Lessons from the Other Side

by Joey deVilla on February 3, 2010

Sheep Canada and Other Perspectives

Cover of "Sheep Canada" magazine

Every now and again, I make it a point to pick up some reading material on a field or industry that’s completely unrelated to my own. I find that it both satisfies my curiosity and helps me see things from a completely different perspective. In one particular case, when I found a copy of Sheep Canada lying abandoned on a subway seat, I enjoyed the puzzled and concerned looks from the other passengers as I read the magazine. Not only did I get a little entertainment, but I learned a little bit about what goes into making the lamb chops and sweaters I love.

I also like asking people questions about their work, especially if it’s in field different from my own. It probably stems from the fact that everyone in my immediate family is in medicine; I’m the “black sheep” who went into computer programming. I often chat with my wife and her co-workers at the University of Toronto’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies (a fascinating line of work, by the bye), my father-in-law about that branch of the insurance industry that concerns itself with executive benefits, friends who work in the television and movie industries, and so on. I love hearing their stories and find that seeing their perspectives broadens my own.

I’ve even taken on little non-developer side jobs just to get a different perspective. I’ve moved an entire warehouse of high-end dresses, had a fair bit of success as a street musician, gotten ink-stained at an old school print shop and even had a stint as an accordion-playing go-go dancer at a Toronto nightclub.

You Go Hither and I’ll Go Thither

It’s this “wanderlust of the mind” that probably led me, a guy who was actually quite happy in the “develop on the Mac, deploy on Linux” world, to becoming a Developer Evangelist with Microsoft. Each world has its own history, culture, customer base and approach to technology, and each offers lessons to the other. As I’ve said before, technology is a great big smorgasbord, where there are enough seats and dishes for everyone and every taste. Wouldn’t it be a waste if you stuck only with the dishes you knew?

I’ve spent the last year getting reacquainted with the Microsoft development world, and it’s different in many ways. There’s the obvious stuff such as operating systems, programming languages and tools. There’s also the more subtle stuff: conference demographics and what people do in the hallways at conference, the sort of apps that get written, what people do in their spare time and so on.

Don Dodge

Don Dodge is experiencing the same thing…just in reverse. Just as I’ve gone from being a Mac guy to running Windows 7 as my primary operating system, he’s crossed over from Windows to the Mac OS and writing about his experiences with the transition in an article titled From MSFT Evangelist to Mac Enthusiast – The Other Side of the Road.

There are some lessons to be learned from Don’s observations, a fact that wasn’t lost on Todd Bishop. In his article on Don’s “switching” experience, he writes:

This sentence, in particular, caught my attention: "After years of defending Microsoft against the Apple fanatics I decided to go to the other side of the road to see for myself," Dodge writes.

Good for him, but the fact that he hadn’t seen the other side of the road as a Microsoft employee is a symptom of a larger problem at the Redmond company. Loyalty to and appreciation for your own products is nice, to a point, but after interacting with people at Microsoft for the better part of the past decade, I’ve never quite understood, logically, why it’s taboo for its employees to use competing products.

…think what would happen if Microsoft employees experienced and saw around them, every day, a true reflection of the competitive landscape — including Microsoft products and rival technologies. My hunch is that they’d come away with a better understanding of what motivates specific consumer actions, and how they might be able to get consumers to pick Microsoft products instead.

Todd, you took the words right out of my mouth. It’s right along the lines of my own philosophy, which I wrote about in the article Evangelist, Immigrant and Shaman:

What Microsoft needs badly is a shaman. They need somebody who is situated physically within their culture, but outside it spiritually. This isn’t a person who hates Microsoft, but it’s a person who can actually see it. I can do this for you. Give me a hut in your parking lot. I will eat mushrooms, roll around in your cafeteria, and tell you the Goddamned truth.

Awkward family photo featuring family in the Sunday best with one boy in biker leather.

It’s the style in which I do my work. Yes, I devote a lot of time and effort to Microsoft’s tools and technologies, but I make sure that they’re not the only things I look at. I try to keep abreast of things like the IDE conventions in XCode, what’s happening in the worlds of the iPhone and Android, non-Microsoft languages and frameworks such as PHP, Python and Django, Ruby and Rails, templating systems like HAML and Sass and the NoSQL movement. Each has lessons (the Microsoft term is “learnings”, which I refuse to use, since I consider it a non-word) that can be incorporated into the Microsoft world, just as I’m sure that we too have lessons to offer to these other worlds. And in the end, we’ll all get better tools and technologies for our work, life and play.

It’s something you should try as well. Try using some tool or technology that you wouldn’t normally use. Hang out with developers from “the other side”. Pick up a copy of Sheep Canada. Broaden your perspective and see what you’ll learn!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


Silicon Alley Insider on the King of the Apple Geeks

by Joey deVilla on August 10, 2009

Screenshot of the "Daing Fireball" blog Silicon Alley Insider states the obvious – at least it’s obvious to Macintosh fans: John Gruber is King of the Apple Geeks.

