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Interview with Robert Scoble, Technical Evangelist (and Blogger): Microsoft

ActiveWin.com: What exactly do you do at Microsoft?

Scoble: I'm a technical evangelist. Most evangelists here work with developers to help them build software for the next versions of our platforms. For instance, Windows Vista. Most of them work with specific companies. Me? I work with the community at large.

My day job is Channel 9. I walk around Microsoft with a camcorder and interview people about what they are working on. By doing that I get the community details on our products, services, and platforms that would be hard to get anywhere else.

ActiveWin.com: Your Wikipedia article states you are the Chief Blogging Officer at Microsoft? Is that an official title?

Scoble: No. I think that's funny, though.

ActiveWin.com: What got you started in blogging?

Scoble: I was working as a conference planner in the late 1990s. I helped plan VSLive and the now defunct CNET Builder.com Live conference. Every year I asked the speakers what they thought we should cover at next year's conference. In 2000 Dori Smith and Dave Winer talked to me about blogging. I didn't think it was important enough to do a conference session on (I could only find a couple hundred blogs at the time) but they talked me into doing one of my own. I started on December 15, 2000. Within a few weeks I had gotten a link from Dave Winer, who sent several thousand people, which told me there was more to it than just a couple hundred blogs, and got invited to Steve Wozniak's Superbowl party too.

ActiveWin.com: How did the idea for Channel 9 come about?

Scoble: After the 2003 PDC (Microsoft's big developer conference) we were sitting around comparing notes. Some things we noticed is that people liked us (Microsoft employees) after meeting us. That reduced their fear and got them to see that we were just passionate technologists and not quite as evil as they'd heard about us.

So, we were wondering how we could meet more customers face-to-face. The PDC is great, but we could only potentially touch a few thousand people that way and we have millions of developers around the world.

We knew that to reach more people it'd have to be on the Web. We threw around a bunch of ideas and we remembered United Airlines' Channel 9 that let people listen to what the pilots were doing. That reduced our fear of flying. So, we thought "why don't we do our own Channel 9?"

ActiveWin.com: How has your blogging, along with that of all the other Microsoft bloggers, already changed marketing and PR at the company? (As suggested by this Economist Feb 2005 article: http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3644293&fsrc=RSS

Scoble: We got a lot of PR mileage out of just showing up and writing in a way that people didn't expect. For instance, I regularly say nice things about our competitors and regularly bash our own offerings. I also linked to people who said that "Microsoft sucks" (or worse). That caused some interesting behaviors. People stopped yelling and started having conversations with us. They started emailing me with both good and bad things Microsoft was doing. And, even better, they started posting product requests. In fact, over on Channel 9's wiki there are dozens of pages of product requests that customers have done -- those pages weren't done by Microsoft. For me, though, what changed is that now everyone can figure out how to talk with us. Just go to Google/Yahoo/MSN and type "OneNote blog" for instance, and you'll find Chris Pratley, the guy who runs the OneNote team. In the old days the only way to tell a team like that what you want was to head over to one of our newsgroups. But if you did that you'd never know if the right person got the message.

ActiveWin.com: At first, were you ever afraid the negative things you posted might affect your job stability?

Scoble: Yeah. I knew I was playing with dynamite and it might blow off my hand, or worse. But I knew Microsoft's culture pretty well, and I had lots of relationships with people and I knew that the executives wanted Microsoft to change. So that helped me get over my fears.

ActiveWin.com: What are your thoughts of the now famous Mini-Microsoft blogger? http://minimsft.blogspot.com/

Scoble: I like him. He helps Microsoft look at itself and improve itself. It's a bit uncomfortable, yes, but I'd rather he be there than not.

ActiveWin.com: Were you involved in the Windows Vista naming process at all? What do you think of the name?

Scoble: No, I wasn't. I am warming up to the name. It's a lot better than many of our names. I wish we were a lot better at product naming than we are. Naming things "Microsoft Windows Tablet Edition 2005" just doesn't make my heart warm.

ActiveWin.com: How will blogs change Vistaís development cycle from, say, Windows XPís, if at all?

Scoble: That's a tough one cause I wasn't around for XP. I am already noticing that the information that the community gets is better and more complete due to blogs. And, certainly if you talk with teams like the Internet Explorer one, they'll tell you that blogs played a key part in helping them focus on the top features that everyone wanted.

ActiveWin.com: Your position allows you to meet a variety of people across Microsoft most other employees wouldn't have an opportunity to. What are some of your favorite Channel 9 stories you have done?

