Dave Luebbert on Instant Outlining and Microsoft

Dave Luebbert is working with me on the outliner, and is a recent new user of Instant Outlining. Dave used to work for Charles Simonyi on the Word team at Microsoft. Quite spontaneously today he wrote about how this would fit into Microsoft's style of management. I was pretty sure it was a good fit, but of course, I've never worked there. I asked Dave how he felt about publishing what he wrote, and he said yes, did a light edit and this is the result. 6/12/05; 6:52:28 PM by DW

I've had several days to play with the Instant Outliner that Dave Winer has been building. I'm currently a member of the group he's using to get feedback as he prepares that software for release. I'm also doing the work necessary to get an OPML kernel ready so that his entire OPML Editor release will run on Macintosh computers.

We are using our shared outline every few minutes to try out new ideas, to educate ourselves about the system and make sure we understand it properly, ask for assitance with problems, and document our experience with the software. We inevitably find bugs and rough spots that would cause problems for users of the software. We write down how the software is misbehaving in our personal outlines. Winer handles the problems in the mass of his new code and I handle the tiny tweaks necessary in the kernel. This all happens in parallel and very quickly.

I should also point out this happens with Dave Winer, sitting in his beach house in Florida and me in my basement office in Washington state. And this feels faster and more immediate than when I was on the Word team and Charles Simonyi was yelling "Dave!" down the hall to get my attention.

I'm a Microsoft programmer from way back (1984-1997). I was a software developer for nearly all of the Macintosh Word release during that period (Mac Word 1.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, 6.0 and Mac Word 98). I was the lead programmer for Mac Word 5. I also helped ship Win Word 1.0, and was a developer for Win Word 6 and Win Word 97.

I know how a specific very large successful company organizes itself to get its work done.

I realized this morning that Instant Outlining would allow you to model the reporting relationships in a real-world comapny and you could actually get most of it's business done with it.

Microsoft is built around its mail servers. Every employee in a development position gets a blizzard of tens to hundreds of emails every day. They have to pay attention to the email flow, ignore the messages that don't apply to them and act on those that are important for them, respond to those that request assistance, and file those that might be important in the future.

In many ways the whole effort would work better if it were built on Instant Outlining.

The overhead to talk to your own team members is really reduced. You open a new outline subhead that's time stamped. You type the names of the folks you'd like to pay attention at the front of the subhead, like the salutation of a letter, type your thoughts and press Ctrl-S to save it so your thought is transmitted instantly to your subscribers.

Sending emails seems way more formal and always seems to take longer because you have the overhead of cooking up a title and figuring out how to address it. When you type in your outline you are automatically addressing your newly typed subhead to all of your co-workers who care about what you are saying

With email, you have to wait for the sender to get all of his thoughts into the message before he can send it. With an Instant Outline your coworker can let you watch him put his thoughts together by saving his outline as he composes it. Your subscribers can digest the early part of your thinking and give you a faster response once you are all done.

You focus attention on what your open issues are by leaving subheads in your outline open and close them when you are satisfied. The outline is a permanent, searchable entity that records your thoughts like an email queue would, but it starts out and remains in a structure that gives it more permanence and context than an email queue.

A subdomain is a directory that stores the personal outlines that a group of coworkers maintain for their mutual benefit. Each outline is available for subscription by the other members at their discretion.

Here's how Microsoft could be modeled using Instant Outlining software that can access multiple subdomains.

Bill Gates and Sterve Ballmer's direct reports would mostly be the folks that they subscribed to with an Instant Outliner. Those outlines would be hosted in Office of the Chairman and Office of the CEO subdomains.

When they needed a temporary look deep in the organization, they would subscribe to someone in an operating group to listen to their opinion and then would unsub later on, trusting that the operating groups would pass important stuff up to them when they weren't paying attention to that level of detail.

For leaders of large groups, Instant outlining has the very cool feature that you can allow folks to subscribe to you so that they can see what you are thinking about. The leader does not necessarily subscribe to everyone who subscribes to him because that would overwhelm his thinking process. But those who get to subscribe to one of his Instant Outlines get quite an informational advantage and can work better on their own goals because they have that.

If you're organized around email, usually the only folks who get to listen are the folks who are direct reports. And those guys are always too busy to pass much info down.

The leaders also get to monitor activity in any of the subdomains of the company. They would subscribe to outlines in different groups of the company at their pleasure, but since they are not intimately familar with those groups business they would not want immediate notification of changes made to those person's outlines. They can see all the way down to the bottom of the company if they wish to. That's been a near impossibility up to now with the communication tools that have been available.

OK. now were going to go down to the individual development groups and work our way back up to Bill and Steve. Keep in mind this is not describing what Microsoft curently does, but what they could do if they used an Instant Outliner.

In a software development setting, one developer might post to outlines in 10 to 15 subdomains.

A programmer on the Word team would keep an outline on his feature team's subdomain and another one on the subdomain dedicated to the entire Word project. When he has a comment relevant to his feature team coworkers/buddies who he works with most closely, he adds something to that outline. And when he has something to say that the whole product team needs to hear he posts to that outline.

He might also keep outlines for communcation with feature teams over in the Excel and Exchange development groups in Office because those teams need to have someone in Word who is conversant with what they are doing and they value his comments. He might have special expertise in particular technologies (Office subsystems, HTML editing controls, dialog managers, format converters) that are used widely with the company.

He would have a different outline subdomain for each of his responsibilities. His OPML Editor would maintain a Buddies header that lists each subdomain he subscribes to and the subheads within would show the personal outlines for those co-workers he's subscribed to.

The team leads would have their own subdomain for communication with the project lead and probably also get to listen in on the discussions that happen in the business unit managers personal subdomain.

Business unit managers would maintain outlines in a company wide business unit managers subdomain and in a subdomain for all the reports of the vice-president who is their boss. These unit managers might silently be able to monitor outlines from several levels down in the organization but don't want to be notified of every change to outlines and would not expect that those folks would be able to subscribe to his own personal subdomains.

Those vice-presidents are Steve Ballmer's direct reports and keep outlines in the Office of the CEO subdomain.