Technology

Effectively targetting social media interaction: are you speaking Scottish in Toyko? (Mark McCulloch at #MKGN)

Every three months, I have a mild panic because:

  1. I’ve successfully registered for Milton Keynes Geek Night (MKGN) but neglected to put it in my diary.
  2. Three months have gone by and I’ve not blogged about the last MKGN, even though David and Richard know me as the resident blogger…

This time is no exception…

I could say I was distracted because Mrs W. accompanied me to the last Geek Night; I could blame Google Keep for not allowing large enough notes to store a whole evening’s worth of note-taking and for losing the first part of my notes (although it sounds a bit like “the dog ate my homework” and I’m sure I’ve used a similar excuse before) so let’s just stick with “because I’m busy – but MKGN #9 it was a really worthwhile evening and I’m sure #10 will be too”. You can catch the audio on Soundcloud, but I want to write about one talk that I found particularly interesting – Mark McCulloch (@WeAreSpectaculr)’s “Are you speaking Scottish in Tokyo” (which seems to have an additional relevance today)…

Are you speaking Scottish in Toyko?

If you’re wondering what Mark means by “Speaking Scottish in Tokyo” (or, as he put it, “Okinawa the noo!”), Mark’s whole point is that social media interaction needs to be effectively targetted.  He’s quite happy to highlight that his message is based on a book by Gary Vaynerchuk (@GaryVee) – Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World – but it highlights some important points:

  • First up – you need to be native to the social channel in use. Lazy brands put the same post on multiple channels. Sometimes it just doesn’t work…
  • Added to that, many social agencies have no real plan or return on investment.
  • Next – don’t expect instant results: you need to give, give, give, then take. Too many brands broadcast on social media. The good ones have a conversation. The excellent ones hook people in with something that they find useful – and then ask for something in return.

Mark talked about a rule of thirds developed at Yo Sushi (brand, product, fun/health/life); drawn as a Venn diagram you need to hit the point where all three meet and Mark suggests building a mind map of things to talk about based on these 3.

Next, the perfect post needs a call to action that’s easy to understand, perfectly crafted for mobile and for other digital devices – and respects the nuances of the target network… so, for example, on Facebook:

  1. Is the text too long?
  2. Is it provocative, entertaining and/or surprising?
  3. Is the photo striking?
  4. Is the logo visible?
  5. Have you chosen the right format for the post?
  6. Is the call to action in the right place?
  7. Is this interesting?

So, here are some first class “jabs”:

Now, Mark actually showed examples from Facebook – I’ve used the Twitter equivalents here because they are easy for me to embed, but this one doesn’t work on Twitter (more than 140 characters):

Those are all good jabs. This isn’t (it’s too complex):

But this one is a right hook (a new product that’s not too “salesy”):

Knock-out!

And what about when you don’t respect the medium? This is native:

This isn’t:

So, in summary, if you’re a brand using social media to interact with customers:

  1. Plan your social media content using the “rule of thirds”.
  2. Plan your social media content into “jab, jab, jab, right hook” micro stories.
  3. Think about the channel you’re posting on, the native language and the audience behaviours.
  4. Think about the time of day when you’re posting (auto-schedule updates, for example).

What about the other talks?

No promises, but I hope to blog about some of the other talks soon…

And what’s happening tonight?

As usual, tonight’s MKGN looks to have some fascinating talks (I confess I don’t have a clue about Jumbotrons, Twilio or MEAN coding!):

  • Ben Foxhall (@benjaminbenben) is back, this time to talk about “Jumbotrons”!
  • Rachel Andrew (@rachelandrew) is giving her postponed talk on “Your own definition of success – choosing a profitable side project idea”.
  • Elliot Lewis (@elliotlewis) will be talking about “The Apprentice”.
  • “Code Smarter, be MEAN” is the topic for Tamas Piros (@tpiros).
  • And Michael Wawra (@xmjw) is scheduled to speak about “Twilio”)

Join in!

