Mystic Microsoft: A Journey of Transformation in the Halls of High Technology


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Only So High

 

"Windows! Windows! Windows!" Microsoft has been accused of many things in its history but it can never be accused of timid marketing. Thanks to Steve Ballmer's energetic and unrelenting enthusiasm for the company's flagship product, Microsoft's marketing schemes are the stuff of legend—grist for both business school seminars and lawsuits alike. And thanks perhaps to the fact that every new Microsoft employee was shown, during their first day's orientation, a video of Steve pushing Windows in the manner of a used-car jockey or second-rate appliance dealer—plaid jacket and all!—it comes as no surprise that Microsoft's style has occasionally challenged the limits of convention. [Web extra: try this link for the video.]

For example, there was a rather jovial technical evangelist in Developer Relations by the name of James Plamondon. His specific focus was wooing Apple Macintosh programmers to instead concentrate their energies on Microsoft Windows. The task was difficult, considered virtually impossible by some: Macintosh ISVs were a particularly loyal bunch, a sentiment repeatedly reinforced by lavish attentions from Apple itself. Many Mac programmers were openly hostile to Microsoft and anything to do with Windows. Anyone from Microsoft's System Division who had the audacity to attend a Macintosh developer's conference most certainly played the part of Daniel in the lion's den!

Nevertheless, prior to the release of Windows 95, James the Imperturbable regularly did so, fearlessly willing to become a martyr for the cause. Fortunate for him, perhaps, Apple was deeply into corporate restructuring at the time. Resources were thin; layoffs plentiful. Consequently, the flow of perks from Apple's evangelism department to the Macintosh programmer community had tapered off considerably. To worsen matters, Apple apparently hadn't responded well to developer needs in their latest version of the Macintosh operating environment, System 7.

There was a subtle buzz among the programming prole­tariat: "System 7 sucks!" was the way they put it. And though the next update (System 7.5) was better, it still didn't inspire widespread cheer.

For St. James the Opportunist, these were moments not to be missed. At one event called MacHack ‘94, James sponsored a massive impromptu pizza feed for all 300 attendees. This won him great acclaim, even from some of Apple's own employees. It also got him a nomination for the show's "Best Hack" award and some free publicity for Microsoft in MacTech magazine. At another event, MacWorld ‘95, James organized free day-long seminars on "Windows Programming for Mac Developers." He hired two well-known Macintosh developers for the job, shamelessly promoted the seminars, and printed up, as rewards for completing the seminar, simple T-shirts that read (in a blatant rip-off of T-shirts that Apple had made) "Windows 95 SucksLess." And though he went about 500% over budget on all this, his contribution to the world of fashion at least won the Best T-Shirt of 1995 award from Computer World, a weekly trade magazine.


James' classic T-shirt

On a larger scale from James' legendary exploits, we also have Microsoft's epic product launches. The launch of Windows 95 was a kind of coup de gráce in this regard, achieving a degree of global awareness heretofore unrealized. Somehow Microsoft managed to make it really cool for any person-in-the-street to know about the thing—and desire it beyond reason. People you never imagined could possibly care about an operating system suddenly wore the mantle of "nerd" with the best, the brightest, and the geekiest. Reporters everywhere talked it up for months. Many people bought computers for the first time for the sole privilege of being in with the crowd. And right before the launch, a New Zealand man camped out for days in front of a computer store for the distinct honor of being the first person in the world to cough up a hundred bucks for his own personal copy!

The origins of this sweeping campaign style, and my first direct experience with a product launch, came more than three years earlier in May 1992. Chicago! Nearly all of Developer Relations flew en masse to Windows World '92, run that year in conjunction with Spring Comdex, total attendance to exceed 100,000. Here Microsoft launched Windows 3.1, the first version of the system to really establish itself in the marketplace and the one that set the stage for Windows 95.[*]

To prepare the hearts and minds of the public, DRG's evangelists dreamt up amazing ways to paint the town "Windows." For starters, they got almost every software retailer in Chicago to display the new product in their storefronts on the day of the launch. Then they managed to get flags bearing the Windows logo hoisted above downtown landmarks like Soldier Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, and even, if memory serves, the Sears Tower. They even had a big Microsoft Mouse walking all around O'Hare airport and the meals on every American Airlines flight into town that week included, compliments of Microsoft, a miniature Windows 3.1 product box with several Hershey kisses inside. In short, the city—and the sky above—was alive with Windows![]

DRG was equally energetic inside the convention hall. I was one of the few, the proud, and the brightly attired chaps who got shanghaied into a rather brazen scheme prior to the opening of the show. Trotting around in these obnoxiously loud neon-yellow "Ask Me About Windows" T-shirts and burdened with comparably obnoxious neon-green duffel bags full of marketing schmaltz, we set out to prove the "seamless compatibility" of Windows 3.1. Microsoft had promised that if you installed the new system on any machine running Windows 3.0, everything—yes, everything, old and new alike—would still work. To prove it, we tried to convince other exhibitors then and there to install the new system on their demo machines from the floppy disks we carried for this purpose.

