Scene:  A Taco Joint in Redmond

Two weeks ago.  I’m in Redmond for the MVP Summit.  I’m meeting an old friend and colleague for lunch at our old favorite taco joint.  We sit down at our table.  I glance over at the booth right next to us, and who do I see?

The Microsoft executive most directly capable of altering the 2013 PowerPivot story.

When I was still working in Redmond, I might pass this guy in the hallways once every year.  But here I am, in town for a few days, and he’s sitting right next to me at a hole-in-the-wall taco joint two miles from campus.

A fateful, pulse-quickening moment.  What do I do?  (Story continued below).

An Update (of Sorts) on the 2013 PowerPivot Story

The most-commented post in this history of this website continues to churn, and I thought it was time today for me to check back in and tell you what I can.

I will say, up front, that I will not violate my NDA with Microsoft, nor will I betray the good faith of anyone at MS who opens up and talks to me.  Doing either of those would not be in my best interest or that of anyone reading this, since that would crimp any future information flow.

That message bolded above is aimed primarily at anyone from MS who might be reading this and getting nervous about talking to me. 

Got that, agent of Redmond?  You have nothing to fear from me Smile.  And really, I came here today not to bury Caesar, but to praise him.

First, a word on perception vs. reality

One of the things I kept stressing in the comment thread is that the external perceptions of Microsoft tend to be quite a bit “off.”  The actions of the overall Microsoft beast are sometimes attributed to arrogance or a disregard for customers, but rarely does that perception match the reality behind the scenes.

Typically, the truth is that someone lacks information, and half the time, it’s the public that’s lacking the info.  I remember one time we had to alter Office 2000 setup.exe to account for a bug in the setup written by Netscape engineers – Netscape had made a serious mistake in their installation process, and after you installed Office (which followed the rules, I promise!), Netscape stopped working.  The bug was Netscape’s, but we knew public perception would blame us, so we fixed it on our end.

Trouble is, the fix on our end was more of a hack than a fix, and it caused other problems for customers.  We knew that too, and we knew we’d be blamed for those problems.  But better to be blamed for those than blamed for “sabotaging Netscape.”  We also knew that no one would believe us if we blamed Netscape publicly.  We couldn’t win, so we just sucked it up.

But the reverse is also true – Microsoft can be the ones lacking information.  There were days at MS when I’d make 50-100 product decisions.  Many of those would necessarily be made without complete information.  When I got them “right,” typically customers wouldn’t notice.  But the ones I “missed” would typically get LOTS of attention.

We should allow for that possibility here, too, and not get swept up in anger, even if we think this was/is a destructive decision.  If nothing else, we’re more likely to be heard if we are calm and rational.

We ARE Being Heard.

I still have not seen/heard ANY proposals from MS on a “fix,” nor is there even a commitment to provide one.  It would be unrealistic to expect such a thing so soon, even if we were to get a fix eventually.

But I CAN say, without doubt, that they are listening – intently and sincerely – to our feedback.  As someone who used to be on their end, I know the difference between polite acknowledgment and sincere listening, so I ask you to trust me on this point.

It started on the private MVP email discussion lists, back before the Summit.  I viewed it as an “apex” example of interaction between MS and their MVP’s – probably the most constructive interaction I have ever seen on that channel.  The MVP’s were very rational and clear (but firm), and senior MS folks were asking lots of great questions rather than saying “sorry guys” or “I hear you, but…” 

I think everyone involved in those discussions – both MS and the MVP’s – should be very proud of this chapter.  I would characterize the discussion as a comprehensive effort to understand the community response, and to evaluate whether this decision might indeed be counterproductive to Microsoft’s interests.

That last part is important – MS is a business, and we shouldn’t expect them to take actions contrary to their best interests just to be “nice.”  We can’t hold them, or anyone, to an unrealistic standard.

Our “job” is to educate them on the unforeseen consequences, to them and us, of the decision.  (“Us” because we ultimately are the most important promoters of Excel and PowerPivot – if it dis-incents us from behaving that way it does impact MS.)

Next:  The Word Doc


It’s a 14-Page Rollup of the Comment Thread Smile

When I got home from Redmond, I went through the comment thread and packaged up many of the best comments into a single Word document, and sent that doc to multiple people at Microsoft.  I believe that document is making the rounds now – that’s in addition to the MS folks who are reading the comments you post.  Your voices are not being lost in the wind.

OK Back to the Taco Joint…

The taco joint was Thursday.  Briefly let’s flash back to Tuesday of that same week.  During a break between sessions, I asked one of my former MS colleagues something like “behind the scenes, who is the driving force behind the decision?  Who holds the cards here?”

