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.