My First July 4th in Seattle

Readers of this blog know that I’ve recently settled into an apartment in Seattle after a great deal of searching. I’m pretty happy with my new place in Belltown and anticipated that it would have a pretty solid view of the fireworks, but I had no idea how good. Below you’ll find a video I shot and some photos I took of the show using my Canon 5D Mark II. These were all shot from my apartment out of my window.

A solid show, but it can’t beat the crazy stuff we do back in Boston…

Microsoft Unveils Surface Tablet

Microsoft pulled the curtain back on a bold new hardware initiative yesterday: the Surface tablet. Here’s Microsoft’s official press release on the topic. And here are a bunch of people explaining why it’s awesome:

Gizmodo says it “made the Macbook Air and the iPad look obsolete.”

Joshua Topolsky says it signifies the start of Microsoft’s “next chapter.”

VentureBeat’s John Koetsier has an unexpectedly moving write-up on this product’s significance:

There’s something quintessentially American about Microsoft. Start, grow, fight, claw, win. Get knocked down, get back up. Fight again, lose again. Get mocked, laughed at, ridiculed, and ignored. But never give up. Never say die. Never stop believing that the dream is possible … that you can do it.

There’s not much I can add to the chorus, other than that I was impressed with the secrecy that the company was able to maintain around the product. Much of the speculating by the press was either partially or totally incorrect. I certainly didn’t know what was about to be announced and I imagine the same is true of many in the company. For an organization as big as ours, they kept a super tight lid on things, and that was impressive.

It’s so incredibly exciting to be working for a company that has the entire tech press excited about a product launch. May it be the first of many.

Is Dave Chen Still Alive?

There are many logistical challenges to moving across the country. One of them is the inability to bring your social network with you. I am blessed to have many friends in the Seattle area, but I am still new here and in the process of trying to integrate myself into the lives of those around me.

I occasionally worry about “worst case scenarios.” Like, what would happen if something terrible were to befall me? What if, God forbid, I died all of a sudden? How would it play out?

As a single guy living in a one-bedroom apartment, it would probably be days before anybody realized anything was wrong. To me, that’s an unacceptably long time for my corpse to lay in my apartment, unattended. “There has to be a better way!” I thought.

Thus, I bring to you

The purpose of this website is to answer a very simple question: Is Dave Chen (me) still alive? The answer will either be yes or no, and is promptly displayed when you visit the website. How is this determined?

I discussed this project with my brother, Mike (a web developer) for quite some time. The way I figured it, I would log in to the website once per day and check some kind of box, confirming that i’m still alive. Mike did not think this was a good system. Here’s my reconstruction of our conversation:

Mike: Dave, you’re going to have to check this box every day for the rest of your life. Are you really ready to add this to your routine? Forever?
Dave: I’ve considered this, and the answer is yes.
Mike: This sounds like a terrible idea for many reasons.
Dave: Why?
Mike: Well, here’s one reason, and I’m just going off the top of my head here: what if you accidentally forget to check the box one day? Then people freak out because they think you’re dead. And then you need to re-assure them that you’re NOT dead. But then in the event that you ARE dead next time, people won’t actually believe it’s the case, thus invalidating the whole purpose of the site.
Dave: Well then, I’ll just have to work very hard not to forget.
Mike: That’s madness. I can easily come up with a better solution.

And he did! So now, every day, I receive an e-mail asking me if I’m still alive. If I click on the “yes” link, then the status quo is maintained. So really, if the site says “No,” then either Dave Chen is dead, or for some reason he did not have access to his e-mail.

So,! Bookmark it and you’ll always know the answer to one of my most pressing questions.

[Related: For those of you reading this also contemplate the journey to the undiscovered country, there’s a service called DeadSocial that will store messages to be delivered to your social networks until you die. Seems like a pretty cool idea, but I can’t say I trust any service with my deepest darkest secret messages, let alone one that will only deploy them when I’m dead. What if there’s a false negative, or more likely, an incident that causes an accidental message deployment? If you’re not dead yet, it could drive you to be!]

