How to view the MAPI/RPC documentation online

No connection to the post for once, I just can't resist an angry lemur

Photo by Law Keven

Microsoft recently released the documentation for the secret protocol Outlook uses to communicate with Exchange. Yeay! Unfortunately they released it as a large number of PDFs in a zip file. Boo!

I've been using them for my work on Mailana, but having to use local file searching or manual browsing through all these documents rather than my usual web search has slowed me down. Today I finally bit the bullet, ran them through a PDF batch converter to get HTML, and put them online at http://web.mailana.com/exchangedocs

In a few days all that lovely information should show up in Google searches, and the site search should work too. Thanks to Darren Hoyt for the simple site-search HTML and PDF Bean for the conversion tools.

It's a shame that Microsoft's own documentation is so unfriendly to the web. They often change links without implementing forwarding, so often old blog or forum posts lead nowhere, and some documentation like this is only available as unsearchable downloads. Of course Apple can be worse, requiring logins before you can get at a lot of the resources, and the mailing list search tools are worthy of a geocities page ten years ago. It's funny how lost I feel when I'm researching an area that's invisible to Google, it really has become half of my brain.

What makes a great salesman?

Spiralslicer

Photo by The Life of Bryan

One of the things I really suck at is selling. Part of it is growing up in Britain with the belief it's about tricking people into buying things they don't need. Being a professional engineer didn't help either. Most programmers are simply baffled that customers don't simply get that their product is better. Why do they need some highly-paid guy in a suit to get involved?

As I got older, I realized that every job is a sales job. To get anything done, you need to persuade a whole bunch of internal and external people to help. Now I'm running a startup, and that's all about selling the idea to everyone I need to deal with; investors, business partners, employees and customers.

I've looked around for role models. My favorite so far is an infomercial host called Ron Popeil. I can imagine my British friends cringing because he's almost a caricature, but this profile by Malcolm Gladwell opened my mind to both how much dedication he has, and how effective he's been. So, what are his secrets?

Feedback and measurement

He's from a family with a long tradition of selling on street corners. At the end of an afternoon, they'd know exactly how much they'd brought in. That gave them a guide they could use to figure out what worked and what didn't. The infomercials followed the same principles, with real-time graphs showing how many people were calling and ordering.

This might sound obvious, but as Dim Bulb repeatedly demonstrates, most TV advertising is driven by the intangible idea of brand, with no idea what's actually working or failing. It's like the difference between the Greek philosophers building elaborate theories on how the universe works, and experimental science that's able to test ideas.

I've become a fanatic on trying to measure everything I can about my communications, keeping track of who I've talked to and when, measuring which pages and posts get visitors, using online ad experiments to gather survey data. Without that foundation, I'll never be able to improve.

Involvement in design

Ron actually built and designed his products in his kitchen. The goal was to create something that would sell itself. Too often, there's a distance between sales teams and the people who build the products. They might have some voice in the planning stages, but they're shut out during the implementation and expected to take whatever the result is and sell it.

Since I keep swapping hats between selling and building, you'd think I wouldn't have this problem. It's funny though, I often get caught up in the geeky coolness of the technology, and lose sight of what people are willing to pay for. The lesson I took from Ron's example here was to keep asking myself what problem every feature I'm working on is actually solving.

Product focus

In the infomercials, the camera quickly focuses on the gadget, and stays there. It's not about the personality of the salesman, it's all about what the device can do. There's an anecdote in Gladwell's story about a showdown between a few salesmen at a trade show. Frosty Wilson was charming and persuasive, everything you'd imagine a great salesman should be, but Ron and his partner both sold twice as much by making the product the star.

In my job, I've learnt it's best to cut to the demo as quickly as possible, and then let people try the prototype themselves. Nobody wants to sit and listen to a lecture, it's much more compelling to see what it can do rather than be told.

Fervent belief

Ron really, truly believed that the products he was selling would make his customers lives better. He sounds like Steve Jobs when he's hammering away at the smallest details of every design, making sure that everyone gets an experience they'll be delighted with. It's not just about getting their money, it's his purpose.

Luckily I am insanely convinced that what I'm building will change the way we work. I've found I'm most effective when I can just informally rant about all the amazing possibilities rather than sticking to a script.

Your real social network

Foxwhisperer

Photo by Law Keven

Stowe Boyd covered an interesting paper on social networks and concluded "the apparent, superficial social network based on following and followers conceals a deeper, sparser social network". Every current service has an incredibly primitive representation of your relationships. You're either friends with somebody, or you're not. Here's what''s missing:

Strength. There's no way to specify how close you are to somebody else.
Time. Is the friendship long-lasting? Have you talked recently?
Context. What other friends is this friend close to? Which circles do they move in?

