This post is an interview with Steve Clayton. Steve is Microsoft’s UK Partner Group CTO and author of the popular Geek in Disguise blog.
Over the last couple of months I’ve had more contact with the people from Microsoft UK than in my entire life. They sponsored the great ‘From User Experience to Customer Engagement’ thought leadership event I spoke at the other month, I met their UK User Experience evangelist three times in as many weeks and I was invited to participate in a small ‘think tank’ with UK MD Gordon Frazer. A constant presence on all of these occasions has been Steve Clayton.
While my company, cScape, has been a Microsoft Gold Partner for a while, I’ve never really felt that my focus on Customer Engagement necessitated much contact. But there does seem to be something changing, at least in the UK. They’ve made a real effort to engage with some of the more interesting digital companies and their development of the new Sharepoint Server (MOSS) seriously raises their game for the sort of clients I work with on a daily basis.
Richard Sedley: You’ve been at Microsoft for over nine years now, so what have you been doing with yourself?
Steve Clayton: That is a good question. What have I been doing? I started nearly 10 years ago working on internet stuff and it’s all come back to re-visit me now. The last three years I’ve been working in our partner group, but from a technology point-of-view, I’m back focused on internet technologies and where the web is going.
RS: You have established quite a profile not just within the partner community but also a result of your blog, Geek in Disguise. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the motivation behind that blog?
SC: Somebody asked me the same question yesterday and it made me think about it more than I have recently. It started out for two reasons. The first reason was we’ve got over 35,000 partners with Microsoft in the UK and there’s only one of me and there are only six other guys in my group. It doesn’t matter how thin you slice them, they ain’t gonna spread over 35,000 people.
The initial motivation behind the blog was to have a conversation with more people because, no matter how much you’d like to, you literally can’t do the face-to-face with everybody. And then it changed a little bit when I read a book called Naked Conversation, which you’re probably familiar with. It’s Robert Scobel and Shel Israel‘s book about blogging and how it changes organisations’ relationship with their customers. And when I read that, it was a real changing point for me. It became as much about having a conversation with partners as how you change the perception of a company that, let’s face it, has a lot of perceptions, misperceptions, truths, rumours attached to it in the market place. That’s what has been most fun about it.
RS: I can’t be the only one to notice that Microsoft is giving off another vibe at the moment, so what’s up?
SC: Going back to Scobel briefly, I think what he did with his blogging about three years ago now was to create an environment for people to get out there and talk about what they do. And there’s something on my blog that I know you’re familiar with, which is this Blue Monster cartoon. I won’t go into detail about that now, but the whole philosophy behind that cartoon, which I’ve been trying to drive, is how do we go and have more conversations and start to talk about the work that Microsoft does, because I think, in light of some of the legal wrangling we went through over the last five to seven years, Microsoft probably was a bit more on the back foot in many ways about what we wanted to go out and talk about, our products, where we were going and what we were doing, and we probably didn’t talk about the core stuff that the company does, the incredible people in the company and the technology we’ve got as much as we should have.
What we’ve seen with Scobel is that he has gone out and proved to people that actually people are interested in Microsoft, people do want to have a conversation. And what it now has ended up with is 4,500 out of 75,000 employees blogging, which, as far as I know, is the biggest amount of bloggers from a single company anywhere in the world. And it has kind of opened this door – and you can’t close it now either – where the people inside the company who are really the best advocates for what it does are now out there talking about it very publicly and very openly. There is a degree of a risk that goes with that, but the company has agreed that it is prepared to take that risk because the benefits outweigh it.
RS: From my point-of-view it certainly seems like there’s a more human face to Microsoft. That has been one of the consequences of the process that you’re describing.
SC: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what we want to hear and it’s not a conscious thing that people started out with, but it is amazing the amount of people who have said to me in the last six months that the company is becoming more human, more personable. There are real people over there who care passionately about what they do and have real stories to tell and, actually, they’re genuinely nice people. You know, there are nice people who work at Microsoft. People are almost surprised, but you know, really, there are some smart people who are good at what they do and who are great fun and it’s good to see them out there changing perceptions.
RS: You guys are very nice, don’t worry! Obviously to go alongside the fact that there’s an opening-up within the organisation and that it’s adding a human face to it, there have to be products that can deliver around the new internet, the new web, the new digital, if you like. In particular this is done through the Microsoft product Silverlight. I wonder if you could fill us in on some of your products.
SC: Just before I do that, I think one thing that hasn’t gone missed on me and other people is the change that Ray Ozzy has brought to the company. Ozzy is behind a lot of the technology development that we’re seeing. When he joined the company, he was fairly forthright about wanting to move towards a set of products, technologies and initiatives that were driven by customers rather than driven internally. So we’ve have some great ideas where engineers and developers have built solutions for developers, but they aren’t always successful in the market place. We probably needed to listen more to the market place and develop products that suited it. I think that’s what we’ve seen and it’s no coincidence at all that that has happened in the same period that Ray Ozzie joined the company.
