Spotlight on Mark Miller, SharePoint Rock Star

Mark Miller is the founder and editor of EndUserSharePoint.com, an absolutely indispensible resource for SharePoint end users.  Having assembled a team of regular contributors to EndUserSharePoint.com that includes some of the most respected names in SharePoint (including his fellow SharePoint Rock Star, Joel Oleson), the site is well on its way to realizing Mark's vision of being the "central repository for all SharePoint End User information."  In our wide-ranging feature interview, Mark discusses everything from his own unique path to SharePoint, to the increasing importance of social media as a tool to more effectively serve SharePoint end users, the evolution of EndUserSharePoint.com, and much, much more. 

Mark Miller of EndUserSharePoint.comYour professional background is as a trainer.  As a consequence, training is a primary component of your work at EndUserSharePoint.com, but before we get into that aspect of the business, I'd like to ask what led you to focus your attentions on SharePoint as your area of professional expertise?

First, I want to start by saying thanks for including me in this series. When I look at the short list of your nominations for SharePoint Rock Stars, I'm honored to be included in such company.

I opened my first guitar studio in Marin, California in 1977. I've been a teacher in one form or another since. Even as I built various businesses, I used my love of teaching to help my employees learn life lessons, not just how to sell product. It was a natural transition to become a professional, full-time technology trainer in 1996.

It was a pretty easy decision to become a trainer. In 1996, I sold a chain of pasta stores I had developed, jumped on my bicycle and pedaled from Washington state to Washington, D.C. at fifteen miles an hour. I took my laptop on the 3,500 mile ride, and updated my Web site each day with a journal entry which you can still see here. 50 days on a bicycle gives one a lot of time to think.

I really enjoyed creating the journal on the trip. When I got back home, I did a deep dive into HTML and Web page development, and the rest is history. I've taught at companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, SGI, Autodesk and many others as a technical trainer. At first I was riding the Web wave with HTML, CSS, Photoshop, Perl and all the tools that were used to create Web sites.

In 2006, I saw a friend of mine on Charlie Rose talking about how she was going to use collaborative site development to help manage AIDS vaccine research. I called her the next day and asked if I could join the team. That's how I got my first look at SharePoint. I helped develop the site structure to manage information from five AIDS research labs and gave my first SharePoint presentation at the CAVD Conference in Seattle that December.

I was still in touch with the training department at Autodesk and emailed to tell them about this "cool new technology called SharePoint." They got back to me within a day, asking if I could help structure a training program for their 7,000 employees, since they were in the beginning stages of rolling out SharePoint. I spent the next year on the road, literally, flying all over the world and teaching online to help get employees up to speed on using and managing SharePoint.

Prior to founding EndUserSharePoint.com in September of 2007, was there a particular trigger that caused you to realize the extent to which SharePoint end users were being underserved by the existing online SharePoint community?

As I finished my part of the project at CAVD, and started developing the training program for Autodesk, it became apparent that the field was wide open for this type of business. Following newsgroups, watching other sites and keeping track of SharePoint news confirmed that there was a lack of structured, SharePoint training and information for the typical Information Worker.

What were your goals with EndUserSharePoint.com when you launched the site, and how has that mission changed in the last year and a half as your audience (and indeed, SharePoint's audience) has increased exponentially?

Goals? You're supposed to start with those? Really, I had none. I just wanted a place to dump my ideas and let people see the process I was going through when working with SharePoint.

The site evolved on its own. I would see people like Chris Quick and Dessie Lunsford answering questions on the SharePointU.com forums and think, "Those guys have the mentality I want on my site." I wrote to them, asked them to contribute an article to the site and started developing relationships that way.

I met Paul Grenier at one of Bob Mixon's workshops. We hit it off right away. He started writing for EndUserSharePoint.com based upon the original concept of the site, but then started expanding into the jQuery realm. As Paul likes to tell it, he "dragged me kicking and screaming" to the next level, because my SharePoint support vision was still focused on the Information Worker. Paul is really the one who deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of what is perceived as a SharePoint End User on our site.

At what point did EndUserSharePoint.com become a full-time enterprise for you?

The site and the live online training company are so intertwined, I'd say right from the first post.

Your lineup now consists of over 10 regular contributors to the site, in addition to yourself and frequent guest bloggers.  Among those regular contributors are some of the most respected names in SharePoint, including several MVPs.  To my mind, that level of participation represents a tremendous vote of confidence in EndUserSharePoint.com's mission in general, and in the importance of properly serving the end users who are otherwise all-too-often left underserved by many of the "heavy hitters" of Team SharePoint in particular.  I'm curious how many of your contributors might have come to you offering their services, as opposed to your recruiting them to join the cause?

In some cases like with Woody Windischman, Paul Galvin and Asif Rehmani, I contacted them after reading their blogs or seeing how they responded to questions in the open forums. These guys are at the top of their game, but they still know how to bring it down to a level that End Users can understand.

In other cases, someone has posted something at EndUserSharePoint.com as a comment or responded to a question in Stump the Panel. When I notice someone like Lee Reed, Toni Frankola, Waldek Mastykarz, or Laura Rogers, it is pretty obvious they have the "End User" voice and mentality.

