Q&A

The Man Behind the Message

Microsoft's Rob Caron spends his days (and probably nights) trying to keep developers up-to-speed.

As Lead Product Manager for Developer Tools Content Strategy, Rob Caron's job is making sure you know -- and understand -- what Microsoft is up to. And if he can entertain you along the way, well that's just a bonus.

Rob Caron
"I think when people blog about a particular announcement it enables them to stand up and be recognized for their contribution."
Rob Caron, Lead Product Manager for Developer Tools Content Strategy, Microsoft
Caron is a devoted man, often updating his blog more than Madonna changes clothes. While much of his time in Redmond has been spent on documentation, he's also a journalist, developer and DBA. Redmond Developer News Editor in Chief Doug Barney asked Rob about his new job, and how corporate developers can stay up-to-speed on the many Microsoft initiatives.

You recently moved into a new position after several years as the content architect-and head blogger-of Visual Studio Team System. What do you do now?
I'm leading a new team within Developer Tools Marketing to create and manage a comprehensive and consistent strategy around developer tools content, events and learning.

Why is that important?
When you consider what creating and managing that strategy can encompass, it's immense. We have a very structured process and dedicated teams to create documentation for our products and technologies. However, that documentation can never capture the complete body of knowledge, which is always growing.

In response to that, Microsoft spends a lot of money to create and deliver additional content, such as technical articles, white papers, webcasts, blogs, training and more. To deliver content, we host an array of Web sites and events. We even develop certifications to acknowledge mastery of those products and technologies, which requires an accessible body of knowledge to achieve.

You've moved from programming to writing about a standalone IDE, to writing about Team System. How has your professional development mirrored that of the industry, as companies try to integrate and leverage the software development lifecycle?
That's an interesting question, and I wish I had drawn that parallel myself. When I think back on my time as a programmer, I can readily see where tools like Visual Studio Team System would've been immensely helpful.

On one project we managed bugs in Lotus Notes, stored source [code] in Visual SourceSafe, captured requirements in Word docs, reported daily status in e-mail, built the project on the dev lead's machine, and hired a contractor to perform manual testing toward the end of the project. Team members would revel in schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another's misfortune) whenever we'd meet with the customer and our hapless project manager would squirm trying to report the state of the project with no data upon which to base his report.

Although that was 10 years ago, I'm sure there are teams today that are equally dysfunctional. I think a lot of companies are still trying to roll their own ALM solutions from a mixed-bag of tools and partial solutions. Maintaining an inherited codebase is usually painful. Maintaining a homebrewed ALM solution can be worse.

What one thing related to development tools during your time at Microsoft has surprised you the most?
The potential of Team Foundation Server surprised me the most. When I started working on Visual Studio Team System in early 2003, I didn't view Team Foundation Server as the change agent that it has become. Adopting Team Foundation Server is like rural electrification; it fundamentally changes the way a software development team does business. To not adopt Team Foundation Server is to miss the point of Visual Studio Team System.

How is communication made into a two-way street with developers?
Developers build applications to automate behavior. However, this means they easily recognize automated responses, which they only accept as acknowledgement. Communication only becomes a two-way street when a dialogue occurs. Dialogues build relationships that enable open and honest discussion, not soliloquies.

How does the Web help keep customers informed?
The Web is the ultimate breadth communication tool. The printing press completely changed the way information was shared on breadth level. The Web expands on that by increasing the extent of sharing and combining it with the ability to locate the specific information you want. When visiting a commercial Web site, customers expect to always find the latest information. With blogs, customers expect more frequent updates. RSS and e-mail relieves customers of frequent site visits to keep informed.

What's the role of blogs?
Blogs serve many roles at Microsoft. Blogs provide a creative outlet to talk about a wide variety of subjects ... They provide a channel for sharing ideas with a broad audience. Blogs democratize communication. As a beneficial byproduct, blogs -- especially sole-proprietor blogs -- revealed the human presence at Microsoft beyond Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Part of that humanity is the ability to err. Sometimes bloggers forget they're engaged in public communication and put a foot in their mouth, or share information prematurely. Blogs can be humbling.

What blogs should corporate development managers check out?
It depends on the development manager and the projects they're leading. I link to several from my blog (http://blogs.msdn.com/robcaron), such as Tyner Blain (http://tynerblain.com/blog), Brad Appleton (http://bradapp.blogspot.com), Brian Harry (http://blogs.msdn.com/bharry), Eric Sink (http:// software.ericsink.com) and the collection of blogs on CodeBetter.com. In addition, they should check out the MSDN blogs from team members working on products and technologies that are crucial to their projects.

What topics are you interested in for your blog?
I'm interested in blogging about topics that expand the body of knowledge. When I started my blog on blogs.msdn.com, I thought I would be blogging deep, technical content about Visual Studio Team System. I quickly realized that I couldn't contribute on the level I hoped, but as a Visual Studio Team System generalist, I did see value in being a human aggregator of Visual Studio Team System content. Occasionally, I'll have a topic on which I can contribute something unique, but usually I'm highlighting someone else's effort.

Where do you get your information?
I find it by monitoring a large number of internal and external resources, but most are cited in my blog posts. My new role puts me in touch with some new resources, but it distances me from others. I'm also trying to expand the scope of my blog to all of Visual Studio.

How has blogging changed public relations and how things get announced?
Blogging has both helped and hindered [public communications]. As I mentioned earlier, I think blogging has helped Microsoft's image and improved Microsoft's public relations overall. By democratizing communication, I suspect it has made the task of public relations a little harder. Instead of working with a limited number of corporate spokespeople, blogging has introduced hundreds of new vectors that can impact the corporate message.

Fortunately, most Microsoft bloggers are smart enough to recognize blogging as the public communication channel that it is. They understand they're blogging as a Microsoft employee, and not just as an individual. It's the understanding of corporate responsibility and using the same common sense you would use in any other public forum. I don't look at blogs as announcement channels at the organizational level. That's the role of PR. Instead, I think when people blog about a particular announcement it enables them to stand up and be recognized for their contribution. (Note: Michael Desmond contributed to this Q&A.)

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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