Milton Keynes Geek Night happens every three months at The Buszy in Milton Keynes (old bus station, opposite Milton Keynes Railway Station) and is free (thanks to generous sponsorship). Because it’s free, and the speakers are generally so good, it “sells out” quickly, but keep an eye on the @MKGeekNight Twitter feed – and bag yourself a place for the next one in December!

Technology

Short takes: Windows Phone screenshots and force closing apps; Android static IP

I’m clearing down my browser tabs and dumping some of the the things I found recently that I might need to remember again one day!

Taking a screenshot on Windows Phone

Windows Phone 7 didn’t have a screenshot capability (I had an app that worked on an unlocked phone) but Windows Phone 8 let me take screenshots with Windows+Power. For some reason this changed in Windows Phone 8.1 to Power+Volume Up.  It does tell you when you try to use the old combination but, worth noting…

Some search engines are more helpful than others

Incidentally, searching for this information is a lot more helpful in some search engines than in others…

One might think Microsoft could surface it’s own information a little more clearly in Bing but there are other examples too (Google’s built-in calculator, cinema listings, etc.)

Force-quitting a Windows Phone app

Sometimes, apps just fail. In theory that’s not a problem, but in reality they need to be force-closed.  Again, Windows Phone didn’t used to allow this but recent updates have enabled a force-close. Hold the back button down, and then click the circled X that appears in order to close the problem app.

Enabling a static IP on an Android device

Talking of long key presses… I recently blew up my home infrastructure server (user error with the power…) and, until I sort things out again, all of our devices are configured with static IP configurations. One device where I struggled to do this was my Hudl tablet, running Android. It seems the answer is to select the Wi-Fi connection I want to use, but to long-press it, at which point there are advanced options to modify the connection and configure static IP details.

Technology

OneDrive for Business: lots of cloud storage; terrible sync client

I’ve been a Dropbox user for years but with Microsoft’s upgrade of OneDrive for Business (formerly Skydrive Pro) to include 1TB of storage for every Office 365 user, I decided to move the majority of my files to that platform.  I could pay for additional Dropbox storage but, frankly, why do I need to, with that much storage included in my Office 365 E1 subscription?

However, after a couple of days trying to force a synchronisation of legacy content into OneDrive for Business (noting the various restrictions), I have drawn the following conclusion:

The One Drive for Business sync engine is “pants” (definition 3 in the OED).

It’s straightforward enough to define folders for syncing into SharePoint Online (which is where OneDrive for Business stores data), and most of my content synced OK but I had one folder of correspondence, going back to my early days of using a PC (some WordStar and WordPerfect files, as well as some very early Word formats in there – right through to current day documents) that was causing difficulties.

Unfortunately, whilst the OneDrive for Business client is able to sync folders in parallel, it seems to work through a folder in serial. If it comes up with a problem, it doesn’t seem to skip it and move on – at least not in the way that might be expected. It might flag an issue, but there’s no “skip file” option. And it doesn’t seem to have a method for forcing a sync either. Or for telling me which file it’s currently attempting to work with.  Here’s what I found…

Uploading files directly to OneDrive will change the modified date (perhaps to be expected):

Opening a “stuck file” in Word will present a sign-in error:

Even if you are already signed in:

and verified with File, Account

No good attempting to sign out (and in again) either:

(I’m logged into my Windows 8.1 PC using a Microsoft account, although I can switch to the organisation account that uses the same credentials for Office 365 access).

One thing I found that would sometimes kick-start proceedings was (in Word) removing the Connected Service for OneDrive – markwilson.it (and then adding it again, which forces a re-authentication):

Sometimes, I found that wasn’t necessary – just by ignoring the “credentials needed” error it might go away after a while!

I even resorted to opening each “stuck file” and closing it again, making sure I didn’t actually change it (clicking the Sign In button will update the document). This seemed to unblock things for a while until, eventually, I found myself in a situation where Word wouldn’t open any of the content waiting to sync. Some of the errors suggested it was trying to download the cloud copy rather than the local one whilst other times it failed silently.

In fairness, OneDrive for Business does have an option to repair the synced folders but that downloads everything from SharePoint again… and as half of it hadn’t got up there yet that wasn’t going to help much!

