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July 2013

Product Managers on the Road: Houston Edition

Worldwide Partner Congress—WPC in Microsoft-speak—is a gigantic beginning-of-Microsoft-fiscal-year sales get-together held in early July each year. Just me and 15,000 friends I haven't met yet.

I hadn't planned to attend, but my Microsoft representatives really, really wanted me to go. So they got me into the "Partner Executive Summit" the weekend prior to the Conference, and paid for my conference registration. Since the answer to all of my "how do I find the right partner?" questions in the weeks leading up to the conference was always, "go to WPC!" I figured I should go ahead… even though Houston doesn't immediately jump to mind for pleasant summer destinations.

Other than passing through its airport (the "Midnight Madness" connection to Boston remains surreal to this day), I can only remember one other visit to Houston. That was about fifteen years ago, on a road trip that included a stopover with my Aunt Bunny (the only name I ever knew her by). It was hot and humid that time, too; no surprise there. The highlight of that visit was my Aunt Bunny swatting and stunning a giant cockroach and then telling me, "Danny, you can go ahead and toss it out of the house now." Yeesh.

The conference starts on a Monday, but the Executive Summit kicks off the prior Saturday. We were in McCloud to celebrate Independence Day and Brian's birthday with the family, but I will have to cut my weekend celebration short.

Saturday

McCloud. My day starts at 2:45 AM. I get up, finish packing for the conference, pack up all the stuff that's going back home with Crystal, and make a mental note to be sure to bring Bucky, my much-traveled neck pillow that allows me to sleep more comfortably in an airplane seat.

By 3:30AM Mary (my saintly sister, who's driving me to the airport) and I are out the door, right on time. We hop into the Mercedes we've borrowed for the weekend from Cheryl (saintly sister #2) for the ride to the Redding Airport. But first, we need to get some gas. We pull into the local gas station, I push on the filler cap cover to open it and… it won't open. I push again; no luck. This is a Mercedes—everything is activated by pushing. What else could be causing the problem? After 20 minutes of brain-fogged problem-solving, including several unsuccessful attempts to reach Brian or Cheryl by phone, Mary calls it and we head back to the rental house to get the Honda and head to the airport.

Now all the extra time I had built into the schedule is gone. We jump on Highway 89, heading west toward Highway 5. It's still dark out, a great time to find a deer in the road. And sure enough, we encounter a big buck crossing Highway 89, far enough to one side not to require me to take defensive driving action. But judging from the points on that buck, I can see why he thinks he's a badass.

We get to Redding airport on time, just a few minutes behind schedule. There are basically three flights a day, so I had missed this flight, it would be a while before I could take another flight to SFO. It's a small airport, but the security is big-time. It reminds me that the 9/11 bombers got into the air traffic system at a small regional airport in Maine. Lesson learned.

The group ahead of me is from Australia, and apparently they've showed up a day after their flight… makes me think they were operating on Australia time. Somehow things get sorted out for them. Brian had showed me how to use my United Airlines iPhone app the day before, so I'm all checked in except for paying to check my bag. I don't want to carry it anyway, but surely there's no way it's going to fit on this twin-prop commuter flight. Then again, I'm apparently traveling with a group of musicians, judging from the number of guitar cases waiting to be carried on to the plane.

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On the plane, seat 2A. Dawn breaks, the thin sliver of a crescent moon fades, and we're headed to San Francisco. Once at SFO, it takes me a while to sift through all the Houston flights for mine, so I can get on the right shuttle bus from the commuter terminal to the main United terminal.

On my flight to Houston. I think CalTrain was in charge of the cabin temperature, because it's freezing. It's like they want to overcome the heat and humidity of Houston by making the temperature as low as possible on the flight. I have no jacket with me (who needs a jacket when the Houston forecast is for 90+ degree temps and 90+ percent humidity?) and good luck finding a blanket; maybe that was one of the options for purchase when I checked in.

Getting ready to land. The flight attendant, in that sweet Texas drawl, is shooing a passenger back to his seat. I can see his problem—he's located his luggage behind him on the plane, a cardinal sin. I kind of feel sorry for him, but not too much since he is sitting in first class after all.

We've landed at Bush airport in Houston. This airport is definitely Texas-sized. My United app has just told me that my flight has landed. Uh, thanks for that.

There's a message on my phone from Brian: call us right away when you land… what's that about? This is what it's about. Oh and welcome to today's reality—first news of it arrived via a fellow passenger's Facebook feed. I call Brian to let him and everyone know I'm fine, and not stuck at SFO.

At the hotel. There are an awful lot of "how to stay safe" commercials on the TV at this hotel. Makes me wonder about the neighborhood. I later learn that the area, Greenspoint, has a nickname of "Gunspoint." Ok, then! I hit the gym for a nice, long workout.

