mamamusings: October 27, 2005

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Thursday, 27 October 2005

microsoft research talk: why business people speak like idiots

This afternoon’s talk is by Chelsea Hardaway and Brian Fugere, authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots : A Bullfighter’s Guide. How could I resist a talk with that title?

This series of talks by authors, which included Neil Gaiman’s earlier this month, is truly one of the things I love most about being at MSR—Tamara Pesik, a former libarian (actually, is there such thing? once a librarian, always a librarian, I think) does a great job of bringing in interesting authors for these talks.

Chelsea starts out by showing the Business Week cover story on Microsoft, and says they wanted to have a conversation with us as to how Microsoft can start to woo back some of the customers and media that they’ve alienated.

We’re going to play a game, she says. Puts up a slide with images of the $10,000 pyramid. She’s going to toss out words and see if we get the right answer. Focus on what Microsoft has and doesn’t, but she ends with the fact that Microsoft, unlike some of its competitors, is missing personality. She seems to think that the perceived corporate personality is reflective of the people here, which hasn’t been my experience.

Mentions Whole Foods humanity, Virgin Airlines humor and edginess. Hands the microphone over to Brian., who says we have to worry more about “this thing called personality” than we ever have before.

(His approach strikes me as somewhat condescending, and targeted at the wrong audience. Most of these people are “individual contributors,” and are far from lacking in passion and personality.)

Why? He says there’s something profound and significant happening right now that hasn’t quite caught up to us yet, and cites Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind (I seem to be one of the few people here who’s read the book). Pink does do a great job of talking about things like why Starbucks can charge so much for a cup of coffee, and why we buy designer toilet brushes.

Says Msft has functioned for too long on the left side of the brain — analysis, data,, logic. We need to have more persuasion, narrative, empathy.

Shows Google’s halloween logo as an example of how companies can use personality to build brand connection. Says he’s a power searcher, he should care about algorithms. But he doesn’t. To him, all search engines are basically the same product. He cares about the aesthetics. He wants a “Michael Graves” search engine. Does Microsoft “get that”? He’s right about this—I mentioned in one of my Internet Librarian posts the speaker who said that Microsoft’s products fail to delight, but that Google’s almost always do.

Also shows Apple’s inclusion of Rosa Parks on their home page this week. At the company worked (works?) at, Deloitte, it would have taken six weeks of committee meetings to get this on the main web site, but Apple did it in 24 hours. Very powerful stuff. Could Microsoft have done this?

Shows a “napkin drawing” that GMail sent out to announce their service (I hadn’t seen this before). “It’s so authentic!” he exclaims. (“Huh?!?” I respond to myself. That’s not authenticity. That’s a carefully crafted marketing message that has manipulated his responses exactly as they planned.)

Then shows Ballmer’s infamous “developers, developers, developers” speech. He loves the passion. If they could change one thing about it, it would be to substitute the word designer for developer in that chant. This (Microsoft) is a company that reveres technology…perhaps it needs to make room for people who, in Apple’s terms “think different.” I’d agree with him on this point, too.

Talks about the “dinosaur” ad campaign. It’s funny, yes. But it’s insulting, too. Why can’t we turn our $ into better advertising campaigns. If he were us, he’d fire our advertising agency. Someone in the audience talks about how that campaign was carefully tested, and Brian says “THAT’S THE PROBLEM!” He’s been in marketing, he knows how testing can kill a product. Someone in the audience points out that on the individual level, we do have that passion and creativity, but that there’s a “blanding” process.

Someone asks about Microsoft bloggers—is that good or not? He responds “yes and no.” Reaching out to customers is good. But, he says: “I’m shocked that you guys tolerate Scoble. You pay this guy to criticize your company? Not in my company, man.” (Um, is Deloitte really doing that great a job of building its brand?) I think he’s way off base on this. Scoble has done an enormous amount to change the stodgy, defensive stereotype of this company. And while he does occasionally (and appropriately) criticize, he does a lot of singing the company’s praises, too. Because he does the former, people are willing to listen to the latter.)

Shows Dennis Hwang, who does Google’s artwork. Labels the image “Your new headache.” Who are our Dennis Hwangs? How do we identify and celebrate them?

Next shows Infosys Consulting’s web site, and compares it to ours, which he says is covered with SGPs—“stupid generic photos.” (The classic is a black hand and a white hand shaking.) What do we do when we see these? Ignore them. And that’s not what we want people to do.

Talks about the excellent iPod packaging, quotes the I.D. Magazine award praising it. This delightful, joyful user experience isn’t about the features and functions—it’s about the feeling that it creates, and the bond that’s created, when I experience this company’s products.

There’s some interesting question and answers, but it’s not clear to me what the goal here is. I was really hoping for more of a discussion of their book itself, and less of a this “we know what’s wrong with you,” somewhat condescending talk.

Puts up on the screen the text from Microsoft’s announcement of the recent re-org. “Is this how you talk to your family?” they ask. They’re right on target with that. Brian points out that it’s unlikely the executives from whom that came actually wrote it.

He then, however, appears to makes the assumption that we all talk like this within the organization, that we’re all corporatized drones. That’s a flawed assumption—which I just challenged him on.

They skip past a bunch of slides that look genuinely interesting…I wish they’d done more of their standard approach than trying to make this “Microsoft specific.” (Funny thing is that Kathy Sierra did some very similar things when she spoke to us in MSN, but I found it much less grating. I think it’s because she focused not on “here’s what’s wrong with you,” but instead on “here’s the good stuff I see here and here’s how to unleash it.”)

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Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna