4

Yesterday was my 4 year anniversary of starting at Microsoft. I can’t believe how quickly the years have gone by (I’m one year from getting my first tenure crystal at year 5!); it’s not infrequently that I feel I’m a fresh-out-of-university new hire or forget that I’m officially in the latter half of my twenties. But, occasionally, I get a chance to interact with the new hires or interns that are streaming through campus at this time of year, and I realize, despite the barely detectable growth, day after day, 4 years of it has resulted in a level of maturity and experience that is starkly different from where I was, immediately after university. Of course, there’s a humbling, infinite amount left to learn, as I look around myself.

The average tenure with a single employer is somewhere around 4.6 years (and 3.2 years, for those between 25-34 years of age). While my 4 years have all been spent at Microsoft, the type of work I’ve had the opportunity to experience over those years has spanned a huge range. All this was possible under the Program Management umbrella. In briefly reviewing my posting history, here, I noticed I haven’t really written about what it is I’ve done. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we typically work on confidential projects, but part of it is also that writing things down in the moment may be personally sensitive. With several years to look back on, here’s a brief summary of my time.

It all started with Office SharePoint. I was a feature Program Manager, working with a couple developers on multi-tenant SharePoint Online administration features. It was a far cry from what I’d originally wished for (UI design). SharePoint was the natural progression from my co-op, in the InfoPath team, which upon my return from graduating, had been folded into the SharePoint organization. And, I (think I) only found myself on the InfoPath team in the first place, because when asked to talk about a Microsoft user experience, I brought up the Ribbon. InfoPath hadn’t had the Ribbon menu facelift at the time, so I tell myself the recruiters were a bit too literal, when placing me. My attempts to get an after-graduation placement into the Windows Phone team was rebuffed by both my team management as well as my recruiter. I certainly understand the aura of safety and known-quantity in staying with the same team, but isn’t the point of a co-op/internship to discover what you want (and don’t want) to do?

It also didn’t help that in my last semester at university, I realized my passion was more for hardware (or at least low-level software) than anything else. So, it was with great fortunes that my co-op interviewer was suddenly the group manager for the Windows Ecosystem team, responsible for working with our key hardware partners. So, in mid-2011, I became a partner Program Manager in Windows, working with Texas Instruments on some of the first Windows on ARM (WoA) hardware projects. I had an opportunity to work on both the hardware bring up of development systems, as well as directly with Toshiba on two hardware designs (they were slick). Unfortunately, those projects weren’t meant to be, and we concluded the OMAP work and the 2012 Windows 8/RT launch with nary a piece of released hardware.

Texas Instruments exited the majority of the consumer AP business, towards the end of 2012. With the post-Windows 8 reorg, I was given the opportunity to work with Intel, and particularly on their new breed of low-power SoC platforms: Haswell and Bay Trail-T. This assignment was the hockey-stick growth point of my nascent career. With the mentorship of my management chain and exposure to an amazing amount of corporate strategy and personnel at both Microsoft and Intel (the intersection of Microsoft and Intel is an incredibly exciting place, even today :)), I was forced to grow rapidly in technical and business acumen. Frankly, at my junior level, it was an incredible, fortunate opportunity, one which I’m grateful my team had enough faith to give me. It’s also incredibly exciting to look back after only 1.5 years of that, to see direct and indirect impacts to the ecosystem: the popular Dell Venue Pro 8 and ASUS T100 (Bay Trail-T) tablets and 2-in-1s, Windows with Bing-based products, Connected Standby Surface Pro 3 (Haswell), and just reaching the market, Bay Trail-CR Windows systems, at much more competitive price points (Toshiba Encore 2).

After 2.5 years in the Windows Ecosystem team, I began to long for direct product work, with a deeper engineering focus. Throughout my time on these SoC projects, I worked with a number of excellent teams, so started poking around for opportunities, after the Windows 8.1 wave concluded. One in particular, the Windows kernel team, rose to the top of my list. As it happened, by the time the post-launch reorgs closed, the PM lead I’d been in contact with had moved to a new team, a new team with PM openings. In that new team, I would be able to build on both my technical experience in working on low-power systems, but in a product-focused role, and my leadership and relationship skills, with internal and external organizations. With much secrecy around the project itself (I signed on without really knowing what I’d be working on), I decided to join the team, because I trusted my new group manager and I could tell by the caliber of folks, already on the team and about to join, that it was something special.

And 5 months into the new role and 4 years at the company, I look back at the projects I’ve had a chance to be a part of and the opportunities I was given, and I don’t know how events could have transpired any better to give me the breadth and depth that I have today. Plus, 4 years is a mere blink of an eye in the overall epic of one’s career and life. Certainly, a high bar has been set for the rest of it.

Commuting

A series of events conspired to lead me to purchase a bicycle, in the hopes of commuting to work with it.

