Category Archives: Microsoft

I used to be a blogger like you…

…until, well, you know. I realize it’s been quiet around here. Sorry about that.

At any rate, after about 18 months in the SQL engine, I’ve moved yet again. I think I gave a good run at it, but in the end I decided that it wasn’t working and that it was time to do something different. Ironically, I think the biggest reason SQL ended up not working out for me was something that the team decided to do right, namely going all-in on the cloud (i.e. SQL Azure). The problem was that when I originally joined the team, they weren’t quite there yet. The SQL organization was just starting to look beyond SQL Server 2012, all options were on the table, and one of those options was that the team might be willing to take a harder look at the language processing parts of the engine and their future. Then, about a month or so after I moved over the team coalesced around the decision to go all-in on the cloud and make SQL Azure the most amazing cloud data platform possible. And while I think that was totally the right call, it did mean that priorities got shifted and there just wasn’t going to be the kind of headroom to do the kinds of things that I was interested in doing. So instead I got to spend about a year and a half learning a lot of interesting things about the cloud and running a service in the cloud. But in the end, that’s not where my heart lay and so I decided to try something new.

Well, sort of new.

You see, I was chatting with some of my old compatriots back in the Developer Division (including some people I’d spent a lot of time working with on VB) and found that they were doing all kinds of interesting things with this weird little language that apparently a lot of people think sucks. It turns out that somewhere along the line this language that a lot of people think sucks somehow became this totally important language that lots of people were very, very interested in. And they were looking for some more people to work on it. And would I be interested? After thinking about it a bit, I decided that it could possibly be a lot of fun to work on a language that most people deride as a horrible language but which somehow is the crucial underpinning of lots of important things. (Reminded me of some stuff I worked on a few jobs back.) So I decided, why the heck not?

So, I’m now a newly-minted member of the Javascript team. Part of my job is just contributing in any way that’s useful to all the cool stuff that we’re already doing (yay Windows!). Part of my job is to do some looking forward as to where we might go with Javascript. After all, there’s lots of interesting things being done with Javascript beyond just running web pages.

So now you know.

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Software patents, revisited

So, seven years after I managed to make slashdot, now I’ve managed to make the front page of Hacker News. I have to say, the IsNot patent is the gift that just keeps on giving. I think my comments from the original patent discussion still apply, quoted here since the original post has been lost:

In the wake of the IsNot patent brouhaha, aside from the "you are scum" comments, people have had several reasonable questions about my own feelings about the situation. So let me pause and talk about software patents for a moment. Lest there be any question about this, what follows are my own personal feelings about the matter and have nothing to do with official Microsoft policy.

Personally, I don’t believe software patents are a good idea. I realize that algorithms lie in that grey area between a mechanical process (which is patentable) and an abstract idea (which is not), but at a purely practical level I think that software patents generally do much more harm than good. As such, I’d like to see them go away and the US patent office focus on more productive tasks. I have nothing but contempt for any company that tries to use patents to achieve what they could not through purely competitive means. This includes Microsoft, should they ever choose to do so or have they ever chosen to do so. (I’m not aware of any such situation, but I’m hardly omniscient.)

However, software patents do exist. So while the good fight goes on to get rid of them, I also believe that it would be dangerously naive to not play the game as best we can in the meantime in as principled a way as possible. There are a lot of people who would love nothing more than to just take a piece out of Microsoft either because they can or because they want to get rich and not for any better reason than that. I’ve been around long enough to see the kind of trouble that patents can cause us, and so I believe the best defense is a good offense. While I don’t believe in using patents in an unprovoked way, I do believe in having a robust patent arsenal with which to defend ourselves should someone get it in their head that they want to hold our products hostage for money or just to cause trouble.

One of the most unfortunate aspect of the software patent system is that there is a distinct advantage, should you have the money to do so, to try and patent everything under the sun in the hopes that something will stick. If someone has a patent on "a biological system used to aspirate oxygen gases to fuel biological processes" (i.e. lungs), I wouldn’t be surprised. (If there isn’t, no fair submitting the patent before me!) This is bad both because it jams up a system that’s not really equipped to handle software patents well in the first place and because it increases the likelihood of broad, random patents slipping through the system. Microsoft has been as much a victim of this as anyone else, and yet we’re right there in there with everyone else, playing the game. It’s become a Mexican standoff, and there’s no good way out at the moment short of a broad consensus to end the game at the legislative level.

