Two Faces of Microsoft

    April 6, 2006

I’m in a lot better mood lately cause I am back home doing the Channel 9 thing. Interviewing Microsoft folks about what they do.

Sometimes the interviews give me an interesting look at how the software industry is changing underneath our feet.

Consider these two faces of Microsoft.

I interviewed Bill Gallagher yesterday. He’s worked at Microsoft for 15 years as of tomorrow. Congrats, it always amazes me when I meet anyone who’s been at the same company for that many years. When he started Microsoft was building its eighth building in Redmond, he worked most of that time in building #2 as a tester in Windows.

Bill is decidedly old school. He knows where the bodies are buried. Well, that’s a metaphor for knowing why things were built the way they are. He’s always been in the test side of the house and today runs a test team on mobile PCs. You know, Origamis, Tablet PCs, and laptops.

His knowledge of the OS is deep. He has access to all the Windows source code so his teams can figure out why something isn’t working. So why do I call him “old school?” Well, Windows is definitely complex and isn’t something that a single person can any longer keep in their heads (he says maybe Dave Culter still has most of it in his head, but there aren’t very many Dave Cutlers anymore, he says). But, even so, the system is fairly understandable and if you have enough time you can dig through the various pieces of Windows and sort of understand what’s going on. Certainly you know the version of the components you’re dealing with. You know where they reside on the hard drive. You can see the segments of memory they are writing to. And all that.

Now, compare that kind of OS to the one that Emre Kiciman is working on.

Emre is one of Microsoft’s newest employees. He just graduated with a PhD from Stanford University. Now, if you know anything about the world of software engineering and the software/tech business you know that Stanford is the #1 place in the world. It’s where Hewlett Packard, Cisco, Yahoo, Google, and many other companies were formed.

When I know someone has graduated from Stanford I can make some assumptions: 1) They are freaking smart. Why do I know that? Cause only one guy from my high school class got accepted into Stanford and he was definitely the smartest kid we had. They turned down rafts of other kids who also had 4.0s and were also very smart. 2) That even someone at the bottom of their class in Stanford could go to any company they wanted and/or could start their own company.

Emre didn’t break my assumptions. Nice. Humble. Smart. Freaking smart. The kind of smarts I wish I had. I asked him why he didn’t go to Google. Heheh. Answer to that later.

Anyway, he’s doing large system research. His “OS” runs on thousands of machines. His data that he’s studying is terabytes of log files kicked out of MSN’s servers every day. Every day. Think about that one for a while.

His OS? Is totally abstracted. He has no idea what each machine is running in the data centers he’s looking at. He has no idea what hard drive a file is sitting on. Or even what machine. He’s looking at making the overall system work better. He’s looking for patterns of machine behavior BETWEEN machines. He and his teams are looking for network behaviors. Why does the Internet get a little wonky once in a while? What can be done about it?

These two guys, if you put them in the same room, don’t speak the same language. They don’t understand each other. One guy looks for memory leaks. Works in C++, or C, or some assembler. Deals with a single machine (a laptop or a Tablet PC) and has deep understanding of how that works.

The other guy deals with SQL Server. C#. Terabytes of data. No real understanding of individual machines. Looking at systems of machines.

Emre says that sometime soon you’ll have dozens of machines in your home that work in conjunction with other data centers all over the world. A totally distributed OS. You are getting a small look into this world if you use Bittorrent or other P2P apps. Or, everytime you pull up Google, Yahoo, MSN or even WordPress. Do you know which machine in WordPress’ data center you are reading my blog off of today? Matt Mullenweg doesn’t either.

It isn’t often that you get to see the shift in software so clearly. I’ll get the videos up in a few weeks so you can see the differences for yourself.

So, why did Emre come to Microsoft? He wanted to work on really large data sets and he wanted to work for the best research lab in the world. He said he did his homework and looked into all the companies that are doing this kind of work and says Microsoft is – by far – the leader in his mind.

Who am I to argue with a Stanford PhD?

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Robert Scoble is the founder of the Scobleizer blog. He works as’s Vice President of Media Development.

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