I re-installed Office 2013 and was just about to do the same with OneDrive for Business (which turns out to be based on Groove) but, instead, I decided to simply create a new folder and paste the files into that – effectively a second copy of the data to start the sync again from fresh.

After all the fighting with the first copy, the second copy synced in a few minutes (well, it got stuck on a few files but I deleted them, then pasted them in again, after which they synced).  It seems that, fundamentally, the OneDrive for Business sync engine is more than a little bit flaky (which doesn’t leave me feeling good about my data).  Thankfully, Microsoft is reported as acknowledging that the sync limits are “well understood” – and I hope that doesn’t just include the limits on item counts and file naming imposed by the SharePoint back-end.

Isn’t this is all just a bit too much effort for what Dropbox (and others) have made so simple?

Technology

Some tools in Outlook 2013 for diagnosing Exchange connectivity issues

I’ve just been looking at some of the diagnostic information that’s available for Outlook connections to Exchange (including Exchange Online in Office 365) and one “hidden” feature (actually, it’s not hidden but it’s not very well known) is the ability to Ctrl+right click on the Outlook icon in Windows’ notification area to bring up two extra menu options:

The first of these is handy for bringing up information about the various client-server connections open between Outlook and Exchange (for example the connection protocols being used, port numbers, session types, etc.):

The second allows testing/diagnosis of AutoDiscovery functionality – again, providing a host of information to track down issues:

Combined with the Microsoft Remote Connectivity Analyzer, these are a few tools to help IT admins track down the cause of connection issues.

Technology

Administering Office 365 using PowerShell: updated information on the required components

I’ve written before about administering Office 365 from PowerShell but the process has changed slightly over the years.  There are various articles out there on the web with methods and links but the key information (as at August 2014) is in a TechNet article titled Manage Azure AD using Windows PowerShell.  Yes, that’s right – Azure AD – because Windows Azure Active Directory is the authentication service used by Microsoft Online Services such as the Office 365 services.

On my Windows 8.1 computer I already had the necessary .NET framework and PowerShell pre-requisites but I did need to download and install two more components before Get-Command -Module msonline would do anything for me:

  1. The Microsoft Online Services Sign-In Assistant for IT Professionals RTW (the version I used was 7.250.4556.0, published on 17 February 2014).
  2. The Windows Azure AD Module for Windows PowerShell* (which depends on the Microsoft Online Service Sign-In Assistant), which doesn’t come up in a search on the Microsoft Downloads Center but is linked from the TechNet article I mentioned above (32-bit and 64-bit versions).

With these components installed, I could authenticate against the service using my normal credentials with Import-Module MSOnline and Connect-MsolService and run administration cmdlets from within PowerShell.  Note that in order to run Exchange cmdlets, you’ll need a remote PowerShell session to Exchange (check out Greg Shields’ TechNet magazine article Manage Office 365 with Windows PowerShell for more details). There are also additional modules for managing Lync Online and SharePoint Online.

 

* The Windows Azure Active Directory Module for Windows PowerShell cmdlets were previously known as the Microsoft Online Services Module for Windows PowerShell cmdlets.

Exercise

A Sunday in Hell? Not quite, but rule 5 definitely applied (#RideLondon #Ride100)

East London, 6.30am, and I’ve somehow managed to miss a great big sign saying “to the start” as I make my way to the Ride London-Surrey 100. Luckily, there were enough other cyclists around for me to realise the error of my ways and get back on track. A few minutes later I was taking dodgy “start-line selfies” whilst checking the weather forecast and chatting to fellow riders queuing up next to the Lea Valley Velopark, waiting for our wave to start the slow procession towards the start line.

