It’s been a wonderful 9 year-long stretch at Microsoft. I’ve had the honor of working with incredibly smart people. I learnt a lot.
From Newcastle To Seattle
I was a researcher at the University of Newcastle, working for Paul Watson (@paulwatsonncl). I will never forget the day that I received an email from Don Box (@donbox) telling me that he was “building a new tribe” and asking me whether I was interested in joining it. I was in London, at a workshop. I remember checking with Jim Webber to make sure that it wasn’t a hoax email since he knew I was a Microsoft and Don fan :-)
I had to consider other job opportunities at the time, including a position at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. I asked various people for advice, including Jim Gray. As it was often the case, Jim’s message was short and to the point… “come to the mothership”. So I did.
I relocated to Seattle in September 2005. Back then I didn’t know how to build products, I wasn’t familiar with the corporate world, I was impatient, and perhaps felt entitled. I learnt a lot during the first year working closely to Don, especially how to build a fun team culture.
I went back to a research environment after Tony Hey‘s invitation and Jim Gray’s encouragement. I joined Tony in Microsoft Research, which is an amazing organization. The concentration of research talent is unparalleled. I think it’s by far the best computer science research organization in the industry.
We built new tools and systems to help researchers/e-scientists. I worked closely with the wonderful Lee Dirks and Alex Wade whom I consider my good friends. Unfortunately, Lee—an amazing person—died with his wife at a road accident while visiting Peru :-(
Back to product groups
Few years later, I returned to building products… Amongst my proud achievements, not all of which were released to the public:
- a cloud-based data-processing platform;
- an actor-based large-scale document store with reactive capabilities together with Erik Meijer (@headinthebox);
- speech and conversational understanding for Xbox One;
- the initial prototype work for Insight for Office;
- a distributed graph store and query engine;
- an industry-first distributed stream processing engine based on an evolution of Rx capable of hosting 100s of millions (and billions next year) standing queries, currently powering Cortana;
- and much more.
My time in product groups has had its ups and downs. Success stories and disappointments. Some personal conflicts and many friendships. Definitely some mistakes on my part. Low and high points. Every single moment a learning opportunity. I now know to be humble, to provide and accept advice, to lead and follow, to build stuff instead of just talk about ideas, to put the team first, to be patient, to be a good mentor, to value life-long learning, and so much more.
And then came the opportunity to build one of my dreams during my time in Microsoft Research… bring together systems that provide access to the world’s knowledge, are capable of understanding speech/language/conversations, can understand the user, can support processing of the world’s events in near real-time and at an incredible scale, plus all those other ingredients necessary to give life to a personal assistant.
I very fondly remember the days I built the prototype, codenamed “Wicked”, as a demonstration of how a personal assistant could be built from the composition of existing Bing services. I wasn’t the only one with the idea and definitely not the first one to demonstrate it. However, the stars just happened to align around that time. The Windows Phone team, under the leadership of Marcus Ash (@marcusash), also wanted to build a personal assistant. They reached out to Bing. The executives assigned the task of building the cloud services to support the personal assistant efforts to Mike Calcagno (@MikeCalcagno). I was paired with Mike, who became my manager, to come up with the architecture and get the project started from the Bing side. Cortana was born as a user-centric, cloud-driven personal assistant experience for the Windows Phone.
Side note. Mike is a top-class leader. Over the last 2 1/2 years I learnt a lot next to him, especially on how to lead teams, how to provide context and enable others, and have fun along the way. I am thankful for the opportunity to have worked for/with him. He has gained my loyalty and a position in my short list of people who have shaped my career development: Antonis Vafeiadis, Paul Watson, Tony Hey, Jim Gray, Don Box, and now Mike.
Many teams of incredible managers, designers, and engineers made the Cortana project a success. I became good friends with leaders such Mike Calcagno, Marcus Ash, Jon Hamaker, Amit Dekate, Eran Yariv, Uri Barash, Murari Sridharan, Robert Howard, and many others (too many to mention here). Hundreds of people across many organizations, distributed around the world, had to be coordinated. We all worked hard and delivered. The One Microsoft vision in action!
The Cortana project has a special place in my heart. It’s always been my dream to build a personal assistant. I believe that our futures will include an omni-present, ambient, personal assistant with personality to act as the bridge to the world of information and services in the cloud.
Cortana is currently in her infancy. The journey has only just become. I leave Microsoft being confident that the amazing Bing and Windows teams will continue to innovate in order to make Cortana even better. I am extremely proud of the Cortana work and the people involved. Many more great things are coming. I consider myself extremely lucky to have participated in Cortana’s first and second iterations. Next year’s Cortana is looking awesome already and I am very proud to have contributed to the project.
It’s time for me to move on to my next adventure. There is so much more to learn out there, new challenges to be attacked, new people to meet.
I leave Microsoft being very grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to work closely with such amazing group of people, having learnt a lot, and believing in the company’s future as envisioned by Satya Nadella. I wish everyone at Microsoft all the best. It’s the wonderful people that make Microsoft such a great company.
Thank you Microsoft for everything! One never knows… our paths might cross again. For now, I am off to the next adventure… and that’s a different post.