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TechEd 2006 Opinion: Ray Ozzie’s little disruption

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TechEd 2006 Opinion: Ray Ozzie's little disruption

 

Boston (MA) – You don’t have to go to a technology conference. Instead, spend one hour alone at mid-afternoon in a restaurant, an airport, a subway car, or any public place with 100 or more people. Shut off the iPod and the BlackBerry, and stow your earbuds. Listen to the conversations of the people around you. If you’re as attentive as I’ve been in recent years, you might notice at least one conversation in six involves information technology – more specifically, people trying to make sense of it, so they can put their businesses back together.

It isn’t as though everyone wants to be information technology specialists, or that they necessarily feel they’re cut out for the role. On paper, these people are nurses, paralegals, police officers, agricultural technicians, travel agents. Whether they made a conscious decision about their destinies or were drafted into the role, they have become IT specialists. For years, even decades, we who started out in technology have been searching for our place in the mainstream, like salmon maniacally swimming up a river. The search may be over at last; the mainstream has found us.

When we talked with and listened to attendees at Microsoft’s TechEd 2006 conference in Boston last week, we learned that a growing number of them were there less out of desire than necessity. This isn’t really Microsoft’s fault; unlike E3, whose purpose is to generate buzz, TechEd’s explicit purpose is to educate. And as Windows evolves – as it swims upstream from its own swamp of problems and inconsistencies – its subject matter grows ever more perplexing. Sure, I’m interested in Group Policy Objects, SHA-2 encryption, BitLocker, firewalls, PowerShell. But a growing number of my peers don’t want to care about the technology they’re struggling with; right now, what they care about most is making their business work, and feeding their families. New acronyms don’t satisfy these folks the way a new expansion pack satisfies a gamer.

An occurrence of one kind or another

Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie makes his ascent to the throne at TechEd’s opening keynote address last 11 June

The first rule of public speaking, I learned long ago, is to know your audience. When Ray Ozzie took the stage for TechEd’s opening keynote speech, standing in the spot normally reserved for Bill Gates, he probably knew he was on his way to ascending a throne, perhaps within the next four days. Almost eight minutes of Ozzie’s speech were devoted to the story of his rise to power – his days with Bricklin and Frankston with VisiCalc, his development of Lotus Notes, his creation of Groove services. It was a big buildup, and we could all see it was leading to something. Perhaps an earlier draft of his speech may have mentioned he was capturing the coveted Chief Software Architect seat that Gates was vacating, but that may have been edited out for fear it would be perceived by analysts as a palace coup.

So instead, Ozzie’s message to his audience was left as something of a cliffhanger, though without much of a cliff. The world, he said, is due for an “era of services disruption,” the likes of which could not be equaled by the advent of the Internet.

“In many ways change and disruption are synonymous with our industry,” Ozzie said, “and this is really no accident. It’s because the fundamental, low-level, enabling technologies that we build our stuff on continue improvement with a steady march of progress, building and building, and every five to ten years something just snaps. A wave forms, and it crests, and a fundamental transformation of one kind or another occurs.”

The specific source of the wave to which Ozzie referred was never mentioned, at least during the speech, though Microsoft presenters made allusions to it throughout the week. But the thousands of bewildered attendees – I know they were bewildered because I listened to them as they exited the keynote – spent at least some, perhaps most, of their time that week struggling to figure out what they were all alluding to. Thursday afternoon came, and it made a little more sense. It’s the era of Ozzie’s promotion – that’s the disruption, there’s the rub. Sorry to have been so confused there, Ray, but we’re cleared up now.

Perhaps the heads of companies spend too little time interacting with their customers or their audiences or the people seated about them in restaurants. If you spend time there, you actually learn something about these executives, if only second-hand: They transpose their ideas upon their employees, their own history becomes the chronicle of world events, the milestones of their lives become the raison d’être for human existence. Their mid-life crises become the Dark Ages of Civilization. Their promotions become the Era of Services Disruption.