On the off chance that you hadn’t heard of John before, he’s the one-man force behind Daring Fireball, one of the must-read sites for fans, followers – and yes, even evangelists for the competition — of Apple. He’s been writing the blog since the summer of 2002 and over time has acquired a legion of readers that includes higher-ups at Apple, Inc. His recent article about how Ninjawords, an iPhone dictionary and the latest app to get rejected by Apple’s Kafkaesque approval process was not just spot-on; it also got linked to by a large number of influential tech sites and managed to garner a response from Apple senior VP Phil Schiller, which he published as a follow-up article.

As with any site created by an Apple True Believer, Daring Fireball devotes a number of electrons to taking on The Empire, the most recent set being Microsoft’s Long, Slow Decline, a long but interesting (and also much-linked-to) article on the company’s current state and the challenges it faces. Whereas  lesser, more rabid fanboys — Daniel Eran Dilger of Roughly Drafted, I’m lookin’ right at you – would’ve been content to prematurely dance on the company’s grave, John enumerates the company’s missteps with solid reasoning and soberly (well, mostly soberly – hey, I’m not going to deny him his little bit of glee on behalf of his team). Even when he’s pummelling the organization for whom I work, I have to credit him for going beyond mere tribalism and penning some of the best-thought-out tech articles on the web today.

Why do I read him?

  • For starters, he’s good. I’m working on becoming one of the web’s best writers, and it pays to learn from the pros.
  • It’s also partly out of habit; I was a Mac user prior to my hire as a Microsoft Developer Evangelist.
  • It’s also my job. I do both Microsoft and its customers a disservice by not looking (and learning) outside Microsoft’s walls, especially since I was hired for my outsider’s perspective.
  • It helps me with my job. His blog is practically a laundry list of things I need to focus on.

Here’s a question for which I can’t easily come up with an answer: is there a Jon Gruber analogue in the Windows world? If not an analogue, any close approximations? Let me know in the comments.



by Joey deVilla on July 16, 2009

Parody of the "You Find It, You Keep It" graphic: "You watch our ads / You throw a hissy fit"with the Apple logo.

(Click the image to get the story.)


Old Apple ][ ad featuring Ben Franklin: "What Kind of Man Owns His Own Computer?"Click the ad to see it at full size.

From roughly the same time as the Honeywell “What the Heck is Electronic Mail?” advertisement I showed you earlier, comes this Apple ad for the original Apple ][ computer. You have to remember that this was a time when most people didn’t have a computer at their desk; in fact, if an office had a computer, it had just one. And the desktop computers of that era had far less processor power (they typically has 1 MHz 8-bit chips like the Z80 or 6502) and RAM (maximum address space was 64K; machines typically maxed out at 48K RAM) than even the cheapest of today’s mobile phones. And yes, that’s a standard TV set being used as a monitor – its highest resolution was 280 by 192 pixels.

The tricky part about creating such an ad is trying to convince people of that era that they needed a computer. Remember, in those days computers were relegated to their own rooms, the fax machine was still new, mobile phones were toys for the rich and were carried in their own briefcases and when office and even legal documents were typed or written out in longhand. I’ve been trying to think of a present-day analogue for a late 1970s/early 1980s computer ad, but I’m drawing a blank.

Here’s the text of the ad:

What kind of man owns his own computer?

Rather revolutionary, the whole idea of owning your own computer? Not if you’re a diplomat, printer, scientist, inventor…or a kite designer, too. Today there’s Apple Computer. It’s designed to be a personal computer. To uncomplicate your life. And make you more effective.

It’s a wise man who owns an Apple.

If your time means money, Apple can help you make more of it. In an age of specialists, the most successful specialists stay away from uncreative drudgery. That’s where Apple comes in.

Apple is a real computer, right to the core. So just like big computers, it manages data, crunches numbers and prints reports. You concentrate on what you do best. And let Apple do the rest. Apple makes that easy with three programming languages – including Pascal – that let you be your own software expert.

Apple, the computer worth not waiting for

Time waiting for access to your company’s big mainframe is time wasted. What you need in your department – on yourdesk – is a computer that answers only to you…Apple Computer. It’s less expensive than timesharing. More dependable than distributed processing. Far more flexible than centralized EDP. And, at less than $2500 (as shown), downright affordable.

Visit your local computer store

You can join the personal computer revolution by visiting the Apple dealer in your neighborhood. We’ll give you his name when you call our toll-free number…


Apple I Art Photos for Sale

by Joey deVilla on April 6, 2009

Apple 1 computer, "exploded".

