Microsoft’s new rules of engagement

Most enterprise development tools vendors have remarkably little interaction with developers. That grows from two principles that guide the tools market: Developers don’t make buying decisions, and it’s impossible to make any two developers happy. For PR’s sake it’s a good idea to create a forum or a newsgroup for developers to complain to one another, but for sanity’s sake, don’t let anyone from the company participate in it.

I am resolute in my belief that developers are not given a sufficient voice in shaping the tools they use. Developer productivity is not created from the top down, although that model overlaps conveniently with vendors’ sales priorities. Except in times of desperation, when productivity grows from the fear of unemployment, the only way to create sustainable productivity is to address the needs of those who produce. For tools vendors, that would require listening to a group that is not shy about speaking its mind, and which does more speaking the instant it’s clear that the vendor is listening. No vendor wants to trigger what might be an uncontrollable chain reaction by responding, in an open public forum, to a developer’s complaint or query.

Microsoft is steaming toward direct engagement with developers in the trenches, despite all the rational business arguments against it. By engagement, I mean free, public access to interim builds of tools, attentive two-way communication through blogs, and soon, an issue tracking system that’s open to all customers. That Web-based tracking system, code-named Ladybug, is a step I’ve never seen taken outside open source. It allows every customer to view the entire stack of bugs and feature requests then watch the issues progress toward their resolution.

Many other significant beta programs, including Windows XP Service Pack 1, Virtual Server, and the new Tablet PC OS, have had participation criteria loosened substantially so that individuals can take part earlier than usually allowed. Here again, Microsoft blogs give those involved in beta programs a more direct and productive method of feedback.

I am certain that these engagement programs will be realized. The general manager of Microsoft’s enterprise tools program, Rick LaPlante, has not wavered during the many discussions we’ve had on the subject. He admits the risk and the internal conflict those risks created within Microsoft. It can’t have been an easy case to make. A completely transparent feedback system hands megaphones to malcontents and gives shills a pulpit from which to bash Visual Studio 2005 and Microsoft. Putting managers and technical staff on the frontline through blogs might give developers the impression that they can bypass technical support. And official communication through blogs creates an expectation of a quick response, an expectation that is contrary to the informal (and therefore welcoming and useful) spirit of blogs in general. I don’t blame some at Microsoft for hearing a voice whispering “familiarity breeds contempt” when they think about the CTP — or Community Technology Preview, public access to interim builds of Visual 2005 — blogs and Ladybug.

There will be tests of this system and of Microsoft’s resolve to maintain it. My real hope, which is one that Rick LaPlante shares, is to see programs such as this extended to other Microsoft products.

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