I’d been looking forward to this sportive for a while – I realised how lucky I’d been to get a ballot place – and, with my London-Paris and Holme Moss challenges under my belt, I’d pushed my training up to 100 miles. This was supposed to be special: ride out from the Olympic Park, tackle the Surrey Hills, and finish up on the Mall.  Sadly, I learned on the start line that the route had been cut to 86 miles through the removal of Leith and Box Hills because to safety concerns with ex-hurricane “Bertha” coming through. I wasn’t very happy: my second journey to East London in three days (first time to “register” for the event, in what seems to be an elaborate ruse to guarantee that at least 24,000 people visit the Prudential Ride London Cycle Show) and after a 04:15 start to get myself to the start and this was not what I wanted to hear. In the end though, I have to admit that 86 miles in the wind and the rain was plenty.  Last Sunday was one of those days when rule 5 definitely applied.

As a predicted slow rider (I think I originally said about 7.5 hours, before revising to 6.5 later), I started at 08:10 and with only 20 minutes to the back of the race I was conscious that the broom wagon could be upon me at any time.  I had 26 miles to cover to the first hub before 10:30 – which should have been a doddle – but I decided to crack on anyway.  The first couple of miles were lined with people waiting for their friends with different start times and a surprisingly high number of punctures (thankfully I didn’t suffer any) but I was enjoying my ride as I flew down the East Cross Route towards Docklands. A former motorway (now the A12), closed to all traffic except cyclists and I was averaging just shy of 30kph (not bad for me). Along Aspen Way, into the Limehouse Link, onto The Highway. I was buzzing. Past the Tower of London (poppies look amazing) and towards the Embankment. Running red lights (legally) through central London (with a spectator using a traffic cone as a megaphone) and on out to the west, watching lines of no-doubt extremely annoyed motorists on the eastbound A4 as we had the whole of the westbound carriageway to ourselves as far as Hammersmith.

By now the weather was deteriorating and the ride was marginally less fun but I was making good progress as I stopped to take on (and release) fluids at a drinks station near Chiswick.  As we hit Richmond Park I was making a steady pace up the hills but then came the rains. Not just a shower, but monsoon rains, the likes of which are rarely seen in England.  After taking shelter for a while I decided there was nothing for it but to get back on, only to be reduced to a standstill, and then walking pace, whilst an ambulance crew dealt with an accident.  Hopefully the poor soul involved was OK – as it was around 40 minutes before I was on the move again – and we crept into into a flash-flood-hit Kingston after which I suspect my bottom bracket may now be full of smelly water.

At this point the lead riders were coming back through on their final stretch back to London. I was sorely tempted to join them but stuck with it, under flooded railway bridges and out over the Thames to the first hub.  The time? 10:30! The broom wagon was due now but there were still thousands of riders coming through.

Setting off again, I witnessed another accident between Weybridge and Brooklands as the rider a short distance ahead lost traction and hit the road.  I stopped and called an ambulance whilst his fellow riders kept him safe and, after the St John Ambulance guys arrived I set off again. On into deepest Surrey, the next section was a real slog into the prevailing wind and I was wondering just how far out of London we would keep on heading before the course turned north east again.  At one point a chap said “follow me – you’ve been making good pace and I’ve been on your wheel for a couple of miles” but I couldn’t manage his speed and I had to let him drop me. Eventually, the sun started to appear as we climbed to Newlands Corner and, hard as the climb felt, I was glad to hear one of the spectators call out “it’s a long way to the finish mate, but you’re nearly at the top of this hill and it’s downhill from there”. What a star!

Actually, that was the wonder of it all. Despite the wind and the rain (and the reputation that Surrey has for hating cyclists who clog up the roads on a weekend), loads of people had turned out to watch 20,709 cyclists ride past their front door and were cheering us on in our “two-wheeled version of the London Marathon”.  “Come on Olney Multisport” I heard (the team name on my kit that day), “Sunshine ->” I read on one placard, whilst the next one said “the weather may be crap but you’re doing great!”. Clearly not making great time, I didn’t stay long at Newlands Corner because the broom wagon was due again and I set of down the hill, only to stop to retrieve my rain jacket which had come out of my pocket and was wrapped around my rear hub. Maybe if I paid less attention to rules 29 and 31 I might have room in my pockets for layers of clothing removed due to changes in weather conditions!

