Ode To An Irish Samurai

Taking over GDN was a decision I made about a year ago in a NYC hotel room on a Smartphone just after having dinner with my dad, just before going out drinking with my college roommate and a day after I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. I was already on a natural high and it seemed like all the things were coming together when I checked my mail and my manager-to-be suggested it as an opportunity. I just knew this was something I couldn’t pass up. I don’t think I even I bothered getting on a desktop—I just replied on the Smartphone. “Yes—I want GDN.”

Part of the package deal was a team that included two amazing people. One, Korby Parnell, is a guy that has challenged me to think in ways I never expect to. The second was a woman whose legend preceded her: Betsy Aoki. This striking woman of Asian & Irish descent (thus the “Irish Samurai”) was unlike anyone I’d every met and she made the next year of my life quite an experience. March 8th is her last day on the team as she is moving on to work with our friends at MSN. I'm saddened by the thoughts of the halls without her.

I love telling people the story about how we began together. When we first met, I asked her for her vision of the short-term roadmap of GDN. Instantly, Betsy turned into a whirling dervish with a marker, leading my whiteboard begging for mercy. I left that imprint up there for a couple of weeks afterwards—simply to show the p&p folks (I was still in my old office) that what I was doing in my new job wasn’t kid’s stuff. A couple of days later, we went back and forth to each other’s offices, talking about how to communicate the strategy to “fix” GotDotNet and coming up with dates and resources asks. I was getting nervous about whether this person could pull off everything here or if she would just crumble under the weight of the world. That was when Betsy said something that I will never forget. I'll probably get the exact words wrong, but she essentially said, “You know, this is pretty ambitious, but if we pull this off, we would really be doing something amazing. We could save GotDotNet!” Betsy rarely made eye contact with me to that point (something that never quite changed even one year later—I thought it was my dashing good looks until I read an old blog post), but she connected with me on that statement that there as no fear in her eyes. Instead, it was the anticipation of an opportunity that she saw as being bigger than herself. She was completely excited.

It was clear: I had found a kindred spirit.

Alas, in the first month, we had ugly downtime, uglier confrontations with internal users (long story), midnight IMs, and whatever else you could think of. There were even songs and poetry. Each day, I was more impressed with Betsy but also more worried about her ability to balance everything thrown her way. But she handled it and never wavered. Some times were tougher than others and I did my best to try to smooth those out, but I think I gained more inspiration than gave. I believe vindication of extreme efforts lie in the results that are reaped. In a recent internal study, GDN was ranked highest in terms of professional appearance. That’s a far cry from site we inherited which, while it certainly had its charm, had run its course. CodeGallery was a great partnership with the p&p team to add a new channel for people to share code. She was so pivotal that when looking for a name for CodeGallery, someone suggested that we call it Aoki-land (even in jest, Betsy’s ego-less demeanor always led her to be uncomfortable with that suggestion). Making the user experience better for the customer was something on which Betsy always prided herself. When you see the statistical speed boost of the site (according to our SiteScope analysis, pages load 5-10x faster than six months ago!) and the increased uptime, you begin to realize we’ve come a long way. The fact that blogs.msdn.com (the site you are reading right now) was her backup project was just as impressive, if not moreso. She played a role I saw in PSS as the patient (most of the timeJ) customer service rep that helped a lot of amazing blogs get off the ground. Whether it is Raymond Chen or Steve Sinofsky (my personal fave), she deserves a lot of credit for letting customers get to know Microsoft in a way they couldn’t have possibly imagine five years ago. Both in blogs and community development, Betsy’s legacy will long outlast her presence in the group—you can’t ask for anything more.

I believe in the concept of GDN and collaborative code sharing, whether it what we had in the past with Workspaces, what we see now with CodeGallery, and what may be in the future. Calling Betsy the heart and soul of GDN is an understatement. She should be really proud of the last year of your life because I’m proud just to be connected to it. And in some ways, I feel like she is graduating to a broader audience. I look forward to still seeing her name pop up everywhere and extending the Betsy visibility from devs & IT Pros to soccer moms everywhere. There may be hope for Aoki-land yet! ;-)

Great teammates are worth their weight in gold and MSN will learn that very soon. Good luck in your next role, Betsy, and if you ever need a change of pace or miss the old homestead, look me up.