An Interview with Richard Bretschneider
Interviewed By: Geetesh Bajaj
Date Created: January 23rd 2008
Last Updated: March 4th 2009
Bretschneider is a fifteen year Microsoft
veteran, having joined the company in 1993 to work on PowerPoint
for Windows and the Macintosh. Over the years, he's contributed to
the design and direction of the application, and been awarded three
PowerPoint related patents. Specific feature area highlights include
the first Microsoft Clip Art Gallery, AutoContent Wizard, PowerPoint
HTML export, PowerPoint Kiosk and Browse Modes, Document Hyperlinks,
Presentation Collaboration and Commenting, and Password Protection.
Geetesh: You celebrated your 15th year working on the PowerPoint team --- tell us more about this awesome journey.
Richard: It’s cliché, but the time really flew by. But, paradoxically, I’m simultaneously struck by all the immense changes in the field, in the application, and in how PowerPoint has been used over the years.
When you develop a product, a good design takes the user into account first. When I joined the team, a heavy user of PowerPoint would open the product once or twice a month. We were terribly concerned that they wouldn’t ever become really familiar with the application, would continually have to relearn it. So we worked very hard to keep things simple. Not just commands and UI, but the document metaphors, the terminology, reuse of content, everything that could get in the way of a successful session. We’ve kept that attitude for a long time, and it served us well – as complicated an application as PowerPoint is today, it’s easy to see how it could be a real mess at this point if the people designing it hadn’t been dedicated to keeping things simple.
I also like to reflect on the way PowerPoint has moved with technology. PowerPoint 1.0 was a Macintosh product and arguably all about the Apple Laser Printer. That device promised the user could create really professional documents, and documents included printed foils or overlays for overhead projectors. It really was cutting edge, doing this on your desktop. Bleeding edge was the ability of PowerPoint to be used to create 35mm slides, and lots of presentations were projected in color using slide carousels. For the first few years I was on the team, we targeted large television style monitors, because projectors were very expensive and not very reliable. Projectors that plugged into your computer didn’t become ubiquitous until the last eight years or so, and only in the past few years were they equipment that small departments could actually budget without raising an eyebrow in the finance department.
We also moved from basic audience presentations, to features that helped with the distribution of documents and their message. We added features to make them easier to send via mail, or transformed them into HTML documents for display from web sites. I’m terribly proud of the HTML work we did, really amazing conversion of our graphics, text and even animation for display in the browser. It’s interesting to think that in the mid-90’s Microsoft was considered behind, that we didn’t “get” the internet, but within a couple of years we delivered technology like that that was actually ahead of most of our user’s ability to post to web sites and exploit. Timing is tricky.
We can look at the social implications of PowerPoint as well. Some specific moments stand out, like...
- The astounding day I visited my son’s elementary school class
room in 2000 to find that most of the kids were adept at creating
presentations and swarmed me to talk about it.
- The first Dilbert cartoon that mentioned PowerPoint, and how it
went around the office like some kind of award.
- Watching the Canadian Premiere and US Military Officers using slides
on national television.
- PowerPoint Karaoke parties.
- Presentation construction skills becoming part of college curriculum, even part of the application process.
I tell people that PowerPoint is the best application to work on at Microsoft, that there’s a breadth of experience and feedback that makes so much hard work, and frankly a lot of pain, worthwhile in the end. If I’m sitting in a restaurant, or at a party, and I hear someone mention PowerPoint I instantly become an eavesdropper, because I want to hear how their experience has been, or how they’re affecting others with the product.
It’s always interesting.
Geetesh: People use PowerPoint in so many ways, but there must be some stories that you remember more than the others -- tell us more about these case studies: everything from the strange and the amazing to the simple and the mysterious!
Richard: We get a lot of great feedback from users, and it really does motivate a large portion of what we put into any release. There’s one story that stands out for me.