So that’s how I feel about software patents in general. As far as the specific IsNot patent goes, I will say that at a personal level, I do not feel particularly proud of my involvement in the patent process in this case. Beyond that, there’s not much to say: many comments addressed legal questions which I am woefully unqualified to comment on and for which speculation would be very

To my original blog post, I would add a few things. The first thing is that, thankfully, I believe the IsNot patent has long since either been rejected or abandoned, and in this things are exactly as they should be. The second thing is that while I still continue to hope that we will rid ourselves of software patents, I recognize now in hindsight that the general problem of patents—that there is a strong financial incentive to patent everything under the sun—is an inherent trait of a game that gives the “winners” huge economic advantages. Even if software patents disappeared tomorrow, there’d still be lots of stupid and silly patent applications in non-software areas. Since I think that, overall, the patent system is a good idea, this means some aspects of this are simply inevitable. (Still doesn’t justify the IsNot patent application, though. That was just dumb.)

My final comment regards my assertion that I would hold “nothing but contempt” for any company that used software patents in an offensive, rather than a purely defensive, manner. That is still the case and, sadly, I am profoundly disappointed with some of the things that Microsoft has done in this area since I wrote that post in 2005. The best I can say is that I continue to hope that we will do better in the future.

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Black Hole Projects

OK, so I may have reset my blog, but there were some interesting posts that probably shouldn’t disappear totally down the memory hole. This is one of them, which I am rescuing from back in 2004 because of it’s continuing relevance. It seems that six months can’t go by without something I hear making me think of this. Edited from the original for clarity and to bring it up-to-date.

Many, many years ago, Steve Maine took the opportunity to reminisce about a project at Microsoft that was being worked on while he was an intern. He says:

[ When I was an intern… ] there was this mythical project codenamed “Netdocs”, and it was a black hole into which entire teams disappeared. I had several intern friends who got transferred to the Netdocs team and were never heard from again. Everyone knew that Netdocs was huge and that there were a ton of people working on it, but nobody had any idea what the project actually did.

I also knew a few people who invested quite a few years of their lives into “Netdocs” and it got me thinking about the phenomenon of “black hole projects” at Microsoft (and elsewhere, I’ll wager). There was one I was very close to very early in my career that I managed to avoid, many others that I just watched from afar, and one or two that I got dragged into despite my best intentions. I can’t really talk about most of them since most never saw the light of day, but it did get me thinking about the peculiarly immutable traits of a black hole project. They seem to be:

  • They must have absurdly grandiose goals. Something like “fundamentally reimagine the way that people work with computers.” Nobody, including the people who originate the goals, has a clear idea what the goals actually mean.
  • They must involve throwing out some large existing codebase and rewriting everything from scratch, “the right way, this time.”
  • They must have completely unrealistic deadlines. Often this is because they believe that they can rewrite the original codebase in much, much less time than it took to write that codebase in the first place.
  • They must have completely unrealistic beliefs about compatibility. Usually this takes the form of believing you can rewrite a huge codebase and preserve all of its little quirks without a massive amount of extra effort.
  • They are always “six months” from from major deadlines that never seem to arrive. Or, if they do arrive, another milestone is added on to the end of the project to compensate.
  • They must consume huge amounts of resources, sucking the lifeblood out of one or more established products that make significant amounts of money or have significant market share.
  • They must take over any group that does anything that relates to their absurdly broad goals, especially if that group is small, focused, has modest goals, and actually has a hope of shipping in a reasonable timeframe.
  • They must be prominently featured as demos in public settings such as company meetings, all-hands, conferences, etc. to the point where people groan “Oh, god, not another demo of this thing. When is it ever going to ship?”
  • They usually are prominently talked up publicly by high level executives for years before dying a quiet death.
  • They usually involve “componentizing” some monolithic application or system. This means that not only are you rewriting a huge amount of code, you’re also splitting it up across one or more teams that have to all seamlessly work together.
  • As a result of the previous point, they also usually involve absolutely massive integration problems as different teams try madly to get their components working with each other.
  • They usually involve rewriting the application or system on top of brand-new technology that has not been proven at a large scale yet. As such, they get to flush out all the scalability problems with the new technology.
  • They are usually led by one or more Captain Ahabs, madly pursuing the white whale with absolute conviction, while the deckhands stand around saying “Gee, that whale looks awfully big. I’m not sure we can really take him down.”
  • Finally, 90% of the time, they must fail and die a flaming death, taking down other products with it (or at least severely damaging them). If they do ship, they must have taken at least 4-5 years to ship and be at least 2 years overdue.

