our conferences! Van attended the Orchard breakout session because he said that he has big plans to use Orchard. Van said that he got enough out of the session to get him started and that was basically the point.

I attended the Orchard Session yesterday as well. I was surprised how far this project has come since I blogged about it so long ago. I am good friends with a former developer, Erik Porter, and a current developer, Nathan Heskew, on the Orchard project. Talking with others who attended afterward, they seemed extremely pleased with the progress and many said “this is ready for prime time and it’s so much better than anything out there right now.” and “They’ve thought everything through.”

I’m looking forward to the Mix day 2 keynote just about to start now! See you there!

#Mix11 keynote rolling along.

Sitting in the darkness of the Mix11 keynote with only my Windows Phone 7 i can see the excitement around the IE presentation. We’ve seen some great IE9 demos and seen some hilarious videos. What will come next? The audience is watching intently as we just announced we are 3 weeks into the development of IE10. More to come.

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Why Didn’t You Come to Mix11?

As mentioned in my previous post, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of people — some on twitter, some in person and some even on my way to Mix — about why they didn’t come to Mix.

The responses from the community were very interesting. Of course, I received some very useful and some very comedic responses on twitter.

In response to my query about why some wouldn’t come to Mix, @ardalis responded, “You’re looking for a list of 6 billion people not going to MIX?”. Touché my friend. I wasn’t looking for EVERY reason some were not attending this year, I was looking to understand what regular conference-goers and community-influentials were not coming and why. Here are some of the main reasons I received:

I’m Working!
Many of the individuals who responded were too busy working to take time off and come to Mix. @brheal said “Wish I could be there! Always falls at the end of tax season (tax software developer).” I thought this was a one-off but I soon received another response from my friend @pmourfield who said “I wish that #MIX11 didn’t fall during the last week of tax season. So wishing I was able to be there!” Apart from tax software developers, others are just too involved with their clients. @mranlett said, “I didn’t make it to #MIX11 this year. Busy satisfying client needs & working on proposals for future work w/future clients.” And of course @dpenton stated that “I have too much work happening right now.” That’s completely understandable on all accounts. I wish you all could be here too.

It’s too Expensive
My friend @akcoder isn’t coming because, in his words, “I am not going because I’m saving my travel/conference budget for PDC.” It seems understandable that most of us have to pick and choose where we spend our money and pay for conferences where we see the most value for our needs. Yet another long-time friend and Microsoft MVP @sarajchipps told me “I’m not, because it is waaaay too expensive for an independent.” When pressed as to what value would be appropriate to make it not so expensive, Sara indicated “That’s a great question, I would want to go to talks and events… I could live without the food and amenities.” She went on “my budget is usually around $500 for a pass when it comes to conferences.” At further prompting and discussion amongst others in the community said “I’ve pretty much gone without MS conferences this year. Last year I was given a few passes, but $1500+ isn’t at all feasible.” It would appear that some of the independents are feeling the squeeze on financial resources. Of course @robwindsor had a solution “Mix should have something like TechEd Exhbit Hall pass ($100). Gets you into Commons and Connect lounge”. That’s a fair point and perhaps we can give that feedback to the folks running Mix. I have it from the rumor mill that Microsoft already loses money at the conferences, but you never know if something like this is possible. This seems to be overwhelmingly more important considering the number of responses in this category. @simonech said that he “cannot afford 2 flight[s] to the US in less than 2 months (been at mvp11)AND ticket + hotel/flight could be off budget for my company.” Truly we must all pick our battles. Response after response from this point forward seemed to point to the cost of the conference — either the cost of the conference itself, or the complete cost after hotel, flight, food, ground transport and of course the conference.

So why haven’t you come to the conference? Why did you come to Mix this year? What did you hope to get out of the conference? Alternatively, why didn’t you come this year? What is competing for your time/money? What would make the conference most valuable to you?

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned until later on this morning when I cover the keynote presentations!