It was in the early 90’s and we were on a customer visit. We do these during the planning of projects, we go to a the office of a customer and have them show us how they use the product. Sometimes this is one person, sometimes several in a larger office. It was the end of the day and as we were preparing to leave an admin came up to us and asked us to look at something. She opened a drawer in her desk and took out a folder full of 35mm slides. I don’t have the direct quote, but she said something to the effect of “whenever I’m feeling a little down, I open my desk and take a look at these. I made these with PowerPoint and they just look so good, everyone liked them.” I think when you can get feedback from a customer like that, something really emotional and touching, it's just a great thing – you know you’re working on something that goes beyond just being useful.
Geetesh: I remember you once told a story about how PowerPoint was named -- can you tell us about this so that it can be saved for posterity.
Richard: This story was told at a retirement party by Daryl Boyle, the facts are before my time so I pass them along second hand. This is the “short version” bereft of my dramatic interpretation, or sound effects.
Before Forethought, the company responsible for the creation of PowerPoint, was bought by Microsoft, they had made their living off a few database products and typing tutor style programs for the Macintosh. There came a time when they were having some trouble making payroll and had to go on a series of quick sales trips to sell inventory that was basically sitting in a warehouse. PowerPoint was under development, but might never had made it out to market except for this attempt to generate up a bit of revenue. Long story short, the trip was successful and the person responsible for keeping the company afloat (whom I think was actually Daryl) was sitting in a airplane window seat watching the tarmac scroll by under the plane as it approached the runway for takeoff and the trip home. Now in some airports there is a specific point on the runway where the plane is supposed to stop and bring their engines up to full power. This point is usually painted on the runway, with the label “Power Point.” The name seemed perfect for the product they were producing and he came home with more than just the money to keep the company afloat.
Well, that’s where the name comes from, to the best of my knowledge. I’ve always considered it a nice metaphor, coming up to full power just before your important performance.
Geetesh: The PowerPoint team isn’t in Redmond with the rest of Microsoft. Where are you based?
Richard: When Microsoft bought Forethought, one of the stipulations was that the PowerPoint team would remain where they were, basically the Silicon Valley in California. Over the years, the offices have moved between Menlo Park, Cupertino, and Mountain View. When I joined the team was working in the Quadrus facility off Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto. This is a group of leased structures owned by the Anderson family, famous collectors of 20th century American art. The Anderson’s collection is so vast, they have so many works of art that they furnish these leased buildings with some of their paintings and sculptures. It was an amazing place to come and work, especially on a graphics program. There was a real Roy Lichtenstein just outside my office door! To top it off, art tour groups occasionally wandered through our offices. Surreal.
We moved from there to an ex-Apple building in Cupertino. The day we moved into the offices a memo went around Apple basically telling employees to stop talking about projects when they were eating in restaurants because Microsoft was now “in the hood.” Very funny. I dragged our team off one afternoon for a group photo standing among the large icons Apple used to decorate their campus lawns.
In 2000 Microsoft decided to consolidate all the California Bay Area companies they had acquired over the years, PowerPoint, Hotmail, Web TV to name a few, on one campus. We have six buildings full of “Softies” just off Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain View. It’s a great campus. Amazingly good cafeteria, and a first class set of assembly rooms that often get loaned to our local groups. The Microsoft community here is very strong, and civic minded. I was told that during our last charity “Giving Campaign” that Bay Area Microsoft employees donated more per capita than any other company in the valley. I’m very proud to be associated with a group like that.
It’s nice to be able to work for Microsoft and live in California, but we’re very much in touch with our brothers and sisters in Redmond. Microsoft Office is a group effort, there’s a lot of shared code and interface initiatives. Thanks to e-mail, conferencing, and other technologies, I can work with people in other groups for months before they realize that we’re a two hour plane trip away.
Geetesh: Who are the MVPs? Are they a bunch of nosy, interfering folks, or do they really know something?
Richard: The MVP program extends across Microsoft products. MVPs are non-Microsoft folk, not employees, not on any MS payroll, whose regular activities make a positive difference in our customer’s ability to use our products. For the most part, that means spending a lot of time creating support web sites, or answering questions in the internet newsgroups. When we’re looking for new MVPs for a specific product, the existing MVPs are a large part of the nomination process. When the title MVP is awarded, it means that person gets a bit of access to the specific development team for their product, the right to attend conferences, and a priority in participating in product betas and other releases, and a couple of other nice perks.
