Category Archives: co-op

Goodbye Seattle…

I was a mountaineer,
Having climbed Mount Rainier
(sort of…)

I bid adieu to the Pacific Northwest today, as I head home to Southeast Ontario. Things are packed up (really had to jam those bags) and I’m setting off to the airport in 15 minutes.

It’s been a fantastic experience, one I have very, very few complaints about. For now, I’m simply content with a short break, before beginning my final semester of university. Has it really been so many years already?

Several Days Later Than Usual

A friend recently pointed out that I’ve written something on, or very near each of my birthdays since the inception of this blog, but not this year. It’s 5 days past my 22nd year of aliveness, and only now am I acquiescing to the habit. Simply put, it’s been an extremely busy time.

I spent my birthday in San Francisco, not having much of a care in the world, not thinking about grad applications, not thinking about school, not thinking about work. Those were two magical days that I felt free and happy. Since then, I’ve returned to a whirlwind of work, trying to wrap things up before I head back home for the Christmas holidays.

Let me throw this out there. I have just over one (1) week left in my internship with Microsoft, and things are not yet complete. Projects grew and grew in scope, and I certainly didn’t help matters by taking on more responsibilities and tasks. I look back on the commitments I set at the beginning of the semester, and I can’t help but laugh at how limited they were in context. Perhaps the kindest comment of my efforts at Microsoft were the words of my Group PM – I don’t think of you as an intern who’s been here for 3 months. I think of you as a PM who’s been with the team for years.

The internship here at Microsoft has given me the best sense of the real world thus far. I’ve seen and experienced bureaucracy, but I also realize that people still get things done. Innovation can happen even at a large company like Microsoft, and while it seemed to lose its way over the past several years, I am very heartened and inspired by what is happening around the company. It is reinventing itself. The will of the company and its employees to be the best in the markets it participates in is extremely strong. I saw it at the Company Meeting, shortly after I joined, and I see it now as I speak with employees around the company. The company is filled with people with great ideas, and the new Microsoft is allowing those ideas to bubble up. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure if I could accomplish and influence the things I wanted to at Microsoft. I’m seeing indications that I can.

With that said, is Microsoft in my future? I’m being pulled strongly in that direction, but there are still some factors to consider. It certainly won’t be an easy decision, either way.

Oh, and happy birthday, Charlie.

Forcing Function

Only a month left in my Microsoft internship. Whew. Time flies!

I feel like I should start wrapping up my projects before my last week here; leaving it that late is always a bit of a setup for disaster. Things never quite go as one plans, and if no explicit schedule is set up for these final weeks, deadlines will inevitably drag. And in Program Management lingo, schedules provide a nice forcing function.

I went to the 2010 Seattle Auto Show on Sunday, and ogled some sweet, sweet driving machines. I sat in vehicles I had no business being in at my age and got up close and personal with the Tesla Roadster’s electric engine. There were the typical Toyotas, Fords, Lexus (Lexii?), Acuras, Mercedes, BMWs, GMs, and Hondas. But then there were the exotics: Fisker, Tesla, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Lotus, Maserati, Lambo, and Ferrari. Interestingly enough, one of the cars that garnered the most attention was a Hyundai! The Equus was set on a rotating pedestal, doors open, showing the crazy interior, LED headlamps, adaptive cruise control, rear adjustable massage seats, a complete entertainment system, garish chrome grill, and no Hyundai badge – and all at a price of less than $50k when it comes to the United States next year, according to the lady giving the spiel.

Ferrari F430
No, that’s not the Equus – that’s the Ferrari F430

Back on the topic of work and career, my order for The Humane Interface and Don’t Make Me Think arrived from Amazon today. My passion lies in user experience and design, so I thought it was about time I read some of the books in the field. I attended a talk by a Microsoft PM last week on effective user interface design, which referenced these two books. I chatted with the speaker afterward, and she gave glowing reviews on the books so I went home and put in an order.