Now since you've probably been an exhibitor yourself, let me just say that the mere suggestion of changing anything on a demo machine—especially within hours of opening one of the biggest shows of the year—is enough to cause even the most stalwart marketeer to blanch and quiver. And to propose that they change the operating system on their carefully-constructed computers is like asking a champion golfer to use something other than his lucky putter when he is only one shot from getting a double-eagle on the 18th hole and clinching the all-time scoring record in the Masters. It just isn't done!

Yet bursting with an enthusiasm that probably made Steve Ballmer weep for joy, we asked anyway. Surprisingly, we got a respectable number of takers. And not so surprisingly, a few of our evangelists got so caught up in the scene that they didn't even ask: to them, an unmanned booth was an open invitation to go right ahead and install the new system!

I have to admit that while I did install Windows 3.1 (with permission) for a couple of vendors, my heart really wasn't into this sort of thing. I was attending Windows World to give a talk on the OLE technology and to provide strategic counsel for various ISVs in attendance. With my role being more that of teacher and guide than politician, I was interested in truth, not promises. I simply couldn't afford the kind of hubris that is so common to marketing.[]

After Windows World my work with OLE was more or less complete: with the help of my guidebooks and sample programs many ISVs were incorporating it into their products with little difficulty. Free to then turn my attentions elsewhere, I spent the spring and summer of 1992 applying the same process I had used with OLE to clarify other new Windows 3.1 technologies, like TrueType fonts and certain networking features. I authored more recipe booklets for these, wrote a good number of sample programs, and turned out a few magazine articles. I was also invited (or sent) to give presentations on these topics at conferences and other programmer gatherings and made a few personal visits to individual ISVs.

Now there are three general rules for doing the kind of technical marketing I was involved with here, rules that apply both to product and presenter alike. One: shamelessly flaunt your best strengths. That much is obvious. Two: primp up the mediocre to make it all look special—how else do you get people really excited about esoteric software technology? And three—perhaps the most important where your employer's reputation is concerned: try to make even the most glaring faults look, at worst, mediocre. And if you can actually make those faults look like features, well, all the better!

I got good training in this from watching DRG's top evangelists at work, and I certainly could have imitated them. But playing spin doctor just isn't part of my nature—I didn't believe that everything coming out of Microsoft was somehow sacred. Yes, this attitude bordered on heresy, but I just couldn't help being openly honest and forthright about our technologies—especially when I was standing face-to-face with hundreds of other engineers! After all, it was that very honesty that made my work effective: when I spoke in public, then, I simply had to tell it like it was, for better or for worse.

I initially expected the worse. I wasn't following the unwritten corporate rules for one in my position and had every reason to expect reprimand or reprisal from the upper ranks of Developer Relations. These fears, however, never materialized; though I was ready for discipline, none came. Instead, my unique emphasis actually earned praise from my managers when it began to bear certain fruits.

For one, my "no-BS" approach won me a great deal of respect among the programming community at large. It was a good thing, too: I was young, and looked even younger. How young, you ask? Well, during my co-op tenure, when I was all of nineteen years old, a caller with a deep southern drawl put it this way: "Now y'all listen t' me son"...I've bin a-programmin' longer'n y'all bin alive!" Now, a mere four years later, his statement remained true for himself and probably a two-thirds majority of every audience I addressed. Many of the other third had probably been a-programmin' since well before my high school graduation. So for me to stand up there and tell these seasoned veterans how to do their work? I could have been crucified for presumption!

But my candor won their appreciation—so much so that after about eighteen months I was no longer looked upon as a cookie-cutter Microsoft Person whose only redeeming quality was his or her access to inside information.[] It was now rather my own reputation that drew audiences: people came to my lectures and read my articles because they trusted me to help them understand Microsoft's increasingly complex systems and not just feed them some party line. In fact, throughout the latter part of my public-speaking career, my association with Microsoft was quite secondary; often it was altogether forgotten! I simply didn't act like certain standard-issue corporate lackeys that ISVs had learned to despise. I instead found my audiences open and receptive to what I had to share, and I like to believe that this had a meaningful impact on the success of our technologies.

