*Members of the Windows Server team speak with Microsoft News Center about their groundbreaking work in moving customers to the cloud—and what else they find fascinating.*
REDMOND, Wash. – Start telling most people about the importance of servers and their eyes glaze over. They would much rather talk about some cool new smartphone app or the latest social networking site. Yet without servers, the things we value most about technology—from mobile devices to online shopping—would be impossible.
“It’s servers that enable us to do everything from email to eBay,” says Betsy Speare, a principle program manager lead in the Windows Server Manageability team. “Servers are making the world a smaller place by providing the backbone for communication and the integration of information.”
Erin Chapple, a partner group program manager in the Server and Cloud Division, agrees. “Technology is a huge lever to improve people’s quality of life,” she says. “It may be less sexy in the server world, because you’re not working on something that is health-related or so obviously a part of everyone’s day-to-day life. But knowing that we can work on one piece of technology and impact a huge number of people—that’s what keeps me coming back to work and thinking about the next great thing we can build.”
What Chapple, Speare, Jeffrey Snover, a Distinguished Engineer who is also the lead architect for Windows Server, and the rest of their team are working on right now is the next version of Windows Server, code-named “Windows Server 8,” which will provide better management capabilities, increased security and significant cost savings. Windows Server 8 will also help many Microsoft customers move more of their business to the cloud.
“Windows Server 8 really sets us up to enable the little guy to get ahead,” says Speare, whose responsibilities include overseeing Group Policy, the most widely used management tool in the world. “That’s what the cloud does; it puts this amazing power at everyone’s fingertips. With this release, we’re building the platform for that. When people who aren’t deeply technical have the capability to create solutions because the power is right there, it will be amazing to see what happens.”
Microsoft News Center (MNC) recently sat down with Chapple, Speare and Snover, to talk about Windows Server and life in general.
Chapple and her husband are transplanted Canadians and “huge fans of the Vancouver Canucks.” At Microsoft, she manages a team that is responsible for the Windows Server management platform and user experience. Away from work, she and her husband can often be found on the road from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., where they have season hockey tickets. They also love travel and “anything having to do with wine and food.”
Outside work, Speare and her partner, Andy, have a five-year-old daughter and plenty of nieces and nephews who live nearby, “so we have a house full of children most of the time and we spend a lot of time with our families.” Speare also chairs the Server and Cloud Division Women’s Leadership Council, a grass-roots organization that provides community, mentoring and career development for women in technical jobs at Microsoft. Speare co-founded the group, and over the past decade it has grown from the original 10 members to more than 300.
Snover is responsible for planning that’s focused on the “voice of technology,” one of three independent views of product development at Microsoft—the other two are the voice of the business and the voice of the customer—that come together to help create a coherent and integrated technology solution. In addition, Snover is the inventor of PowerShell, the automation language that Microsoft provides with Windows Server, and he has filed more than 40 patents. Outside work, Snover likes to watch movies, surf the Internet and read science magazines. He also has a collection of fabulous neckties.
“At any conference, I’m often the only Microsoft person wearing a tie,” he says. “My ties are bright and vivid and pretty ‘out there.’ I only wear ties at presentations. Ultimately, we’re asking customers for their money in return for our products. I treat that exchange very seriously. The other reason I wear my ties is just for luck. Baseball players have their lucky socks or whatever. I have my lucky ties.”
MNC: How is your work going to change the world?
Snover: Servers really are changing the world. Literally. Look at all these mobile phones. The reason why they exist is because of servers at the back end. In the past, when you had to run entire applications on your client device, the client had to be a big monster machine or you couldn’t do stuff. Now that most of the processing is done in a data center, you can get a great experience on a very small device.
Windows Server 8 is the biggest, most transformational server release we’ve ever had. It’s not just the great advances we’ve made in storage, networking and virtualization. What’s most transformational is the change of identity. In past, we always viewed Windows Server as an operating system for a single server. With Windows Server 8, we now see it as a cloud operating system, which is to say an OS for lots of servers and all the devices that connect them. That means we’re able to give customers a far more coherent experience at lower cost and lower effort on their part.
Chapple: One of the key things we work on is a technology called PowerShell. As you think about what’s happening in the world today, with the proliferation of servers, devices and services, our customers need a way to manage all those components that is efficient, one-to-many, repeatable and consistent. PowerShell is our answer to that.
