Blogging

Rob Howard on blogging, leaving Microsoft, AJAX, VCs, Open Source

After reviewing Telligents Community Server software I thought it would be good to get Telligents boss and ex-Microsoftie, Rob Howard to share his unique perspective on the blog software industry.

Can you tell us a bit about your time at Microsoft and what you did there?

My time at Microsoft started in early 1998 as a contract developer on Microsoft Site Server. Previously, while in school, some friends and I had a small software/services company that built web applications (~1995). After rather abruptly learning from a potential customer we pitched our services too, that while we appeared to be a smart group of “kids”, we really needed more experience. That’s when I decided that I needed to learn how a software company worked and my goal was clear: get a job with Microsoft, which incidentally, was also a long time dream.

So with a dream and an opportunity my wife and I picked up and drove from Houston, TX to Redmond, WA with nothing more than the assurance of 3-6 months of work. Soon thereafter I parlayed my contract position into a fulltime “blue badge” job in the Developer Relations Group (DRG), which was then headed by Tod Nielson.

Working in DRG was phenomenal; there is even a book about it by some other DRG’ers. It was with the DRG team that I had the unique opportunity of being in the right place at the right time; for you see the dot-com days were just starting. As an “evangelist” the unique opportunity was provided for me to fly around the world meeting with dot-coms and talking about Microsoft technologies, hone my Microsoft technology skills, and present technology not only to developers but C-level executives. It was then that I also had the opportunity to write my first book: Membership & Personalization with Site Server 3.0.

In 2000 I was approached by Scott Guthrie to join the XSP team (later known as ASP+, and now known as ASP.NET). I hemmed and hawed. Yes, becoming a Program Manager sounded challenging, but how could that possibly be more challenging that evangelizing people and getting them excited about ASP.NET? Nevertheless, I joined the team of 14 people excited about the new challenge.

Joining the ASP.NET team not only provided me with a challenging set of new opportunities but also with the means to pursue something else I was always interested and passionate about: Microsoft’s developer community presence. Finally I was in a place where I could make a difference.

Working on the ASP.NET team was the highlight of my career at Microsoft. I was fortunate enough to be given responsibilities in areas of interest to me (internal infrastructure features of ASP.NET) but was also encouraged to “evangelize” the technology. My technical contributions included: Session, Caching, Provider Design Pattern, Profile/Personalization, Membership, Role Manager, and a slew of other ASP.NET features.

You had a darned good job at Microsoft, why quit and start Telligent?

Yes, I did have a “darned good job” – I would actually qualify it as a “dream job”, but I had bigger dreams. The dream of starting a business and building something from the ground-up was a bigger dream for me than being a life-long employee with Microsoft. I’m sure I could have stayed at Microsoft for the remainder of my career and been successful, but starting my own business was another big dream that I wanted to pursue.

It was January of 2003 when I went to lunch with Scott Guthrie and told him the time was right: ASP.NET 2.0 was imminent, I had some ideas for “community software”, and the U.S. economy was finally starting to recover. In other words: the timing seemed right.

With that I gave my official notice and nearly 18 months later, in June of 2004, left Microsoft.

How does Telligent make money if you give the product away? Have you gone over to the dark side of open source?

From day #1 of Telligent our goal was profitability, sustainability, and no venture capitalists or outside investors. I have nothing against venture capitalists, but having worked with so many of them in the dot-com days as a Microsoft Evangelist I learned one very valuable lesson: in general, a VC invests with the expectation of a rapid return on investment. I watched countless businesses and friends lose jobs because the VCs on their boards made the businesses run too fast and too hot, typically burning them out in 18-36 months. The business goal for Telligent was to build the company methodically with a good plan, grow it organically, and focus on building it to last.