Now heading east, and riding in sunshine, things were looking up.  We passed the Leith Hill diversion and then a couple of Police motorbikes came past me.  Unfortunately I didn’t realise why they were there and, part way down the next  hill, under trees, on a wet slippery road I heard shouts of “slow down, accident ahead”, as I skidded, caught the bike, skidded again, crossed double solid white lines and hit the road, sliding along on my left side thinking “please don’t scratch my bike” whilst I tested the “tarmac resistance factor” of my kit.  Luckily for me, I only suffered superficial damage (so did the bike, with scratched brake lever, pedal, and rear skewer – all easily fixed) and was quickly back on my feet. I wish I’d had the manners to properly thank the lady rider behind who’d checked I was OK but, in the heat of the moment I’d said a quick “I’m fine thanks” and jumped back on, with the biggest damage being to my pride.  And I’d like to think my “luck” in not being badly hurt coming off at what appears to have been about 42kph was karma for stopping to help someone else earlier…

On through Dorking and up the A24 to Leatherhead, bypassing Box Hill, it was actually getting quite warm.  For the first time all day I was down to my normal summer kit (removing the arm warmers and tights that had probably saved my arms/legs from gravel rash earlier) and I was keen to get through the miles. At Oxshott, I spotted a pub with an all day BBQ to celebrate the ride coming past (one of many joining in the celebrations) and contemplated a beer but pushed on.  Shortly afterwards, I pulled over for a snack and another one of the wonderful spectators called out “have you got a puncture mate?” I didn’t, but I thanked him for his kindness, as he offered a mobile puncture repair service (including a track pump in his rucksack)!  Once again, the generosity and support from people on the roadside had really amazed me – clearly not everyone views this annual event the way some journalists do.

I’ve mentioned the spectators but the volunteers who worked as marshalls and other roles to run the event were superb.  I’ve done something similar myself, as a volunteer marshall (a Tourmaker) for the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ and it was amazing but we had sunshine and professional riders – these guys had torrential rain, howling winds, and thousands of amateur cyclists to look after.  That didn’t stop them from encouraging us, being a smiling face at the roadside, and otherwise helping out.  Sure, the professional stewards (orange jackets) looked bored but the volunteers were fantastic and really helped to build the atmosphere of the event.

After a blitz back through Kingston, the rest of the ride was pretty uneventful, except for the downpour that led to me sheltering in a bus stop somewhere near the last drinks station (alongside three spectators, including a little girl who had counted 600 riders with two water bottles!). After grinding up the last big hill in Wimbledon I was counting down the miles to the finish (although thankfully all downhill) and as I hit Chelsea Embankment, I could feel the pressure lift as the finish line drew nearer.  The last push past the Houses of Parliament and along Whitehall flew by, before turning left under Admiralty Arch and onto the Mall.  There was the finish – a few hundred metres away – could my legs manage a final flourish?  It may not have been the fastest sprint finish in history but I approached the line with arms aloft (before quickly grabbing the bars to avoid falling off whilst crossing the timing strips!) and cruised along the Mall with a massive smile on my face. I’d done it!

My official time was 7 hours, 5 minutes and 10 seconds and that means my average speed was pretty shocking.  Take out the stops for accidents though, and my Garmin recorded 5 hours and 46 minutes at a slightly more respectable 24.6kph (I didn’t remember to stop it until a little way further down the Mall, where I collected my medal, so the seconds don’t count!).

Unfortunately, my Garmin Edge 810‘s altitude sensor was severely affected by the wet weather (seems to be a common issue), and I lost my pedal magnet from the crank in my crash (so no more cadence measurement) but all the important info is there – although obviously the Limehouse Link Tunnel doesn’t mix well with GPS!

And what about the bikes? Predictably, most riders were on road bikes – with some on hybrids and MTBs. But, just as when I took part in a charity ride from Wakefield to Manchester over Holme Moss a few weeks ago, someone did it on a Brompton (chapeau!).  I saw a few tandems too – but no Boris Bikes… until I spotted this tweet!

Possibly inspired by the guys who rode up Mont Ventoux on a Boris Bike (and returned it with seconds to spare before the 24 hour limit), that’s seriously impressive – those things weight 23kg!

