How Microsoft Builds Community
During the Visual Studio .NET Launch February 13 at VSLive! 2002 in San Francisco, Markus Egger and David Stevenson of Component Developer Magazine interviewed a panel of Microsoft personnel about the concept of developer communities.In this free-ranging discussion, we learned how Microsoft desires to support and encourage the growth inside developer "ecosystems" by focusing considerable resources on "community outreach.
CoDe: We are meeting today with Eric Ewing, Community Manager; Susanne Peterson, Community and Partner Programs in the Developer and Platform Evangelism Division; Rob Copeland, Product Unit Manager for Visual Basic; and Alan Griver, newly-hired Lead Program Manager/Evangelist for Visual Basic .NET.
I don't want this to be so much a formal interview as much as just a free-ranging discussion on this whole concept of community. It would be helpful if we had some kind of introductory information from someone here, probably Eric, on the initiative you are working on in building developer communities.
EE: Something I often use when talking about our community efforts is from Tom Button, Vice-President of the Developer and Platform Evangelism Division. He often talks about the developer ecosystem, and when I think of ecosystem, for some reason I always go back to sixth-grade science class, when we all had terrariums. You had the glass dome over it and some soil, and I really think it's a good metaphor for the developer community and what we do. Because, of course, the goal is to have a self-sustaining environment where things grow and they're healthy. It takes just the right amount of water and the right amount of nourishment.
So really, our challenge as a company, I think, is to figure out the delicate balancing act of what we need to put into the environment to make that growth happen. Because, you can do too much, you can do too little; you can overdo it and stifle things. We sometimes have a reputation for having a big stick, so with our community efforts, we just want developers to have the resources that they need and feel that they have the freedom and the power to build the kind of applications they want and to share the ideas they want to share and not have Microsoft be in the way.
So let's answer your question, "Is there one group that is driving the community initiative?"
AG: The answer is "Yes." It's every group, basically. If the question is, "Where does it fit in the Microsoft organization chart," the answer is, "Yes. Every group, every division, every floor..."
CoDe: Since when is that the case?
EE: Interestingly enough, I've been with the company for 10 years and I was in a group called Community Relations or Community Marketing seven years ago. So, the fact that the word has come back in a big way is kind of like a second wave, but there are always people who have been focused on the community. There is new stuff, like Alan coming on board, and so on, to focus on .NET developers, but people like Rob Howard and Sara Williams have always been a sustaining force.
Sara is on the .NET Framework team and her team started a Web site called GotDotNet, which is a resource for developers?not only to learn about .NET, but also to share ideas and so on. Rob is on the ASP.NET team and two years ago, he started working with book publishers to make sure their authors were getting the education they need. So there is always some sustaining effort, but there is some new structure now, with people like Alan coming on board to make sure Microsoft is in the trenches with developers.
CoDe: So this new structure that you are talking about?when did that structure begin to take form?
EE: It's been a really long time - Two weeks ago, a month ago, when Alan got hired (laughing)...
RC: Well, actually, it's been kind of building. Steve Ballmer had this approach where he wanted the entire company to spend a lot more time and energy focusing on our customers and not only our products. You are right that we have focused on both things, but he was kind of driving us to step up our efforts on focusing on customers and listening to them, interacting with them, and getting to know them?and having the customers get to know us.
CoDe: Are we talking about building a .NET community, or lots of individual communities, like Visual Basic .NET, Visual C#.NET, and so on?
AG: For the most part, the people of a community define what they are. So, people think of themselves as Visual Basic developers, C# developers or ASP.NET developers. Yes, there are some cross-language questions that come up, and that is one of the reasons that we decided to have the weekly meeting of all the community leads. But, the truth is that people think of themselves by the language they prefer to code with, and they go to sites based on the language they want to code with.
CoDe: So there is not a Visual Studio .NET community that will develop?
AG: It would be like saying there is an XML Web service community, right? I don't think there is an XML Web service community. I think people are interested in creating XML Web services in Visual Basic .NET and in Visual C# .NET, and if they have that question, they will go to ASP.NET if they think of themselves mainly as ASP developers, or to the Microsoft Visual Basic newsgroups if they're Visual Basic developers...
