Secrets of the Windows Gurus
Technology experts tell Redmond what makes them tick.
In his latest book, Blink
, Malcolm Gladwell tries to discover how great
thinkers and decision makers get to be so great. There is no one answer, he
concludes. Great decisions can be made in the blink of an eye, but only after
years and sometimes decades of building expertise.
Redmond magazine set out on a similar journey, to find out how the visionaries
that drive today's third-party innovations came to be so visionary. We interviewed
a dozen serial entrepreneurs, CTOs and company founders to find out where their
ideas come from, and how they turn them into the products that you all know
One thing we learned is there is no Ph.D. in technical vision. In fact, nearly
all gurus interviewed believe that computer science courses are useful, but
not a magic bullet.
"The university training, for me, wasn't the classes. It was the process
of training your mind to think critically and how you build a frame of reference;
how you go about decision making and problem solving. You learn to look for
the interrelationships," says Dwain Kinghorn, chief strategy and technology
officer for Altiris (recently acquired by Symantec Corp.).
One thing computer courses can do is inspire. "One business computer course
in college was enough to get me hooked. We had only a single programming assignment,
yet it made me immediately add a computer science major. I enrolled in every
computer class I could and eventually set a software development and consulting
company that set the path for my career," says Mitchell Ashley, CTO and
vice president of customer experience for StillSecure.
Shavlik Technologies LLC founder Mark Shavlik had a similar experience. "In
order to pass my first computer course I had to develop my first computer program
and I was stuck, really stuck. A friend helped me get past that initial roadblock
and I never looked back-I had 'cracked the code,' so to speak. I got pretty
excited, I signed up for as many computer classes as I could. Soon I was staying
up all night writing code. I cut classes and even stopped going to parties --
just so I could write more and more code," Shavlik says.
Sometimes gifted students are just plain bored by computer classes. "I've
touched a few formal classes and always found myself wanting much more than
was offered. Given documentation and books, I could always outpace the class,"
says Greg Kras, VP of product management for Sunbelt Software.
In many cases, non-computer courses are more useful to a technology career.
"The only formal course that really helped me in life was a second year
cognitive psychology course. It taught me how to learn effectively. [It's] all
about memory and attention," says David Waugh, vice president, SharePoint
Solutions, Quest Software Inc.
Tom Kemp, CEO of Centrify Corp., had a similar experience. "Besides getting
a college degree in computer science, I also got a degree in history. What inspires
me most about technology is more the societal impact of it and how you can create
a real company out of an idea and its ability to scale that you don't get in
other industries," Kemp explains.
At least one guru is heartily grateful for his formal training. "I have
a bachelor's in information engineering. That training helped me move beyond
being just a practitioner to being a professional software developer. It also
taught me the discipline of getting projects closed-taking them from idea to
results," says Marco Peretti, CTO of BeyondTrust Corp.
the Windows Gurus
[Click on image for larger view.]
Vice President, SharePoint Solutions, Quest Software Inc.
VP of Product Management, Sunbelt Software.
CTO and VP of Customer Experience, StillSecure.
CTO, BeyondTrust Corp.
President and CEO, Centrify Corp.
Chief Strategy and Technology Officer, Altiris.
Founder, Shavlik Technologies.
CTO and Founder, ScriptLogic Corp.
Founder and CTO, Ecora Software Corp.
CTO, FullArmor Corp.
President and CEO, Veeam Software.
On-the-job training may be the best approach. "I was working at a startup
airline in the early '80s and I went into the technical department to see if
a buddy was ready to leave for the day. He said he couldn't go until they had
a technical issue resolved and that they had been working on it all day so that
I should go on without him. I asked what the issue was and after he explained
it, I suggested a solution and it worked," says Troy Werelius, CEO of Lucid8.
"Later on when the airline went toes up and I needed a new job, I remembered
this experience and thought that perhaps computers was the way to go. So I went
to work for a computer chain."
Where Do Gurus Think?
When most of us imagine gurus, we picture them cross-legged on the top of a
mountain deep in thought or meditation. Windows gurus are rarely on top of a
Instead our gurus find more mundane places to contemplate the universe. Quest's
David Waugh says simple, manual labor is the best way to open the mind, and
does his best thinking weeding his garden or splitting wood. The key is to actually
slow down the brain. "The tough thing for me is to stop thinking. Most
of the thinking is not productive. The real productive stuff usually comes after
a break," Waugh explains.
