Doing Business in Amsterdam

Last week, I represented my group withiin Microsoft ( Community & Collaborative Development) along with my colleague, Betsy Aoki at the annual Microsoft TechEd Conference for software developers and IT Pros in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Here are a few random and incomplete reflections of a non-technical nature on my experience "doing business" in Amsterdam. If you've never been to Amsterdam and you are planning to go there for a business trip sometime soon, this post is for you.

In the Netherlands, boundaries are ever-present and rules are firmly and consistently enforced by regular citizens. As a foreigner, I admire this strong national trait but as a visitor who doesn’t know all the rules yet (like, DO NOT walk in bicycle lanes or assume you know the difference between a sidewalk and a bike lane) it also made me nervous. I never knew when I was about to ‘cross the line’. You can ride a motorized scooter in a bike lane in Amsterdam but you can't do so on a motorcycle. Amsterdamers routinely ride their bicycles around with unhelmeted young children. Don’t put your feet on the tram seats for a moment. Please stand behind the line. You can’t go there. You must not sit there. Please don’t stand… Don’t get me wrong, I love Amsterdam but I don’t know that I could enjoy living here right off.

Before and during the TechEd keynote address by Microsoft VP Andy Lees on Tuesday morning, I tried to hand out little "Ask Me about Gotdotnet" buttons to a number of the convention ushers. Not one of them would agree to put on my lovely Gotdotnet flair. Not one. I was polite, did not press, and informed them that Gotdotnet is a website that most developers and some IT Pros already know about. I tried to bribe them with a one-Euro coin. I spoke glowingly of their country and Amsterdam. I refrained from telling them idiotic American jokes (like, ‘Where did Hamlet live around here?’). I tried levity, telling them about the movie OfficeSpace--none had seen it--and flair. I explained that we’ve been investing heavily in Gotdotnet performance and availability for the last few months, as well as flair ;-). "Even Jennifer Anniston wears flair," I implored them, evoking polite giggles and curious looks. My buttons just disappeared, quickly and discretely, into pocket after pocket. None were refused and none were put on. Finally, a particularly assertive young nederlander said confidentially, "I’d be happy to wear it but I need to obtain permission from the conference organizer." Perhaps they thought of their Team System t-shirts (another product that was being demonstrated at the conference) as uniforms, the honor and dignity of which must not be sullied by superfluous flair. I thought but did not say, "But you wouldn’t hesitate to pull out a bong in Museumplein, would you?" Suppressing mild exasperation, I said firmly and flatly, "I am the conference organizer," without adding the all important, "thrice removed." After all, I was wearing my official Microsoft shirt, had a "Staff" badge, and could very well have been one of the event organizers for all the temp worker knew. I was convinced that this guy was the tipping point: win him over and the sheep would follow. Nope. The tall, young nederlander had other thoughts. "May I see your identification?" he demanded. In the United States, I think that I may have been able to convince at least one of the four or five event ushers to wear a button. In the Netherlands, this was a pipe dream.

In the Netherlands, all bananas must be of standard length, perfectly respectable citizens stroll through the Red Light district as if they are in a grocery store, all cucumbers must be and are straight, and the only thing that’ll happen to you if you get caught with a pound of cocaine on a flight from Curacao (nowhere else) is a direct flight back. Coming from anywhere else, you're busted.

In Amsterdam, seemingly everyone rides a bike. Bicycles appear to outnumber cars by a factor of 2:1 and bicycle theft is a major problem.

The police (Politie) are not allowed to lie, per Netherlands law. So the next time you’re in Amsterdam and a person who looks like a heroin junkie tries to sell you a bike (or anything else of dubious origin) on the street, be sure to ask them if they’re a police officer before withdrawing your cash. Bicycles can be rented from most hotels.

Cultural Notes for Conference Organizers

  • For European conferences, in particular, it is very important to have an actual booth. Informal pairings with related products and/or ad hoc lounge areas don’t work as well as in the US. Europeans are much more demanding of formality and authority than their American counterparts.
  • Average scores for technical sessions at TechEd Europe are 1 point lower, on average, than scores for the same sessions at TechEd US. I think that this may be attributable to the fact that Americans are, in general, raised to believe that 'if you don't have something good to say, don't say it at all' whereas Europeans are not.
  • European delegates are much less likely to leave a session before it ends due to lack of interest. Do not mistake presence for interest.
  • Swag, no matter how cheap and small, give conference delegates an excuse to approach and ask a question or make a comment that might instigate a valuable exchange of ideas and information. This is especially true in situations when all team members are engaged with other customers.
  • National identity is much more important to European conference attendees than are state identities to their American counterparts. Most TechEd attendees had little stickers denoting their countries of origin on their conference badges. For the record, I donned the flags of the USA, Argentina, Sverige (Sweden), Deutschland (Germany), and Ireland.
  • Don't bank on financial incentives to achieve your business goals. European businessmen and women are more likely to be insulted by an offer of financial incentives than their American counterparts.

Miscellaneous Travel Notes

  • Fly direct, if possible. Trains are available to the RAI station (RAI Congrescentrum is Amsterdam's conference center) or Centraal Station. Trams (streetcars) go almost everywhere. Taxis are absurdly expensive and almost invariably Mercedes Benzes.
  • Leidseplein is an awesome place to stay, has good access to food, services, and sites. I stayed in the Marriott but there are two other big hotels near the square including the NH and the American Hotel.
  • Hotels will do cash advances on AMEX and other cards for a 6% fee.
  • My Audiovox SmartPhone (AT&T Wireless/Cingular) worked just fine in Amsterdam except that I was unable to access my voicemail messages and my email wasn’t synchronized. Other folks I spoke with who have the same phone and carrier reported no such problems. You can rent international phone kits from vendors in the US.