After Eight Weeks

I originally wrote this as an email to close friends of mine, giving them the lowdown on what life’s been like as a Microsoft intern. An edited and slightly expanded version follows:

——

Yeah, eight weeks ago, I arrived in Seattle, eager to start my internship at Microsoft. It hasn’t felt nearly that long, and I’m a bit sad that it’s gone by so quickly – there are only 8 weeks left. I’m interning as a Program Manager on the Microsoft Office InfoPath team. Basically, in this role, one works with other PMs, developers, and testers in planning, designing, implementing and supporting features throughout the lifecycle of the product. Due to the timeframe that my internship falls, I’m more in the dogfooding + planning and designing phases. I’ve caught on to some of the business-speak (BS?) – customer-facing, user-aligned, end-to-end scenarios, value-add, etc. InfoPath (very few people I’ve spoken to outside of Microsoft have even heard of it) is a product that allows users to create powerful forms for more accurate data collection. It might sound mundane, but after working with some customers and their scenarios, I can see the utility of the product. Think about how many forms you fill every time you go through any procedure. We make that experience better and more efficient for all parties.

One reason I think the time has flown by is because I’ve tried to integrate myself completely into the PM role. Microsoft has been great in giving me the opportunity to try out every aspect of the PM role in 4 months. Usually these experiences are spread out across a product lifecycle of several years. I’m very grateful for it, and it’s meant for some hectic work and late hours. Fortunately, the team I work with is phenomenal. There are crazy good developers, extremely creative PMs and the management is intelligent.

I had heard good things about working at Microsoft before I got here, but now that I’m in the thick of things, I appreciate the environment even more. There’s a very strong focus on personal and professional development. The structure they’ve put into place seems to reward merit. Furthermore, there are a ridiculous number of benefits to the job (not so much for me, but for full-time), from pretty much free everything-healthcare-related to tuition reimbursements for part-time graduate programs to mentoring from some leadership personnel.

And it’s that graduate program they support that has me seriously considering jumping into full-time work after graduation, given I an offer (I’m told I’m on track – my midterm review is this upcoming week). At this point, I don’t think I will pursue a doctorate degree – I want too much to work in practicality and with people. With that said, I still do want a Masters degree, and while my original plan was to continue on with studies after my Waterloo degree, things have changed. I’m mulling things over, and I will be setting up an appointment to speak with my recruiter at Microsoft to discuss some pros and cons. Of course, everything hinges on getting an offer in the first place, so I’m giving 110% effort on the job right now.

Outside of work, I’ve been out in nature as much as possible. The Northwest United States is home to a plethora of mountain ranges, ocean views, and fantastic vistas. I’ve tried my best to get out to do some photography, which has been generally successful. Now, as the winter approaches, the weather’s turned to crap, showering or raining 80% of the time. But while the weather was nice, I climbed part of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the lower 48, drove through the Cascade Mountain Range, and visited Whidbey Island. Of course, I also explored some of Seattle and the surrounding region. There are some very cool, quaint districts, each with a very distinct feel. The diversity of a larger city is refreshing. My flickr account has been occasionally updated with some photos, but there sits a huge backlog, yet to be processed on my hard drive.

Nikon D90 at Kerry Park

The internship and everything surrounding it has been fantastic. The program is extremely well-run, and with the goal of enticing students to return for a full-time position, Microsoft has succeeded marvelously. It probably helps that I was quite partial to the company to begin with. Nonetheless, an eminently enjoyable experience!

Stress.

Completely slammed. That’s how I feel, after a 6-day work week and trying to fit in a short photography excursion in on the 7th day.

In light of the weak job market and an uncertain graduate school path, I’ve been doing my best to excel at my Program Management internship at Microsoft. The mid-semester checkpoint review is fast approaching (1.5 weeks out) and I’m working long hours to meet all my commitments, and at the same time, contribute to the team outside of those tasks explicitly defined in those commitments. So far, the outlook is bright. My weekly 1-on-1’s have been great, with the comments from my manager and group manger very positive overall. That’s not to say there aren’t things that I can improve and learn from, but that’s the whole point.

At the current stage of the release cycle for Office 14, the main work item is bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs. And bugbashes, and a whole lot of dogfooding. Working on bugs wasn’t an item on my commitments, but seeing its importance amongst the team currently, I’ve taken it upon myself to see several of them through to fixes. It’s nice to know that I’m now in the contributing phase of the internship, having moved on from the resource-leech phase.

I started the semester off learning InfoPath. I hadn’t touched the product before finding out that I’d be working on the team. Due to its nature, the learning curve was pretty steep. The first couple dogfooding projects were immensely helpful in getting a hang of the core features. The more ambitious one will get wrapped up this Wednesday, when I present the final product to the recruitment team, which I was working with. The next major task is a feature spec. How Microsoft does this has been a very new experience for me. Working in tandem with a dev (the dev manager no less!) and a test, I’ve come to appreciate the concept of appropriate scoping (not everything can be a pie-in-the-sky feature wish). There are still several key points to discuss, but the first review is scheduled for next Thursday. That doesn’t leave me much time! Meanwhile, there are always bugs to tackle, and I see it as a major priority to contribute as much as I can in this space. After all, it’s resolving them that will make the biggest impact on the current product release.