A personal benefit that came from all this was increasing clarity. By being completely honest and by constantly looking at Microsoft's systems from the perspective of outside programmers, I could easily see ways to improve both our products and my own presentations. It's well known that the very act of trying to educate others helps one learn a subject better than any amount of book study. Simply said, one's understanding needs testing. It needs some kind of exposure to the cold light of day—or the scrutiny of three-hundred nit-picky and scathingly practical engineers! Without this it's difficult to see your deficiencies, let alone correct them.

Now here's an interesting thing: for myself, most of those corrections came in the very moment I noticed a problem. The instant I realized a flaw in my presentation—or my comprehension—new insights and ideas immediately came to mind. It was as if they were just there, waiting for an appropriate opening in my consciousness. Sometimes in a lecture I would stop myself mid-sentence and ask everyone to wait a minute or two while I changed my PowerPoint slides to show a better (or more correct) way of doing things. On several occasions I even modified and recompiled my demo program on the spot.

At first I simply attributed this sort of thing to having a relatively decent lump of brain-meat floating around inside my head. After all, the mind comes up with instant solutions to new problems all the time, and the very attempt to explain something can be, as I said, very clarifying. But then I began to experience situations that not only challenged this particular rationalization but also challenged my very understanding of intelligence.

The catalyst was the second version of OLE, introduced Microsoft     in its preliminary form in the fall of 1992. Whereas the purpose of version 1 was quite limited, version 2 was vastly comprehensive: the OLE 2 specification first expanded on OLE 1, then went on to transcend it altogether.

And when I say transcend I mean yes—in size, weight, and incomprehensibility! The new 300-page specification was overwhelmingly complex. Almost no one had a clue as to what the whole thing was really trying to achieve. It's not that the spec didn't contain all the necessary details, mind you—the problem was that it did to a fault! In the very effort to articulate every minutia, the two software architects authoring this behemoth simply had no time to explain the "big picture" of OLE 2, a vision that they alone understood. As a result, ISVs were once again lodging their complaints with Developer Relations whose evangelists had sallied forth, once again, to spread The Gospel. And naturally, once again, it fell on my shoulders to make some sense of matters. So I dove right in and did my best to swim.

In reading the spec, I was led to believe that OLE 2 was a direct extension of OLE 1, offering the same basic features with a few added elements. So I took my OLE 1 programs and, over the course of the next month, labored to bring them up to the new standard.

Yikes! What a hideous chore! Yes, I got my programs to work"...sort of. Pieced together with the electronic equivalents of bubble gum and lunchbox pudding cans, they more or less did what they were supposed to do. I kinda understood why I had to do certain things in my code, but just to implement the basic OLE 1 features with OLE 2 seemed twenty times more difficult! And there were large blocks of code that I'd just copied wholesale from the OLE team's samples because nothing worked otherwise. I had no idea what the code actually did and less of an idea why I needed it.

By no means, then, did I feel ready at the end of that first month to consider educating people about this monstrosity, let alone make it all easier for them. Given the choice, I would have liked to sequester myself for at least another trimester of study. But some higher-ups had decided that I should spend a week in the Canadian capital of Ottawa to personally help the programmers at Corel Corp. add OLE 2 features to Corel Draw! and a few of their other popular products. This was part of an effort to counter the false accusation that Microsoft's Systems Division (to which DRG belonged) gave special insider information to our own Applications Division that allowed their programs to outperform the competition's. In reality, DRG gave much more advance information and personal assistance to companies like Corel than we ever gave to our own applications teams! Yet we needed definite and visible proof.

So off I went to Ottawa to give daily seminars on the essentials of OLE 2. Though I hardly felt qualified for the job, I was admittedly more qualified than just about anyone else outside the OLE team. Still, there were certain parts of the technology that had me totally stumped: I knew for a certainty that I simply didn't understand them at all"....

Then something very curious happened.

Imagine yourself for a moment standing on the edge of a great black void, where solid matter disintegrates into nothingness, not unlike that climactic scene with Harrison Ford in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Now imagine extending your left leg and slowly leaning in its direction. Just as you are about to fall into the abyss, a stepping stone, solid and firm, appears beneath your foot! Then you take another step and lo! another stone appears, then another, then another, until you finally cross over to the other side of the dark chasm.