So, moving on to things like Silverlight, I think that’s a great example. It was announced a couple of weeks before Mix 07 and we also announced some additional stuff around Silverlight 1.1 there. I think the most interesting aspect then, which just talks to this new openness and customer-focus, is that probably 70% of the demos were done on a Mac, which is quite unbelievable in a way, but it appealed to that audience so we listened to our customers there, talking to them in a way that suited them. But then the technology that we announced was all cross-platform so Silverlight 1.1 has this ability to be- you know, you could download and install it on a Mac and we announced that the code that you can write on top of that runtime was being made openly available so you’ll be able to develop against Silverlight using things like Ruby on Rails. So there’s this whole new openness.
The other thing I think is really interesting – and the subtlety of this is perhaps often missed – is that we have also seemed to move into this era where, when we announce something, it’s available. We could have been accused, in the past, of announcing something and then not actually releasing it until six months later and there’s a phrase for that, which I won’t repeat here!
When we announced Silverlight, we said 1.1 is available on the web, i.e. 20 minutes after our talk was delivered. Expression was released that day and it was on the web for download that same day. So we’ve kind of moved quite nicely from talking about technologies to delivering them.
A few weeks later we delivered Popfly, albeit in Beta, but it’s a really great piece of technology for non-developers to go and build mash-ups on the web – even people like me can go and build them!
So we’ve also started to get quite cool with our product names. Instead of calling them things like Popfly and then calling it, I don’t know, “Windows developer exciting version 2008″, we actually call it just Popfly, which is a bit of a revelation for some of us.
RS: For those unfamiliar with Silverlight, Expressions, Popfly – I wonder if you could just give a very quick overview of these products, and in particular perhaps look at some of the new things that you’re introducing into the market place and the benefits that those new products might be able to deliver?
SC: Silverlight, in many ways, people will think of as similar to Flash. It provides rich, interactive applications on the web. So you download a plug-in in the same way you do with Flash and then that lets a developer write applications that sit on top of that plug-in that are very interactive. The beauty of this is that they can write those applications using tools that a lot of people are familiar with. So there are millions of people around the world who know how to code in Visual Studio, they know how to write in C-Sharp, they know how to write in other languages that you’ll be able to programme again. So it opens up the whole rich internet applications to a whole new set of people. And then when you see some of the types of applications you can deliver with it – they’re pretty phenomenal really.
There were two that were demoed at Mix. One was the BBC’s use of Silverlight, which I won’t even try to explain, but there’s a great video that shows what they’ve done with it and they created an incredible interactive environment.
The other one was shown by a company called Metaliq and they showed an app called Top Banana and it literally blew me and the people I sat with away. It was kind of a video-editing suite on the web that lets you slice and dice videos and create complex video mash-ups and the whole thing is delivered in a web browser. When you look at it, you think “that looks like a rich application that runs on a PC, but this whole thing is running on the web.” And then when the guy who wrote it said, actually, this whole think is 50K of downloadable code, we were literally blown away. It was an incredible application.
So Silverlight will open up these new interactive web, rich applications to a much wider audience than just people who were developing in Flash. Popfly is almost at the other end of the scale. Popfly is a very light weight tool that visually lets you design a mash-up. So a good example is something like Twitter Vision. It takes this whole Twitter phenomenon, which is kind of wide-scale texting, and combines it with Google maps so whenever somebody twitters, a visual image of where they’ve twittered pops up on a map. I don’t know how long that took to build, but my sense is it probably took a day or a few days. It’s not that complex, but I’ve seen somebody build that exact same application in Popfly in about two minutes. So it’s bringing this whole design-development of mash-ups, taking things like live maps or Google maps or twitter or RSS feeds or Flickr – all of these APIs – putting them in a tool box that lets you visually plumb them together.
RS: They’re all great applications. It strikes me, particularly when I’m advising clients, that we don’t want to lead from technology to solutions so I wondered if you could highlight what you think will be some of the biggest challenges, both in terms of problems and opportunities, for Microsoft partners and their clients.
SC: For most partners, it’s getting their heads around the whole buzz around Web 2.0. Things like Google and Twitter and Flickr and all of these acronyms are probably a bit confusing and it does, frankly, boil down to things like guys like you are good at, which is sitting down with the clients and thinking about what it is they’re actually trying to do and get their customers to do. Generally speaking, that’s to buy more stuff, but it might also be to engage with you more, share more information, to have a longer-term engagement with customers.
All the technologies are cool, they’re fantastic, but there are hundreds of examples where people have gone and built stuff and it has just died on the vine after a few months of excitement. So the technology is fantastic, but it really, I think, boils down to figuring out what it is the client is trying to achieve and which bits of this new technology can help them achieve that.