There have been some long days and nights, but I genuinely don’t mind the work. I can feel that the Program Management role is what I’ve come to enjoy, so much so, that I’m second guessing my original plan to pursue graduate studies. The practical, hands-on work is invigorating, not to mention the Northwest is a fantastic place. To further complicate things, I have an full-time position interview coming up, also for a similar position at a different company. Companies have started posting jobs at the University of Waterloo, and to keep my options open, I’ve applied to a couple of them. I’ve spent some time preparing, but not as much as I’d like to, with the given time constraints that I’m under.

The next few months are going to be important ones for mapping out the rest of my life. It’s been stressful.

So, Who Is Steve Ballmer Really?

I always chuckled at at the various comedic stories and faces of Steve Ballmer. YouTube videos of him ‘whooping it up’ and screaming on stage made him out to be more of a jester than the CEO of one of the world’s most powerful corporations.

I had the opportunity to see him going at it this past Thursday at the Microsoft Company Meeting at Safeco Field. Here’s my perspective. I have one question:

What is the role of the CEO?

A CEO should align the company’s operations with its long-term vision. The CEO should help provide the motivation and drive for employees to achieve all that they can. The CEO should ensure that the company achieves its goals quarter after quarter, year after year. In the case of Microsoft, the way that happens is through its employees.

As much as Ballmer is panned by the press for his antics, I have never heard anyone deliver any speech with such passion, belief, and inspiration as the one I heard at 3:00pm this past Thursday. I’d be a bit surprised if there was anyone in that stadium that wasn’t at all moved by the speech. In this capacity, Steve Ballmer more than surpassed his requirement to motivate the troops.

Yeah, he ran around slapping hands and yelling into his mic. Yeah, he grabbed an employee’s iPhone and pretended to stomp on it. But those ‘boos and jeers‘ from the employees? They were in support of Ballmer, against the iPhone. The thing these publications and commentors don’t understand is that the employees like Ballmer. His speeches are about how important the employees are to the company and to him. They are about his belief in the company’s ability to win. They are about making the employees feel great about their company and their past, present and future accomplishments.

The reaction to the speech was electric. You could feel the pride swell in the ranks. You could feel Ballmer’s unadulterated passion rippled through the crowd. If an hour of his time can increase productivity in the employee base by 1%, it’d be worth it. He left things off with ‘Let It Rock’ by Kevin Rudolf, an appropriate choice given the last slide of his presentation on how the employees and products of Microsoft rock.

I have a new profound respect for Steve Ballmer. Although only two weeks into my internship, I feel a deep pride for working at Microsoft, no matter what is said about the company or how people perceive it. While writing my intern commitments this past Friday, I re-listened to parts of the speech, because it was simply that inspiring. I wish I could convey to you some of the comments he made. I think it would change many peoples’ prejudices towards the man.

So, who is Steve Ballmer? He helps run one of the world’s most successful companies. He is loved by his employees. He is possibly the most inspiring and passionate person I’ve ever met. He is someone I would want to work for.

I’ll post up something ambiguous (as not to violate NDA) tomorrow on what I thought about the other company meeting presentations.

First Week In the Northwest

Okay. I’ve been in the United States Northwest for a week, worked at Microsoft for 5 business days and took a trip to the Boeing wide-body factory in Everett. I’ve experienced sun and some rain. I’ve driven around the area and now understand why Seattle is called the Emerald City. I’ve come to worship SlickDeals and the Zune Pass. Now, it’s time to put down some thoughts.

The Northwest is a dark, gloomy, wet, and dreary place to work and live. Being in the Northwest has upset many of my preconceptions of the region. I’d read about how few days of sun Seattle gets each year. I heard about constant clouds and rain and complete utter misery. Granted the amount of precipitation will increase throughout the months that I’ll be here, I can’t help but be so excited about being straddled by the Pacific Ocean and the Olympic Mountains/rainforest to the west and Mount Rainier and the Cascades to the east. There is simply too much fantastic nature to take in over the next 4 months. The Labour Day long weekend is shaping up to be a pretty rainy one, but Monday should be sunny and I’m planning a photo trek out towards Lake Wenatchee. The new camera backpack is purchased and ready to go (a Tamrac Aero Speed Pack 85). It also helps that the entire area, the city included, is filled with lush trees. Driving on the local freeways gives the air of being in the middle of a forest. Hence the Emerald City nickname; the color green permeates the region.

