October 26, 2007 spout

Working Remotely for Microsoft: Can You Communicate Effectively From Home During Meetings?

Communicating during a meeting is an art unto itself and has its own set of considerations:

  • Learn to love LiveMeeting: If you can’t see faces, the next best thing is whiteboards and what’s on each other’s computer screens. For whiteboards, you really need a video camera, which I’ll talk about later. For desktop sharing, I’ve tried NetMeeting, VNC, Terminal Services (in shadow mode) every version of MS Messenger, Office Communicator, Vista Meeting Space and LiveMeeting and a bunch more I’m not remembering. The only one that works consistently through firewalls (mine and Microsoft’s) and is easy to get bootstrapped is LiveMeeting. Learn how to start a Meet Now” meeting (I have an URL that starts up the Meet Now: Chris Sells” meeting but I have no idea where I got it) and use it! I’ve actually heard Don Box, who hates working with me when I’m not in the room, say LiveMeeting is better than you being here!” And when you’re jointly working on a shared document or shared code, it’s pretty damn good.
  • Get a LiveMeeting monkey: If you’re going to do a remote presentation, make sure there’s someone on the other end with LiveMeeting tested and running that can project your slides for you while you narrate.
  • Learn the short path through LiveMeeting: Microsoft employees, like most humans, don’t like to be distracted by things they don’t care about. They don’t want to install a new piece of software on a machine they just got working again last week and they certainly don’t know how to use it. Make sure you can talk them through the shortest path to getting LiveMeeting installed and sharing their desktops. The first time, this takes 10-15 minutes of disk churn (unfortunately), so ideally you’ll do it before the big meeting.
  • Keep time zones in mind: Martin was at GMT+0. Tim was at GMT-5. Microsoft is at GMT-8, as am I. Being working and available for meetings, phone calls and quick turn emails is important, otherwise, your team is going to start forgetting to include you in ad hoc stuff, as was a problem for Tim and completely impossible for Martin.
  • Meet new people face-to-face: I go up to Microsoft 3 days/2 nights every other week with the idea that I’m not going to get much actual coding or writing done, but I’m going to get face time with new people I need to start relationships with. When they hear you’re remote, most folks at Microsoft will want to postpone the meeting til you’re in town. To make them comfortable with you and to put faces to the voices, that’s a good idea the first time. However, after that, phone calls are just fine, especially when combined with LiveMeeting.
  • Learn your address book: When a meeting room is scheduled, the scheduler doesn’t know the phone number for the meeting nor are they even going to remember that you’re calling in, so you need to know how to get the phone number yourself. At Microsoft, the address book lists conference room phone numbers as conf room [blg]/[room],” e.g. conf room 42/5646″. If you have any trouble or you need someone to call you a cab for the airport on the last day of your trip, you can look up the receptionist for the building you’re in with Reception Bldg [bldg],” e.g. Reception Building 42″.
  • Get your own personal conference call number: If more than one person is calling into a single meeting room, have your personal conference call phone number and code ready. Again, Microsoft issues these to anyone that wants one (and again I can’t remember where I got mine : ).
  • Take meeting notes: If you are finding yourself missing out what’s going on during meetings while you’re on the phone, offer to take the meeting notes. That way, when you have questions, you’re asking as the guy taking notes not the annoying guy who’s too full of him/herself to move.
  • Play solitaire: If you’re not taking notes and you find yourself zoning out during a phone meeting, either because you’re surfing the web or starting to do real” work, you need to do something that will occupy your eyes and your hands while keeping your ears and brain free to pay attention. For that I recommend solitaire or, when I’ve really let my work interfere with my home life balance, I like to put the dishes away or fold clothes. Handy access to the Mute button on your phone covers up the clink” noises. : )
  • Learn to intuit what’s going on to the whiteboard: I find that the single biggest downside to not being there in person, especially on a product team, is not being able to see the whiteboard. Microsoft has a face-to-face, brute force culture; if a design or implementation problem can’t be solved in two sentences in email, that’s cause for a whiteboard scribble session. What I’ve learned, however, is that most such whiteboard scribbles look the same: there are going to be some boxes, some lines and some letters. The most powerful thing about what’s happening on the whiteboard is not the whiteboard itself, but the story that’s told while the boxes and lines are being scribbled. With some practice, you can learn to guess what’s on the whiteboard by listening to the story, even if you have to ask a clarifying question or two. Further, just the mere act of saying something like Well, I’m just guessing, but what I think you think drew is…” More often than not, the folks on the other end of the phone will say something like, Wow. That’s pretty close, Chris, except that…” With a little practice, you too can become a whiteboard whisper.” : )

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t love a better solution for remote telepresence then I’ve got. I’ve tried a number of experiments over the years and right now Scott Hanselman and I are trying yet another one. For me, a basket of laptop that my team can carry to meetings for me that’s running Skype for a/v sharing (it works through firewalls and does great noise cancelation), with a high quality pan/tilt/zoom camera I can control from my end is the killer app for remote employees. Scott’s got more of a mobile IvanAnywhere mindset, but between the two of us, we hope to cobble together something that closes 80% of the remaining gap I can’t close with the communication tips I’ve listed above.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss the career consequences of working remotely at Microsoft.