Taxi ride into downtown Houston, for the cocktail reception in advance of the Partner Executive Summit. Just like the airplane, the hotel temperature is turned way down to overcome the effects from the outside temperature. I try to be discreet as I wolf down the little spoons of Asian-flavored tuna tartare.

Sunday

Today is a full day of Partner Executive Summit sessions. I go outside my hotel to catch a cab, and my glasses immediately fog up.

It's weird working on a Sunday. It takes me a while to figure out why no one is returning my emails.

After a full day of presentations, it's time for cocktails. Actually, there are two cocktail receptions in a row… this could be trouble. I skip one reception and go to the Partner Summit dinner at III (as in 3) Forks restaurant. Time for a Shiner Bock beer; hello Texas! It may have been a mistake asking for the medium-well filet, as I get the "hey bub, you asked for it" cut from the filet mignon. Hey, who's complaining?

I finish the evening with a glass of wine at the bar. I end up leaving my work bag in the bar and get a phone call in my room… doh!

Monday

Fogged glasses again.

My morning alarm goes off as planned. Unfortunately, I've left my phone on vibrate, which means I sleep through the alarm—so much for working out. And so much for making it to Steve Ballmer's keynote. Still, the follow-on sessions are interesting. There's one on Business Intelligence that uses bubble charts to show the top musician each year. Turns out Mariah Carey has more staying power than you would think. The presenter showcasing all the cool things about Windows 8 looks remarkably like Rick Harrison from Pawn Stars.

Q&A session with Steve Ballmer. The staging of it (don't be late, he waits for everyone to be there before he comes out) reminds me of Paul Stern and his "tour" of Nortel back when. Those were not happy times.

The session format is standard talk show, two living room chairs with a little table in between. Except that Steve Ballmer doesn't want to sit back in the comfy chair and talk. He keep scooting up to the edge of the seat. After a while I realize his speaking style is like Father Dan from our church—he has that Midwest twang and he kind of shouts when he gets excited or wants to make a point. But he's well prepared and gives on-point answers, no real platitudes. Substance! But you also see some of that competitive "I want to crush the competition" drive. It's interesting that Microsoft was once viewed as the Evil Empire and now that title has passed to others like Google and Facebook.

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Partner dinner at the Petroleum Club, 43rd floor of the ExxonMobil building. Yes there is a dress code (M-F: business casual, jackets suggested). I walk over from the convention center. Since it rained earlier, the skies are clearing and it's merely incredibly humid. I make my way past the homeless people and the guys playing basketball in the city park nearby. After a half-dozen blocks, I'm at the ExxonMobil building (I'm still wondering where the Enron building was located). I look like I've walked through a waterfall to get here.

Up to the top. Nice view of the Salvation Army below, home of some of the other 99%. Where is JR? I know he's dead, I know that was Dallas. But if oil defines any place in Texas, Houston has to be high up on that list. There's a nice combo playing; they could be called, "Three Old White Guys." The music is fine, until they perform a rendition of Yes' All Good People. I'm starting to feel a little ill.

On the shuttle bus ride back to my hotel after the day is over. I count roughly two tattoo parlors, six adult video stores, five strip clubs (including Fantasy Plaza, because sometimes one building is not enough to contain one's fantasies), a couple of pawn shops and payday loan businesses, and more than a dozen boarded up buildings. Also a "Mas Club;" think Sam's Club for the Spanish-speaking population. And a furniture store called The Dump, with its tagline, "get dumped!"

Tuesday

My ritual morning fogging of the glasses.

Temps are in the 90s—cooler, but the heat index is above 100. I wanted to get up and work out, but I've got a stiff back. Or, I'm just feeling a bit lazy.

My first day of regular conference sessions. In the first session, I see one of the worst charts I've seen in a while. From my Nortel experience, I can tell it's one of those internal business plan charts that puts everything you might want to know on one slide. We could spend the whole hour just "unpacking" that one slide. Mercifully, the speakers move on.

On a side note: I think the infographic craze has gotten to Microsoft. That, and the "doors" metaphor as a replacement for "windows." The PowerPoint slides don't have titles. And there are no bullet icons. Each main idea is in its own little box. And if you want to "drill down" on something, you click on it… Open the door, get it?

Next comes the march of the acronyms. EPG, CA, MEC… "Rhythm of Business." There's no end to it; more on this later. And please, presenters, don't ask for a "show of hands." No one wants to raise their hand!

The new normal: people taking photos of the presenter's slides. A new opportunity for Evernote!

One thing I've learned about WPC is that you can't go hungry here. There's a buffet breakfast. There are refreshments all the time, and a buffet lunch—free to all attendees. Then there are the dinners and parties… Had a great BBQ brisket for lunch today, though it featured a North Carolina-style mustard and vinegar sauce. I'm surprised that made it past the Texas Board of Health.

Evening events include a "reunion" of the folks that attended the similarly named Partner Executive Summit back in March, followed by the West Region Partner Awards dinner. More booze and appetizers.