The first week at Microsoft consisted of drinking lots of the corporate kool-aid, which is a very tasty drink, I might add. It’s hard not to feel good about working for a company that’s so successful. The perks are awesome (Microsoft Prime, health benefits, private offices, car rental subsidies, and a generous salary) and the people all top caliber. Microsoft gets painted in terrible light, almost everywhere in the world, but being on the inside, there’s no indication that they’re out to destroy lives and businesses. Yeah, there are jokes and banter about the competition, but it wouldn’t be normal for that not to exist. Subpoenaed communications between employees taken in the contextual vacuum of a courtroom means the interpretation can be quite different from the intention. That’s not to say Microsoft hasn’t made some poor decisions in the past. Just don’t mistake Microsoft for Godzilla. There is a reasoning behind the madness.

I’ve started settling in with the Office InfoPath team. Security permissions are still a mess and I don’t have access to any of the internal Office resources, which is putting a damper on my knowledge ramp up. In the meantime, I’ve been using InfoPath and learning the ins and outs. As a PM, I’m discovering that much of the day is filled with meetings. It’s not so bad right now, since I don’t have too much to do yet, but I foresee it as a challenge to attend these meetings and still get all the necessary work done.

The team in general is quite young, with three PM’s hailing from the University of Waterloo. Everyone’s been super supportive of the new intern, and I’m beginning to feel comfortable. I’m eager to get to work with some of the devs on real tasks, but that’ll have to wait until I can do more benefit than damage, with my limited experience with the product, for now.

Yesterday, I, along with some fellow interns, journeyed north to the Boeing wide-body aircraft factory in Everett, where we partook in the Boeing factory tour. I stood in the world’s largest building by internal volume and watched as Boeing 747-8s, 777s, and the new 787 Dreamliners were built. I often take my flying safety for granted, but seeing today the extreme engineering marvel that is aircraft construction, I’m going to say a little prayer of thanks to those workers every time I step on a plane from now on. Business Process Management? You haven’t seen it until you’ve witnessed the assembly line in Everett. I can’t imagine the kind of pride an engineer at Boeing must feel when the first plane of a new line makes its inaugural flight safely.

Pratt and Whitney at the Future of Flight

I signed up to the Zune Pass trial, something that I’ve always wanted to do when I was in Canada, but couldn’t due to region restrictions. I fully intend on continuing with the paid subscriptions once the 14 day trial is up. The value proposition is fantastic and I’ve been itching to discover some new music. The internet connection at the place I’m staying at is quite slow, 1Mbps, so we’re trying to get that upgraded. Once that’s done, I’ll have nearly uninhibited access to a wide selection of music. That reminds me, Pandora should be available as well, now that I’m in the US.

Looking forward, next week will be a shortened work week, both due to the Labour Day holiday, as well as an all-hands company meeting on Thursday. I’m excited to see the executives talk about Microsoft’s progress over this difficult year, and perhaps even Steve Ballmer jump around on stage. On a more serious note, I’m very curious as to how Ballmer is as a CEO. Every time his name comes up, most people probably see the generic fist pumps or awkward facial expressions. I’m more interested in the untainted person who has such a large say in running one of the world’s most successful companies.

On The Bookshelf – Aug. 28, 2009

With some free time, finally, upon the completion of the 4A semester, I’ve gotten around to reading some books I’ve been meaning to for a long time.

The Photographer’s Eye

This fantastic work of art by Michael Freeman aims to address one of the key components of photography: composition. I sometimes get wound up in the technicalities of photography, cameras, lenses, accessories, that I forget about what’s important.

The picture.

Photographer's Eye

This book was highly recommended at some of the photography forums I frequent, and I picked it up to help refocus on getting the picture and not the gear. I’m only about 50 pages into the nearly 200 page book of fantastic imagery and tips, and I’m learning new stuff left, right, and center (literally?). Most of the basic composition concepts I know, including rule of thirds/geometric divisions, leading lines, contrast, have already been covered in only the first couple chapters. I’m eager to find out what fills the remaining 150 pages.