RS: And from a client point-of-view, what do you think they should be excited about for the next couple of years?
SC: From a client point-of-view it’s arguably more exciting and also more challenging. My analogy on this is always my high street. I live in Chiswick and if I walk down the high street there are a couple of things I do. One is I look at how many companies are selling software. They could become a potential channel for Microsoft to sell software and that’s an interesting, slightly different conversation, but I think there’s lots of opportunity there.
The other thing that’s very interesting is how many companies on that high street are using software to engage with their customers and to drive their business forward. The vast majority aren’t, so I think there’s a huge opportunity in small and medium business. Most of the big companies and the high street retailers have a big marketing budget and they’re out there spending and dabbling and playing with social media and digital media and with communities and MySpace and Facebook and all these things. But at the grass roots, it comes down to how a florist or a butcher or a baker on a high street can go and use this technology. That’s why I think there’s real opportunity for being able to be, you know, the best butcher on Chiswick high street and, arguably, in the world by using technology. I just think there’s massive opportunity there because these micro-niches. You know, the world has got flattened. You can sell anywhere, you can be as big or as small as you like on the web. That’s where the opportunity is.
RS: OK, let’s say I’m the butcher, the baker or the candle stick maker on the high street in Chiswick and wanted to set up a digital presence, what advice would you give to me for the next two years? Where should I start and if I’ve already started how should I continue?
SC: I think the place to start, and I sound a bit like a broken record on this, but what I say to everybody is get a blog. And even before you get a blog, go and have a look on sites like Technorati and find out who’s talking about the stuff you’re interested in. I have this fundamental belief that if, you know, if you are a sausage maker, I would hope that if you’re in the business of making sausages you’re probably quite passionate about selling sausages and therefore- It’s almost laughable to talk about being passionate about selling sausages, but you know there are people who- it is their business, it’s their passion making all of these bespoke types of sausages. You know, get involved in the conversation because, frankly, there will be people out there who are as passionate as you, as opinionated as you and as interested as you, and if you’re not involved in those conversations and helping shape them and helping positioning yourself as the expert in this field, then I just think you’re missing an opportunity.
So my first advice is to go and have a bit of a look at the web actually, who’s doing the stuff that you’re doing or could be doing. My overused, but best, example of this is Thomas Mahon, the tailor on Saville Row who was about to go out of business a few years ago when he met up with his friend Hugh Macleod who told him to set up a blog. Mahon is a bespoke tailor, he’s not a technology guy and he was convinced to set up a blog or a website and all he did was talk about his business, which he was passionate about. Slowly but surely he rose up and up the search engine ranking to the extent that if you search for Saville Row now, number one or two in Google or Live Search is the English Cut, his site. And it’s not because he sells a lot of stuff on there – in fact he doesn’t sell anything there. It’s because he speaks authoritatively, passionately and with interest about what he’s good at. That kind of little microcosm is, for me, the first place where people should dabble a bit.
RS: It’s always great to see someone taking their own advice. You obviously have set up your own blog and are very passionate about the stuff you are putting across. So what next for Steve Clayton?
SC: For me personally, on the blogging side, it’s about continuing to push the boundaries externally and internally about how much we can change opinion. So this Blue Monster cartoon is really gathering steam internally and externally so that, now, people email me and say “can I have a business card with it on” or “can I use the logo”, and actually the whole image is available for people to use freely. So that’s a very useful tool for me to help drive a conversation internally and externally around where Microsoft is going, how Microsoft wants to get involved in a broader conversation with people.
From a technology point-of-view, I’m really interested in working with Microsoft to get involved in a completely new field with products like Expression to take us into an arena with digital media and digital agencies where we’ve never really had anything to say before. That’s another uphill battle for Microsoft. We’ve had a lot of them over the years and in many ways that’s when we’ve tended to do the best work – when our back is against the wall and we’re in a competitive environment where people expect us not to do that well. That’s where actually we tend to do some of our best work.
And then, more broadly, there’s just some fascinating stuff going on in the company. There’s technologies like Photosynth that on a wider level has the ability to revolutionise what people are doing with digital photography and how you can use that to help disadvantaged communities travel to and see places they’ve never seen before. Technologies like Microsoft Surface, which is another cool code name for us, can show up in different environments, be they in the home or in retail.
So there are lots and lots of cool technologies and part of the challenge is how to keep on top of them all. When I started we had about 10 products and now we seem to release about 10 products a week so that’s the challenge.
RS: Steve, thank you very much. For anyone who is interested in finding out more about Blue Monster or any of the other things we’ve been talking about, we should probably give them your blog.
SC: Yeah, it’s not a particularly user-friendly url, but it’s http://blogs.msdn.com/b/stevecla01/.
RS: Steve, thanks very much.
SC: Thanks, Richard.
Thanks to Nathalie Rothschild for the transcription