In the Past 14 Days

In the past 14 days, I have:

  • Moved myself and many of my possessions from my home in Boston to my new (temporary corporate housing) home in Seattle
  • Started a new position at Microsoft
  • Seen and evaluated dozens of apartment units (at least 20) in several different Seattle neighborhoods
  • Recorded three podcast episodes, and edited a fourth.
  • Put down a deposit on a new apartment
Things are slowly settling down, a little bit every day. And the adventure has just begun. 

Just Stop Trying Already

Readers of this blog know that I’ve recently started a new job at Microsoft in Redmond, WA. I’ve only been there for a week, but I’ve already started to feel a sense of pride creeping into my psyche when I read about the company’s breakthroughs in tech news. Conversely, I feel involuntarily defensive when people bash it.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Alex Goldfayn’s piece in Mashable this morning (“Why Microsoft Is Being Left in the Dust“) really got my ire going. Here’s the main thrust of Goldfayn’s argument:

If you want to know why Microsoft’s share price has been flat for 11 years while Apple, Amazon, and Google shares have soared, this is why. Microsoft is not innovating aggressively. It is not leading categories or blazing trails. No, it’s acquiring aggressively as a shortcut to innovation. That isn’t working. Its own history suggests as much.

Let me begin by acknowledging that Microsoft is not a perfect company. It’s a massive organization with nearly 100,000 employees and on a fundamental level, large organizations just can’t move as quickly as lean and mean startups. Microsoft’s track record in the consumer market has not been perfect (see this interview with MS executive Robbie Bach for a fascinating take on this), but it’s frequently come out with products that demand and deserve our attention.

Goldfayn’s piece is pretty meandering; he brings up a bunch of random examples and doesn’t really tie them very well to his thesis. The primary focus of his article is Microsoft’s recent investment in Barnes & Noble. Why invest in an organization that is so far removed from Microsoft’s core competencies? Goldfayn cites several acquisition examples to back up his claim that this acquisition will turn out to be ill-fated: 1) Windows Phone/Nokia, 2) The Yahoo/Bing search deal, 3) Skype.

With regards to Windows Phone, although Nokia had a rough quarter recently, people love their Windows Phones! With Windows Phone, Microsoft accomplished what any sane observer would have deemed impossible: it took a flagging operating system off the market (Windows Mobile), righted the massive ship, then came back from nowhere with a user experience that some reviewers have described as being “in a class of its own.” Windows Phone may not have the market share of other OSes but we are just getting started over here.

With regards to Bing, Goldfayn writes that “Google’s search market share is a dominant 66%, with Microsoft’s Bing a very distant second at 15%. After spending billions building and marketing Bing, Microsoft is barely visible in Google’s rear-view mirror.” Again, Microsoft has shown that it’s in this thing for the long haul, and its recent innovations in social search show that it’s not content to merely be a follower. Will the market share come? I can’t say, but I know that we’re the only company that has made significant inroads against Google. Who else can say that? Who else even has the capability to be able to do that?

And as for the extremely recent acquisition of Skype, even Goldfayn acknowledges that “it’s too early to tell”! Give it a few months, will ya? Sheesh.

There’s a broader trend here that really troubles me among the tech pundits, and that’s the following implication that I sense from reading pieces such as Goldfayn’s: “You stink at this so just stop trying already.” I read Apple-centered blogs such as Daring Fireball pretty religiously, and the unadulterated joy that the authors get from seeing Apple completely lay waste to their competition is palpable. It’s fun to root for the winning team; no doubt about it.

What we forget is that a world where one company dominates an entire industry isn’t really great for anyone (Microsoft is no stranger to this concept). Do we really want ridiculously important industries like search, mobile, and publishing to be dominated by a single company (i.e. Google, Apple, and Amazon, respectively)? Do we really want people like Microsoft to lay down their arms and just give up? Because if so, we’re asking for a world with less choice. We’re asking for a world where consumers lose big time.

As for me? I for one am glad we’re fighting these fights.

Things I’ve Learned So Far at Microsoft

I have been an employee of Microsoft for three days. For my first day on campus, all new hires went through New Employee Orientation (NEO), a glorious 9-hour session where experienced employees explained our benefits to us and got us up to speed on the technical ins-and-outs of working at the company. Since then, I’ve just been soaking up as much information as possible, trying to ramp up for the exciting projects I have in the weeks ahead (and which I hope to explain to you eventually, when the time is right).

