My teammate Betsy, the czarina of blog, will be speaking at TechEd 2005 in Amsterdam about Microsoft's corporate blogging effort, tools, and platform. Betsy has been herding Microsoft BlogCats for least as long as I've been blogging in the wild as a Microsoft employee. When I joined the ranks of Microsoft bloggers back in early 2003, there were around 30 or 40 of us in all. Prominent bloggers at the time that I can remember (some still blogging, some not) include Sara Williams, Chris Sells, Chris Brumme, Brad Abrams, Andy Oakley, and Raymond Chen (for links to their current blogs, search for their names on MSN Search.) At the time, we used a blogging application called BlogX, which was written by Chris Anderson of the Microsoft .NET team. I had been blogging inside the firewall for at least 6 months on a site maintained by the same Chris Anderson (http://blogs and later http://blogs2) and my first few steps into the open were tentative but exhilarating.
Alpha: The BlogX Era
BlogX was one of those, 'I-wrote-this-on-Sunday-night-against-beta-bits' applications that only software developers can bear to use. Using BlogX was like driving a car with no windshield or shocks through the wild west. It got us from point Win to point Web but the ride was bumpy and buggy. Despite the pain of migration and the loss of readership we all experienced, almost everyone was happy to move to weblogs.asp.net (and later to blogs.msdn.com) and install a sparkling new blog editor in December of 2003.
Pioneering Corporate Blogging
In the beginning, back in 2002 and 2003, no formal code of blogging conduct existed for Microsoft bloggers. There were few, if any, other companies that allowed its employees to blog. To top it all off, Microsoft has traditionally been a very tight-lipped company in the area of public relations. To this day, all executives receive special PR training upon joining the corporate ranks. It was the wild west. I don't think our legal department or public relations firm (WaggEd) had any idea what we were doing on blogs.gotdotnet.com or of how big and important a force we would soon become.
After a few months of blogging and numerous and tentative 'Can I? Should I? What if? conversations with my wise manager, Mark, I decided to pull up my pants, roll up my sleeves and tiptoe up to "the line", a line we all knew existed but were too afraid to approach. In rapid succession, I published a series of four posts whose only purpose was to test the limits of managerial tolerance. I wrote a journalistic account of a visit to campus by would be presidential candidate Howard Dean, a post about my private life, a post containing information about a planned team move to another building (which I named), and a post containing a joke. In retrospect and in comparison to some of the posts I've seen online lately, my posts are relatively tame. But the knock on my office door the following morning and the stern words that followed were a clear indication that my posts were not considered so tame or acceptable at the time.
Microsoft Blogs: Drafting Blogging Guidelines
In the aftermath of my brief foray into no-bloggers-land, I set out to draft a set of sensible blogging guidelines for the benefit of future bloggers on my team. Based on the frequency of inquiries from my teammates at the time about how to start their own blogs, I knew there would be more Microsoft bloggers, many more, and I wanted to share my knowledge. Soon after I wrote them, my informal guidelines became the "official, unofficial guidelines for Microsoft bloggers", a distinction they would retain for close to two years. These guidelines have since been replaced by more formal (and verbose) rules, approved by our legal department. My guidelines are a relic of the past but may have some value to somebody, someday. In the interest of posterity and transparency, here they are (note that some of them have since fallen by the wayside, thankfully):
You must post a standard MSFT disclaimer to each blog entry
Use common sense
Do not discuss unreleased MSFT products and features
Keep it friendly, but do not post too much noise (ie, accounts of your family reunion)
Do not post entries that are personally critical of an individual, especially by name
Do not make culturally insensitive remarks
When expressing an opinion, be sure to emphasize that you speak only for yourself. Doing so is as easy as beginning a sentence with "IMO" or "IMHO"
If you doubt the appropriateness of a blog entry, publish it to an internal blog first, ask a peer what they think and then read it the next day before posting externally
If you post all or parts of an MS-Internal email, conceal the names of the sender and recipients (and don't post Microsoft confidential information!)
Attempt to use standard categories
I remember feeling frustrated that I couldn't keep the list to an even 10. 🙂
Beta: The Weblogs.ASP.NET and DotText Fiasco
With all due respect to the hard working team over in MSDN, then led by Sara Williams, the decision to move Microsoft's zealous bloggers from blogs.gotdotnet.com to weblogs.asp.net was unwise. By the time we made the move in December 2003, there were a few hundred Microsoft blogs. Many of our blogs were heavily visited. My blog alone was seeing somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 unique visitors per day. Weblogs.asp.net was a quiet little community of less than 100 mostly hardcore Microsoft developers. Their blogs were neatly arranged by order of total number of posts, an implicit encouragement to post often. The community had not been around as long as blogs.gotdotnet.com and many Microsoft bloggers had accumulated many more posts than the vast majority of weblogs.asp.net users. Consequently, when we dropped onto their happy little site like a big lead boot, their blogs were suddenly and, I assume, unpleasantly suborned to the bottom of the page. Doh! Prior to the move, I stated my concerns along with a number of other bloggers but I think we must have arrived too late to make a difference.
Microsoft Blogging Comes of Age: Blogs.MSDN.com and Community Server
In late 2004, Microsoft managers, led by the Vice President of my division, Eric Rudder, came to the conclusion that the Gotdotnet team's little experiment in social software had become an invaluable corporate asset. A few of them had even started blogging themselves. One executive who blogs often and well is Soma Somasegar. Soma reports to Eric. So once again, our blogs were on the move, this time to blogs.msdn.com where hundreds and hundreds of normal Microsoft employees blog with pride in ever-increasing numbers. In early 2005, the Gotdotnet team partnered with Telligent Systems to install a new backend, based on Community Server, that offers a vastly improved editorial and blog administration user experience.
Live and Let Blog: Improving Employee Satisfaction
Trust is the root of all goodness. As a Microsoft employee, I have always regarded my ability to blog in public as a supreme privilege. The fact that I was allowed to blog in 2002 and am encouraged to blog in 2005 by my managers is a clear indication that Microsoft thinks of and treats its employees as partners, not peons. Individual employees can make a positive difference and the relative success of corporate blogging efforts like Microsoft's prooves it.
[Updated title to reflect the admittedly subjective and partial account of the history of blogging at Microsoft.]