Keynotes and cool toys

A talk with Iain McDonald, keynote speaker at Tech Ed 2005

‘Bring someone down from Redmond who knows their stuff’ was the feedback from attendees at last year’s New Zealand Tech Ed, so at 9am today Microsoft gets the chance to prove they made the right choice when Iain McDonald, self-professed former “good-for-nothing professional musician”, steps up to deliver the Tech Ed keynote speech.

McDonald has worked for Microsoft for 13 years and is currently a director in the Windows Server group. An Australian, he moved to the US in 1992 and spent six years in the Exchange Server development team, where he worked on the first three versions of the product. He now “owns” Windows Server release planning, delivery, program management and development of Terminal Server. He lives in Seattle with his wife, two dogs, a Harley Davidson and, he confesses, “too many guitars”.

Computerworldspoke to McDonald shortly after he discovered he’ll be making the keynote speech. At the time, he was still firming up the content and his attention was clearly on the forthcoming product launches.

“We’ll be talking about what we’re going to do with the Vista client release (Vista is the Windows operating system, formerly code-named Longhorn), also things we’re doing in Windows Server and some of the changes coming up over the next couple of years.”

McDonald says events like Tech Ed benefit attendees on a number of levels. “For one, you get this look into what’s coming down the line and, secondly, you get to see how you can build things in different ways. So, hopefully, not only is there training and finding out about the new stuff, but also a great networking event. The best way to learn is through a peer group — if the thing we do best is help people lift their knowledge, that’s a great thing.”

McDonald takes a developer’s view of IT innovation and says the most exciting things in life are always the ones you’re working on. He is clearly proud of the groundwork he and his team have done on Vista.

“There are a couple of big changes that will come along in the server business in the next couple of years. What we’re doing around the distributed apps platform I really think will change the game. Indigo [which unifies a variety of technologies and transports to create a framework and runtime environment for building distributed systems] could radically change the way all organisations relate to each other.”

Expecting the unexpected

McDonald says one of the fun things about building software is that it’s impossible to anticipate what users and developers are going to do with it next.

“People build things on top of our platforms that blow our minds. We’ve done the groundwork, but they go and build something we could never have thought of. That’s something I get charged up about, because people create possibility out of the tools we make for them.”

The product launch McDonald is most excited about is SQL Server 2005, codenamed Yukon and due for release at the end of the year.

“Yukon is a pretty freaking cool database and there’s some really cool tools coming with it. It’s been a long while since we’ve released an update. The previous version has been behaving pretty well out in the market, but we’ll be showing a lot of the new stuff at Tech Ed.”

The new SQL Server release aims to address a number of business problems, says McDonald, perhaps the most important being scale.

“There are some people in the world who believe that everything should fundamentally be a database, and I don’t think they’re all that wrong. You just need to have things that can scale up to handle the size of the data sets you’re dealing with. SQL, the Yukon release, will be able to do that at a price-point that comes in a lot lower than any of the alternatives.”

Having presented at the original Tech Eds in the early 1990s, McDonald has seen the events evolve and become more development focused.

“I did talks at the original US Tech Eds, back in the early 1990s, but I haven’t actually done the Kiwi one before. Originally, it was focused on operations. Obviously, the products have evolved in a pretty huge way since then. I don’t think we could have ever foreseen the way systems have gone, or the pervasiveness of something like search and how important that is now as a core piece of technology. The sorts of things we’re doing with applications now would have blown our minds back in the 1990s.”

While he believes the advancements we’ve experienced in technology couldn’t have been envisaged ten years ago, McDonald believes the speed and capability of our learning is accelerating along with them.

“Technology timelines are just going to get faster and faster, as well as the ways that we’re able to build things. For example, the development platforms that you have to be able to write a piece of software, it’s amazing how much you essentially get for free.”

He predicts no slowdown in the pace of change. “I think Microsoft’s about to go through a huge uptick with cycles and what will be coming out over the next two years.”

We asked McDonald to choose one aspect of this year’s New Zealand Tech Ed he’s confident will draw people back next year.

“Hopefully, they’ll see the value that we’re providing them with and be able to see that there’ll be some great new functionality that won’t have a huge impact on their existing environment — we’re focusing on them not having to rip and replace in order to get value.”

Sleepless nights

Unfortunately, says McDonald, there’s always something to worry about as deadlines approach.

“At the moment we’re in middle of a development milestone for Vista beta 2, which is also Longhorn Server beta 2. We’re in a crunch period. So I get worried about: ‘Is feature X going to come in on the desired day? Are we going to have all the desired integration work done on it?’ Just the fairly normal software development things.”

The fact that Microsoft has 6,000 people working full-time on the Vista project puts them in a rather different league from most software developers, so McDonald has plenty of time to worry about more fundamental bogeymen: “Are we building the right products? Is the sort of feedback we’re getting from people on the beta release what we’re looking for? Are we getting validation that we’re doing the right thing?”

But McDonald isn’t stuck in an ivory tower in Redmond looking only at the strategic decisions around the product launches. He’s often found with the code-crunchers, taking a close look at the innards of a project.

“I spend a lot of time reviewing the code that people are checking. I spend less time than I would like, day to day, actually developing the software, writing code, but I do like to go and work on that.”

Right now, his biggest personal challenge is ensuring Longhorn Server is delivered on time and meets customer expectations. He acknowledges that many commentators consider Microsoft to have been languishing of late, and that it had hit the wall with regard to product security.

“It was pretty hard, but I think we’re taking a different attitude to security than most people would have expected. And thanks to great work by people like Mike Howard [senior security program manager and a key player on the Secure Windows Initiative team], who’s a Kiwi working here, we’ve really addressed that. We’re a couple of years into a ten-year job, and I think we’re significantly better than we’ve been previously.”

Nevertheless, customers want to see Microsoft walking the walk, not just talking the talk. McDonald was a late substitution as keynote speaker, when Donna Shirley, a leading figure in NASA space research and a Woman in Technology Hall of Famer, had to pull out due to illness. As Microsoft’s New Zealand keynote speaker, he realises changing the sceptics’ perceptions of the company will be an uphill struggle, but the new integrated products should make it a lot easier for him to look his Auckland audience in the eye.

“People will see lots of super-cool software coming out over the next couple of years, and a reinvigorated Microsoft,” he says.

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