Customers tell us they feel overwhelmed by the number of things they have to do to manage their environment. PowerShell can help them gain control over their environment and get them out of that world of chaos.
Snover: By enabling the move to the cloud, servers are even transforming the way we do science. In the past, science was driven by hypotheses. Someone would think about the world, generate a hypothesis, and then run a set of experiments to validate or invalidate it. But with the large data centers we have today, we can take an entirely new approach. We’re now able to configure these servers to throw massive computing power at a problem, and to reverse engineer a hypothesis based on what the data is telling us. This allows us to solve bigger problems than we’ve ever been able to solve before.
MNC: What is the coolest or most surprising thing you’ve learned while working on Windows Server?
Speare: The first product I worked on at Microsoft was Exchange Server. We were enabling new kinds of communication that had never been possible before. NASA came in and told us how our technology was enabling astronauts in space to have private conversations with their spouses for the first time. Before, those conversations had been broadcast over public radio with everybody listening in. That kind of fundamental change is staggering.
So you look back over the past 10 years and see how email is now just part of the world and you think, “Gee, what’s going to be happening 10 years from now?” People who use our product are so amazingly creative that we are constantly struggling to enable them to do what they want. We don’t want to stop anybody from coming up with the next great thing. From that perspective it’s just overwhelming, the sheer numbers and brilliance of humanity sitting on top of your stuff.
Chapple: Exactly. I think one really interesting thing about the server space is that we have such a huge customer base that interacts with the product. Once you put something out there, people start using it in ways you never imagined.
Windows Server is a mission-critical application; it’s running large-scale infrastructure in businesses around the world. So when you’re thinking about changing what’s going to happen in the next release, or moving in some new direction, you have to be really aware of how people are using your product today and how you want them to use it in the future. And then you have to figure out how to move forward in a way that doesn’t disrupt the business they’re in. There’s this really interesting tension between where your customers are now and where they need you to take the product in the future.
MNC: What was the biggest challenge or hurdle you faced?
Snover: It took us a long time to get to some of the improvements people are going to see in Windows Server 8. The reason why all that changed with this release is the degree to which we had everyone in all of our organizations out talking to customers during the planning stage.
When it’s just some guy like me saying, “Hey, here’s what customers want,” some people believed me and some didn’t. When everybody starting talking to customers and seeing what the problems were, that’s when things shifted. So that’s one of the things I’m most optimistic about, the degree to which this release was planned by talking to customers, truly understanding their problems from an end-to-end approach, and then making that the center of our release, as opposed to a bunch of a guys in a conference room thinking, “Well, why don’t we try this?”
Speare: I think it always comes down to timing. Our products don’t need to be fixed in the first service pack anymore; they are done when they ship. And so the quality can’t change. You have a fixed timeframe in which to make certain you have everything done and done right.
It’s always tempting to add more, it’s always tempting to do the next thing, but it’s really that core set of things we committed to that we’re going to deliver on time. The big challenge is knowing when to say no.
MNC: What’s your favorite thing to do during Seattle’s typical two-week summer?
Snover: We’re from New England, so we always go back in August for the friends and family tour. I’m a traditional New Englander, which means my best friend is the guy I met in first grade. Our clique also includes newcomers, like the guy who joined in eighth grade. It’s a lifelong group that sticks together.
Speare: We live right by Green Lake, so in the summer we try to stay near the lake and spend time outdoors. We also have property in Eastern Washington, so we spend a lot of time there in the summer. But when we’re home we’re outside: riding bikes or just hanging out. When the weather’s nice in Seattle, you’ve just got to go outside.
Chapple: I love living in Seattle, but if I could live anywhere else I’d probably choose somewhere that has lots of outdoor cafés. In the Seattle summer you can find me searching for outdoor cafés—they tend to be a little rare—and trying to be as European as possible: sitting out in the café, having a good meal or enjoying a coffee. My husband and I spent September in St. Tropez on the French Rivera and it was just phenomenal.
MNC: What do you value most in your friends?
Snover: Honesty and a sense of humor.
Chapple: I like that my friends keep me honest. It’s not that they know me better than I know myself, but they look out for what’s best for me.
Speare: That’s a hard question. I think what I value most is their . . . empathy. No, that’s not really it. My friends all seem to have a genuine sweetness of spirit that comes from their hearts. I admire my friends. They’re smart, they’ve got so much to hand to the world and they do. Maybe that’s it; they’re givers.
