Life at Google: The Microsoftie Perspective

I, like everyone else, am enjoying reading this post of pseudo-Q&A with an engineer who worked for Microsoft, then joined a startup that got acquired by Google. Not sure how legitimate it is, but everything in it rings true. Lots of insights into the Google culture, as well as some of the innovations they have made to really prioritize employee efficiency.

Here is one of my favorites, a description of Google Tech Stops:

Google has the concept of “Tech Stops.” Each floor of each building has one. They handle all of the IT stuff for employees in the building including troubleshooting networks, machines, etc. If you’re having a problem you just walk into a Tech Stop and someone will fix it. They also have a variety of keyboards, mice, cables, etc. They’re the ones who order equipment, etc. In many ways the Tech Stop does some of what our admins do. If your laptop breaks you bring it to a Tech Stop and they fix it or give you another one (they move your data for you). If one of your test machines is old and crusty you bring it to the Tech Stop and they give you a new one. They track everything by swiping your ID when you “check out” an item. If you need more equipment than your job description allows, your manager just needs to approve the action. The Tech Stop idea is genius because:

1. You establish a relationship with your IT guy so technical problems stop being a big deal – you don’t waste a couple of hours trying to fix something before calling IT to find out it wasn’t your fault. You just drop in and say, “My network is down.”

2. Most IT problems are trivial when you’re in a room together (“oh that Ethernet cable is in the wrong port”)

3. The model of repair or replace within an hour is incredible for productivity.

4. It encourages a more flexible model for employees to define their OWN equipment needs. E.g. a “Developer” gets a workstation, a second workstation or a laptop, and a test machine. You’re free to visit the Tech Stop to swap any of the machines for any of the others in those categories. For example, I could stop by and swap my second workstation for a laptop because I’m working remotely a lot more now. In the Tech Stop system, this takes 5 minutes to walk down and tell the Tech Stop guy. If a machine is available, I get it right away. Otherwise they order it and drop it off when it arrives. In our current set up, I have to go convince my manager that I need a laptop, he needs to budget for it because it’s an additional machine, an admin has to order it, and in the end developers always end up with a growing collection of mostly useless “old” machines instead of a steady state of about 3 mostly up-to-date machines.

This struck a chord with me, particularly as I reflect on time working at two large companies (Apple, eBay), a startup (Preview Systems), and a venture capital firm (Atlas Venture). In every environment, IT was optimized not around the convenience or efficiency of the employees, but around minimizing overhead & cost, and occasionally security.

You have to wonder how expensive the overhead is for the Google Tech Stops, and how much benefit they reap from it in productivity and employee morale. I can tell you one thing, having to fuss with IT about updating hardware is one thing that can really sap the energy of an employee in seconds.

How to Mount NTFS Drives on Mac OS X with Read/Write Access

Elliot, this post is for you.

A couple of weeks ago, I got really irritated with the whole Mac/Windows thing.  I had purchased a USB hard drive with the intention of using it as a backup drive for both Mac & Windows machines.

Unfortunately, I discovered that Mac OS X cannot write to NTFS volumes – it can only read from them.  I then discovered that Windows XP has lost the ability to read or write to HFS+ drives (Windows 2000 had it).

Well, I am here to say that there is a pretty cool solution for mounting NTFS volumes on Mac OS X.  Interestingly, it comes from Google.

The MacFuse project on the Google Code site is a BSD-license open-source project that lets you use any FUSE-compatible file system on Mac OS X.  FUSE (File-system in USErspace) originated on Linux, but apparently the port to Mac OS X has been live for a while.

NTFS-3G is the open source project that implements NTFS support for FUSE.

This lovely site has packaged together DMG installer versions of each for easy installation on Mac OS X.  (Please note: only do this if you are running Mac OS 10.4 or later, and are somewhat technically savvy)

Amazing.  It just works.  In fact, I’ve only hit one glitch.  If you fail to put away your NTFS volume properly on Windows (using the Safely Remove Hardware command), NTFS can get itself all locked up, and unable to mount properly.

Now, let me give due credit to this blog post for helping me find this solution.

Also, it’s worth noting that the write performance isn’t speedy right now.   The teams contributing seem to know this, and are working the issues.  As a result, I wouldn’t use this solution to make NTFS your default volume format for files.  However, if you need simple read/write to the occassional NTFS volume, this looks like a good answer.

Why Apple can’t ship decent NTFS support for Mac OS X is beyond me.  And why Microsoft can’t support HFS+ is also beyond me.  Given that there are tens of millions of machines out there who create and use each of these volume formats, I would say that it clears the bar of “important enough” to support.

Update (6/3/2007):  A brief warning.  Apple just released a security update that is currently not fully compatible with the ntfs-3g files.  My PowerMac was unable to read UDF (video DVDs) until I removed these files.   I’m sure a fix will be out soon, but be careful.  This thread on Apple Discussions captures the solution.

What Do You Do When You Catch Mozilla & Microsoft Dancing?

OK, sensationalist title for some trivial pictures, but these were too good to pass up.  Don Dodge posted some images from the recent Mix07 conference.

Source: Don Dodge on The Next Big Thing

Pictured left to right: Sam Ramji – Microsoft, Rob Conery – SubSonic, Andi Gutmans – Zend Technologies, Mike Schroepfer – Mozilla,  Miguel de Icaza – Mono, Novell, (William) whurley – BMC Software.

