Wow! It’s been over two years since I’ve blogged or had much of a public presence and I am VERY glad to return. There is SO much to tell all of you.
First of all, I returned to Microsoft on March 5th after being gone for two years (to the day… my last day was March 4th, 2005 and my first day back was March 5th, 2007… it was an accident but it makes it easier to calculate my seniority!). I am working in the Developer Division and have not quite settled on which technology project will be my new home but I am determined that I will be taking an active role in driving forward new products. While you will see some of me in public (and on my blog), I will concentrate on building products. Being back at Microsoft feels like being at home! While I’ve had a marvelous two years (more on that below), I really missed Microsoft and I really missed interacting with customers and our Microsoft folks working in the field. Now, I can see my old friends much more often! I have SO much to tell you about…
First of all, my personal life has been transformed. Right as I was leaving Microsoft (and I mean our second date was the evening after my last day at MSFT in March of 2005), I started dating a wonderful lady named Lisa. She’s a whole three years younger than I am and is a bundle of joy. Lisa was a paramedic and firefighter in Ohio/West Virginia for 12 years (the firefighters told her women couldn’t do that job so she became the first female firefighter in her department). Later, she put herself through school to become a registered nurse working in ER trauma. After living in Florida for eight years, Lisa decided she was bored and started working as a traveling nurse going from city to city working 3 to 6 month contracts. When I met her, she had just arrived in Seattle (with her two cats Jasmine and Samantha) to work the night shift at Harborview, the only level-one trauma center for five states. Lisa moved into the same apartment building in Seattle that I had moved to and we met hanging out in the lobby. After meeting in February, we were inseparable by March, engaged in July, and married in November of 2005. It has been a joyous time for both of us. We bought a condo in downtown Seattle and LOVE the downtown living. We walk EVERYWHERE and, for two years, I walked to work at Amazon. It was truly a transformation for a fellow brought up in the suburbs…
What about Amazon? I worked there almost two years and found it fascinating to see the amazing technology and super smart people creating that scalable and reliable web site. Amazon’s use of service oriented architecture is one of the world’s most advanced (if not THE most advanced). Watching the application of process, discipline, and organization to a rapidly evolving disconnected and yet connected business problem gave me a much deeper understanding of the challenges faced by all enterprises. It was my privilege to work with people across the entire development arm of the company and to focus in on the area of the product catalog, search, and buyability (i.e. who is allowed to buy a product from which merchant and at what price). This is service oriented architecture at its best. It was a great experience but I truly missed the opportunity to communicate more broadly through the industry and, frankly, decided that I missed Microsoft and its customers!
Most of you would not recognize me (I have walked past many former colleagues and even my brother and his family without being recognized!). After working hard to lose 120 pounds, I am literally 2/3rds of my peak weight. On top of that, I shaved off my beard for my going away from Microsoft in March 2005. The final change is that Lisa convinced me that everyone in the world (except me) knew I was bald and the removal of those last few diehard hairs on the top of my heard would be an act of mercy (think Dr. Phil’s hairdo…). The net effect is that there’s pretty much nothing left visually of the old me except the twinkle in my eye and the shitty grin on my face. ;-)
I’ve grown to love being a pedestrian and a bus rider! It is normal for me to go two to three weeks without driving (and, indeed, I am typing this on the 545 metro bus home to downtown Seattle from Redmond). This is part of how I’ve managed to keep fit. That combined with meeting the personal trainer 3 days a week for an hour of weights and (mostly) doing 30 minutes of cardio a day and I seem to be able to eat food (and alcohol, too). Living in downtown means it is natural to walk and the Redmond campus is a nice place to walk. Having your commute consist of 30 minutes of email on the bus and 20 minutes of walking is pretty nice!
I did manage to publish one paper during my tenure at Amazon. It is called “Life Beyond Distributed Transactions: an Apostate’s Opinion”. In this paper, I argue that real scalable systems simply do not attempt to do cross-system transactions. If you presume that distributed transactions are too fragile for large deployments, how DO you think about really scalable applications? I presented this at CIDR (Conference on Innovative Database Research) in January 2007. While I was there, I was privileged to spend a lot of time with one of my dearest friends and my mentor of 25 years, Jim Gray. We stayed up past midnight for two of the evenings, talking into the wee hours. Jim had been encouraging me for years to spend more time writing and communicating publicly and, frequently, I would take the easy way out and not do the hard work it takes to make this happen. After being out of the public eye (and not at any events) for over a year, being at CIDR had a deep impact on me. By the end of January, I had decided to investigate returning to Microsoft because I wanted to be able to participate more in the industry as my friend had encouraged me to do for so many years. I sent an email off to one of the executives at MSFT on Friday, January 26th to begin the discussion. It was two days later that Jim went missing at sea and is still missing.
It would be hard to describe the profound effect that Jim has had on my life (and on many others). I had started reading Jim’s papers in 1980 and, of course, my thinking was deeply impacted by his writing. In 1982, I was working at a small company (which was having challenges) when a departed colleague working at Tandem Computers was late to a going away party “because he was at a meeting with Jim Gray”. I looked around the room and decided to move to Tandem. I started 3 weeks later. During my almost 9 years at Tandem, I watched Jim influence with kindness and insight, always encouraging and uplifting. He ran a weekly talk series and put me on stage many times (sometimes with only a few hours notice!) and taught me the value of communicating. His patient and consistent mentoring was, by far, the largest force influencing my career. Jim tapped me in (as a young kid in my 20s) to conferences with some of the most influential people in the database and transaction processing industry. Whenever Jim would present, everyone (including me as his most avid fan) listened with rapt attention to his way of explaining the most complex problems in the simplest ways. Jim would always know who was doing what and was constantly connecting people together for their common good. I literally have never met anyone that holds Jim in anything but the highest esteem. Every job I’ve ever taken since 1982 was directly traceable to Jim’s influence on my life. My return to Microsoft was prompted by Jim’s advice before he went missing.
While I write this with great love, I don’t want to be maudlin’ and sad. All these lessons I carry with me every day and try to work in that spirit. While we still don’t have answers to where Jim is after his trip out to sea more than three months ago, I know he has changed many lives for the better and many people carry Jim’s impact with us every day. I miss my friend.
It is great to be back at Microsoft and, now I feel like I should be blogging regularly and getting that crufty old website of mine (www.pathelland.com) dusted off and filled with the work I have so far. I look forward to seeing more of all of you!