For some companies, depending upon the relative charisma of their leaders, this transposition can be particularly effective. If Steve Jobs were to retire tomorrow, time would stand still for millions. Jobs gives hope to executives everywhere that not only can one man make a difference, but that within their own lifetimes – the only noteworthy events outside of which are the Big Bang and the End of Time – they themselves can justify the wiping out of the dinosaurs.

But for the rest of the world, for whom lunchtime rushes by too quickly and the Big Bang was the first in a series of services disruptions, it’s way too difficult to conjure the time or energy to want to be interested, much less enthusiastic, by all of this. They don’t want another disruption, thank you very much. They just want the world to make sense again. They would appreciate being able to reclaim those lost moments with their families, to witness more of the intervals between childhood and adolescence, before they leave home to take on jobs as IT specialists. They would appreciate it if their CEO or CxO or C-something-O would get a life.

“If there’s a lesson to be learned,” said Ozzie toward the close, “it’s that those who survive and thrive are the ones who understand the trends, and make intentional decisions about their own destiny at the right time.”

If Ray Ozzie knew his audience, if he had truly come to TechEd “people ready,” he would have known the Internet wasn’t something that just occurred like a spark or a sneeze to the 11,000 or so people out there in the audience who devote every ounce of their energy, and even a chunk of their souls. For these people, the Internet, the computer, the electron are not phenomena, any more than the Panama Canal and the Transcontinental Railroad just happened to the people who lived – and died – constructing them. These people are information technology, not the consumers of it. They are the mainstream, the source of Ozzie’s wave. For them, progress is way too slow a thing. Ozzie’s own destiny is more the product of their intentional decisions than he may realize.

One of the few technologies Ozzie referred to by name, Windows Live Identity Service, fails to disrupt the crowd.

Time to redefine “coolness”

We who cover technology for a living often work under the assumption that the rest of the world – our audience – is as excited about technology as we are. Perhaps we don’t spend enough time outside our heavily wired home offices. We see another half-gigabyte being heaped on top of a graphics card, or another way for us to plug to more monitors into our clusters of four, and we project another era of services disruption. Decisions about destinies await our readers, we conclude, and the measure of these technologies’ value in their lives is coolness.

No PowerPoint slides, no cute skits, no fancy lighting. Just Ray and a decision that determines our very destiny.

Yet we try to write to what we believe to be the mainstream audience, paying heed to that first rule of public speaking. Well, please forgive my paraphrase, but I’ve been to the mainstream this week, and what I’ve seen is not yet the promised land. There were tens of thousands of people in that convention center this week, searching for the type of answer we haven’t been giving in awhile. “My team supports sales,” I recall one questioner asking during a TechEd session. “My company spent a lot of money sending our executives to a summit, only for them to come back with a mantra that says we should be closer to our customers. And everything I’ve seen here would put us further and further apart.”

Microsoft deserves enormous credit for having the wisdom to assemble large conferences throughout the year worldwide, where its architects and its customers can exchange ideas, concepts, methodologies, and news from the field. A tremendous amount of information is exchanged there, nearly all of it priceless. Few corporations on the planet, and certainly no governments I know, are as receptive to input or as willing to expose its own ideas to public scrutiny.

Yet for a corporation that advertises itself as “people ready,” you would think its leaders at the top would be as willing to communicate with those customers, to know its audience, as its people in the middle. If Microsoft or any organization is to effectively address these people in the mainstream we’ve just now discovered ourselves among, then there’s something about them we need to understand: Coolness for them is measured by a different yardstick, having something to do with the ability to go home at the end of the day – a day which actually does have an end – to a warm and loving family, without the lingering guilt of having left undone so much of the work ahead of them.

So congratulations on your promotion, Mr. Ozzie, and thank you for stepping up to help run a company that may yet come to comprehend its customers. But please, on behalf of the mainstream, no more disruptions. Just start talking sense. We’ll listen.