Sunday, June 14, 2015

Microsoft customer input event on automation

I was recently invited to spend a day at an event at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA, to provide customer input to senior Microsoft program managers and developers on the topic of automation. Basically, primary development of Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016 is finished, and they wanted us to tell them what to start working on for the next version.

I was impressed with the new culture at Microsoft, with their eagerness to find out what could be done to make my life, as a user of their products, better.

As an automation engineer, I was asked to attend an event which specifically addressed automation. They have held and continue to hold similar events with topics including patching, Linux, and DevOps.

21 customers and roughly 40 Microsoft personnel attended.

Customer attendees came from a variety of backgrounds and specialties related to automation. Represented were large enterprises, small businesses, and Microsoft partners (consultants). Most or all were already participating in much larger customer feedback programs, with early access to unreleased products, and with signed Non-Disclosure Agreements already in place. (Which is why this article is about the format and culture of the event, and contains no details of what was discussed.)

The Microsoft people were hands-on product managers, architects and developers, with a few people from QA, as well as technical writers. The most senior was Jeffrey Snover, the lead architect for Windows Server and System Center. The rest were from the PowerShell, SC Orchestrator/SMA, and Azure development teams. (The other well-known PowerShell guru I got to talk to was Bruce Payette.)

These were not sales and marketing people learning about the market. These were engineers learning about the needs of their end-users.

They opened with a few words about how Satya Nadella is changing the culture at Microsoft, and had brought in expert consultants to guide them through the change, and to help them with events like this one.

We were treated to a “ginger shot”, a quick swallow of uncut ginger juice. It burns. Everyone in the room did it together. It burns. Described to us as a recent tradition with numerous health benefits, it was in fact a clever psychological trick. By putting us through a shared “combat” experience, this little bit of self-inflicted hazing helped engender a sense of camaraderie and teamsmanship, breaking down barriers and helping us feel less reserved and able to share our thoughts more readily with the group.

For the first hour, the customers sat on stage and in turn introduced themselves and described in detail their biggest pain point related to automation. That phrase was oft repeated throughout the day. They wanted to know what our “pain points” were.

The Microsoft people listened attentively to the litany of complaints about their products, asked questions, and took copious notes. I have spoken to (and been part of) many different groups in many different circumstances over the years, and I have never seen a group that was more focused on what was being said. Every Microsoft eye was riveted on every speaker.

The rest of the day was comprised of one-hour sessions—intense, directed conversations in groups of 3 customers and 6 Microsoft engineers around a specific focus area. They again listened attentively to all of our complaints and comments and suggestions, asked questions, and took copious notes. For some focus areas, they presented three general possible solutions to a related problem, and asked for feedback.

The focus areas were: authoring, getting started, integrated management, extensibility (or something like that—I didn’t take notes), DevOps, and self service. While the discussion leaders focused on the assigned topic, we the customers were never told our responses were out of scope. Whatever our comments or complaints or suggestions, they listened to them and wrote them down.

They also took us to lunch and dinner, affording us the opportunity for additional, more informal conversations with the Microsoft engineers. Meals, accommodations, and travel were all arranged by and paid for by Microsoft.

There are certain realities of IT on the ground that product developers normally have no way to understand and appreciate. That’s why traditionally there is such a strong history of customers being upset by things that the design engineers thought were “features.” This event was specifically and successfully designed to allow us to help these teams understand those realities, so that the next generation of products will be designed for us in real life, rather than some idealized paradigm.

For example, I had lunch across from the lead developer for runbook servers. I helped him understand that while there are no true technical barriers to a particular paradigm they were hoping to exclusively use going forward, there are corporate political issues that will prevent universal adoption of the paradigm for many years, and that they have to provide interoperability with the legacy paradigm.

Another simple example I brought up was one of my regular rants. In most enterprises, no one, including IT people, have local admin rights on their desktop with their primary ID, if at all. This means things as simple as running Update-Help in PowerShell can’t be done simply. When designing these products, Microsoft needs to stop assuming escalation to admin rights is simple for everyone, and eliminate dependencies on admin rights wherever possible and appropriate. This was not something they knew enough to ask about, but it was something that impacts me and countless others every day. So I brought it up, and they listened and wrote it down.

In fairness, most of what the customers brought up was not news to Microsoft, and had been on their list of things to do for a while. We were there to help prioritize the list, to clarify the nuances of what our pain points are, and to provide feedback on possible solutions.

Overall, it was a great opportunity to help guide the development efforts at Microsoft. It was clear that the attitude and focus of Microsoft has changed considerably, primarily a result of changes in leadership. While the old regime focused on market dominance and making sales, Microsoft is now focused on listening and providing great services to their customers.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me like these sessions and your experiences with them are logical next-steps after Ignite. Ignite gave Microsoft the opportunity to tease and preview what's coming down the road, and give the IT professionals a chance to think about those features. Then a few weeks later, a select few IT pros get called back to Redmond to give direct feedback. I'm really glad you had the opportunity!