All in all, Ride London-Surrey 100 (OK, 86), was a blast.  I hated the weather at times and I was in quite a bit of pain at the end (dodgy knee position affecting my IT band, I think – time for another bike fit…) but got a wonderful sense of achievement. One slight disappointment is that I didn’t get a picture (even a selfie) in front of Buckingham Palace as my iPhone ran out of juice immediately after crossing the finish line (at least it held out that long).  Unfortunately that also meant I had to rely on my sense of direction (with a little help from the Garmin) to get back to the car park (another 8 miles).

Hopefully, next year I’ll get through the ballot again and do the full century in under 6 hours…

Technology

Synchronisation with your WP8 failed for … items

For the last couple of days, I’ve been getting strange messages from our mail server telling me that

“Synchronization with your WP8 failed for 1 items.
Microsoft Exchange was unable to send the following items to your mobile device. These items have not been deleted. You should be able to access them using either Outlook or Outlook Web Access.”

I thought this was odd – why just this one appointment? And then the penny dropped.  I’d marked the item in my Calendar as “Working Elsewhere”.  This location wasn’t available in earlier versions of Outlook and presumably Windows Phone 8 (or Exchange Server 2007) didn’t know what to do with it, so stopped attempting to sync the item with apparently-invalid data.

Microsoft has always had a good/better/best model when it comes to functionality available when combining different versions of software. Our Exchange servers are due for an update but this may be something to watch out for with my combination (Windows Phone 8, Exchange Server 2007, Outlook 2013)…

Technology

Exchange support and cumulative updates

Microsoft’s Support Lifecycle has been published for many years now – and most people are familiar with the concept of 5+5 support – i.e. 5 years mainstream support, followed by 5 years extended.  Some products (e.g. Windows XP) had a slightly longer period of support as they were introduced before the 5+5 policy but, as a rule, we can assume 10 year support for a product and be making plans to move up in the second half of that period.

It’s not quite that simple though – service packs need to be considered.  Often the support lifecycle has a note that says something like “Support ends 12 months after the next service pack releases or at the end of the product’s support lifecycle, whichever comes first.”.  That’s OK – service packs should be applied as part of regular maintenance anyway, so keeping up to date will keep you supported.  And, anyway, service packs only come along every year or two…

…until recently.

With the growth in Microsoft’s online services, for instance Exchange Online (sold under the Office 365 banner), we’re entering a period of cumulative updates.  New features and functionality are rolled out online, and then made available for “on premises” deployments.  Now, I’ve long since argued that new features and software fixes should be separate – but the world has moved on and we now see a cumulative update for Exchange Server every 3 months or so.

So, unlike the rollup updates (RUs) with previous versions of Exchange, Exchange 2013 cumulative updates (CUs) are effectively mini-service packs (CU4 was actually released as SP1).  And, critically, CUs go out of support 3 months after the next one comes out.  That means that we all need to get tighter on our application of CUs – and, because of the new features and functionality they introduce, that means testing too!

Exchange 2013 support gotcha!

My colleagues, Keith Robertson and Nick Parlow (@hagbard), recently highlighted a little anomaly that the Exchange CU support situation exposes in Microsoft’s documentation:

  • The Microsoft Support Lifecycle information for Exchange Server 2013 says that the RTM release (i.e. Exchange 2013 with no service packs or CUs applied) will no longer be supported from 14 April 2015. Except that’s not correct: CU1 was released on 1 April 2013 and so the RTM release actually went out of support on 2 July 2013!
  • Fast forward to Exchange 2013 SP1 (remember this was also known as CU4) and you’ll see it was released on 25 February 2014.  CU5 was released on 27 May 2014, so Exchange 2013 SP1 installations need to be updated to CU5 before 27 August 2014 in order to remain supported…

Microsoft’s Exchange Product Group has a blog post on Servicing Exchange 2013 but the key point is that Exchange Server installations need to be updated on a quarterly cadence, in line with new CU releases.  Added to that, be aware that custom configurations will be lost in the update so re-applying these will need to be factored into your plans – and that testing is critical – especially where third party applications are in use that Microsoft will almost certainly not have tested in their Exchange Online service.