20X200 is selling this lovely photo by Mark Richards featuring an “exploded” view of the original Apple I computer, the predecessor of my first computer, the Apple //e. These are limited edition prints; as of this writing, there are:

  • 76 8” by 10” (about 20cm by 25cm) photos remaining, selling for US$20 each
  • 463 11” by 14” (about 28cm by 36cm) photos remaining, selling for US$50 each
  • 12 16” by 20” (about 41cm by 51cm) photos remaining, selling for US$200 each


Mac Fans Freak Out Over Microsoft’s “Lauren” Ad

by Joey deVilla on March 29, 2009

The best measure of the effectiveness of the new “Lauren” ad is that it’s driving some thin-skinned Apple fans nuts. In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the ad:

<a href=";playlist=videoByUuids:uuids:0bb6a07c-c829-4562-8375-49e6693810c7&amp;showPlaylist=true&amp;from=shared" target="_new" title="Laptop Hunters $1000 – Lauren Gets an HP Pavilion">Video: Laptop Hunters $1000 – Lauren Gets an HP Pavilion</a>

It’s one of the greatest strengths of the Esteemed Competition; as a long-time Mac and iPod user, I know first-hand the Apple experience is a very satisfying one that creates a lot of passionate users. This passion led to more than the usual number of pagehits and comments for my previous post on the “Lauren” ad (not to mention more than the usual amount of AdSense cash – thanks for the beer money, folks!) as well as a number of huffy articles including:

Some thoughts:

“Offensive?” Really? 

That’s the term Ed Oswald used in his article. My response: Oh, come on. Imagine the ridiculousness of someone complaining that Apple’s “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads were offensive to Windows users. If all you had were those ads to go by, you’d think that Windows machines were completely non-functional (lies!) and its users were uniformly dull accountant-types (bigotry!). Chill, people – good natured-one-upmanship is part of advertising; heck, it’s part of day-to-day life. If this ad is offensive, I suggest you stay indoors, because you’re not going to like the outside world.

Bob Caswell put it best in this article:

That’s how commercials work, you see. By and large, Apple and Microsoft are playing the same game. A game that Apple started, I might add. And kudos to Apple for starting it; it seems to have worked well for them.

But now that a strong response is out by Microsoft (a separate tangential conversation is whether Microsoft should be throwing so much money at a “response” campaign; that’s debatable), the Apple fanboys are restless (this topic was at the top of Techmeme earlier today) and feel the need to point out the “offense,” “pointlessness,” and “inaccuracies.

Wow. Talk about a classic case of dishing out but not being able to take it.

“But Lauren’s an actress!”

It still doesn’t mean that she’s not someone that the ad agency found through Craigslist, nor does it affect the credibility of the story within the ad. I might as well say “But John Hodgman and Justin Long are actors! They aren’t really computers!”

As I’ve said before, Los Angeles is packed to the rafters with pretty women, whom when you ask them what they do will tell you that they do something that pays the rent and that they also act. Yes, Lauren’s an actress, but she pays the rent with an office manager job. It’s a career path that’s common enough that they make fridge magnets like this:

"Actress" fridge magnet, featuring a picture of a waitress

Contrast this with John “I’m a PC” Hodgman, who pays the bills with his paycheques from Apple, Battlestar Galactica and the Daily Show (there’s also his book deal, but making money off books is a tricky thing) and Justin “I’m a Mac” Long, who pays the bills with his paycheques from Apple, Live Free or Die Hard, Zack and Miri, Pineapple Express and both Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Nobody with any sense dismisses them because they’re actors – they tell a compelling story well, and that’s the important thing.

Apple Doesn’t Need to Have a Monopoly on Good Ideas

That doesn’t mean that the Esteemed Competition doesn’t make excellent stuff – I know from having owned three Mac laptops and a couple of iPods over the past six years.

But Apple’s not the only manufacturer making great stuff and compelling ads, and that’s okay. Some people may not like the idea that the “Lauren” ad exists, just as some people don’t like the fact that a Microsoftie came up with the Coffee and Code idea – and to those people, I’ll remind them of what a smart guy once said:

“We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.”

The man who said that? Steve Jobs, back in 1997, when Microsoft made a $150 million investment in Apple.

It’s a big tech world, and there’s room at the table for a lot of people.


The Simpsons and “Mapple”

by Joey deVilla on December 1, 2008

Last night’s episode of The Simpsons made some pretty funny pokes at Apple, or as they’re referred to in the episode, "Mapple":

In three minutes’ worth of opening sequence, they manage to get in a fair number of jabs and gags, including:

  • Apple stores’ design aesthetic: “It’s so sterile!”
  • The price points of Apple products – even the fake “myPod” earbuds cost forty bucks
  • The "silhouette” iPod ads
  • Steve Job’s keynotes and the breathless, worshipful way they’re received
  • The “cool factor” associated with Apple products
  • The “1984” ad for the original Macintosh. Comic Book Guy is the perfect guy to throw the hammer – he even has the same shorts as the hammer-throwing revolutionary.

There are many lessons that tech companies (and yes, that includes the empire of which I am part) could learn from Mapple – er, Apple – from differentiating yourself with good design to making an emotional and experiential connection with your users. It’s not just feature sets and price points. After all, even though we’ve had electric light for over a century, candles remain a $2 billion dollar industry and can be found in seven out of ten homes.

(As for Bart’s bit about Steve Jobs and Bill gates smooching on a pile of money, that’s been done before in the form of hot Steve-on-Bill slash fiction.)

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