EE: But there will be user groups, like the Bay Area .NET user group here, that cover all areas of .NET technologies and development tools. So, there are some umbrella organizations, but there are people within that group who define themselves as "I'm a Visual Basic developer, I'm a this, I'm a that..."
AG: And when they have a meeting, very often, I'm sure, they will have someone come out and do a C#-based presentation, or a Visual Basic-based presentation...
SP: But the audience may span the whole .NET range of technologies and languages.
CoDe: Where would you say the key places are in the Visual Basic community?
AG: It depends. From a newsgroup perspective, the microsoft.public.languages.dotnet.vb is one and devx is another. Those are the key newsgroup areas. There are a number of different websites. In fact, I'm hoping to work on a Visual Basic .NET section of the GotDotNet site in April, so hopefully, that will become cool resource that is available.
Additionally, there are places that are really geared towards communities, like the Universal Thread, and we are focusing some on that as well. It's a great third-party site that really promotes a community atmosphere with pictures of people, so that's another place we're working in.
CoDe: What about the current Visual Basic 6.0 community? Where are they going to go if they cannot move to .NET immediately?
RC: I think the Visual Basic 6.0 community will stay around for a long, long time. We will have people who participate there just as we do today and we will continue to support them. I think it is a very viable community and will be supported...
EE: I have an example of a Visual Basic community called VBCity.com that just launched VBCity.NET?the domain name is .NET and it will be focused on Visual Basic .NET. I think it's going to be interesting to watch and see: will there be two different (Microsoft) people playing in the two different communities? Is this the right thing to do? There will be lots of Visual Basic 6.0 developers for a long time and chances are, they are wanting to interact with the other ones, too. So, there are some situations out in the world where ... we'll see.
CoDe: Is www.asp.net a Microsoft-owned site?
AG: Yes. So, the ASP community?that's where they go. The C# community is GotDotNet, csharp.org, csharp-corner.com. So, every language has places where things kind of grouped naturally and the community went there, or for some of the newer things, Microsoft can say, "Here," and as the community grows up there, it becomes a natural place to go.
EE: My efforts actually focus on the third-party communities. Yesterday, I hosted a briefing for about 15 of the top developer resource sites. In one way, it was just part of the celebration, because they have been as responsible as anyone for building .NET enthusiasm, so we wanted them to be with us here at the launch. But, also we wanted to be sure they are educated about future product plans and we wanted to get feedback from them for some product-planning ideas we have.
So, we spent the entire day yesterday with people like Jonathan Goodyear of angrycoder.com, Serge Baranovsky from Washington, who has VBCity.com, and folks from DEVX were there. So, really the whole range of people who run a website in their free time, to DEVX, which is really the largest. It's super important to us that not only are we having people participating in their forums, but that as a company we are giving them the education they need about our technologies and our direction, and promotional opportunities.
AG: We are trying to help people and we want people to understand in the developer community (which is close to my heart), that their issues are heard and we want to have a conversation about it. It's not just one-way with us putting information out there (and we put a lot of information out there?MSDN weekly just has a ton of whitepapers and chats and things like that), but the interesting question is "How do you get that information to people effectively? Is there a way you can find people where they are and let them know, here is what is geared towards you?" That is something that is very important.
And also, there is the reverse, where we are getting information from the community and bringing it into our development efforts and into our products, so we can answer our customers' needs.
CoDe: I was talking with Eric Rudder last night and I want to pick up on a comment he made about the 20 percent community number. I don't know if it is an official Microsoft policy for his division?what can you tell me about that?
RC: I don't know how to answer about "is it an official Microsoft policy," but what I can say is that it is Eric's goal for his division that 20 percent of our resources are aimed at doing community-type efforts. That's people resources, time resources, money resources?it's actually a combination of all of those things to really beef up and improve on what we've already got. It is an official Eric Rudder policy that we will spend significant resources focused on community-building efforts.
AG: And I am one of the outcomes of that policy.
RC: We have a lot more dedicated resources. As Alan pointed out, he is dedicated to this. On the Visual C# .NET and Visual C++ .NET teams, we have dedicated people, where we have never had someone whose job is to do this before.
CoDe: What is included with Eric Rudder's division?
