A conversation with Jon Udell about his new job with Microsoft

For today's podcast I decided to interview myself about my upcoming new gig. It's a short episode, under six minutes, and the transcript follows.

Note: I actually meant to push this to the server later today, to synchronize with a message that will be forthcoming from Jeff Sandquist. But a mis-click on my part pushed it sooner, which means Jeff will be a bit surprised when he wakes up. Trust me, though, this is something I've been thinking carefully about for a long time, and it's very real.

Q: Your new job is with Microsoft?

A: That's right. My last day at InfoWorld will be Friday Dec 15. On Jan 15, after a month-long sabbatical, I'll become a Microsoft employee. My official title will be Evangelist, and I'll report to Jeff Sandquist. He's the leader of the team that creates Channel 9 and Channel 10, websites that feature blogs, videos, screencasts, and podcasts for Microsoft-oriented developers.

Q: What will your role be?

A: The details aren't nailed down, but in broad terms I've proposed to Microsoft that I continue to function pretty much as I do now. That means blogging, podcasting, and screencasting on topics that I think are interesting and important; it means doing the kinds of lightweight and agile R&D that I've always done; and it means brokering connections among people, software, information, and ideas -- again, as I've always done.

Q: Why are you doing this?

A: I'm often described as a leading-edge alpha geek, and that's fair. I am, and probably always will be, a member of that club. But I'm also increasingly interested in reaching out to the mainstream of society.

For those of us in the club, it's a golden age. With computers and networks and information systems we can invent new things almost as fast as we can think them up. But we're leaving a lot of folks behind. And I'm not just talking about the digital divide that separates the Internet haves from the have-nots. Even among the haves, the ideas and tools and methods that some of us take for granted haven't really put down roots in the mainstream.

Over the years I've evangelized a bunch of things to the alpha-geek crowd: Internet groupware, blogging, syndication, tagging, web architecture, lightweight integration, microformats, structured search, screencasting, dynamic languages, geographic mapping, random-access audio, and more. There's a purpose behind all this, and Doug Engelbart saw it very clearly a long time ago. The augmentation of human capability in these sorts of ways isn't just some kind of geek chic. It's nothing less than a survival issue for our species. We face some really serious challenges. The only way we're going to be able to tackle them is to figure out how to work together in shared information spaces. I've chosen to align myself with Microsoft because I think it has the scale, the resources, and the business incentive to help me empower a lot of people to learn how to do that.

Q: Why now?

A: At the Emerging Technology Conference in March, Microsoft's incoming chief software architect, Ray Ozzie, showed how LiveClipboard, the 21st-century version of the Windows clipboard, could enable collaborative sharing of information, and creative recombination of services, across all operating systems, web applications, and desktop applications.

Kim Cameron, Microsoft's identity architect, is taking a similar approach in the domain of identity, privacy, and the control of personal information.

Jean Paoli, Microsoft's Office XML architect, continues to pursue his lifelong dream of empowering millions of people to create and use smarter documents.

Jim Hugunin, who created both Jython and IronPython, is making my favorite open source scripting language, Python, a first-class citizen of the .NET platform.

J.J. Allaire is creating a blog-writing tool that will enable millions of people to publish data that's reusable and intelligently searchable.

Bottom line: This isn't your father's -- or maybe your older brother's or sister's -- Microsoft. Initiatives like these matter, they're solidly in line with my own agenda, they're being pursued in very open ways, and I want to help move them forward.

Q: Are you selling out, joining the Evil Empire, and turning your back on principles you've always championed?

A: Wait until the evidence is in, then decide for yourself. I've been in this game for a long time. I think my record of pragmatism and agnosticism speaks for itself, but sometimes I like to recall what Tim O'Reilly said in his foreword to my 1999 book on Internet groupware:

All too often, people wear their technology affiliations on their sleeve (or perhaps on their t-shirts), much as people did with chariot racing in ancient Rome. Whether you use NT or Linux, whether you program in Perl or Java or Visual Basic - these are marks of difference and the basis for suspicion. Jon stands above this fragmented world like a giant. He has only one software religion: what works.
I claim that was, is, and will continue to be true. If it stops being true in the future, I expect you to hold me accountable. But meanwhile, I hope you'll suspend disbelief until the evidence is in.

Q: Will you be a blogger? An analyst? A developer? An educator? A multimedia producer?

A: All of the above. The title "evangelist" doesn't quite capture that whole range of activities, but these are the things I do, and plan to continue doing.

Q: Will you become Microsoft's next Robert Scoble?

A: The way I see it, Robert played a key role in a grand experiment to make Microsoft's development processes more transparent. Channels 9 and 10, and the hundreds of Microsoft blogs throughout the organization, are evidence that the experiment is succeeding.

I've proposed a different experiment. I'll continue to be a channel for alpha geeks. But I also want to become a channel for a whole lot of civilians in the mainstream. And above all, I want to build bridges between these two groups.

Q: Will you continue to use Firefox, Gmail, and OS X?

A: Sure. I'll also continue to use Microsoft technologies as I always have, and I'll keep on pushing the boundaries of cross-pollination and interoperability. The most powerful mashups don't just mix code and data, they mix cultures. I hope this will be an opportunity for me to do that in a way that benefits everybody.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2006/12/08.html#a1574