The answer surprised me, in a good way.  It went a lot higher than I expected, and was a familiar name.  I had unconsciously expected the decisionmaker here to be some sort of new interloper, a “cowboy” of sorts – showing that I too am not above the assumption that something arrogant was afoot.  Shame on me! Smile

The name I got instead is a very rational, experienced, and even-keeled exec who’s a great example of The Right Thing mindset.  Someone who’s been progressing up the ladder for the right reasons.

My attitude changed in that moment.  The chances of a “fix” seemed to go up (good), but at the same time the chances that the decision might be driven by unknown and compelling reasons also went up (slightly bad).

Anyway, it was out of my hands at that point.  Until Thursday when I sat down and saw that very exec five feet away from me.  Should I say something?  Interrupt his lunch with what appeared to be another MS guy?

imageI wasn’t exactly dressed to impress, having switched to Comfy Nerd Wear for the last day of the Summit, as pictured here at right.

I’d had new business cards made up before my trip, even though I didn’t expect to be handing them out – the MS folks at the Summit know me, as do the MVP’s.  But I had them with me.

I decided not to interrupt, but wait for him to leave and THEN pounce.  Which is precisely what happened.

As he rose to depart, I stood up, said hello to him by name (I am a familiar face to him so it wasn’t a total shock), and said the first thing that came to mind:

“Someone from your team really should talk to me about this whole PowerPivot SKU thing.  At the moment I don’t think it’s even in Microsoft’s best interests, and the only people talking to me at the moment are the Mary Jo Foleys of the world.”

That last line was a calculated risk, like Jack Ryan betting that Marko Ramius always turned to port in the bottom half of the hour.  If successful it would just be an attention-getter.  If unsuccessful it would be irritating.

His response was classic.  Big warm smile, and “why would Mary Jo Foley be talking to you?”  It dawned on me that he didn’t know I was no longer at Microsoft!  If I were still an MS employee, and directly talking to analysts…  well that would be a mortal sin.  But rather than show displeasure, he just stayed calm and friendly and asked that question.  He could have asked the more accusatory question – “why are YOU talking to Mary Jo Foley?”  As cool as the other side of the pillow, this guy.  Worth emulating.

Anyway, we cleared that up, he took my card, we exchanged pleasantries, and off he went.  I wasn’t sure if I would hear back, but it was worth the effort.

I Did Hear Back

Yesterday, someone from his team DID reach out.  And again, it’s someone familiar to me, someone with a great reputation and mindset, and someone who’s been very successful over the years.

And again, it’s just an exploratory, “we want to understand better” effort.  No hint of action at this point, but we should not feel discouraged about that.  Nor should we take this gesture as some sort of admission that they’re wrong.  It’s not that at all.

The important thing here is the listening.  What many people think of as “Big Bad Microsoft,” reaching out in good faith to listen to their customers and advocates.  And it’s coming from the real power centers rather than people who lack influence.

THAT is the “news story” here, the thing that made this post worth writing.

No matter how this all ends, I encourage you to join me in applauding the way Microsoft has been handling this issue over the past few weeks.  We want to provide them with positive feedback on this sort of behavior, rather than getting self-righteous about it.  They are just people.  Don’t forget that.

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Rob Collie

One of the founding engineers behind Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, and creator of the world’s first cloud Power Pivot service, Rob is one of the foremost authorities on self-service business intelligence and next-generation spreadsheet technology. 

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Good to hear – MS has a great product in PowerPivot. I’m convinced they don’t know just how good it is across all teams (excel, SharePoint, MS-Sql). If they did, they would push harder on improving access.

  2. For the time being I have avoided mentioning this issue in our discussions about Office 2013 and 365 here at work. I was incendiary on Twitter and in comments, but that was to get others of my ilk to pay attention and join their voices with ours. I’m still hoping to see a packaging change before we implement. We are slow movers, a non-profit heading into the 4th fiscal quarter, so there is time.

  3. Interesting post, but I don’t get this line:
    “No matter how this all ends, I encourage you to join me in applauding the way Microsoft has been handling this issue over the past few weeks”

    What handling? Should we applaud them for their silent observation and not saying ‘no’ right out of the box? We woudn’t even know that they were observing if it wasn’t for posts like this. We’d think they were just ignoring.

    I don’t think anyone who purchased Office 2013 on the expectation that PowerPivot was in there ( an expectation that Microsoft could have mitigated much earlier on) only to take it back for a refund feels like clapping.

    1. It’s a fair point Jeff. More details are required to understand my perspective I guess. You’ve caught me at bedtime so I’ll try to circle back tomorrow ok?

      1. Cool. I’ll throw another comment into the mix on you point “Perception vs. reality: The actions of the overall Microsoft beast are sometimes attributed to arrogance or a disregard for customers, but rarely does that perception match the reality behind the scenes.”