  • I’m surrounded by hundreds of miles of bike trails
  • I’ve recently moved closer to work, now approximately 4 miles away
  • The path to work is almost exclusively along a nicely maintained bike trail, reducing the concern of riding with traffic
  • Microsoft generously provides reimbursement for a good chunk of fitness/exercise-related purchases each year (I never took advantage of the ProClub membership)

So a week ago, I test rode a couple bikes at REI and picked up a Novara Express road-ish bike. I’ve never had any experience with road bikes, with my childhood riding all done on mountain bikes (I remember wanting a bike with ever longer-travel shocks, for the raucous rides through the forest near the family home on PEI). My first go on one was a shock (pun intended) of a firm ride and very squirrely handling. With thin and full tires, the experience was very different.

It’ll take a while to get used to it, but I could already feel how (relatively) effortless it was to get up to speed. Perhaps too much speed for not having ridden in 10+ years.

So, before I try to ride into work on a real workday, I’m going to try to beat the heat tomorrow morning, get up early and take the proposed path to work. There’s a steep hill, ~350ft ascent on the way, which I’m a bit intimidated by. Fellow co-workers have retold their walk of shame: getting off the bike and walking it up that steep slope. It’s going to be a challenge, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to bike!

Surface Pro 2

Note: I originally wrote this past last November, but for some reason never published it. As we’re so close to Surface Pro 3 launch time, I thought it worthwhile to publish this now and reminisce.

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft, but did not and do not work directly on any of the Surface projects. My opinions are my own, but obviously shaped by my experiences at the company.

When the first generation Surface Pro was launched, you could see the vision laid out before the device pretty clearly. It was supposed to be the most performance one could reasonably pack into an ultra-mobile form factor, for on-the-go power users. Unfortunately, those on-the-go power users also needed the ability to actually be on-the-go. The approximately 4 (maybe 5) hours of productive battery life from that device were too few to be able to take full advantage of the mobility factor.

Fast forward not quite a year and we saw the potential of Haswell, not in pushing the performance envelope, but rather the power consumption one. Packing that update into what was otherwise a great device would make Surface Pro 2 a more complete realization of the original vision. At launch, the Surface Pro 2 was touted to have 75% better battery life than v1. Compared to the 4-5 hours of real world battery life in v1, you’d expect somewhere in the 7-8.5 hour range with v2.

Early reviews came close to that range, CNET and The Verge hitting 7-7.5 hours, but Engadget and AnandTech were down closer to the 6.5 hour range. While not bad, it certainly wasn’t up to par (battery life/wh capacity) to some of the better Ultrabook-class machines. Shortly after launch, a firmware update was released to address some power consumption bugs. Anand’s since run some additional testing, showing web browsing is now up to 8.3 hours. My daily use also bears the improved battery life out. In a domain-joined, heavily saturated wireless environment at work, battery report (cmd: powercfg /batteryreport on Windows 8+) shows that I’ve been getting on average 7.5 hours out of a full charge. That’s just about all-(working)-day battery life.

At one point, I questioned the choice of the Haswell-U (15W TDP) processor line for this type of form factor. After all, the higher power consumption part would require more cooling, a bigger battery and thus make the device thicker and heavier than if it were otherwise equipped with, say, a Haswell-Y part. However, with the story all told and the support of the accessory line up, it’s clear the goal was to create a unique device, capable of being your main productivity machine in the smallest reasonable form factor. Compared with something like the Sony Tap 11, which uses a Haswell-Y processor, the Surface is 0.3lbs heavier and 3.5mm thicker, but it lasts much longer on battery and performs significantly better, even when comparing the ~$1000-1100 SKUs. This is intended to be mobile enough to do everything you need to on the go, but then dock seamlessly into a desktop environment.

I’ve been using the Surface Pro 2 for long enough at both work and home to have a good read of where it shines and scenarios where it needs improvement. The short of it is that I’ve been sufficiently impressed that I’m considering buying myself one as a Christmas present. :)

All the basics and critical bases are covered. The display is a nice, crisp, and color-accurate 1080p 10.6″ one. Battery life, as previously mentioned is in the 7.5 hour-range, sufficient for a day of meetings or an intercontinental flight without a charger. Performance is always snappy, little to no hiccups. Wifi connectivity is up to good laptop class, with a 2x2n dual band solution. The new two-stage kickstand is welcomed for both in-lap usage and while standing at the kitchen counter. Type Cover 2′s backlit keys are useful in dim settings and the key actions are a bit nicer, a bit quieter than Type Cover v1. Lastly, while I’ve always felt styli are a bit gimmicky when it comes to interfaces, I’m loving the pen+OneNote. I’m not using even 10% of the pen and digitizer’s capabilities; however, diagrams while note taking and OCR for pen-to-character conversion with OneNote is a “wow” scenario. I really wish I had this thing while I was in university. Oh, and I almost forgot, the thing has a fan, but it’s so quiet, I’ve not heard it spin up. It’s one of those things that’s best not noticed.

Okay, but there are areas for improvement.

