IOD: Help us Improve Developer Chats


I’ve been involved in several chats hosted on MSDN recently. Today I was talking to someone internally who was also working on scheduling chats for his team. We both complained about the  overhead involved in scheduling and running a chat at Microsoft.  In truth there aren’t many barriers and Jana’s team does a great job working with the current system and process. Sure, the step by step documentation we have look intimidating, but the process works like this for us:

  1. I decide to host a chat with my team
  2. I open the internal chat schedule calendar, find an open spot on the developer chat schedule and “reserve” the MSDN chat room.
  3. At the same time I write up my chat title and abstract and submit that with my request.
  4. Then I create a calendar item with a real conference room or dial-in number that is sent out to the team members I want to participate.
  5. Now I have to track down a chat Moderator and invite them as well. It doesn’t seem like there are currently enough moderators internally since they are hard to come by. I think I owe a LOT of favors for the chats I’ve hosted and I hope they don’t bring their hammers after me to collect any time soon. 🙂
  6. Get the chat advertised on the chat page, newsgroups, blogs, dev centers, etc.
  7. On the day of the chat the process really gets handed off to the moderator who seems to have to following responsibilities:
    1. Makes sure everyone from Microsoft shows up a little early to install the chat manager tool we use to track the questions, question owners, participants, transcript, etc.
    2. Makes sure MS people have “MS” after their names
    3. Makes sure MS people have read/write access rather than just read only access. (Not sure why this step is required.)
    4. Teaches the MS people how to use the chat tool. (I admit that it could be simpler.)
    5. Instructs MS people to prepare their short bios.
    6. Counts down the time to the start of the chat and instructs people to post their bio’s in order.
    7. Directs the participants to stay on topic. “No, the source safe team can not tell you why Windows 98 doesn’t recognize your USB device.”
    8. Boots anyone who strays really off topic. “No, the female developers will NOT tell you what they are wearing. Goodbye!”
    9. Counts down to the end of the chat.
    10. Collects the Q/A from the transcript and submits it to be posted for download on MSDN.

At a recent chat I asked the participants how they had heard about the chat.  A majority of them seemed to imply that they found out on the day of or close to real time an decided to stop by.  This made me wonder…

Why not have more topical chat rooms like IRC channels for teams to use so there is no need to fuss with a central scheduling calendar.  Then the team could decide to host a chat at any moment, post a blog entry, a newsgroup post, etc go into the room, and start answering questions with the people that heard about the chat in real time and where interested in stopping by. 

  • Would people come or would there end up being too many overlapping chats?
  • Would it be as useful?
  • Would people leverage the channels to get questions answered when MS people aren’t around? Sort of like a more real time newsgroup.
  • Are the product teams better off having scheduled “Answer Bashes” on developer forums? (We tell you all to post your questions and product teams “bash out” as many answers as possible in real time. )
  • I’d also like to know if any of you have ever leveraged a chat transcript to answer a question or simply because you wanted to see what was discussed?
  • Do we do too many chats or too few?

Any thing else you think we could do to make the developer focused chats better? In the mean time I think its time to train more moderators. 🙂

Comments (8)

  1. I’ve been in many chats lately (including the VSS one where the person was asking why USB didn’t work) and I think for the most part it’s a great tool when everyone comes prepared, but like most things in life none of the participants come prepared. I am guilty of this from the chat we had the other day about Packages and Quick Start in VS.NET 2005, but overall I think it’s great that we get the opportunity to ask you (or Microsoft if you want to be more general) questions directly instead of filing a change request.

    At the same time I want to actually use VS.NET 2005 in a production environment in the near future. If all the team members are in a chat room all day and night, when will they find time to code. The chats are too long at 1 hour. Make them 30 minutes, and make them more often (once every 2-4 weeks), but don’t make them into a continuous live newsgroup. If the chat is good and good questions are flowing like the tequila at my company holiday party last night then extend it to an hour. Any more than that and too many people are not doing enough work to progress the software to an RTM/W.

    That’s just my opinion though…

  2. Mike says:

    – Yes, I’ve often read the chat transcripts and found them interesting and/or useful. Possibly more so for "unofficial" info, such as the status of or features in as-yet-unreleased products, which tends to underrepresented elsewhere.

    – Don’t recall ever seeing a chat transcript appear in a search result, but that may just have been luck of the draw. Do they get indexed?

    – I don’t participate in the chats themselves. Largely because they appear to be IE-only; the "sod off" page claims to support Netscape 6.2+ but rejects Firefox. I don’t know whether this is just an outdated sniffer script or whether the chat requires ActiveX or the like. I imagine that folks with busy schedules or in other timezones may also find it difficult.

    – I rather like the "Answer Bash" idea. Partly because people who couldn’t attend at the time could still submit questions in advance. (Which would take some of the heat off the moderators as a side benefit.) From the transcripts I get the impression that there’s very little actual "chat" – it tends to be Q, A, different Q, different A etc. I don’t know whether the benefits of full-on interactivity outweigh the costs.

    – Is there an RSS feed of upcoming chats? If not, why not?

  3. Josh Ledgard says:

    Yes, there is an RSS feed for the upcoming chats available at http://msdn.microsoft.com/chats.

    There actually is a back and forth live that is not represented in the transcript. When you are part of a chat you have a choice to post a question, answer a question, or just post a comment. The answers are matched with the questions automatically by our chat tool and that’s how the transcripts are generated.

    Yes, I believe the chat requires an activeX control.

    If you search MSDN you might pull up a chat transcript.

    I’m not that concerned about the time spent, at least at the current level. A chat only takes 3-4 product team people and if you look at the schedule we might be doing two chats across VS in one day. Might. So the impact of those 3-4 people in product development in a team of thousands probably isn’t too much.

  4. Ron says:

    Josh,

    I don’t see an actual RSS feed on the page you give. Is this something in the works or am I just unobservant? A feed would help me to see when chats are scheduled.

    As for your questions, I wouldn’t recommend having an IRC-style chat room. They’re only going to be "manned" at a subset of time during the day. The discussion wouldn’t be archived for offline viewing (could probably be solved, but would most likely end up with a fair amount of noise).

    Why have set times for answer bashes? There are a number of forums already in service (such as those at http://discuss.develop.com) answering questions all the time now. These existing discussions would benefit by a robust MS presence. In short, I would encourage the use of existing communication channels over creating new ones.

    Personally, I’ve only used the chat transcripts (when I could find them updated) to see what was discussed. It seems hit-or-miss as to whether the chat transcript will actually make it to the archives page. For example, I attended a C# chat about the C# IDE on Dec 1, 2004. As of now, the transcript for this chat is still not posted (yet a Dec 1 transcript for the VB IDE was posted on Dec 10).

    Thanks for taking the time to ask the questions. Always good to know there are folks looking to improve the process.

  5. josh ledgard says:

    I stand corrected. There are so many MSDN pages now with those little orange tag I must have been confused. I also end up seeing all the chats VIA RSS because I’m subscribed to all of the MSDN blog feeds and teams generaly use RSS to adtertise the chats.

    Right now Jana, who runs the chats, seems to be doing a great job of posting new chats on her blog. (http://spaces.msn.com/members/janac/)

  6. josh ledgard says:

    And I’m sorry if I sounded like an ass when I suggested there was such a feed. (Open mouth, insert foot. )