Due to the increasing popularity of the TechEd and PDC conferences, most Microsoft employees do not have the opportunity to attend so that we can reserve the very limited space for customers. Therefore, I’m dedicating this blog entry to detailing my experience at the PDC 2005 for my fellow Microsofties who were not able to go. Additionally, even if you don’t work for Microsoft, you might be interested in one employee’s take on the event.

I’m going?!

As the PDC sold out very quickly after it was announced, the only Microsoft people attending were either speaking or representing a product or service. For the team I work on – MSDN – that meant manning a booth in the Expo hall in order to answer questions regarding subjects such as MSDN search, our coverage of the various Microsoft technologies and showing the new features and services we’re working on.

Since I was hired well after our team had named its members that would attend, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go. However, literally the week before the PDC, my manager approached me and told me that someone from another team would not be able to attend and that I was his replacement!

Manning the Booth

As I mentioned, Microsoft people are at the conference not to learn about the products – as it’s assumed we can do that on our own time back in the office – but to support the customers. Therefore, each team member was asked to sign up for daily time-slots working various areas of the conference – the MSDN booth, the “Cabana” and the “Pavilion”. For me, that meant signing up for a couple of hours each day for booth duty.

This being my first PDC as a representative of Microsoft, I was a bit unsure of what exact benefit I would be to the customers or for that matter what the customers would even be asking at the MSDN booth. As it turned out, not only did I get quite a bit of feedback from customers on what they like about MSDN and what they’d like to see more of, but I was also pleasantly surprised at my ability to answer many of their questions and concerns regarding the direction of MSDN:

  • Answered questions - While we spoke with dozens of people over the 3-day conference and had varied questions, the most common questions were things like, “Where can I find articles on ___ ?”, “How can I download the beta?” and “Do you have any whitepapers that explain ___ technology?”. Since downloading products and reading articles/white papers is the reason most readers come to MSDN, this was definitely a question we anticipated. Basically, I simply showed where people can find the various bits and articles and in some cases, illustrated how to programmatically keep tabs on our new content via an RSS feed.

    One thing I’ll note here is that currently MSDN is undergoing quite a few changes to better accommodate all the new products Microsoft is developing. Some of these changes can be seen now with many more to come over the next few weeks to coincide with the releases of various products. Therefore, if you’re a regular MSDN reader, I would check back on a consistent basis as we’re making lots of changes to make the content more easily accessible.

  • Demonstrated improvements - Another popular question was “When will search be improved?” Thankfully, I joined at the just the right time on this one as we had the answer that made every single questioner happy! As the MSDN developer team is porting the current search technology over to use the MSN search engine, we were able to demonstrate the new search functionality that uses the new MSDN (where articles are much better attributed) to produce return results having a higher degree of fidelity, or relevance.
  • Showed off new services - In addition to the online search improvements that we’ll be rolling out very soon, we also showed the new search integration with Visual Studio 2005 (Whidbey). Personally, I think this was the one issue that booth visitors left most impressed with. Using VS 2005, developers can perform a search that will automatically draw its results from many different sources simultaneously. This includes the locally installed MSDN Library, the online MSDN library, the new MSDN Forums and the “CodeZone” (a collection of various programming sites – such as 4GuysFromRolla, CodeProject and many more). The benefit is that instead of having to manually visit each one of these services/sites, you can now search from with your editor and let Visual Studio do all the work of compiling the complete result set!
  • Helped with overall experiences - My original idea had been to work the booth for my allotted time and then head off to see some sessions. However, the feedback we were getting from customers was so amazing that I spent most of my “free” time wandering around the Expo and Hands-On labs helping out other groups and basically just answering any questions where I could.

All about the Customers

This might sound corny, but I actually enjoyed this conference more than any previous ones simply from the aspect of educating our customers about MSDN – regarding both current and new services - and representing Microsoft. I think one thing that helped me was having been a Microsoft customer for many years, I knew that I wanted Microsoft to make me feel special at these events. Therefore, I simply turned that around and took as much time with each person as that person needed. If I couldn’t answer the question, I either got them to someone who could or took down contact information and got back to them with either an answer or a contact.

So, all in all, I’d have to say that I was extremely pleased with the way the conference turned out and our ability to help our customers. Finally, for those of you reading this column, my PDC attitude continues to my desk here in Redmond. If you have a question or concern, please send it to me. If I can’t answer it, I’ll do my best to find someone that can.