OK, that’s not that exciting.  But what did crack me up was this picture of Mike Schroepfer and the rest of the panel doing a Rockettes-like dancing line:

Not sure why this cracked me up, but it did.  I’m sure the novelty factor of seeing pictures of friends will wear off… but not yet.

Mobile Search: What are People Looking For?

I feel like I’m perpetually behind with my blog lately.  This tidbit is from a few days ago, but I think interesting enough to still warrant a post.

JumpTap has a nice chart out on their breakdown of search queries from mobile phones.  Turns out 12% of the queries can be classified as “adult” in nature.

A few years ago, I worked on the Search team at eBay, specializing in popularity data.  As a result, I was able to really go through the data to see what people were searching for, and in what volume.  It’s really an amazing insight to see the aggregated searches of millions of people together, ranked.  Even on this blog, I still get a kick out of seeing what searches people use to find these articles.

In some respects, I’m a bit surprised that the number is only 12%.  I’m not sure I know whether that is low or high.  Does anyone know the rough breakdown of adult queries for major search engines like Google or Yahoo?

So, I’ll leave this one with a question to my recently acquired friends at TellMe:

When mobile search moves from text to voice, are people as comfortable making adult queries?  Is there an equivalent to these search lists in the voice search space?

Celebrating 10 Years of the Mac BU at Microsoft… in Stickies!

Sorry, one last post for the night.   This was too cool to pass up.

The Macintosh BU at Microsoft, which was formed after the 1997 Apple/Microsoft alliance, just celebrated their 10th anniversary.  Apparently, what greeted them in the morning was gorgeous pixel art:

Of course, it turned out to not be pixel art per-se, but actually 1336 carefully pasted sticky notes on the windows.

I have to hand it to Microsoft, that’s 100% pure engineering culture right there.  Glorious.  I tip my hat to the team.

The full article about how they designed the sticky note art in Excel and then finished their work is here, on the Mac Mojo blog.

Steve Jobs Drops a DRM Bomb on the Music Industry: Thoughts on Music

Who would have guessed that on a random Tuesday in February, Steve Jobs would decide to drop a bomb on the music industry. But that’s what he did today, on the website:

Thoughts on Music:

There are a lot of good summaries on the web already. Here is the one from Don Dodge, for example. If you are not into reading long missives, I can summarize the article, Powerpoint-style:

  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music doesn’t work. 97% of all music on iPods is ripped from DRM-free CDs sold every year.
  • Critics who want Apple to open up FairPlay don’t understand that if they license it, it’s likely to be cracked constantly. The only thing holding it together is that Apple controls the hardware, the software, and the music protection.
  • The only rational solution is for the music industry to stop requiring DRM on their music, and go with an open format like MP3 or AAC. Every iPod ever made supports it.

For those of you not familiar with Digital Rights Management, DRM is the software that is built to prevent people from illegally copying files, like Music. For the iTunes Store, Apple uses a DRM called FairPlay which limits the number of machines you can play the music on. Right now, there is a lot of legal controversy in Europe over the fact that this DRM also “locks” people into the Apple iPod, because once they buy music on iTunes, they can’t play it on other devices.

This missive from Steve Jobs was unexpected, largely for some pretty significant reasons:

  • Everyone expects Apple to support “closed-systems”. It’s part of the baggage from the whole Windows vs. Mac debate from the 1980s.
  • Apple has sold over 2 Billion songs on iTunes. Apple doesn’t seem to need a DRM-free world.
  • The lock-in from iTunes & the iPod seems like strategic genius, and the basis of a new monopoly. On the surface, this feels like a magnanimous gift. Selfless, even.

There have been a lot of calls in the industry to give up DRM lately, but a lot of them have to do with the fact that people don’t want to accept a world where Apple controls the entire music industry (which is where it is heading right now). Bill Gates, for example, proclaimed a while ago that he supports a DRM-free approach to music.

Personally, I thought the DRM-free approach was the only way the rest of the industry would be able to crack Apple’s stranglehold on digital music. I see DRM-free music as the natural response to a monopoly, similar to the response of Linux to Windows.

However, now that I read Steve Jobs’ note, it make sense on so many levels for Apple to issue this statement now. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. By issuing this statement, either:

  • Steve knows the Music industry will not go DRM-free, so his lock-in is secure. However, by going on the record this way, he lines up a plausible defense to the legal challenges in Europe, and avoids the perception of Apple as the gluttonous monopolist. More importantly, he paints a bullseye on the real monopolists – the four big music publishing houses.
  • Steve believes that the iPod brand and product are so dominant now, that even without lock-in, they win majority marketshare in the music player market, like the Walkman before it. In fact, the lock-in is likely over-rated, since such a small percentage of music is actually locked anyway, and the margins in the music are terrible.
  • Steve is not liking the tone and progress of licensing discussions with the TV and Movie industry, and he thinks that if a precedent can be set with Music that DRM is bad, then that will open up a world of video content to Apple & iTunes.

It’s hard to imagine the music industry embracing a DRM-free world. Fundamentally, they still believe that as copyright-holders, they have the right to control distribution at a fine-grained level to maximize profits. And of course, they are correct, they do have that right.

What they didn’t predict, however, was that attempts to enforce that right would lead to a consolidation of their distribution channels, which would shift market power from them to Apple. And now, they have too choose between a rock (Apple market power) and a hard place (DRM-free music).

I’ll end here with my favorite passage from Steve Jobs’ letter:

The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.