My first piece of feedback not so much a feasible “improvement”, but rather a fundamental change to the device: the screen size. The 10.6″ form factor makes a near full-sized keyboard a possibility, which is great, but with so much horsepower and potential, I want to use it as my only productivity machine, on the go. The screen size is cramped, especially when you’re trying to write a document while referencing a source in a web browser, for example. It’s a natural trade-off for an ultra mobile device, but nevertheless, limiting when it comes to serious productivity on the move. With the docking station and external monitors at a desk, it can really stretch its legs.

My second concern is pricing, or rather the configurations available for sale. The $999 SKU comes with 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage. I don’t particularly care to upgrade to more storage (plus, it comes with 200GB of SkyDrive for two years!); however, I would like more than 4GB memory. Unfortunately, you cannot have one without the other and the associated $300 adder. That said, after including a Type Cover, the Surface Pro 2 ends up being approximately $100 more than an equivalently spec’d MacBook Air 11, but adds a higher resolution touchscreen and is more versatile (tablet mode, pen).

Lastly, while the Type Cover 2 is generally an improvement over v1, I do miss the first gen’s touchpad, which had both a slicker surface and a depressible click mechanism. In both cases, I wish there was more space for a larger touchpad. Especially given the small display compared to more laptops, precision tasks (e.g. placing the cursor in Word) are challenging with the touchscreen and made only marginally better by the small touchpad. Alas, next gen.

So, the thing is certainly not perfect, and in particular, the small and relatively stubby form factor makes it look and feel like an oddly dense tablet, that isn’t quite large enough to replace most folks’ laptops, with keyboard attached. However, it’s getting mighty close with the battery life and stand angle issues solved. For me and my use cases, I find the combination pretty ideal as a program manager, at work, and I’ve been using it as my primary machine there.

HP Spectre 13T

HP Spectre 13T

Since giving my Lenovo Yoga 13 to my parents (a great machine, by the way, and v2 looks even better), I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it. My primary considerations were battery life, display (inc. touchscreen), touchpad, weight, build quality and reasonable future-proofing for the machine to last 2-3 years. I’ve really liked the 12-13.3″ range, since it usually results in a laptop in the 3-3.5lb range, which is highly portable, while providing enough display real estate to be truly productive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I considered several MacBooks, particularly the MacBook Air 13 (gosh, the 10-12 hours of real-world battery life is mind-blowing) and the MacBook Pro Retina 13. The build quality, battery life, and touchpads are absolutely fantastic, and frankly, even pricing isn’t outrageous, when looking at comparable options across the ecosystem.

However, I landed on the HP Spectre 13T, because:

  • Nice build quality, aluminium used throughout and positioned as a premium Ultrabook, so I hoped for the best in terms of manufacturing tolerances and the visceral feel in-hand
  • Great display options (in both colour gamut and resolution)
  • Includes both a gigantic touchpad and a touchscreen; most importantly, the touchpad is smooth and tracks well, almost as well as the MacBooks
  • Approximately 3.2lbs with 8-9 hours of real-world battery life
  • Configured with a Core i5 4200U, 8GB memory, 128GB SSD, 2560×1440 touchscreen, and included 2 year warranty was just under $950 (cheaper than a base MacBook Air 13)

I’m only a week in, so more detailed thoughts will have to wait. Initial impressions are positive; it feels reassuringly sturdy, the design is simple, but the aluminum colouring makes it a bit less generic than every other black or silver laptop out there, and the display is stunning in both colour as well resolution. Given how close it is to a melange of the right elements of each of the MacBook Air and Retina, in a package that cheaper than either, is a very good thing.

2014

The past year has been one of great learning for me. Both my wonderful girlfriend and great job combined have taught me many lessons and etched more than a year’s worth of maturity onto me. I have also become a mess of contradictions: while feeling young and invincible (still), I also sense the rapid approach of both cynicism and wisdom that often accompany old(er) age.

I know this year will be one of great change. I’m officially in the latter half of my twenties, I’ll have had 4 years of industry work experience under my belt, and big decisions to make, such as buy or rent when my lease is up (and all the associated implications that would have).

Part of the reason for my internal confusion is because I’ve been blessed with a job that has given me visibility and influence at a scope I couldn’t have begun to imagine as a relative whipper-snapper in the company. It’s been like a lanky kid going through puberty. The physical reality is there, but the mind hasn’t  grasped the entirety of what’s happened. The feeling of invincibility to have almost no fear in meetings, discussing problems and solutions with some seriously smart and senior people, while also beginning to develop the maturity to frame discussions in the right manner to achieve the best outcome. At the same time, ignorance truly can be bliss, and unfortunately, I haven’t had the luck to be spared any detail when it comes to the business or the organization.

It’s also within that context that I’ve seen my work experience drift more towards the strategic, the higher levels. I find myself missing the deep and intimate work on technically challenging problems and seeing it through to the end. In a somewhat idyllic way, I sometimes long for the all nighters in the engineering labs at university, ploughing through the latest calc assignment or FPGA design project. The goals were straightforward and little in the way of convoluted scheming was needed to accomplish them. It’s rarely that simple to do anything these days.

So, it’s with these thoughts that I enter 2014.