Telligent does 2 things primarily: we build Community Server, a collaboration platform, and we sell custom software development. Our custom development arm specialized primarily in ASP.NET and Microsoft SQL Server, building sites such as www.asp.net or working with www.match.com. Community Server, our product, is available through a free, Community license, as well as commercial licenses. The core Community Server platform is made available as Shared Source – side note, personally I believe “open source” is a polluted word and am reticent to use it. “Open source” means too many things to too many people, in fact I’m sure we’ll receive some comments on this article about my comments on “open source”!

While the core of Community Server is shared source Telligent also sells commercial licenses of the Community Server platform and add-on modules that enable features such as: Enterprise Search, News (NNTP) Gateway, Email Gateway (post/reply through email), authentication modules, File Gallery, and so on. We use Community Server today on sites such as blogs.msdn.com (Microsoft’s corporate blog) and forums.xbox.com to name a few.

Suffice to say that our business plan and strategy is successful. We’re a growing company with nearly 50 employees and contractors. I also like to think we’re building one of the premier platforms for enabling communities. We don’t have the same visibility as some of the VC backed-firms, but we’re trying to be the turtle, not the hare.

Now you are on the outside, how do you think Microsoft is fairing against open source? Do you think MS staff blogging has helped against the harsher critics and the slashdot anti-microsoft crowd?

Microsoft as a business is fairing just fine. Its primary products, Windows and Office, are mature and successful. Open source competition is good and keeps Microsoft on its toes – but excitement around open source is mainly in technology circles, the average user, e.g. my dad, really only cares about if the software works and is supported.

Microsoft as a company has made some great moves in the past several years to increase its transparency with its customers. Blogs are definitely part of that transparency and helps put a face to the Microsoft behemoth. But I think blogs are only part of the move to a more transparent organization. You also see Microsoft people at conferences, sharing their email addresses, posting in forums (like forums.asp.net), doing interviews, and generally just being more open and available.

As for the Slashdot crowd (a.k.a. the anti-Microsoft crowd), what do you do? Sure it’s interesting (and sometimes amusing) to follow those discussions, but that’s about where it ends.

Did you ever meet Bill Gates?

Yes, I did. I even blogged about the meeting here and here.

Meeting Bill and interacting with him was exhilarating.

And of course the question I always get asked, “Would Bill know who you are?” The answer: easy, he would have no clue.

I really do admire Bill a lot. Not only for the software company he built, but for the foundations and charities he has enabled and founded. I have been told before that Bill is the most philanthropic technology executive in our industry. While Microsoft has done some amazing things in business and software, the Gates have done some amazing things to help millions of people world-wide.

When did you discover blogging? Has it affected your career at all?

Scott Watermasysk, the original creator of .Text and our Director of Software Development at Telligent, introduced me to blogging in 2002. Scott had created the Open Source blogging engine .Text (which is now part of Community Server) and I helped him get it setup on the weblogs.ASP.NET domain for use by Microsoft and non-Microsoft .NET Bloggers.

The power of blogging didn’t really click with me until I actually started blogging in early 2003. It was then that the idea really struck home: this was another tool to help with the transparency and ‘community’ of Microsoft developers. From that point forward Scott and I began to interact a lot more!

Blogging has absolutely affected my career. It has provided me, and millions of others, a tool which enables a continuous dialog with others who share similar interests across the world. I’ve made new friends through my blog, learned about all kinds of things I would never have known before, and so on.

Where do you see community server and telligent fitting into the blog market? Do you have plans to take community server to the top of the blog software chart or are you happy to dominate the microsoft platform market?

This is a difficult question to answer, only because Blogs are part of what our vision for Community Server encompasses. Our vision for Community Server is to build a platform for enabling rich, interactive, community-oriented sites. Blogs are one of the tools for doing this, but so are forums, photo & file galleries, member management, social tagging, file sharing, email, and much, much more. Thus the goal for Community Server is to build a platform, not just a “blog” solution.

It sounds like a lofty goal, but we like to view ourselves as the “Microsoft” of the community world. While many of our competitors focusing on being the “Apple”, with sexy proprietary solutions, we want to build a ubiquitous and commoditized platform that others can extend. We also believe that the people who wish to build community solutions want to do so on their own systems, as opposed to an Application Service Provider type of business model.