Well, that's essentially what happened during my first presentation: just as I got to a point of having to admit to everyone that I really didn't know what the hell I was talking about, or where I was even going with the whole presentation, the next step I needed to take suddenly appeared in the forefront of my mind. It seemed right, so I talked through that step. Then, once again facing the void, the next step appeared. Following that, another came, and another, and another, and another, until about half an hour later I found myself having just completed a coherent and seemingly accurate treatment of the subject at hand. It was so uncanny that I just stood there for a few moments in disbelief—I had no idea where it had all come from.

Later in the day I had a chance to check out everything I'd said in an actual program. Every bit of it worked. Somehow I had managed to correctly teach a subject that had been the epitome of confusion only twelve hours earlier.

Now had this been an isolated incident one might write it off as an anomaly and say that I really had known my subject but just hadn't yet formulated that understanding in words. Or one might say I was just following the logical sequence inherent in the system's design. But the experience repeated itself. Every day, in every presentation, I found an understanding of OLE 2 that simply hadn't been there before: I somehow knew what I knew I didn't. It was as if in my very admission of ignorance, in my very humility, a flow of grace suddenly appeared to compensate for my deficiencies. Time and time again, another power—clearly not a product of my own intelligence—had lifted me in the very moment I was about to fall.

At the time, I was not yet sensitive enough to see what was really happening. In fact, I can't remember even once sitting down to think through this experience as anything out of the ordinary. Even if I had, I don't think I would've known what to think about it. But it left a permanent mark on my consciousness: deep down I began to realize that something else was at work, a nameless and formless consciousness much larger than myself. I couldn't say what it was, but I felt a certain sense of gratitude for the help and guidance that it had given me in moments of definite need.

Now while I returned home with a much better understanding of OLE 2 than I'd had the week before, my knowledge was not in any way complete. My presentations at Corel covered only a portion of OLE 2's totality. Many things remained unclear as I continued struggling with the technology for the next seven or eight weeks.

During that period I had to give a few more presentations on a three-city OLE tour with a couple of DRG evangelists. So once again I found myself standing at a podium facing my own lack of understanding, as well as a large audience!

This time, however, that humble thought of "Gee, I really don't know this"..." didn't enter my mind. I figured I could fly as high as I wanted by myself—that I knew enough now that I should be fully able to give a good presentation under my own power, even if I had to blast my way through it. Well, it didn't work. I could tell from the complete lack of intelligent questions that my audiences were hopelessly confused. Perhaps it was compounded by the fact that I gave half of my talk before lunch (when the morning's coffee and doughnuts were ebbing fast) and gave the concluding half immediately afterwards. The lunch, a typically heavy affair, and the sheer drudgery of my thoroughly uninspired presentation proved themselves an admirable cure for insomnia. One time I almost slipped into a nap myself while standing at the podium as my digestive tract labored to break down large quantities of cheese! (Thereafter I limited myself to only the lightest of lunches—mild starvation tends to keep one awake.)

In any case, the flow of unexpected grace that I had experienced in Ottawa was not there. Why? It's very simple: it had been blocked by pride, by the thought that I could do it all on my own. Grace, you see, has to be invited and received: invited by the recognition and faith that while we might not know the answers ourselves, there is a Power that does; and received by the openness to allow that Power to work through us, according to its own will.

As a result, I was so faced with the stark reality of my own impotence that when this grace returned, I would be left with no doubt as to its true source"....

 


During the time when I was actively out in the public eye (1993-1995), I had a number of portraits taken
by an official Microsoft photographer. We did the usual serious stuff, of course, but often
did a few more "casual" shots for which I brought in my favorite stuffed bunny.
 


[*] The one intervening launch was for Windows for Workgroups 3.11; this was, as mentioned in Chapter Six, done up on Broadway as a musical comedy. Bill Gates has never danced on stage since. [Return to text]

[] IBM was finally launching the second version of OS/2 at this same show. Though IBM promoted it at their Comdex booth as a major competitor to Windows 3.1, the only visible marketing outside the show was a single OS/2 banner hanging from the IBM building in downtown Chicago, which was, ironically, directly across from our hotel. [Return to text]

[] At least I came away with a good duffel bag that served me well for many years of travel. It fit perfectly in the overhead compartments of a wide variety of airplanes and, being as hideously ugly, was not only easy to spot on a baggage carousel but also too embarrassing to steal. [Return to text]

[] Barring, that is, a singular exception that I'll relate in Chapter Twelve. [Return to text]

 

 

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