I really like how the book is designed. Each topic is surrounded by several examples, with commentary delving into the reason(s) the photograph ‘works’, tying back to the technique at hand. Photography is one of those skills that is most readily learned through the study of many, many samples. I got a glimpse of the technique via various online forums and Flickr, but this book condenses everything down into concise, to the point data.

Making Things Happen

In preparation for the program management position I’m about to throw myself into in a few days’ time, I’ve restarted reading Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun. I purchased this book not long after I got the Microsoft PM job, early this past spring. Something called university really got in the way of all my readings, so this book was left unattended to.

Making Things Happen

Scott Berkun worked at Microsoft as a Program Manager for several years, so he has great insight on the processes and mindset that happen there. Although I’ve held a couple co-op positions as a ‘Product Manager’, the level of responsibility and independence afforded by Microsoft to its PM interns is, from what I hear, quite unheard of. I don’t want to go blundering off a cliff, so I’d better learn as much as I can quickly.

Interacting with co-workers, especially in the Microsoft model of a PM working with a couple devs and testers, in a close-knit team, decision making, managing schedules and plenty more (I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book) are discussed. Being an intern, I’m uncertain of how the environment will look and the responsibilities that will be placed on me. This book has at least given me insight on how the full-timers do it. 🙂

Note: Both product links are through my Amazon Associates account. Help me pay for web hosting, if you’re interested in purchasing any of the books mentioned here. Thanks!

URA, Co-op, and Orchestra

The last week has been quite eventful.

After some scrambling, I was able to get an Undergraduate Research Assistantship with a professor in the Computer Science department, working in the area of HCI, which is a great match for my user interface interest. I’m slightly unsure how to approach the project I was given, which will involve interviews with others, so I’ve been absorbing all the research papers on the topic as I can get my hands on. In the meantime, I’m planning some meetings with my supervising professor to get some pointers. The excellent opportunity should give me an idea of what graduate research is like, before I apply to grad schools in the fall. It’s like… part-time co-op for grad school.

Although I didn’t need to apply for jobs this semester, I am more pleased than ever that I secured a job with Microsoft last semester. The Microsoft job posting for the fall semester was suddenly pulled from Jobmine earlier this week. I later found out that all the positions for the fall had either been filled, or were in the process of being filled. The head recruiter was quick to point out that it wasn’t a matter of Microsoft not hiring, but rather that the available positions had been filled. Although slightly odd to have interviewed a semester early, in retrospect that would have been the only way for me to work there in the fall.

Orchestra is in full swing now, and I’ve been appointed percussion lead once more. The others in the section are all musically talented, but their musical training, like mine comes from piano, and neither have much experience in percussion. Consequently, I’ve been ‘mentoring’ the section somewhat, with my decidedly meager skills. It’s a great learning experience for me, both in terms of making sure I know the technique well enough to impart it on others, as well as actively teaching something to someone on a continuing basis. I’m planning extra sessions outside of rehearsal to answer questions and help the other percussionists.

I’m headed home again this weekend as my cousin is coming to visit for the US long weekend. From what I understand, he’ll be bringing his newly acquired Nikon D700. I can’t wait to talk shop with him, not to mention try out a damn nice camera.

Elation – Microsoft PM

It seems like when things go right, they really go right.

No point beating around the bush here, I received an offer for a PM position at Microsoft for the fall semester earlier today. Furthermore, I found out yesterday that I (finally) passed PDEng 55.

On my second attempt at a Microsoft position, I did a significant amount of preparation, which paid off in the best way possible. I have a call scheduled for Monday, when I’ll get a chance to ask some more questions and maybe speak with the team that I would be working with if I were to accept.

Funny thing is, I actually had a dream about receiving a call from Microsoft last night. In the dream, my interviewer called me to inform me of their decision, but for some reason, I couldn’t hear what he had to say. I was in agony over not knowing, despite being on the phone with the person who was telling me. That dream was the catalyst that made me inquire about my fortunes. I sent an email to Microsoft before heading off the class this morning.

I picked up the real call in the the Davis Centre library, around the tables where it’s quite noisy, and yep, I initially couldn’t hear what the HR contact I’d been communicating with was saying. Talk about semi-deja vu. But once the message got through to my brain, I spent the remainder of the call tripping over myself and thanking her profusely. It was probably embarrassing, but I was simply too happy to care.

The opportunity is still 5 months away, so it’s a bit premature to get overly excited now, but I’m already thinking about it. It’s only natural, I suppose. In the meantime, I’ll be preparing for the last two midterms on Tuesday and Wednesday. Focus!