While we would appreciate any accolades that take Community Server’s blogging system to the top of the “blog software chart” it’s not what we’re focusing on. Instead we’re constantly surveying the market and trying to build software that “just works” and is a natural extension of how people want to use the software – in other words, we’re focused on building real solutions for real problems. If we happen to rise to the top because of that so be it.

Similarly I wouldn’t characterize us as dominating the Microsoft platform market. Technology as the enabler, i.e. Microsoft’s technology, is a choice we make because we believe it is the best technology to enable us to build solutions for our customers. While a large proportion of our customers are Microsoft technology fans too, and this does attract them to our platform, our focus is on building the right solution not necessarily on the technologies of how that solution works (and for us Microsoft’s technology is the best choice).

Our accolades and rewards come from our customers successfully using our software to solve their problem. Each new download of Community Server is reward enough for us.

What would you say to people to encourage the ordinary non-technical joe blogger to try community server?

Easy: Community Server is a simple to use, but feature rich platform that excels in building communities. We have a rich set of proven tools for Bloggers that allow them to not only easily create and manage their blogs, but manage, report and control their larger community environment. Furthermore, as an integrated platform when people want to add more capabilities like a photo gallery, file gallery, and so on those features already exist.

We’re also building in capabilities, in Community Server 2.0 platform (CS 2.0 is due out in early 2006), for blogging by email and mobile picture phone blogging. This is in addition to enabling email posts and replies for our forums.

Bottom line: we’re focusing on making building rich, interactive online communities easier.

Any plans for a hosted blog service like wordpress.com and typepad?

No, we currently don’t offer services similar to either of these businesses. We do offer hosted services for our larger customers, but we’d much rather continue to partner with other hosting companies as we do now. We’re a member of Microsoft’s hosting accelerator program and have hosts worldwide, such as GoDaddy and DataPipe, offering hosted Community Server solutions for their customers. We’re not interested in offering a $9.99/mo per-blog service for our customers. Look at the recent challenges that TypePad.com has had lately with server outages. Those types of server outages are extremely frustrating and more growth in that business-model only leads to more challenges. By enabling our customers to host our solution themselves we give them more control over their own destiny.

Think about it – once you’re in the hosting business you’ve got a whole other set of challenges to deal with – we’ll focus on building great software and let our hosting partners focus on building great hosting platforms. This comes back to our business model: we want to be an enabler, not the proprietary solution.

Do you read any blogs regularly? What makes a blog stand out above the rest in your view?

I read a mixed bag of blogs, just as I read a mixed bag of books. Mostly I read the aggregate pages of weblogs.asp.net and blogs.msdn.com as these are areas that have content I’m most interested in. We have a blog reader built-into Community Server 2.0 now and I find myself broadening my interests more as I use our own tools.

Have you any tips for creating great online communities (other than having great tools, heh)?

Absolutely, and as I’m sure you could guess, I’ll be the first to say that tools are the last thing you should worry about when setting out to build a community. I’ll focus my suggestions on communities which will have multiple participants, i.e. not a “single blog”.

Culture – is the culture of your organization ready to create a community? Communities span organizational boundaries and enable individuals to play a more prominent role.

People – Who are the people in your organization that will be the face of your community? Don’t hide behind anonymous personas.

Goals – Think about what goals you have for why you want to create a community. Is the goal to increase transparency for your organization, increase customer satisfaction, raise awareness of your product or services, or to provide a self-help center for your customers. These goals will determine how you invest in your community solution.

Patience – Communities don’t just happen over night, instead they are investments which grow with time and patience. Put measurements in place to validate the health of your community, but don’t expect it to take off overnight.

Recognition – How will you recognize community members for their support? Private content, special access or something else? Recognition of your external (and internal) experts will help your community grow.

