Minding my own business on the job last month, an unsolicited email appeared in my box asking if I’d be interested in helping to shape the future of Microsoft Word. This wasn’t a job offer as much as a request that I volunteer some of my time and ideas to help the next generation of Word customers.
I use Word every day, at home and at work. I figure I use it about twice as much as any other desktop application. I’m using it right now, in fact. When it comes to Word, there are a lot of things I like about it, several things I don’t like, and a few things I hate. As an old WordPerfect guy, I carry a deep-seated resentment that Microsoft Word isn’t WordPerfect. It’s not fair, I know. It’s like trying to replace an old dearly loved but now departed Collie with a year-old Schnauzer that your cousin gave you. You might appreciate the new dog, but there’s a part of you that resents it as well.
I won’t go into all the reasons I switched from WordPerfect to Word. It just reached a crux where Word was everywhere that I happened to be – at home, at school, at play – and continuing to use WordPerfect was becoming more of a crusade than a preference. I’m just too pragmatic (read: mentally lazy) to take on that cause. And now that I actually work for the company that makes Word, the odds of my switching back are more remote than Ryan Seacrest finding work beyond American Idol.
At Microsoft, when a product group wants your voluntary input, you typically do the whole thing by email, which I appreciate. It saves time on meetings, lets you work remotely, and provides a degree of anonymity in case you say something really stupid.
Maybe I was naïve, but I saw this Microsoft Word project as an opportunity to fix a few of my pet peeves about Word. Having participated in these brainstorming projects in the past, I thought I knew what to expect from the process. An occasional email, an occasional response, and a free latte coupon just for participating. Not this time. The minute I clicked “OK” to join the email list, I knew I’d made a mistake. I was suddenly getting more email than Paris Hilton on a good weekend. Microsoftees were sending each other dozens of questions and suggestions about everything in Word from the Page Setup feature that’s curiously placed on the File menu (rather than, oh, I dunno, the FORMAT menu) to those automatic Roman numeral outlines that I always seem to end up redoing manually.
The emails came fast and furious. Not really wanting to jump into the email fray, I called a buddy, Van, who works over in Office to see what was goin’ down. (That’s a phrase we used back in the 1970s because Robert Blake always said it on “Baretta.” That was when he was quirky and cool, and long before he started killing people.)
Van explained that the Word project is just one of many ways that the Office group finds out how to build the next generation of applications.
“All those emails tell us what internal employees think, and we do dozens of studies and surveys to find out what the customers want,” Van explained. “So this is your chance to get rid of that drawing canvas you hate so much.”
“The canvas is gone on my machine,” I said. “I found out how to turn it off, then I sent it to PCmech and they printed it as a Tip of the Day. But still, I’d like to get rid of it forever. Maybe I’ll bring it up in the email thread.”
“You really should,” said Van. “You never know when you’re going to touch a nerve and get a hundred people to jump on your bandwagon.”
“How many people do I need on my bandwagon to get a free latte coupon out of the deal?”
“Not going to happen, Ken, sorry. We were going broke with the latte coupons. But if you contribute to the discussion, you could end up getting a lot of email thanking you and telling you what a smart guy you are.”
That was better than nothing. I wrote up a proposal to lose the huge drawing canvas that automatically pops up whenever I want to put a simple straight line in a Word document. Apparently, a lot of other people are bothered by that same annoyance and sent follow-up emails that amounted to “Hear! Hear!”
I have to say, the whole experience was pretty neat. Because of me, the Office group will actually consider eliminating, or at least lessening, the appearance of the drawing canvas in the next Word version. It’s like helping to build a bridge by laying a single brick. Hey, at least I did something.
When I got to my office this morning, I spotted an interoffice envelope on my chair. Inside was a Post It note from Van thanking me for participating in the Word discussion. Attached to the note was a coupon for a free latte.
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