Has anyone else noticed how much the word "innovation" gets tossed around lately. I think it has always been important in the technology industry where it is seen as the holy grail. We all aspire to be innovative and be called innovative. Personally, I've tried to stray from the word a little bit because it's like one of those catchy sayings that's lost its cool because everyone uses it. It's like how Eric (one of our developers) told me how once his mom said "What's up, dog?", he just couldn't use that phrase any more. But I will ignore my one word semi-boycott for the purposes of this blog because I've been faced with a fascinating dilemma.
So, if you've read some of the blogs from our non-CodePlex side of the house like Bob, Yag, and Dave (internally, we refer to the non-CodePlex projects as "Athens"), you are probably aware that we are trying to take on the social computing technologies. Traditionally, we've been a meat & potatoes sort of group, building on-line forums, chats, and working with our partners at Telligent on blogs. About a year ago, I took this role and met with each of my new direct reports. When I met with Vikas (my Test Lead) for the first time as his manager, he spent most of our meeting on a rant about how we were continually behind the curve in what we were building (if you know Vikas, you'll realize his rants aren't quite like mine as he is far more reserved). He felt we were playing it safe, taking on projects that added value but weren't game-changers. This was just before my paternity leave, so I spent a month thinking about his words and I didn't have an answer. I wanted to say "but we're doing important stuff" (which we were), but Vikas is a smart guy and he was right. While neither he nor I would say that building something like Forums isn't extremely important to Microsoft, I think of the words of Woody Allen in Annie Hall in describing relationships as being similar to sharks: "It has to constantly move forward or it dies." I think that goes for software organizations as well. I felt this team had to move forward or it would die. Execs would question our usefulness and future investment. Our technical talent would get bored. The product management folks would be reduced to taking feature requests from product groups like a waiter takes orders from a customer (that was already happening). As the new leader of the team, I had an opportunity to make a change. While I would do everything possible to honor the commitments to the existing sites (including currently ratcheting up an entire team in China dedicated to just solidifying and updating the current Forums), I wanted to do something that would truly change the way people interacted with Microsoft.com and with one another.
A month later, I met Bob Rebholz at a time he was looking for a job. He asked for an informational interview about positions we had. For the first half hour, (to borrow a Scott Densmore phrase) I thought he was "trying to sell crazy". The second half hour, I knew he was trying to sell crazy. The third half-hour, I had my money on the table. He spun tales of tagging, social bookmarking, reward systems, and other mechanisms that connected people to other people. Even at Microsoft, we were doing some amazing stuff in the XBox division around gamer tags and this idea of building relationships on-line and he was asking why we were missing the boat. Where Vikas knew we were missing a vision, Bob offered his own as reflection of what was going around in the world around us and this notion of "Web 2.0". This was around the same time Josh and I were discussing whether Q&A Forums are truly community if there was no "sticky" connection with the people involved. I wanted to make that sticky connection that brings people back. Bob won me over by showing me the success that was already being achieved through these concepts with Flickr, del.icio.us, and several other sites. He told me how he connected to so many different people through these worlds--people to whom he remained connected. He also told me how his teenage son was using the new technologies (if you want a harbinger of many things to come in technology, watch the kids). Before I listened to Bob's take, I avoided a lot of the Web 2.0 stuff. With the exception of this blog, I didn't think I needed it. But Bob convinced my to try and now I can't live without many of those sites. But even more exciting was that this stuff was what I was tasked to do--I could work on this on behalf of Microsoft! This was community. This was risky. This was a game changer. If there's one thing I've learned from Microsoft's history, you have to be willing to "bet the company". To quote David Treadwell (former .NET VP who now works for Ray Ozzie) from one of our CodePlex executive reviews in the early stages of development, "if you are going to play, play to win".
But (yes, you knew there was a "but") not everyone embraces a big risky bet. For those who read business books, you may be familiar with "Innovator's Dilemma", the book from Harvard professor Clayton Christensen that built this notion of disruptive technologies, which upset the balance of the marketplace by rendering the incumbent technology obsolete over the long-haul. What makes disruptive technologies so potentially disruptive is that the producer of the incumbent technology has an obligation to its current batch of customers and, therefore, cannot fully invest in the new technology for fear of jeopardizing its exisitng revenue. Classic example include what digital cameras did to the photography business and what CD-ROMs did to traditional encyclopedia businesses. Whether you were Kodak or Encyclopedia Britannica, your core competency was in jeopardy. Kodak was all about the world's great film, while Britannica made a reputation on door-to-door salesman and huge collections of books that sat in your den. Suddenly, these new technologies come along with the express purpose of eliminating the need for those core competencies. What do you do? Do you jump on the bandwagon, risking your current customers for something that may or may not pan out? Do you stick with that you know and trust that the hype will blow over? There's never an easy answer. But I do know this much: if you don't take new trends seriously, one of them will obsolete you very quickly. I believe that Christensen was focusing on old companies vs. startups, so he didn't really address the concept of intrapreneurship (entrepreneurship wihthin a company). In other words, what happens when two groups within the same company have conflicting objectives as one side supports the general business while another side goes after the potential opportunity? Christensen implies that it can't be done, but companies like Microsoft do it to stay alive. Ray Ozzie is spending his days and nights making sure that "services in a cloud" trend is not lost on Microsoft, even as we are heavily invested in packaged software for tens of billions of dollars. It's not an easy thing to deal with, especially those who consider software-as-a-service as a fad. I spent months fighting conventional wisdom while we built CodePlex, where we seemed to be endorsing open source--which many saw as counter-culture to the Microsoft way of life. In fact, my real contribution to that project was managing the FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt).
So, when it is suggested to me that our work with social computing ideas will do "nothing to increase the satisfaction of developers", I am not sure whether to get frustrated, upset, or laugh. Many of them are the same ones who told me not to build CodePlex. Now, in the words of Yogi Berra, it's "deja-vu all over gain" as I need to convince people that change is among us and we are doing the right thing and ask for patience. In my opinion, we were vindicated with CodePlex. Will that happen with Athens or are we going after something that is going to fall flat on its face? Are we building something that will add no value to Microsoft? I believe it will succeed, but we'll only know years from now when history will tell the story. As long as our goal is to change the game, I'm in.
"But the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it."