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As I trawled my posts from the last few months, I was a bit surprised I hadn’t written about this already. Then, I see a few posts back that I was just on the cusp of “Exciting news incoming in the next week or two!”, then silence. Well, then, that exciting news?

I’ve moved teams (and sort of roles) at Microsoft.

I spent just over 11 months in my first real job, as a feature Program Manager in the Office group. As with any first job, it was an interesting learning experience. Having glided into that role from the prior internship, it was an easy fit. I knew the people, I knew the product, and I was very eager to build my core PM skills.

Compacted and condensed, almost a year later, I emerged from a very different team, without many of those original coworkers, working on an unfamiliar product, and longing for something that fit better with my interest and (minimal) expertise in design and computing hardware. However, without a bit of fate, I’d probably still be there. The person I interviewed with for an internship was now a group manager and had an open position. “Hey Charlie, are you interested?”

Now, I’m a partner-facing Program Manager in the Windows group, working with one of our three ARM silicon partners. My commitment? Ensure Windows has the right engagement with that partner to succeed in delivering Windows on their platform. Scope is almost anything I want to make it, from greasing the engineering cogs by defining an appropriate legal framework, to diving deep into a feature to help resolve technical challenges. As an engineer at heart, it’s stupendously exciting to get to ramp up rapidly on things from security feature set details to how one could address an engineering requirement with a button’s electrical implementation.

And I think it’s that last piece that makes me enjoy the role so much. I have the opportunity to learn and dive deep into nearly any aspect of Windows and the hardware it runs and will run on. As a role with broad scope, I’m surrounded by smart and immensely experienced people, off of whom I’ve been feeding for the past 4 months. I can feel myself bulging at the sames with learnings and growing rapidly. It’s been a crazy time since I’ve joined, with some of the toughest challenges I’ve ever faced. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Grassroots Reinvention of Microsoft

Start your own grassroots initiatives.

Those were the words of my Group Program Manager, as we sat in slightly uncomfortable chairs at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, along with a couple other program managers and a UEX researcher.

Before my interview and subsequent internship at Microsoft, my perceptions of the organization were neutral at best. Many layers, lots of red tape, and a buttload of bureaucracy stood in my way. Yet at the same time, it was exciting to consider working at such an influential and powerful company. It was the question whether I could contribute to that influence that worried me. As an individual contributor, starting at the lowest rung on the corporate ladder, what could I realistically hope to achieve?

Although I could picture a rough org chart, I never completely formulated an image of how that structure affected the business processes at Microsoft. In hindsight, perhaps my nebulous idea was that orders were given from on high and the teams decided how to design, implement, and ship those features.

Having participated in early planning work for the next version of InfoPath (I believe I’m in the clear to reveal that planning is starting, since Access has spoken about it, and really, is it shocking that with Office 2010 coming up to RTM, we’re thinking ahead?), I’m seeing that very little is preached from leadership. It is very much up to the teams to decide what the direction of the product should be. Of course, this is within a given framework, which provides consistency and a unified story across the product group, as well as with an ear towards real customer needs. After all, we want people to pay us for the software, which implies they derive value from it. But as long as the team can come up with the product that sells, management stays out of our hair. They give us pretty much free reign over the process.

That’s not to say everything’s hunky-dory. There are significant challenges in a company as large and complex as Microsoft. One of my particular pain points has been that of cross-team collaboration. There are so many product groups at Microsoft that it becomes a) nearly impossible not to have product/feature overlap and b) difficult  to intertwine the goals of different teams. Think about how many web-based file synchronization/storage services Microsoft was providing at one point: FolderShare, SkyDrive, Live Mesh. There’s more to the story that simply ignorance on management’s part to identify the overlap, but I believe some changes in team structures are needed to make Microsoft more efficient. I’m still thinking through what those changes should be. I don’t have a good answer, yet.

The second point applies to every team at Microsoft – the focus on user experience. Just as in the computer market, where selling generic beige boxes no longer brings in the money, selling generic user experiences also doesn’t work. Bullet point feature sets have gotten to a point in many products that adding new ones just don’t bring enough incremental value to customers to justify their purchase. The user experience design must take a leading role in the products Microsoft ships. Apple has done this amazingly well over the past 7-8 years. Only very recently has Microsoft seen some success in this area with Windows 7, and, to a lesser degree, the Zune HD. The products that have a very strong connection with the design folks are very promising. I believe Microsoft is realizing the value this can have all across the business. I’m excited about the prospect of taking part in this change.

The point to take away from my ramblings is that I can make a difference. It is all about driving things at a low level, at the grassroots level, and delivering value to our customers. If I can come up with a feature that is compelling, no one is going to say no to it, without good reason. The products are designed bottom up, not top down. This is accepted and rewarded at Microsoft. I look to the senior members of my team, as well as many others, and I see that it is those who take the initiative to drive good features to completion that move up quickly. At a lower level, no one should feel useless. It is those who make good use of themselves and their own initiative that are then placed in positions of increased influence on the area, the product, the company, and the industry and world.

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:

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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.

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!