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Herding cats at Microsoft

Tim O'Brien has one of the more difficult jobs at Microsoft. He is tasked with getting different parts of the company to dance to the same tune. Herding cats might be a less fractious profession.

Tim O'Brien must have one of the more difficult jobs at Microsoft. As senior director of Microsoft Platforms, he is tasked with getting different parts of Microsoft to dance to the same tune. "Part of my role in the company is to help groups understand what the paths are," O'Brien said during an interview at Mix '08 earlier this month. "If the groups are heading down random paths, at the risk of oversimplification, we try to get on a common trajectory."

Tim O'Brien, Microsoft evangelist Dan Farber/CNET News

It sounds like a herding cats job. Microsoft has multiple platforms and agendas, and strong personalities. "The evangelism organization was conceived to get people to adopt technology when it doesn't necessarily seem rational, when there are no tools or documentation. Evangelism can help envision the possibilities. My role is to look at up and coming technology in the product groups and piece together an end-to-end story for developers and create a call to action," O'Brien explained.

O'Brien is one of about 1,750 evangelists at Microsoft, who are trying to get the 78,565 company employees to play well together across corporate divisions (Windows, Office, Xbox, MSN, etc.). The Developer and Platform Evangelism Group is run by Walid Abu-Habda. The group includes 250 people at the Redmond, Wash., headquarters and 1,500 in the field, working internally and with third-party developers. "We are relied upon by the company to drive integration," O'Brien said. "The mechanism through which we do it, the forcing functions, come in all shapes and sizes." He said that good communication, rather than arm twisting, is the primary mechanism.

But the evangelist group doesn't own or manage any products, or have a P&L, which makes O'Brien and his cohorts more like a United Nations contingent seeking peace in troubled regions. Evangelists trying to guide product groups in a certain direction could generate a significant amount of friction within the company.

O'Brien maintained that the platform evangelism group gets support from the executive level at Microsoft. Support from executives up in the hierarchy doesn't mean that the rank and file will play along. "You'll always have friction," O'Brien said. "It's part of the dynamics of organizations large and small. In a big company islands will always exist. It's a reality for organizations of any size. Driving consistency in how those islands function is necessary, and we can operate at that breadth."

He gave an example of Microsoft betting big on XML and evangelizing the technology throughout the company and industry. "The big bet now is taking a pretty good client/server platform into the services world," O'Brien said. Indeed, it's a huge bet, but one that finally seems to have the entire company galvanized, which should make O'Brien's job somewhat less fractious.