It's well known that you can use communication data to answer these questions. This implicit approach is better than trying to get people to enter this information manually because:

Convenience. Nobody wants to spend time doing data entry and house-keeping on their network. Doing it automatically solves that problem.
Reliability. You can objectively measure how many emails somebody has sent you, and how many you've returned to them. This removes the subjective element that creeps in if you're asked to rate the strength of a relationship on an arbitrary scale. It also removes the temptation to exaggerate your closeness to someone influential.

So why hasn't anyone done this? There's massive technical barriers to overcome before you can access large stores of email, and big privacy issues. I'm convinced they can be overcome, and that's what I'm doing with Mailana. If you want to see the sort of detailed social graph I'm talking about, Boulder Twits is using the same backend as my email analysis system.

Why I love long pointless books

Eschercrossing

Photo by Regolare

I recently finished Infinite Jest. It's over a 1000 pages, and has no real arc or resolution, but I enjoyed it immensely. Before that I completed the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, another sprawling epic without a conventional plot. Apart from literary masochism, or value for money (I picked up Jest second-hand for 50 cents), why read these monsters?

I realized I'm drawn to them because they feel a lot more real than most other fiction. The characters aren't driven to make decisions that the plot requires. Instead they're set loose on the stage, free to behave randomly, like people. That means you never reach a satisfying conclusion, but then my own life has never had clear-cut resolutions either.

I've also been on a Dickens streak recently, but that's mostly been motivated by the wonderful background characters that weave in and out of the stories. His protagonists and villains are clearly being maneuvered according to the author's plan, making them stilted and artificial. He's not constrained when he's sketching the unimportant people, so they can act like human beings. Little Nell is an alien, but I believed in The Marchioness and Dick Swiveller, despite their lack of purpose.

These books help remind me life's about the journey, not the destination. If you want to make part of your trip more pleasant, I'd recommend picking a long pointless book as a companion.

Get a personal map of your social network

I've upgraded Boulder Twits so that everyone listed has their own personal map, in addition to the graphs showing the whole community. They show who you talk to most on Twitter, organized into groups based on who they talk to. As an example, here's my personal graph. There's some clusters that represent different networks I'm in contact with:

Personalmapboulder

The Boulder folks are mostly in a small, tightly-connected pack on one side. It's almost a mini-version of the full community.

Personalmapapple

Only a few of my Apple colleagues are on Twitter, but they're all pretty interconnected too.

Personalmaplegal

Walter Olson is the founder of the Overlawyered legal blog, and as you can see both me and Jeff Nolan are big fans.

Stay tuned, I'll be using this data to answer some questions like "Who are my friends talking to that I should be following?".

True love and statistics

Mathematicallove

Photo by Keng

I ran an analysis of the most frequent correspondents in the Boulder Twits group, and was very happy to see Gwen Bell and Joel Longtine top of the charts. If you don't know their story, they met through Twitter, and will be getting married soon! It's a wonderful romance, and I was so pleased to see solid mathematical proof of their devotion to each other. My own dear Liz is a statistics major, so I know she'll appreciate it too!

Here's the full top 10, ordered by how many tweets were sent or received by each pair. There's a nice mix of friends and colleagues as well as couples:

  1. gwenbell and jlongtine: 222/291
  2. jennyjenjen and pugofwar: 148/210
  3. abatchelor and bfeld 113/115
  4. neogia and wittytwit: 91/137
  5. micah and technosailor: 82/59
  6. brianlburns and kohlmannj: 65/54
  7. heathercapri and wittytwit: 63/53
  8. micah and w1redone: 49/74
  9. briandewitt and jlongtine: 50/49
  10. ewu and jenn: 65/48

Congratulations to Gwen and Joel, long may their tweeting continue.

The D part of R&D

Mousetrap

Photo by Unloveable

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door

That's completely wrong. If there's one thing I've learnt over my career, it's that technical excellence is just a small part of a product's success. Distribution is probably the most underrated ingredient, followed by a revenue model, marketing, financing and just plain good timing.

I started off in the UK, working in companies that were packed with insanely smart and resourceful engineers. There's a wonderful tradition over there of celebrating scientists and inventors, everything from the Faraday Christmas Lectures to Dambusters. That creates a big pool of people who can build widgets.

What was missing was the ability to turn a widget into a product. Selling things is a lot less prestigious than inventing them, with all sorts of class overtones of gentlemen scientists and grubby tradesmen mixed in. As a result, most of my companies produced wonderful code, but meager revenues.

Here in the US, I've been able to learn from people versed in the dark arts of actually building a company, not just a piece of software. To be honest it's a lot harder, computers are far more predictable than a gang of primates, but it's also amazing when you step back and see it starting to work. Taking an idea and turning it into something that sustains itself, a living breathing business, that's rewarding as hell.

I'm may not be there yet, but I'm having a blast as I shoot for it.