        It’s also worth reminding ourselves that we are not Excel’s customers. We’re one in x thousand of Excel’s customers.

        Hell, less than one percent of Excel’s customers probably don’t use pivot let alone PowerPivot. So that MS exec no doubt has much bigger fish to fry on a daily basis, what with the fact that the other x thousand minus one customers care about other stuff than PowerPivot, and also given that Excel is pretty much in an arms race right across the spectrum of its functionality with competitors (not to mention the secret squirrel bits of future functionality that we havent’ thought of yet, but MS and their competitors are working on in secret bunkers)

        All this bigger-fish frying is bound to partially crowd out his attention in regards to a small bit of noise from the back of the room about a very niche bit of functionality.

        1. Actually Jeff our instrumentation data “back in the day” at MS showed that 5-10% of the user base created pivots. But PowerPivot is still VERY early in its awareness curve, much less adoption.

        2. And one more thing – even though we’re 5-10% of the user base, we each tend to publish information to a median of 15 people. So the capabilities they give US actually influence 15x – we are a leveraged investment. I remind my former colleagues of this every chance I get 🙂

    2. OK Jeff. A few quick points.

      1) They just officially launched Office 2013 last week. That involves many “command performances” – talking to media, traveling the world for launch events, etc. – and those performances tend to occupy the very people whose attention we need.

      2) There are some other even bigger public outcries with the licensing model, like the non-transferable decision. And they just reversed that:

      3) The existence of blog posts like these is really the only communication we could expect at this point, given things like the above.

      4) In general it takes a LOT for a massive corporation to stop and listen, for many reasons. Even if listening is the only thing they are doing – no public response, no hint that they may change their minds – it’s a big deal. As a former insider I will tell you that I’m proud of them. Ten years ago they would not have listened at all. Change is hard, and when it’s in its delicate early phases it’s better to encourage than criticize. Carrot and stick – yell about bad things, clap about good things. We ARE all in this together really, them and us.

      5) When the biggest dog on the planet shows even the tiniest bit of its belly, wise heads tread respectfully, for multiple different reasons 🙂

      1. This blog series isn’t about PowerPivot at all. It’s about Game Theory 😉
        Strikes me that while all the above is true, someone at MS stuffed up because they forgot to write “Batteries not included” on the box.

        When they reverse this desicion, I expect a post from you titled “Batteries included

  4. I’m happy to hear that this is not falling on deaf ears. I’ve really been pushing PowerPivot in my office, and I’d hate to lose it when we upgrade, or, more likely, stay on the older versions so as to not give it up. (We are not really in a position to do volume licensing or 365 at this time).

  5. Rob:

    Jump into your time machine and fire it up with Doc Brown and get Bill and Umlas to get that bugger to 1,21 jiggawatts and show up with a secret satchel that explains how spreadshhets will relate to ohe another.

    Land the machine at two strategic locales. HQ of Borland makers of Paradox and Ashton-Tate makers of DBase III your mission is to “entice” those engineers out of therr cubicles with season tickets to the 1985 Chicago Bears. This will allow the seed to be planted. All of this is in preparation for the release of 2.1of Excel planned for 1987. Be on the lookout for LOTUS agents they will use any means necesssary to obtain your flash drive. See Agent Queue if you need gadgets.

    See You on the Other side= McFly vs M(c) Kapor and the FFF (Fanatical Flat filers)

    Working Title of the mission

    When My Computer has 64 (BITS)—Historal SATIRE eff

  6. Bummer. I know that Taco Joint–it’s just a few minutes from my house! I wish you had at least let me know you were in town so we could meet up. But, I’m sure you were quite busy and on a tight schedule. Maybe next time? -James

    1. Yes, my visits to Redmond kinda suck actually. I don’t sleep and I see only like 5% of who I’d like to see, if that. I need a reason to increase the frequency of trips.

      We’ll grab a beer and then go put your 3d printer to good use, manufacturing all sort of illicit devices.

  7. My comment has nothing to see with PowerPivot; it is simply to ask you that the next time you go for Tacos tell your friend that he has an orthography error in his ad: it must be say “RINCONCITO” (with “c”), not “RINCONSITO” (with “s”).

    Best regards.

  8. Looks like I missed out on PowerPivot for 2013! Just received my new powerful 16GB laptop, but it came with Office 2013 Professional.

    Doesn’t look like the company is going to upgrade me to Professional Plus (they’re actually reluctant to even give me 64-bit Office because of our support policies.) And, now this limited/special availability and potential “incompatibility” with Excel 2010 versions just killed the deal!

    So, I either go back to Office(Excel) 2010 where I can take advantage of the add-in, or drop off the face of the earth with regard to working with millions of records of customer order data.

    And we were so close!

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