The 5-year Crystal

I recently passed my five (5) year employment anniversary at Microsoft, which is when one receives a crystal statue and an obligation to bring 5lbs of chocolate to share with the team. It’s also the establishment at which I’ve spent the most time, since, well, elementary school (which hardly counts, right?).

Five years is both short and long, at the same time. When turnover rates in the tech space (especially in Silicon Valley) ranges from 10-15% (annual), 5 years means I’ve likely entered the upper 50% spectrum of veteran-ness at the company. At the same time, I look at previous generations, e.g. my dad, who’s worked at the same company (albeit two very different subsidiaries) for over 25 years, and I’m still a relative pipsqueak.

Okay, so I probably have more in common with other tech-industry workers; five years is a significant period of time in one place. However, it’s hardly been monotonous. I’ve found myself on three very different teams tackling three very diverse roles. And with the gift of hindsight, it’s clear a fortunate sequence of events led me to where I am, today.

My first year, in Office, as a typical Microsoft PM,  taught me the ways of Program Management, but at the same time, was not the most satisfying experience. Perhaps more than anything, it made me accept the risk of trying a completely different type of PM work.

When the opportunity arose to work in a partner-facing role on the Windows on ARM bring-up, for Windows 8, I had no formal hardware engineering experience, nor any history of working with external partners. In short, I had no business being there, but wanted the role desperately, as it so perfectly matched my personal interests. For whatever reason, the team took a chance on me and it was in the Windows Ecosystem team that I cultivated my love for systems engineering work.

The contacts I made in that position ultimately kept me at Microsoft. After 3.5 years, I was on the cusp of leaving, having made my mind up to try something else. But too many people suggested that I look into a secretive, upstart group for me to ignore. It helped that a PM, whom I greatly respect, recently moved into the group manager role and was willing to entertain my tight timeline. The combination of superstar foot traffic to the team and a final meeting with Alex Kipman convinced me to join, even though I was never told, at the time, the project I’d be working on (a story for another time). Of course, it turned out to be HoloLens, and both the project and people I’m surrounded by, daily, have made the risk, worthwhile.

It’s hard for me not to refer to recent articles about Amazon’s work environment; you’ve doubtlessly heard or read horror stories about Microsoft, as well, but as with most organizations, things are never uniformly bad or amazing. My experience tells me that there are extraordinarily talented teams working on massively innovative projects, impacting some of the largest user bases on the planet. It’s an organization I’m proud to be a part of.

It’s been a heck of a while since I posted. Looking back upon the recent posts, the sad fact is I can count all the posts, written in the past year, on two hands (e.g. 10). Work and real life have become increasingly demanding and time has simply flown by.

I had some free time this weekend; I decided to spend it on this largely neglected space, first deciding to spruce it up, with some visual tweaks to better delineate pieces of content. I am also pretty partial to both minimalist and Material Design trends, so you might see of that here.

The combination of php and css theme files usually mean I fire up Notepad++ and go to town. But, just before I did that, this afternoon, I recalled we recently launched Visual Studio Code, a light-weight, multi-platform editor, with some handy features you’d normally find in an IDE. The full-blown Visual Studio hasn’t risen to the top of my simple web-editing tools list, but Code looked better targeted. A 50MB download and short install later, I was up and running.

For the few hours’ work, I found four handy features that helped me get things done more quickly and with fewer errors that normal:

  1. File management – I opened up the WordPress theme folder, doubled clicked one of the files and was away. I could view the entire context of the theme files and quickly jump from one to another. Autosave made viewing design changes in a browser just that little bit quicker.
  2. Editor layout – Snapping two, even three files side-by-side was very useful, for editing a post template (or two), while simultaneously looking at the CSS stylesheet. I later found out you can accordian-minimize windows and switch between them, to fit even more, side-by-side.
  3. Search – The modified theme this site is based on includes multiple content type templates. I initially cringed at the thought of adding a new styling class to the content div, included in each of these templates (and more likely elsewhere). However, I discovered the global search function, which suddenly made it trivial to update every file that needed touching. On other occasions, searching for classes in the stylesheet is made simple with file search; result locations are denoted in the scroll bar, so you can quickly jump around between instances, as well.
  4. IntelliSense – IntelliSense has helped make countless developers more productive, and by providing it in Code, there are far fewer context switches to peeks at references. It even has highlighting to tell you when one of your styles is rendered ineffectual by some other property you defined.