Scoble: Well, last week I got a tour of Bungie. That team is ultra secretive -- most Microsoft employees can't even get inside their offices. I think my favorite videos, though, are the ones inside Microsoft Research. They not only have cool equipment to build cool stuff (like a multi-axis milling machine) but they have some of the smartest people I've ever met, too.

Some of my other favorite ones? The .NET CLR team tours (we've done several). Those guys are smart and they are building the future of Windows, so it's important to figure out what they are up to.

ActiveWin.com: Channel 9 has become a big player in the Windows community landscape.  What kind of limitations does that put on you, being run by Microsoft?  How does it affect your interaction with independent sites?

Scoble: Well, I can't run leaked screen shots. Heheh.

But, I try to do videos that the independent sites couldn't do. I really try to get to teams that ActiveWin and the other independent sites are interested in to give them more depth on a story and let them meet some of the people they might have read about in press reports.

ActiveWin.com: Do you think companies who crave secrecy like Google and, even more so, Apple will eventually grow to embrace corporate blogging?

Scoble: That's a tough one. I've presented to management teams at Target and Boeing. Boeing builds many products that they need to be much more secretive about than Apple or Google does and yet they are doing blogs at the corporate level.

I think they will eventually after they figure out there are more benefits to having employees blog than there are risks.

Here's why: the word-of-mouth network is both doubling in size every five months and getting more efficient. So, news stories now are going from blogs you never heard of to the front page of the New York Times in a couple of days. There's no way a centralized PR team can participate completely in this kind of conversation. Not to mention the PR types don't know the products as well as the people who actually built the products. I've found too that the developers who built the products often are online until 2 a.m. or even later, and on weekends. So, rumors get fixed, stories get worked out, and conversations happen online way before the story gets into the New York Times. Not saying that negative stories won't happen anymore, but at least now we're having people who know and care getting involved in the conversation.

ActiveWin.com: Where do you see the future of Channel 9 going, as it evolves and matures with time?

Scoble: That's a tough one to predict. A lot of my video interests are in reaction to what the community asks me to do. For instance, just since this interview started I got an email asking me to go over and interview the MSN Messenger team. Obviously over the next year we're releasing a TON of new stuff. Visual Studio, SQL Server, Office 12, Xbox 360, Windows Vista, and dozens of smaller products like...CRM, BizTalk, and so on. We're working on features to make videos easier to watch. Just last week we released "Clipster" which lets users clip out their favorite parts of a video and post that for other people to watch. I want to make it easier to use Channel 9 on cell phones, too. There are some very talented developers working on Channel 9. Charles Torre and Adam Kinney. Oh, and the Nine Guy was developed by David Shadle. My wife keeps lobbying him for a female version of the Nine Guy.

ActiveWin.com: Youíve often described your blog as a corporate blog yet often venture into very private matters.  Where do you draw the line?

Scoble: That's a tough one, particularly now that my wife Maryam is blogging. Talk about fear! Heheh.

I look at it like a good meal. A little salt makes a meal taste better. Too much, though, spoils it. Luckily I'm pretty much only interested in technology. If you met me, that's probably what we'd end up talking about.

ActiveWin.com: Speaking of which, how do you manage to juggle your family life with the already hectic work-life and a severe blogging addiction?

Scoble: Who said I managed that well? It's a struggle, that's for sure.

ActiveWin.com: What are a few of your favorite blogs?

Scoble: Hmm, every morning I start out with http://tech.memeorandum.com which is a tech site that analyzes the linking behavior of the top tech blogs and presents a news page. I still read Dave Winer's blog every day. A new one that I find is very good is TechCrunch. Engadget. I have 1,400 blogs I read on a regular basis. Yeah, I've been slowing down since Memeorandum came along. Since that brings me most of the stuff I'd be looking for anyway, and it's updated every five minutes.

It used to take me up to six hours to read through that many feeds.

ActiveWin.com: What do you want your next job at Microsoft to be? Where do you see yourself in 5 years at the company?

Scoble: That's a tough one cause I already have the best job in the company. Not the best paycheck, mind you, but sometimes quality of life is worth more than money and getting to interview the world's top geeks is a lot of fun.

ActiveWin.com: Do you have anything to add?

Scoble: No, I am just honored to be on ActiveWin. I've been reading ActiveWin for longer than I've been blogging. Thanks for doing such a great job keeping us all up to date.

 

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