June 13, 2008 oslo

Bill’s Last Review

The last coupla months have been crazy. We’ve been warming up our PDC message with a series of SDR (Software Design Reviews) where we invite folks from the community, influencers, important customers, etc, to come and hear what we think the story is for our new technology before we blow it in front of a live PDC audience. There’s a ton of prep to make sure we’re as polished and as thought through as possible and that we’re presenting as well possible, so there’s been a ton of work on what the story is and how to present it properly. The latter means that I run a little internal training course called Sells University” which is kind of an extreme presentation skills” workshop I run, complete with Sells U hats and t-shirts (the alumni parties are fun : ).

Still we don’t always get it right, which means mining the feedback (loud, enthusiastic and extensive feedback) to see what we can improve for the next time.

Sometimes the next time,” is something called a BillG Review.” This is where we get together our best folks, our best bits and our best story and we bring the all together for BillG himself for up to 4 hours of dog n’ pony show. Normally this is as much about forcing teams together that should’ve been together all along as it is about the actual presentation to Bill, but either way, it’s generally a month or more of hard work.

This time, we had two weeks.

Chris, how’d you like to put together the demo for Bill’s last review?” was what Doug asked me. I’d been to a BillG before, but had never been that involved, so I really had no idea what the effort was going to be. When faced with a new challenge and little information, I did what I always do: I’d be happy to,” I said.

And so began two weeks of 14+ hour days, meeting every day with execs up to the VP-level, figuring out what the story was, who’d say what, the mix of demo to slides, what he’d heard before, what he’ll want to hear, rat holes we want to avoid, rot holes we want to engage him on (called drawing the foul” in softie-speak), timing, etc.

And those are just the daily meetings — the rest of the time is spent actually getting the bits to work, which means integrating technologies across teams and divisions, often for the first time. Can’t have Bill saying, But why didn’t you just use such and so — they’ve already solved that problem?” so we have to make stuff work, even if it’s alpha and hasn’t been made to work together yet or isn’t stable when you bring it together. So I’m pulling in all my friends and their friends to set up conference calls to make these bits work with those bits and using the name BillG” like a club to motivate folks that are already very very busy.

And it worked. It was more than full-time for two solid weeks, but we got a stack of bits working reliably and repeatably to demonstrate the goals of our work. It was chewing gum and bailing wire, but it got the point across. And the demo I worked on was just 15 minutes of a two hour review; there were dozens of other folks working on the rest of it.

The BillG review itself? Imagine the nicest conference room you’ve ever been to, with giant leather chairs, a podium, a huge retractable projection screen, miles of white board and acres of windows looking out over the green Microsoft campus. Imagine our Sr. VP checking in on us minutes beforehand to straighten out any questions we need answered (we spent 30 minutes guessing where Bill would sit and arranging ourselves accordingly). Then imagine Bill himself coming in like a ninja, appearing in his designated seat as if he’d teleported to it from his previous meeting (and maybe he did). No introductions, no fanfare, just We’ll get right to it, Bill.”

And he listened, laughing a little from time to time, asking the odd question. I’d been at one of these before, but sitting along the wall, looking at the back of Bill’s head. This time I was at the big boy’s table. Last time, I’d tracked f-bombs, keeping a running total in my head: the higher the number, the worse you’re doing. The last time, we had one/hour, which was considered to be outstanding. This time, zero. Even though the demo I’d prepared didn’t go off flawlessly (there was a continuous reset in the underlying communications stack we were using that we’d never seen before), he got enough of the demo to appreciate our intent and was interested enough in the the rest of the material to seem pleased.

Near the end, he started talking more, synthesizing our work with the work going on in the rest of the company, making startling leaps that I’d never considered (and I’ve got pipe dreams in my head for the upcoming release and the one after that). We agreed some. We pushed back some. We asked him for help making some things happened.

And then he was gone, 30 minutes over his time, but off to somewhere else he had to be.

And then gushing started. We kicked ourselves for the little hiccup in our demo, but really we’d shown him what we wanted to show him and we felt good about it.

Was it really Bill’s last review? Well, probably not. He’s still got a few weeks left in his official role as chief software architect and I hear he still wants to work part-time on his pet projects (I was surprised to learn that we were one of those), but it’s certainly one of the last. I can say that I worked to put together part of a BillG review while he was still around.

I still can’t say that I’ve actually *met* the man, though. sigh.