AG: He is the Senior Vice President for the Developer and Platform Evangelism Division?which includes Visual Studio .NET.
CoDe: Twenty percent is an enormous amount...
EE: You might have heard Eric say something significant about the CDDG. The CDDG (the Content Development and Delivery Group), is responsible for Microsoft.com, MSDN, Microsoft Press, and our Certification and Education team. They span all Microsoft technologies, and that group actually was merged under Eric Rudder because of how important it is?developers are probably the hungriest constituency for information from Microsoft. So, it made sense to put this under the group that has the highest need. The fact that all of our communication vehicles now report up to the head of the Developer and Platform Evangelism Division is really significant.
SP: Not only that, but they also have dedicated community people, who are just doing amazing work with the community. It's a very cross-team effort.
AG: When I started three weeks ago, the minute they made the internal announcement saying, "Meet Alan Griver?he's our Visual Basic community guy," suddenly, I got tons of email saying, "Hey, I'm a community person, too." So we are all getting together and exchanging ideas, like the idea of having a topical newsgroup blast. We are trying that first, but there are already other groups saying, "Hey, that's a great idea and we're gonna try it, too."
Anything that works immediately kind of becomes part of the biology of the company and everyone starts doing it?it's really a fascinating thing.
RC: People now feel compelled... I was just thinking about that 20 percent number. You just see how it grows when one team decides to do whatever program it is and others start to build on it and do it themselves...
SP: INETA (International .NET Association) is a really good example of that, because Eric talked to Bill (Evjen)?Bill brought the proposal for INETA and it looked great, and so now, do you know how many teams are supporting it in a very short period of time? It was just an amazing thing to watch.
AG: One thing Microsoft is very good at is this kind of "viral learning" where someone does something well and suddenly all these emails go out to different groups, saying, "Hey, just wanted you to see what's going on here," and it hits another email alias and another, and suddenly it's spread throughout the company.
Every product meeting is like, "what can we do for the community with this product?" or "what is the community expecting from this product?" It has become a regular type of question.
CoDe: You are speaking from the perspective of three weeks, right?
AG: It has actually changed over the three weeks. When I came aboard, Eric Gunnerson was doing it for Visual C# .NET, but he had not been officially appointed yet. It just happened so quickly.
SP: It's really more about dedicated resources, because the truth is that it is ongoing?people have been doing community work, but it wasn't necessarily their official title. Everyone knows how important it is...
RC: And having the dedicated people is what causes the viral effect you were talking about. That's their job now, so they just go out and start doing things and everyone else just latches on.
EE: Having the dedicated resources does have real, tangible benefits, too. I just had a meeting with a training company... they said, "Eric, before you and Stacey were on the scene, we couldn't even figure out who to ask questions of at Microsoft." So, the fact that there is a dedicated resource there makes a huge impact. Microsoft has become such a large company that people don't always know where to go to find out the information they need.
CoDe: This move toward community building?is that a U.S. effort, or does the same thing happen internationally?
SP: We're a global company...
AG: I talk regularly with someone who is from Australia, and I never talk with her more than five minutes without her saying, "OK, how do we roll this out internationally?"
CoDe: Where do user groups fit into this? Obviously, there is INETA now. Is that going to become your primary way of relating to user groups, or is that just an alternative route to user groups?
EE: It is actually going to be a primary way... we still have the MSDN User Group program?Kevin Briody runs that?basically, a user group registers and they get a "care package" from Microsoft. But, INETA is really going to be the number one way to get fantastic "canned" content, to get the Speaker's Bureau, which I think is going to be the most valuable thing that INETA will offer.
We are working closely with them to target celebrity developer speakers. We all know speakers out there who are just fantastic already, but a lot of people would appreciate the opportunity to have some media training and PR training, so we will make those opportunities available to the INETA Speaker's Bureau.
Actually, I have a vision for kind of an "open content" site?a place where people can collaborate on presentations, whitepapers and things like that, and that really will be the INETA site.
CoDe: Is there anything else you want to add?
EE: Our sales and marketing team is very good and I think people have the perception that the company is run by marketers, but it's still run by developers. We have some of the best developers in the world at Microsoft.
CoDe: Thank you all so much for your time.