In the meantime, I present a few stray observations I’ve made during my extremely short time here so far:

The People – Over 45,000 people work at Microsoft’s Redmond, WA campus, well above the number that populate many universities. The diversity of individuals is insane. There are FTEs (full-time employees) and contractors and vendors, recent college graduates and grandparents, people from every state in the U.S. and from dozens of countries all around the world. All types of viewpoints and personalities are well-represented, but there is one thing that everybody has in common: They are all extremely frickin’ smart. From what I heard about Microsoft back when I was at Harvard Business School, the interview/recruiting process is designed to winnow down the pool of candidates to only the best of the best. The intellect of the employees here is palpable, and there’s a really empowering sense that one gets from knowing that one is working with some of the most skilled people in the world.

The Benefits – My colleague at Microsoft described their benefits as “the Mercedes Benz of benefits.” I’m inclined to agree. In learning about our benefits, I feel very much like Alice in Wonderland; just when I think I’ve reached the bottom of the rabbit hole, I continue tumbling down. In a word, the benefits are astonishing. People’s lives can change due to the benefits they receive here. You can finally get surgeries done that you’d once deemed unfeasible. You can lose that weight you’ve been angling to get rid of. Most importantly, you can see IMAX movies for $3 a piece! When I learned that I’d be receiving an offer from Microsoft, I felt like I’d won the lottery. And while I don’t think that sentiment has changed, learning about the benefits here is like learning I just won the Power Play component of the lottery too.

The Cause – Nearly all the people I’ve met are not only more than competent, they’re also passionate about what they’re doing. They love this company. They love what the company is doing, and they love what it stands for. Ultimately, Microsoft is all about harnessing technology to make people’s lives easier. And while we all may struggle occasionally with an Excel spreadsheet or agonize over a Word doc, nobody reading this can deny that their lives have in some way been touched by the work that Microsoft has done over the past few decades (most likely for the better!).

People are doing things here that will change the world. They want to surprise and delight their customers. They want to take technology to its fullest potential.

I can’t wait to jump in.

Things I’ve Learned So Far in Seattle

I’ve only been in Seattle for about four days, but here are a few brief, unscientific observations I’ve made during my time here:

Rain – WTF, dude? It’s everywhere. It’s constant, and it’s cold. And people don’t use umbrellas? My local friend Megan told me that using an umbrella is a really good way for people to tell that you’re not from here. I say, if using an umbrella results in social ostracizing, then I am ready to become a pariah.

Speed – I haven’t been here that long, but already I’ve had a person tell me, “We do things a lot slower here on the West Coast.” I’ll leave it to your imagination what the context of this was. Suffice it to say, people here are a lot more chill. They drive at the speed limit. They are patient and good at waiting. They don’t flip out in the middle of department stores. Basically: the opposite of how people behave in Boston.

The Seattle Freeze – I haven’t experienced this directly yet, but many of my friends have made mention of it. To quote from Urban Dictionary:

It’s not that people here are unfriendly, they will hold the door for you and wave you into traffic and stuff like that, it’s that everything is maddeningly impersonal. The attitude is “have a nice day, somewhere else”. It’s easy to get along but making friends is almost impossible. People will say they want to hang out with you sometime and look at you like a freak when you actually suggest something. People enthusiastically say they are coming to a party then don’t show up. People are flaky and hard to pin down. Girls lead you on for weeks and snub you with no explanation. People are insincere. Norms of social interaction don’t apply here. Most people don’t like or dislike you, they’re totally indifferent. Every interaction will be maddeningly superficial. 

This sounds like the worst fate imaginable. I shall endeavor to counteract this as often as possible by forcing my way into people’s homes and having dinner with them against their will.

The Food, My God, The Food – I thought I had it good in Boston, but the food scene here is far better than I could have possibly comprehended. I’ve only eaten at a few restaurants so far and already I have been blown away by the selection and the quality. Dollar for dollar, you cannot beat this place. And I’ve only just begun my culinary journey.


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