Technology

Short takes: Grabbing streaming video; and installing troublesome Chrome apps

A few more snippets from my recent brushes with technology…

Grabbing a local copy of a Windows Media stream

I found myself watching a streaming video that I thought would be nice to take a copy of for posterity and it turns out it’s rather easy to grab a local copy of a Windows Media (WMV) stream using my old friend, wget.exe.

Simply download one of the many Windows-compiled versions of wget.exe, and supply the HTTP link as the source… a few minutes later you should have a copy of the file on your local hard disk.

Installing NPAPI plugins on Windows 8

I also needed to install BitTorrent Surf in Chrome on my Windows 8 machine (using BitTorrent is not illegal – using it to download copyrighted materials would be very naughty though).  Unfortunately the Chrome Web Store told me to get lost as BitTorrent Surf uses the Netscape Plugin Application Programming Interface (NPAPI), which is deprecated.  Thankfully, there is a workaround, as described by John Bruer and you can run Chrome in Windows 7 compatibility mode to install the app with no intervention at all (although I used John’s blog post, I later found the same advice directly from BitTorrent).

Technology

Geeking out at Microsoft Research

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to join the Microsoft Technical Community Council (MTCC), which is described as “a group of external IT professionals influential in the IT Pro world, who are engaged and interested in sharing their opinions and meet once a month via a Lync call”.  Basically, the Council is an opportunity for Microsoft to gain feedback from IT Pros with real-world experience of implementing Microsoft technologies and for those involved to understand a little more about the road ahead.

After some frantic NDA-signing, I was privileged to join the MTCC for a face-to-face meeting yesterday at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.  Last time I visited Microsoft Research, they were on a different site, on the outskirts of the city, and some of the stuff I heard about, quite frankly, blew my mind.  I was under NDA than (as an MVP) and under NDA again yesterday, so still can’t talk about what was discussed but the Microsoft Research website showcases some of the projects that have made it from the labs into the real world and describes the current areas of research.

We didn’t just learn about Microsoft’s Research operations though – there were other sessions – and the day also gave me a chance for me to meet with some of the people I’ve known for years but sort of lost touch with whilst my work was focused less on Microsoft and more on IT strategy – as well as to connect some faces to names – either from Twitter or, in once case, from my customers!

We also had rather a lot of fun, geeking out with Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer – a former Microsoft Research project described as:

“A rapid prototyping platform for small electronic gadgets and embedded hardware devices. It combines the advantages of object-oriented programming, solderless assembly of electronics using a kit of hardware modules, and quick physical enclosure fabrication using computer-aided design.”

Paul Foster (@PaulFo), whose antics I’ve written about before (on a home-made Surface table, among other things – and on PhotoSynth and Community Games) led us through an exercise more commonly carried out with school children, using Visual Studio with Visual C# Express and .NET Gadgeteer.  Using modular kits we were soon building simple digital cameras, before going on to add LED indicators, current sensors, motion detection, etc. – with a drag and drop design surface and a few lines of C#.  Even though I left it to the guys from Content and Code to crack out the code (I’ll do the infrastructure piece and plug things together!), I would confidently say that even I could have written the code that was required and it’s a very accessible way to get children doing something real with electronics.

Sadly, whilst the software is free, the hardware is a little on the pricey side, with an FEZ Spider starter kit coming in at around £200 (which is almost Lego Mindstorms EV3 money).  Compared with an Arduino and some raw electronics components, that’s quite a lot more money but it should be said that the graphical design surface provided in the Visual Studio IDE is easier to use and the modular electronic components do make the Gadgeteer-compatible kit easier to work with.  So, on balance, where the Arduino is great for “makers”, the Gadgeteer-compatible kit is probably a better solution for teaching kids the basics of controlling components with code.

Either way, it’s a lot of fun – and inspired me to start playing with electronics again… maybe I’ll even let my kids have a go…

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