Do I recruit them? I guess you could call it that. I send them an email and say "Thanks for participating" and let them know they are always welcome to submit an article. Once that first article comes in, it starts a dialogue that we can use to determine if they'd like to continue.

In the past two months, we've had remarkable contributions by Jim Bob Howard, Ming Fung Yong, and Claudio Cabaleyro. These are people who wrote to me and offered to supply articles for the site.

When I think about what I'm trying to do with EndUserSharePoint.com, that process seems pretty logical. It's impossible for me to produce relevant, high quality content, multiple times per day on my own. By building a community of like-minded authors, everyone wins: I get articles, the authors get community exposure, and the community gets the benefit of the author's contribution.

You mentioned Stump the Panel forum.  With a bullpen of the quality you've assembled, that featured forum was a powerful addition to the site's features.  What sparked the idea for Stump the Panel, and when did the feature first launch?

Dustin Miller runs a great set of forums at SharePointU.com. I started answering questions on his forums and realized there really wasn't anything specifically for End Users. The developers were getting a lot of traction and the site collection admin had a place to go, but I felt there was a real void when it came to End Users. Plus, there was really not anyone overseeing the forums on a day-to-day basis, making sure questions weren't falling through the cracks.

Stump the Panel came about because I started receiving too many requests for help through email because of my responses on the SharePointU forum, and there was no structured way to handle it. I polled the contributing authors to see if they could help. Once that was confirmed, it was just a matter of implementing the forum software to get it going.

Stump the Panel took off much faster than I expected. There are ancillary returns on that one that were unexpected. As an example, people such as Laura Rogers, Eric Alexander and Eric Trunchon just "showed up" on their own and started handling questions. They have now become daily moderators on the forum, building a following of their own based upon their willingness to help.

Another side effect of the forum is that it generates questions that make great material for blog articles, some of which actually turn into live online workshops, such as "Create a Master Calendar in SharePoint." There's no way I would have thought of that on my own.

Drawing on your training background, the plethora of free screencasts and related video blogs posted on EndUserSharePoint.com by yourself and your contributors are among the most valuable content on the site.  Dedicated to all manner of end user-centric topics, there are some weeks where it seems as if there are as many screencasts as there are "regular" blog posts.  Was the increase in screencasts a conscious editorial decision you made in response to reader requests, or simply a natural evolution given your training background?

More than anything else, it was an editorial decision. Think about it. It might take a couple of hours to write a good article, setup the screenshots, embed them, format the article and publish. Is that really the best use of an author's time when a screencast can be done in real-time, showing step-by-step processes, along with off-the-cuff narration as things are progressing?

We get between 300,000 and 400,000 page views per month. I'm convinced that having added screencasts as a central part of the knowledge distribution is a key factor in our continuing growth.

EUSP Site Usage

A major premise of mine is that screencasts are essential when trying to transmit process-driven information. Rob Bogue is doing it with The Shepherd's Guide. Asif Rehmani is doing it. Andrea Kalli is doing it. I'm doing it. That should speak volumes to trainers and bloggers who are looking for the best way to transfer their knowledge to the next crop of SharePoint End Users.

Tiffany Songvilay said something funny last week. "Between you and Gannotti, why would anyone else need to screencast?" I like that idea! I intend to continue the path started here and move to multiple screencasts on a daily basis. I get requests all the time from people who want to offer content on the site. More of that is coming in the way of screencasts. Jim Bob Howard and Bjorn Furnap are two that come to mind.

Screencasting is the next logical step in the evolution of text blogging. We'll use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to spread the word and then present the concepts through the recordings.

In addition to the screencasts offered for free on the site, you've also begun offering a series of attractively priced live online workshops on a variety of topics, from Office integration with SharePoint to Workflow, and much more.  How has the response been to those live online workshops?

I wouldn't be able to keep the site open without the live online workshops.

The Miller familyA year and a half ago, I was in Singapore on my birthday. My kids, 3 and 5 years old at the time, Skyped me from home in New York City for a live video session to sing "Happy Birthday" and "share" a little cake. That was the point when I realized I had to find an alternative. I immediately started putting together the resources for delivering the live online training series.

I hardly ever teach live, in person anymore. There are some clients locally that I help, but mostly my work is in the live online training environment.

You've been a supporter of and participant in SharePoint Saturday since its inception last winter.  Beyond "just" speaking at various SharePoint Saturdays, with the Atlanta offering this past April, you also began hosting live, streaming coverage of the events on EndUserSharePoint.com, including a live blogging feed, a live Twitter feed, and video recordings of some sessions, and you continued those efforts at the recent D.C. offering.  Needless to say, this feature has been very well received, most especially by folks who are unable to attend the event in person.  How frequently do you anticipate being able to offer this community service for SharePoint Saturdays going forward?

I love doing that stuff! I do it when anyone asks. That's how I ended up doing the St. Louis MOSS Camp live, along with SharePoint Saturdays. The ultimate vision of that process is to offer free, live online access available to all User Group meetings worldwide, no matter how small.