Once you have a good understanding of 1-5 then you can think about what software solution makes the most sense for what you’re trying to accomplish. We’ve built Community Server with the above points in mind and with the goal of working with large multi-user communities.

Did you read my review of community server? anything you disagree with?

Of course! Yes, it was a good write-up. The only point of disagreement is that I wish you had reviewed our 2.0 product instead of our 1.1 product. We truly believe our 2.0 product is going to be our “break-out” success story of 2006!

How is community server going to compete with WordPress and SixApart? One area that WP and MT seem to have an advantage is community support for templates and plugins, how do you think you can catch up?

Great question. We are doing a lot, both in our 2.0 product, and our 3.0 product to make templates and plug-ins easier. We’ve made a lot of progress in our 2.0 product with a complete overhaul of our CSS to more easily and rapidly enable changes to the UI. We’ve also introduced the concept of “Community Server Modules API” which allows people to plug into an event-driven pipeline allowing their code to get called into. We’ve got more planned, but nothing I can discuss now.

Too be honest with you were also not focusing on what our competitors are doing. Instead we’re focusing on what our customers are telling us they want. They are definitely times where we’ve heard feedback on features that we don’t have, but we don’t want to get into the feature comparison game. Anyhow, more features isn’t always a positive thing. We’re also a different type of business. We are completely self-funded, which again makes us be super-analytical about where and how we spend our time.

In other words, I’m less worried about competing and more interested in listening to our growing customer base and building what they want.

The microsoft asp.net site is one of yours isn’t it? Will any of your learnings from that project appear in community server? I know a lot of bloggers need tools such as ad serving.

Absolutely! We try and pump everything we learn from our managed sites like www.asp.net and blogs.msdn.com (to name a few) back into the product. We’re about to undertake a major rewrite/re-plumbing of the www.asp.net site to use features found in another site we build (www.hive.net). For example, you should see some great new features like social book marking show up soon.

What do you think about web 2.0 and AJAX and all that, buzzword bingo or is there something to it? Do you think we are in dotcom bubble 2.0?

No, we’re not in dotcom bubble 2.0. I think there are more business, such as Telligent, that are focused first on traditional business principles, i.e. profitability, and less on short-term whiz-bang/IPO/quick-bucks.

I’ve shared some of my perspectives on Web 2.0 (a poor “buzz” name) on my blog recently – more to do with positioning of “smart client” vs. “web client”.

Web 2.0/AJAX/[insert buzzword] is just another way of saying that people are starting to realize that the web interface is a great delivery tool. Seriously, the technology that is AJAX is nothing new. It’s been around for years – now we just have a fancy name and some sexy new packaging. Granted there are a lot of show-dogs being built right now with AJAX overkill, but there are also some really great solutions. We use AJAX in Community Server for inline editing of content as you can see in this video/

Do you still meet up with your old Microsoft colleagues? I bet there are some corking products being tested, any juicy gossip you can share?

Of course! …and I have loads of juicy gossip. Unfortunately none of which I can share. Let’s just say there are some things coming down the road from Microsoft which will amaze you.

Can you gaze into your crystal ball a bit and give us your thoughts on the future for blogging and the web?

Sure! I think we’ll see a lot more innovation in the areas of “podcasting”, video blogging (vlogging) as seen on channel9.msdn.com (another Community Server site), blogging from more devices – example, you’re at a party with friends and snap photos with your mobile camera and post them immediately.

We’re also doing a lot of work with businesses right now to apply blogging technologies to their business processes. For example, at Telligent we use blogs as a tool for sharing project information (actually we use all of Community Server).

Nevertheless, I think the biggest transformation we’ll see in the coming years is more tools similar to blogs that enable individuals to easily form communities online and share information – hopefully they’ll be using Community Server to do it.

Thanks for your time and thoughts Rob!

Author: Chris Garrett

Chris Garrett is a content marketing and blogging coach and co-author of the Problogger Book with Darren Rowse.