All in all, I had a bit of fun, cleaned up the theme, and discovered a new favourite WordPress theme editor.

The Polar Opposite Amazons

I really don’t understand these types of articles and the inevitable, vehement counter-points – you might have read or heard about them, if you’re in the tech sphere, over the past two days.

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace

And the counter-points:

An Amazonian’s response to “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”

As with any organizational experience, there will be those who have it good and those who can’t wait to get out. Both sides hyperbolize the reality, particularly gathering and extrapolating the few data points they have into something much grander. I live in the Seattle region, and yes, I know many folks who currently or have previously worked for Amazon. And you know what, I hear both types of stories and everything in between! Imagine that!

The NYT found some disgruntled ex-employees, having gone through hell, while Mr. Ciubotariu is clearly a well-respected, high-performer, working in a team filled with rainbows and unicorns. I believe both of the experiences. For most, reality is likely somewhere in between.

More later.

NASDAQ 5000, Again

It’s a big day – NASDAQ closed above 5000 for the first time, since March 2000. Fourteen years ago, when the likes of inktomi and Lycos were at this peaks (~$25B and $12.5B, respectively), was when things started to come crumbling down.

NASDAQ 5000

The debate of whether this is the beginning of another steep downfall is upon us. Arguments are vigorous on both sides. On average, though, valuation multiples are much saner than 14 years ago, and corporate dividend yields are much higher than last time around. Meanwhile, long bonds are yielding approximately 1/3 what they did back then.

Yes, there are definitely a category of stocks exhibiting irrational exuberance. I even own some (TSLA?). But there are also plenty of more humble stocks, like Taiwan Semi (TSM), at 14.6 TTM PE, <1 PEG, and pays the same yield as a 10yr Treasury.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to take some profits, here, but I’m not planning to liquidate, either. It’s probably worth taking a hard look at some stocks that are riding a momentum wave, which will be some of the first to experience pain, when the overall market takes a breather.

Disclosure: I am long TSLA, but am considering reducing my position within the next quarter.

For several years, I’ve watched low-cost Chromebooks chip away market share in the entry notebook segment and chomp away at the education market. In the Windows PC ecosystem, you could find notebooks within spitting distance of Chromebook costs ($200-300). Though price points were close, the actual devices were not. The notebooks were 15.6″, 6lb, 4hr battery life “portable desktops”. It was the equivalent of cross-selling a cost-reduced pickup truck against an affordable compact sedan.

Very recently, with the help of appropriate SoC platforms and Windows licensing programs, a trickle of ultraportable $199-249 Windows notebooks have come to market, and are being greeted by reasonable sales (5 out of the top 20 Amazon bestselling notebooks are PCs from this category) and good customer feedback (4.3/5 stars for those 5 bestseller models). I hope this encourages the thoughtful design compromises that are needed at this price segment. On a personal note, I like to think I had a role in these coming about; in my last weeks in the Windows PC Ecosystem team, I co-pitched a number of OEMs these SoC-eMMC-ultraportable notebook configurations in the <$250 segment. I recall consternation, from product managers, about the Windows 8.1 experience with these chipsets, 2GB RAM, and limited user storage (typically 32GB eMMC, due to cost pressures). As we’ll talk about later on, the optimizations to Windows 8.1 and efforts around WIM Boot helped make these systems possible.

I’m writing this from the keyboard of the ASUS X205, a faster, lighter, longer-lasting reincarnation of the netbook. It may be the purest form, to-date, of what the modern netbook can be, with its tablet silicon guts, optimized for consumer electronics-like, consumption-oriented usage. Its technical specs bear that out:

  • Intel Atom Z3735F – 1.33GHz base clock (HFM) and 1.83GHz Turbo clock, Bay Trail platform, tablet SoC. It has a 2.2W SDP, meaning in this chassis, it can be passively cooled.
  • 2GB DDR3L 1333MHz RAM – 1x64bit bus, 10.6GB/s bandwidth. Compared to LPDDR3, this will have a negative impact on Connected Standby battery life.
  • 32GB eMMC (Hynix) – As the perf benchmarks will show, this is a middle-to-upper tier eMMC 4.5 part, a bit slower in sequential R/W than a typical 2.5″ 5400RPM laptop drive, but easily an order of magnitude faster at <512KB random R/W. That matters a ton for system responsiveness.
  • 11.6″ non-touch display – 1366×768 TN panel, glossy, typical run of the mill
  • Broadcom dual band WiFi (up to 802.11n) – supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, which is fantastic for cramped airwaves in apartments
  • ELAN touchpad – has nearly identical dimensions to a 16:9 4.7″ display and while not a Precision Touchpad, at least exhibits a bunch of the characteristics – smooth two-finger scrolling, granular pinch-zoom, panning to the Windows 8 All Apps view via vertical scrolling.
  • Ports – 2xUSB 2.0, microHDMI, microSD slot
  • Dimensions – 286 x 193.3 x 17.5 mm (WxDxH)
  • Weight – 980g