It’s kind of frightening how easy it is to come up with this list – it all kind of just poured out. Looking back over 19 years at Microsoft, I’m also kind of frightened at how many projects this describes. Including some projects that are ongoing at the moment…

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Another transition…

After spending a year and a half working on “M”, I’ve decided to make another change in what I’m doing and and move over to the SQL Server Programmability team. That’s the team responsible for things like the T-SQL language and runtime in SQL Server. Working on “M” was a lot of fun and the team was great, but after spending a good, long while down in the bowels of a GLR parser, I decided that that was enough and that it was time to do something else. Working on SQL Server programmability is, in some ways, a combination of all my previous jobs-a bit of data from Access, a bit of runtime from OLE Automation, and a bit of programming language from Visual Basic and “M”. It’s also an interesting challenge-a product that’s both well established and confronting a lot of new challenges. I think it’s going to be quite a bit of fun!

It does mean saying goodbye to “M”, and that was sad (although, really, they’re still in the same division and not that far away), but that’s the way it goes. I’ll be looking forward to their next CTP, which is where people will see a lot of the hard work that’s been going on and the overall direction that the language is headed. There’s a lot of cool stuff coming, and I think people will find it very interesting!

Changing jobs also means that I’m back to drinking from the firehose, learning the ins and outs of the guts of the SQL Server engine, as well as T-SQL. Interesting stuff. Any good T-SQL/SQL Server blogs anyone can recommend?

A Channel9 E2E2E video…

Charles just posted a new “Expert2Expert2Expert” talk on Channel9 on “Programming Data.” This was a talk, moderated by Erik Meijer, with me and Michael Rys about data and programming and “M” and SQL Server and more. It was an enjoyable conversation but Erik did observe afterwards that I’d managed to avoid saying too much about “M” specifically! There wasn’t any mysterious intent on that one-as I said in my previous blog entry, things have been continuing to move in the “M” world and there just isn’t a lot new that I can say at the moment. Soon, hopefully, soon.

Did Joel Spolksy nearly drive my coworker insane?


Dare had a pointer today to a programming.reddit story that talks about competing versions of a dustup between Joel and Greg Whitten back when Joel used to work for Excel. I could care less who’s right, but the interesting implication of the story is that Joel was the one who came up with the application interface for VBA. I’m not sure that’s entirely true-a lot people worked on VBA-but if it is, he might be responsible for nearly driving a former co-worker insane.

When I started at Microsoft, I worked on Access. Access used a version of BASIC called Embedded Basic (or EB) for its programmability story. EB may not have been perfect, but I always thought it was a really nice language engine-it was small, it was fast, and it worked really well with Access and its programming model. After Access 1.0 shipped, however, EB was discontinued in favor of VBA which was the new official programmability story for Microsoft. There were a few people left on EB whose job, as far as I could tell, were just to tell me “no” when I came to them and asked them to fix bugs. (My interactions with the EB team at this point inspired my program manager to tell me that one of my special skills seemed to be “being able to tell people to f**k off, but in such a nice way that there’s nothing they can say in return.” Suffice it to say, I didn’t have a great relationship with the EB folks.)

By the time we got to Access 95, we knew we had to move over to VBA. The head of the project stopped by and asked me if I was interested in maybe leading the effort to switch over to VBA. In what I can only describe as an extreme fit of sanity, I declined. Another coworker took on the job. Suffice it to say, it was nearly a complete disaster. VBA was designed to work well with Excel, which had a totally different storage, execution, and debugging model than Access. As a result, almost everything having to do with programmability had to be redesigned, often in some pretty hairy ways. From the outside, it seems like a miracle that it ever worked, much less worked well.

As you can imagine, this was pretty hard on my coworker, who was responsible for getting this working in Access. As I remember, the VBA team at the time (Joel was gone by that point, I think) was somewhat sympathetic but not overly helpful-after all, they worked really well with Excel and we had all these “weird” requirements. Anyway, I knew things weren’t going well when my coworker came into my office and told me, “I found this really stupid bug that I made, so I decided to rename all the local variables to say insulting things about me.” Then one day I came in to work and found my coworker wasn’t there. When I asked where he was, I was told that he’d been ordered to take several days off and fly to Vegas to unwind for a while. I believe they were worried he might totally go off the deep end.

In the end, though, we shipped, my coworker did not go insane, and everything ended up OK. But it’s interesting to think what might have happened.