Some people don't get it, wondering what in the world I'm trying to do. The first couple times it was pretty rough. I was in New York, wishing I was at the Best Practices Conference in London. As I was sitting there moping, I thought "Why don't I just setup a live twitter stream on my site that captures all of the tweets coming out of the conference?" It was mesmerizing. I sat there for hours watching the flow of tweets go by.

I gradually built up the concept over a series of events and am truly looking forward to bringing it to the next level at the Best Practices Conference in Washington, D.C. this August.

Speaking of the upcoming Best Practices Conference in D.C., we at Bamboo are very much looking forward to working together with you and your team to bring the finest coverage ever seen of a SharePoint conference.

"... the finest coverage ever seen of a SharePoint conference." [Laughing] Yeh, that bar's pretty low, isn't it? What kind of coverage has there been? If you were not there, you're pretty much out of luck, other than the independent bloggers that posted directly from the event.

True enough, though I would humbly submit that, as a group of independent bloggers, Bamboo Nation's track record for covering the Best Practices Conference speaks for itself.   

Given the size of EndUserSharePoint.com's audience and its commensurate position in the SharePoint ecosystem, you're the most visible evangelist on behalf of supporting end users.  In your discussions with other SharePoint professionals, do you sense that we're seeing the beginnings of a trend in which the most knowledgeable SharePoint experts are more likely to directly assist the least knowledgeable? 

Funny you should put it that way... "most visible evangelist on behalf of supporting end users." That is something that has just caught my attention recently. I've never thought of myself as the point man for SharePoint End Users.

As I've talked with SharePoint MVPs, presenters and speakers, it's pretty obvious that we have each staked out different territories in our SharePoint careers. Does that mean we couldn't cover other aspects of SharePoint? Of course not. The SharePoint field is so broad and so long, there's plenty of room for everyone. But is that the best use of everyone's time?

Andrew Connell and I had a little back-and-forth on this after his presentation at last year's SharePoint conference. His depth of technical knowledge on SharePoint is so deep, it sounds like Klingon to me when he gets rolling. I wrote an article about it called, "I will never be Joel Oleson." Does this mean Andrew Connell can't teach End Users? Absolutely not, but I would say that it is not the best use of his time when it comes to transferring SharePoint knowledge.

As an evangelist for end users and end user resources, you've made a point of regularly recommending worthy end user resources outside of EndUserSharePoint.com. As a beneficiary of your generosity and community-building spirit in that regard, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank you here for your efforts to promote SharePoint Blank.  Do you have any recently discovered favorites among end user resources that you'd like to point our readers to?

There are a couple of people and sites I am following that are working on extremely interesting projects that SharePoint End Users could benefit from.

Christophe at Path to SharePoint has opened up an entire area of exploration with his work based upon color coding using HTML and the calculated column. Peter Allen at Bits of SharePoint is providing applications that provide solutions for common problems with the SharePoint interface. Hans and Dan at TunnelPoint are working on a project that is mind-boggling: a no assembly solutions library for consuming Web services in SharePoint.  It's taken me a month just to wrap my mind around the possibilities.

All these guys are working outside of access to the server. Every solution they provide can be implemented at the site manager level, which makes it all that much more powerful. I think the real question that arises here is how will people ever hear about these independent sites? Is there a central resource point for exposing these types of ideas?

That's what I want EndUserSharePoint.com to be: the central repository for all SharePoint End User information. Do I have to house all of the content? No, but I need to know about it, catalog it, expose it in a way that it is easy to find.

I think of that as my main purpose when it comes to SharePoint. I want to be the ultimate content management system for all things SharePoint when it comes to End Users. When people need that type of information, I want EndUserSharePoint.com to be the first place they think of.

In conclusion, I'd like to wrap up with a four-pack of questions that we like to ask all of the SharePoint experts we speak with. First on that list is, what would you say is your single favorite feature/functionality of SharePoint?

Content Types and the management of information through metadata. If you know what I just said, you get it. If you don't, it's time for a little investigation.

Conversely, what do you feel is SharePoint's biggest weakness/drawback?

I think the biggest drawback is that SharePoint has been sold as an Information Worker managed solution. As the market gets deeper, it has become apparent that this is not the case.

Information Architecture and the structuring of the information is critical to managing large repositories of information. End Users can be part of the discovery process and the contributing/consuming processes, but it is unfair to put them in the position of creating the structure to manage that information.

What is your vision of collaborative computing five years from now?

Sorry, can't help on that one. I didn't even see Twitter coming...

When you're not making the world safe for SharePoint end users, how do you like to spend your free time?  Any particular hobbies or interests you'd care to share with our readers?

Orion MillerSince I rode a bicycle across the United States a couple years back, my six year old is determined to make the next trip with me. He did an eighteen mile ride with me three weeks ago. I told him when we got up to fifty miles, I'd take him on a cross-country trip. It might be sooner than I thought.

I'm very big on the origami of Robert Lang. To relax, I fold and create paper airplanes. I think I'm known as "The Airplane Guy" to the people at some of the playgrounds in our neighborhood. What I do with SharePoint, no one knows or cares about around here. They just want to see the planes fly.


Posted Jun 15 2009, 03:35 PM by John Anderson

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