First up, here’s what the out of box experience looks like:

  • You get a simple cardboard box containing the laptop, a charger, manuals and a redemption code for OneDrive storage.
  • Time from first power-on to having a configured system and Windows user profile was 5 minutes flat.
  • I hit a bug that prevented me from using a Microsoft Account during profile setup – I’ll have to check up on that.
  • The ~29GB of formatted storage has 8GB reserved for a recovery partition. To Windows, 17.2GB of free space remains out of the visible 20.8GB OS/data partition. This system uses WIM boot in order to shrink its required OS footprint.
  • Unfortunately, there are 600MB of Windows Updates pending; after download and installation, free storage space shrinks to  14.9GB.
  • After installing the client apps of Office 365, I have 13.1GB of free space.
  • After employing Windows’ function to create a copy of the recovery partition on a USB key, I’m mulling deleting the partition from the eMMC disk.

I’ve used the laptop as my regular couch or counter surfing machine, since I received it in early November. After a few weeks, there are already a few highlights to call out about the hardware:

  • It is very light and portable. It gets tossed around the condo, from the den to the kitchen counters to the couch to the bed. It’s a great reference/fact checker machine, since it resumes so quickly (thank you, Connected Standby).
  • What’s Connected Standby? Think of it as the smartphone or tablet-like responsive experience; your data is always up to date and system resume times are nearly instantaneous, shorter than the time it takes to open the lid to viewing position. That’s simply fabulous.
  • Quality of materials is good. Under normal typing pressure, the keyboard deck remains firm, wrist-rests don’t flex. There is some flex in the display lid, if you push on the back. There’s a bit of creaking, when picking it up from a corner, with the lid opened, which is the position of maximum leverage one can put on the device.
  • Battery life (active and standby) is stellar. I’m seeing 11.5-13 hours of real-world light usage battery life and 350-400 hours of Connected Standby (15 days). When I open the laptop and see 10% battery life left, I know I still have an hour (!) of use left.
  • Performance is sufficient, for consumption-oriented scenarios. I typically run IE with 6-8 tabs open, an Office app, and a couple Modern apps (Mail and Finance are regulars). There is no issue multitasking between them. Responsiveness is particularly high, compared to typical PCs in the price segment, given the order of magnitude advantage in random disk I/O performance.
  • Thermals are under control. With my workload, I’ve not felt any part of the device get warm, much less hot. There are no fans. Silence is golden.
  • The display is not a deal breaker, but it’s just a simple TN panel, and color-shift is evident at any viewing angle other than perpendicular. More annoyingly, due to the particularly narrow vertical viewing angles, common to TN, there is color shift across the vertical axis of the display, as the your viewing angle of incident varies down the display.
  • Physical input is nicely sized (particularly the touchpad), and again is functionally better than many larger, cheap laptops. In particular, the touchpad, for which we impressed importance time and time again with OEMs, actually does not suck.
  • The AC power adapter is a single cord segment type, providing 1.75A @ 19V (33W). The wall-wart does not have foldable prongs.

This isn’t a mobile powerhouse, nor is it a premium device, hewn from premium materials. However, for $179-199, there are a bunch of areas it exceeds expectations.

  • Input (keyboard and touchpad) quality
  • Weight-footprint-portability
  • Real world battery life
  • Responsiveness
  • Design and build quality

Don’t purchase this as a cheap replacement for the family desktop from 5 years ago. This will be slower, overall. Do purchase this, if you have tablet-like use cases and want tablet-like battery life and responsiveness, but think you need to buy a keyboard case, to make that tablet truly useful.

Another popular Windows option in this segment is the new HP Stream 11 (also $199). I mainly couldn’t accept the colour options, but you should get very similar performance with that PC. Trade off the free year of Office 365 Personal, 1TB OneDrive, and larger keyboard (Stream 11) against Connected Standby responsiveness, battery life, and portability of a smaller and 0.5lb lighter laptop (X205).