MNC: What talent or natural gift would you most like to possess?
Speare: I’d like to have more of a Zen quality, the ability to really live in the moment and just be present without worrying about tomorrow. I’m a planner, so that’s hard for me to do.
Snover: I don’t see it as a talent; it’s a body of knowledge. I’ve always admired material scientists. I think they are the unsung heroes of the world. If you think about the history of man, we mark it by our materials: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. You really want to change reality? Work on Windows Server or invent a new material.
Chapple: I’d like to be able to stop time. Sometimes life starts moving too fast and you just want to stop time, take a little break, and then pick it up again. I think we get too caught up in day-to-day life and lose focus on what’s really important. If I could pause time every once in a while to catch my breath and not let the world get too far ahead of me, that would be really nice.
It’s like “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.” She could pause time and take other people with her. That would be fun to do. I could freeze time and have more time with my friends.
MNC: Sitting in an outdoor café.
MNC: What’s something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
Speare: Hey, if I tell you, everyone will know.
I think most people would be surprised to learn that I was in the Army National Guard. I needed money for college, so I joined the Army National Guard and went through basic training with the regular Army recruits. I think that’s probably the thing about me that surprises people the most. I’m pretty tough.
Snover: I think most people are surprised to find out that I’m a college dropout. I was studying physics in college, but I kept running out of money. I would go get a job, go back to school, run out of money, get a job, go back. At some point, I just fell in love with computers and stuck with it.
I’m the only Distinguished Engineer I know of who doesn’t have a degree. I may be the highest ranked college dropout at Microsoft – at least since Bill Gates left.
MNC: What’s your favorite thing to make in the kitchen?
Snover: Indian food. It’s the only food I can make that’s edible.
Chapple: Right now, my favorite thing is pancakes. I bought this pancake turner and I spent way too much money on it, but it’s awesome. It makes perfect pancakes.
MNC: Don’t engineers always have state-of-the-art tools for everything?
Chapple: Yeah, we do. I bought it in New York. I looked at it really hard and thought, “I can’t buy this.” And then I came home and dreamed about it for the next six months. So when I went back, I trudged all the way to the store, bit the bullet, and bought it. And I don’t regret it. It really is amazing.
Speare: What I like to do in the kitchen is look up my mom’s recipes and cook them. My mom was a chef and an amazing woman. She died a couple of years ago of ovarian cancer. My fiancé and I just launched a website at https://AppleCharlotteCooking.com that includes 1,500 of her recipes, and we’ve been encouraging people to try them out.
I’m loving the website. These are all the recipes I used to call her about when she was alive. You can search by ingredient or by recipe. Everybody’s been having so much fun with it. We thought a traditional Christmas dinner this year would be too depressing, so we chose 10 of my mom’s recipes at random, and we had barbecued meatloaf for Christmas. It was awesome.
MNC: What’s next for you at Microsoft?
Snover: What’s next for me is figuring out how we take this vision of a cloud OS and break it down into discrete steps. That’s really a 10-year-plus vision. It’s a dramatic increase in the scope of what we want to do. So how do we break that down and ensure that Windows has a smooth transition between where we are and where we need to be?
Bill Gates once said, “Vision is cheap.” At the time, I thought he was a bit of a jerk for saying that. But I then realized that he was right. Vision is cheap. The hard part is figuring out how to get from here to there. There have been many projects with grand visions that have run themselves onto the rocks because no one could break them down into a step-by-step approach. That’s what my job is.
Chapple: I was fortunate enough to take my sabbatical last fall and travel the world for three months, which gave me a chance to clear my head, recharge, and figure out what I want to do. It gave me this great perspective.
I feel like I’m at the end of one journey and the beginning of another. I’ve been working in manageability for the last five years or so, and when I started in manageability it was a four-letter word. People were like, “I don’t want to think about how I make my product manageable; I want to just build great features.” With the move to the cloud and the move to services, the manageability of our system has become more of a focal point and an asset. With Windows Server 8, we really have pulled all the pieces together and we’re delivering a great solution.
I am just so proud of the work we’re doing. We’re at this inflection point from a cloud perspective. There’s a great opportunity to think about what we want to do with Windows Server, and how we hope to help people migrate to the cloud. So I’m all in, in terms of figuring out what the next turn of the crank means for Windows Server. I think we have more opportunities than we ever had in the past, and it’s exciting to be part of that.