I Have Arrived … At #Mix11 that is

I have just landed and got my bags rather quickly. I’m standing in a rather long line waiting for a cab in sweltering heat (comparatively speaking that is). I have been reading tweets from those who have been here and already joined in the excitement — from Scott Hanselman tweeting about his rehearsals to random conversations I started with those who couldn’t make it. The anticipation is killing me but one thing is for sure, I have arrived at Mix!! The cab line is filled with chatter about design, development and plans for a geek-long getaway. I brought my trusty Nikon D-7000 which at this point weighs a ton on my shoulder. I’ll be sure to put it to use and give you all regular updates. Stay tuned!
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On My Way to Mix11

Be on the lookout for new posts this week. OK, this is really a placeholder post for the “mix11” tag I just added. Move along now. Nothing to see here. 😉

PMing my Technical Skills: a guide to ramping back up technically speaking

I’ve been transitioning away from a solely technical skillset to a PM skillset at Microsoft for a while now. That said, I have found that personally, I prefer to still keep my technical chops. Why should I have to sacrifice one for the other? My love for the technical world should drive my passion for the PM role. In fact, I’ve now found that I’m using my PM skills to compliment my technical skills as well.  I don’t mean to say that I’ve applied all of the PM principals to my technical studying. However, I have realized that I inadvertently used those things I’ve learned in my PM career in a very lose way to help my technical skills.

Competitive Analysis

I like to see what other people are doing. Not just from a purely social standpoint, but also to understand what skills other’s find valuable and easy to use, and what skills are most common among everyone. I often also cruise the job boards (Microsoft Career Site,,,, etc). I tend to look in various places around the country just so I know if certain skills are hot in one area, but not in another. So, I composed a spreadsheet of available positions, skills required (soft and technical), optional skills, pay, benefits, region, etc. I don’t do this because I’m looking for work, I do this because by gathering enough information, I can find that jobs that require iPhone app development skills pay more than say, Silverlight development skills. Once I had this data, I could see what skills were most valued. This serves as a rudimentary competitive analysis or “potential performance” and represents part one of a good gap analysis.

Skill Inventory Assessment (actual performance)

Part two of creating a good gap analysis, involves determining your actual performance to compare against your potential performance. To do this, I find it useful to also look at what skills I have in my inventory, see where they intersect with my “potential performance” from above, and see if I somehow missed your other skills as potentially valuable in the market. So, I made another sheet in my spreadsheet to list skills that I had and the self-assessment level at which I rank myself. For any skills that I added which were not in my “competitive analysis”, I did further research to see if those skills were found in the job boards or on friends blogs, or anywhere that I could assign some value to the skill. I use this as a secondary sanity check for skills that I might need to beef up on. Once I had this done, I moved on to the actual gap analysis.

Gap Analysis

I compared the competitive analysis against the skill inventory assessment and came up with a reasonable gap analysis of skills that I either needed to improve or acquire, and a list of other skills that I had which I needed to deemphasize in my studies for the next year. This list represents the gap that I have between where I want to be and where I am – otherwise known as the gap.

Action Plan

Once I had a my gap analysis complete, I had to create a plan to get from point a to point b. I looked first at books. While many people don’t learn well from books and prefer other methods, I still prefer a good solid technical book at least to start, and then I move on to other resources. So, for each skill, I set out to collect a list of books for each skill area on amazon. To assess each book, I looked at the number of ratings, amazon ranking, average rating, release date, and a number of other factors (including glancing through the table of contents to see if I felt those skills would be adequately covered in the book. Once I had the list of books, I didn’t stop there. I created a new sheet in my Excel file for each book that I intended to purchase. I listed each chapter and it’s length so that I could determine how fast I could read each book – giving myself milestones to complete by certain dates for each book. I made sure to account for downtime, upcoming vacations, goofing off (all work and no play…), and various other factors to give me a reasonable burn down rate on my learning plan.

Prioritizing the Plan

This is one area I thought about for a while. I could simply make this all about money and learn the most valuable skills first. However, I like to have fun, and I have specific projects in mind where some of these skills could be put to good use. That said, I opted away from prioritizing in any way that would be meaningful to anyone else. I am my own customer and I think it’s fair to let me set my own priorities in this instance. For others, however, you might want to prioritize based on projects you have at your job, getting a specific job, or just for pure fun. The option is yours.

Metrics / Performance Analysis

I’ve set clear goals for what I want to accomplish and set a timeline for completion. I have milestones that can help me determine my progress and help me assess risks. I have a project calendar and a burn down chart. I stopped short of creating a project file or creating work items in TFS. I’ll just use my spreadsheet to keep me in check for now.


This obviously doesn’t represent solid PM work, but I realized after the fact that I had just done a great deal of the same type of work I would do when I start a real project. It’s easy to say that you need to pick either PM or Development, but I’m finding that skills from both disciplines can compliment themselves quite well.