Wednesday

Slightly less fog on my glasses this morning; the weather's improving.

One of the big activities at the Conference is meetings with other partners. Microsoft even has it all wired, where you can arrange to reserve one of the tables they have set aside for this purpose; no need to meet in the coffee shop down the street (unless you aren't an attendee). A number of companies have set up meetings with me, mostly Independent Software Vendors. I don't see any immediate opportunity there (and tell them before we set the meetings) but hey, I'll meet with anyone for fifteen minutes.

Unfortunately, the execution lags. I've been on the go since early AM, and don't get lunch until 1:30 PM. Most of the events I set up using the WPC app on my phone also synch to my Calendar; but not all of them do. So I end up inadvertently blowing off two partner meetings, and get blown off by a third. I do manage to meet with an Israeli security company (with a US headquarters; this is a recurring theme…) that has an interesting encryption device. I tell them flat out not to suggest that their device would have prevented the NSA from reading people's mail.

It turns out to be a very good meeting, and kind of reminds me why I like working with startups. I had shown up early to the meeting, when the CEO was pitching to the "Google compete" people from Microsoft, and I could see them thinking, "what is your 'ask'?" One of them was kind of understanding that there was a "kill" message against Google, but she clearly knew nothing about cryptography. Her colleague had that "we're Microsoft, we're badass!" look on his face and seemed more focused on where the drinks were going to be happening that evening.

I finish up with calls to my customer in San Francisco, to get up to date on this month's planned project activities, and with a call to the boss, who is arranging my travel to DC later in the month. Things are all wrapped up by 6:45 PM.

On to Minute Maid Park, home of the Astro's. Or, as my late Uncle John loved to call them back in the day, the "Disastro's." There's this U-shaped redevelopment that comprises Minute Maid Park and the Hilton Americas hotel on opposite sides, and the Walter G. Brown Convention Center in the middle. It's a great start at some urban redevelopment. It's also clearly still a work in progress. There is a dirt lot across the street from the entrance to the park, and what are these historic-looking buildings doing here?

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This evening is the big "partner celebration," featuring Fitz and the Tantrums along with Lenny Kravitz. The whole thing reminds me of the big Nortel bash held at the end of every International SL-1 (later Meridian 1) User Association meeting.

At any rate, I'm having a good time walking around the park. It's kind of like AT&T Park except it's indoors, which makes the field look smaller than it is. And they have that funny uphill section of the outfield in straightaway center field, which always looked like an accident waiting to happen for center fielders. They're serving beer and wine, no hard liquor; probably a good call. Some of the attendees have taken the time to change into their party outfits. I cruise around looking for something that will stand for dinner. Eventually, I settle on an Italian sausage with peppers. I'm hearing the pre-band music and realize many of the songs are from my morning BodyPump workouts. I think God is trying to tell me something.

Pop quiz: which of these items can be found in Minute Maid Park?

  • Mechanical bull
  • Giant cowboy cutout picture
  • Giant cowboy boots
  • Bar tables made from wagon wheels
  • Halliburton sponsor sign

Answer: all of the above of course!

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I stay for Fitz et al, but decide I've had enough before Lenny Kravitz starts to play. As I leave the park, I pass by a Catholic church. The plaque on the church says that, "In keeping with the penitential rites, there was no heating until 1914, and no air conditioning until the 1930s." My kind of Catholics!

Thursday

Almost done. I'm going to miss you, foggy glasses.

The big news at the conference actually comes from afar: Microsoft just announced a reorganization. And so starts the speculation about who won, who lost, was it the right thing to do, can it be accomplished and so on. More navel-gazing.

I'm in my first session of the day, one of the "how to work with Microsoft" sessions I had signed up for. I actually hear the presenter say the following with no trace of irony, and no objections from the crowd: "The PTU mission is to be ATU accountable and STU aligned"… huh?

I manage to catch up with one of the partners I missed earlier in the week. They're a software developer from Bulgaria. The CEO is focused in his discussion, his partner looks like she's done for the week. We conclude that there's no immediate chance to work together, but we'll stay in touch nonetheless.

One final session on go-to-market in Europe. I'm here as much as anything because I love to hear the European accents. After the session, and some catching up on work and personal mail, I retrieve my bag and go find an actual BBQ restaurant in Houston: Tony's BBQ and Steakhouse. It's a bit of a dive, the way I like. You order cafeteria style and there aren't a lot of healthy sides to choose from. I'd love to finish my lunch with a Shiner Bock, but apparently they can't serve beer at lunch time.

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I walk back to the convention center and cool off while I wait for my bus and head to the airport. It's been a good week. But, as with all conventions, by the end of it I'm ready to get home. I've connected with a lot of good people, learned some new Microsoft acronyms, bought a Surface tablet on sale (without having to wait in line for hours), had some good BBQ and learned a little bit about Houston. Not bad for a week on the road.