Yes, the PowerPoint MVPs are a noisy group, often inquisitive, and occasionally bordering on rudeness. But that’s just because they’re enthusiastic advocates for customer needs. I respect and appreciate each and every one of them, they do a great job of representing customer problems, and do quite a bit towards solving those problems all on their own. The PowerPoint MVP team is one of the most active and productive groups around, with a very high level of engagement and satisfaction.
Geetesh: Tell us about the podcasts that you are putting up -- what inspired you, and what sort of podcasts these are?
Richard: I’ve been podcasting, participating in and producing the recordings, for over a year on recreational topics for my own entertainment. Additionally I listen to lots of podcasts, including some Microsoft produced efforts like Major Nelson’s XBOX Blogcast, a great model for anyone who wants to create or support a community. It quickly struck me that the medium should be exploited to really do some good in helping people understand how to create and give good presentations.
Since I already had the equipment, and make fairly regular contact with lots of well-spoken presentation professionals, I decided to start recording sessions where we’d sit around a table and discuss a topic or two, things that make a difference in the quality of presentations. I’m specifically not making this “the PowerPoint chat.” First, that sounds a little too much like a Saturday Night Live skit for me. And second, I think there’s a lot to be said about the art, content, and delivery of presentations that goes beyond the tools used to assemble them.
When we discuss the areas where presentations go wrong, few people say that the presentation was spoiled by too many transitions, or a bad color scheme. Both can happen of course, but the real problems have to do with the thought processes used, or failed to use, during the preparation, construction, and delivery of the work. There are a lot of people out there who can tell you how to make better presentations from a technical standpoint. But I think there’s room for a discussion of how to build quality into your event, how to think about the audience and what you’re trying to accomplish.
That’s where we’ll focus. Of course, it’s hard to talk about presentations without mentioning PowerPoint, and I’m not specifically avoiding it’s discussion. I even have a show planned where we’ll focus on an aspect of construction where PowerPoint has made some significant advances and innovations recently, and we’ll discuss those at length. But it’s not the focus of the show.
I use the word “we” a lot when I discuss the podcast, because the format I’ve chosen is a discussion with several voices. Single voice podcasts get pretty boring. Two voices are better, there’s give an take, but there’s still a tension to keep the flow and kind of a forced back and forth. I’m hoping to always have three or four folks on mic, because it feels very natural and there’s a reduction in tension among the visitors – they don’t always have to have a comeback or a follow-up. That’s why I call it The Presentations Roundtable, because we’re all taking equal part in the discussion. It’s kind of like a late night chat show once the couch fills up more fun and unexpected interaction between the guests.
Geetesh: Is there anything else that you want to share -- a thought, a message, or an anecdote.
Richard: I’m often asked what one thing a presenter could do to really make a better presentation. And my answer is simple. Think of the audience.
If you’re presenting to a group, then you’re there to motivate them in some manner. If you aren’t, then get off the stage and just send a memo. Everyone will be happier.
If you do want to motivate them, if a presentation should be done, you need to know three things. The first two need to be determined before you start doing any presentation creation: What is it you want the audience to do? And what is their current attitude, their mindset, how are they likely to react to your message? If you have access to individuals who will be in the audience, go and talk with them. Send e-mail. Talk to their bosses or peers. Assemble this information as carefully as you would your slide content. Maybe more carefully.
That knowing your audience part is terribly important, because they affect the third, and most important aspect of creating your presentation: Everything you say or show should be moving the audience in the direction you want them to go. If it isn’t, get rid of it. In preparation you need to drill down on every aspect of the presentation to make sure it clearly contributes to your goal. Don’t present tons of backup statistics to an audience that trusts you, or already knows the status. Don’t wander off to discuss some interesting (to you) side aspect of the message. Don’t present data you don’t understand. Do talk to the audience, making sure they understand your sincere need to communicate something important.
That sounds really basic, really simple, but it’s where most presentations fail. If the speaker isn’t talking to the audience, then they won’t be engaged. If you are, if they see how what you’re saying affects them, they’ll be moved.