Report from the Microsoft Technical Briefing

I recently attended the Microsoft Technical Briefing (MTB) in Seattle, Washington. The annual event, known at Microsoft as the Winter Briefing, provides technical presentations for Microsoft's systems engineers and consulting staff. This has been an internal briefing in past years, but this year Microsoft invited senior technical individuals from their Solution Provider channel to join them for 3 of the 5 days.

In order to attend we had to sign a fairly restrictive non-disclosure agreement so don't get your hopes up?my lips are sealed as far as technical secrets. However, I can share the human interest side of the conference, some general feelings about the briefing, and thoughts on Microsoft's interaction with its partners.

The Microsoft Solution Provider program for independent software vendors (ISVs), consulting organizations, resellers, and training companies is one of the primary channels for getting Microsoft products and technologies on the market. The program establishes a mutually beneficial relationship in which Microsoft provides software, technical information, and customer referrals to its partners, which enable the partners to successfully deliver Microsoft-products and related services.

The briefing for partners began on Wednesday with registration and a reception. Attendees received a cool jacket at registration. If you frequent these conferences you know the conference with the most free tshirts, hats, and jackets wins. I got a free tshirt for being a usability tester.

The reception was a chance for partners to meet Microsoft Program Managers and network with the folks who build the products. There were around 900 partner attendees at the MTB and several thousand Microsoft attendees. This is probably the biggest advantage the MTB has over TechED or the PDC. You couldn't walk 2 feet without bumping into a Microsoft employee. The technical information was great and some of the sessions provided insight into where Microsoft is headed in the future. I managed to meet several people, including a SQL Server guru who gave me some interesting ideas about how to prepare for the next release of SQL Server.

The first day of Partner sessions began on Thursday. I attended several great sessions and few less-interesting sessions. Like most conferences, about half the topics at this briefing covered an area I was truly interested in with speakers who presented in an engaging and audible manner. I had the good fortune to sit at lunch with Pat Helland, Program Manger for Microsoft Transaction Server. Pat was a presenter who distilled key thoughts and made the information entertaining and informative.

Friday was another full day of sessions. The coolest session was an overview of the new release of Visual InterDev. It is hot, especially the new end-to-end debugging capabilities. You will no longer have to send debug messages back in the HTML stream to know what is happening. Another great feature is a new built-in what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) editor that is built for Active Server Pages (ASP) code. No more swapping between FrontPage Editor and Source Editor! Friday had great sessions, but everyone was anticipating the general session featuring Bill Gates. Microsoft employees were just as anxious as the solution providers to hear the Microsoft story straight from the source. There wasn't an empty seat in the house.

When Gates arrived, he immediately dived into his presentation. Although he will never win an award for public speaking, he was very relaxed and direct as he shared his views on the industry's direction. Shortly after Gates started his presentation, it became evident that he was sick. He could barely string three sentences together without a coughing spasm.

Although Gates is one of the wealthiest people in the world and could have had any number of people fill in for him, he showed up for this presentation-and spoke with energy and enthusiasm. He even stayed and answered attendees' questions. I had heard stories about Gates' drive and commitment, but this time I witnessed it firsthand. Perhaps this drive and commitment is the reason why one person in the audience asked if he could fulfill a dream by shaking Gates' hand-a request to which Gates graciously complied.

Another Friday highlight was the Campus Bash. You've probably heard that some of the big technology companies have campuses that are practically like being back at college. Well, I thought this idea went a bit too far when we were picked up in yellow school buses to be taken to Microsoft's Redmond campus. There were presentations, great food, and we were allowed to wander around campus a bit. I saw dynamite presentations on Windows CE, handheld computers, and the soon-to-be-released PalmPC. The most exciting presentation for me was the upcoming AutoPC. It uses the latest in Global Positioning System (GPS), mapping, and speech recognition technology. AutoPC was definitely the coolest gizmo I saw. The best part of the visit, however, was the Company Store?Microsoft gave employee discounts of up to $100. I bought every game in the place. Actually, I chose to use an order form rather than stand in line for 2 hours with bags full of stuff that I would have to lug on the plane. My order hasn't shown up yet, so the last laugh might be on me.

Saturday was the final day of presentations. The highlights for me were the Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ) and online analytical processing (OLAP) sessions. When the MTB was over, I was mentally fried. Opening this briefing to partners was probably a controversial decision at Microsoft. Having non-Microsoft folks there might have diminished the frank conversations that normally take place. However, from a partner's point of view, the invitation was evidence that Microsoft is truly engaged as a partner in the Solution Provider Program. I feel that Microsoft makes a strong effort to ensure a successful and mutually beneficial relationship with its partners. I hope we'll be included in future winter briefings.