I spent the last week down in Las Colinas, Texas working with their PSS engineers on ASP.NET cases.  This arrangement was part of the Frontline program, of which I was fortunate enough to be chosen.  The Frontline program was designed for certain members of ourServer and Tools Business to see first-hand how customers are deploying & implementing MS products. A key component included a week with PSS helping to serve customer calls and feel the pain in the field. As I haven’t written “production code” since my developer lobotomy (aka business school), I was a little worried that I might not be useful.  In addition, in my new role as administrative overhead during the day and my other new role as infant oversight at night, I hadn’t been finding much time to keep up with the latest stuff in the dev world.  I’m pleased to say that I was sorta useful and, more importantly, I really had a good time without getting in anyone’s way.  The intellectual exercise of digging through call stacks, memory dumps, and ViewStates and finding the problems was a blast.  I spent the days scribbling ideas on a whiteboard, sharing ideas and insight, and digging through my own old code to see if there was anything we could use.  Before you ask, no, this does not mean I am ready to debug any of our team's exceptions or memory leaks (not that there are any, right?).

Most of the other Redmond Frontline members were from the product groups and they were there to change their product to make them more robust or at least easier to support. I feel like I played another role: figure out how to make the engineers more effective in handling the problems that still manage to come through.  Like it or not, problems with our software will always come up and every call that doesn’t need to be handled by PSS saves the Microsoft money and every case handled by PSS more quickly saves Microsoft money.  That’s what I believe we can have an impact.  Here’s what I saw:

ü        They are drowning in information without finding the answers:  They have the web, they have the intranet, they have a special internal KB, and they have each other, and they know the answer is out there.  But where?  They used the search results from FCS and Forums within the IDE at times, but the biggest missing link were things like blogs. 

ü        PSS Y blogs: A couple of the escalation engineers admitted that writing KB articles are going the way of the dodo and blogs are the preferred means of communicating unique cases.  Many of them had blogs on blogs.msdn.com and love the ability to do a quick publish as opposed to the KB.  We need this information to bubble up more clearly. 

ü        PSS doesn’t Y RSS (yet): Given the volume of e-mails flying around that require immediate attention (not “Olivier wants this asap” urgent, but rather “the customer is on the phone and he not happy” urgent), I think they worry about more “proactive” content in their Inbox.  They only want Questions and Answers. 

ü        They don’t automatically go to Google:  They don’t go to MSN Search, either, but at least it’s not Google.  They have a host of tools and, quite frankly, they figure the customer has probably already done the Google thing.  Many used MSDN’s search because it did focus on the context on developer material, but they also knew this constrained their results compared to the wealth of knowledge that they really should be able to access. 

ü        Very fraternal organization: It was important to keep strong ties with one another in Las Colinas.  They each had a specialty or expertise and continually bounced things off each other.   They were all extremely likeable people and had a great demeanor that worked well with customers.  They understood the importance of representing Microsoft and took their role seriously.  Less a comment as it relates to our business and more a general observation that made me feel better about who we have on our side of the phones.

ü        A shout-out to my homies in PAG:  The Perf & Scale patterns& practices title was a staple, not only for many of the engineers in Las Colinas, but also for customers.  I heard about the engineers that made site visits and saw the hard copies of the guides on the desks of many top customers—most completely dog-eared and worn down from overuse. Also, I heard that the Exception Management Application Block was all over the place and customers were universal in the usability.  The User Interface Process Application Block wasn’t quite as popular with the PSS engineers as they’ve had to do a lot of clean up from customers that were incorrectly using it (in most cases, they didn’t need it).

ü        AJAX, it makes your teeth turn green…:  I saw at least two cases that were defined as AJAX or Atlas sites that (a) were not Atlas sites other than the fact that they included the libraries and (b) did not need AJAX.  As depressing as it may seem, customers do build apps for the sake of the technologies—and PSS is left cleaning things up.  A little hype goes a long way.  At least I didn’t have to hear the word “SOA”.

ü        Tools, tools, and more tools: These guys are required to write these tools ad-hoc.  Some of them are really good.  As someone who used Spy++ and the ActiveX Control Container tools many years ago, I realize the importance of these tools as a developer.  I just saw this opportunity to release some of these tools on CodeGallery and let customers do something great with them.

ü        My most common question was “Why the heck would they want to do that?”: And for those who know me, no, I didn’t use the word “heck”.  I just thought I’d keep this post family-friendly. Our customers use our products in ways we could never anticipate.  From overcompensating for a lazy garbage collector and destroying performance as a result to using ViewState as a modifiable object, I saw a lot of unique requests.  It just goes to show—as much as you can try to test software, there will always be the fringe user that wants to do something unique.

Like I said, there were a lot of lessons this week and a lot of reminders of how the impact of my team can scale to support a lot of really grateful people.  I gave some of the engineers a little primer of what we are trying to achieve on the Communities and they definitely saw the value.   I hope to be able to go back to these guys in Las Colinas in 6-12 months and tell them how we’re trying to make their lives better.

{Foo Fighters - One x One}