Solitude also helps. "When I'm alone in my car or late at night I explore
my ideas, jot down notes, write or experiment on my equipment at home,"
says StillSecure's Ashley.
Sometimes solitude can be found, even when surrounded by people. "My favorite
time to think is on the airplane. With no cell phone or Internet access, I have
the time and opportunity to sit and think without interruption," says Danny
Kim, CTO of FullArmor Corp.
Altiris' Kinghorn does his best thinking when his heart is racing. "My
best inspiration comes when I'm running. It lets my mind relax and unwind. Thoughts
come to me about how to say something to a person, how to address an issue with
a team, or an item I've forgotten about will come back around. Really, it's
the challenge of trying to keep yourself whole so your brain can actually come
up with some different ideas," says Kinghorn, who's completed 11 marathons.
Alex Bakman, founder of Ecora Software Corp., thinks while hiking or watching
hockey games. Bakman also relies on his wife for advice, as she has a "woman's
intuition and is level-headed."
Serial entrepreneur Ratmir Timashev has two favored techniques. "I believe
that I think when I sleep, because when I wake up I occasionally have some ideas,"
says Timashev. "[And] I like to just think when I'm alone drinking whiskey
in the evening at home. Whisky makes me relaxed and inspired." Timashev
was founder of Aelita Software, and recently launched Veeam Software.
The Birth of an Idea
Sometimes inspiration comes from being in the right place at the right time.
"My biggest inspiration came when I heard Bill Gates speak years ago about
software security patching as a side comment during a presentation he was giving.
This was well before anyone did patching as a product, and I thought -- hey,
let's fix this problem," says Mark Shavlik.
Looking at the current state of technology, and extrapolating is one way to
come up with good ideas. "One analyzes the trends. Analyzing the trends
can lead to evolutionary as well as revolutionary [disruptive] ideas. For example,
Skype didn't revolutionize anything in technology, but it revolutionized the
telecommunications industry," Timashev says.
Sometimes getting the whole development team away makes the light bulbs go
off. "The best inspiration always comes from the least likely places. When
we hold our research meetings today, they're always off-site and no pagers,
cell phones nor laptops are allowed [except to take notes]," says ScriptLogic
Corp. founder and CTO Brian Styles.
There are more offbeat approaches. "The best ideas come from left field.
When I'm working really hard on a technical or business problem, one of the
things I ask myself or the team is, 'what if we did the exact opposite of the
path we are on?' At a minimum that can break the log jam and often leads to
a new creative solution," Ashley argues.
The past can also be a guide. "I like to read about politics and history,
and learn about how people communicate their message and ideas and have those
messages and ideas be accepted. Then if it makes sense, I think about whether
these approaches can be applied to technology," Kemp says.
Bakman has a more direct approach, and comes up with ideas "by thinking
about the next big pain in the ass." Fortunately, customers help "by
telling me about their biggest pain in the ass."
The Customer Is Always Right
There actually is an easy way to come up with winning ideas -- just ask IT pros
themselves. "The best ideas come from customers -- and not necessarily
how they present them to you. You have to look deeper into their situation.
What problems aren't being solved that may be off topic in the current conversation?
Customers are a vetting and centering factor too. Are they in a place where
they could use your idea? Can you shortcut the current problems they have by
taking a different tack? Do others in the market have a similar need or problem?"
says StillSecure's Ashley.
Sunbelt has a similar tack. "Customer feedback is a large source of good
ideas, just listening to admins [talk] about problems they're having and projects
they're planning toward," explains Greg Kras.
Gurus on the Future
Any time you interview 12 technology gurus, you have to spend at least some
time asking them about the future. Interestingly, several common themes, such
as collaboration and virtualization, emerged. When asked about what trends will
impact the future, Quest's Waugh pointed to "mass collaboration and the
ability to partition complex tasks into pieces, and farm them out to anywhere
on the planet and reassemble them."
But virtualization is the topic that captures nearly all our gurus' imaginations.
In fact, Timashev is betting his new company on it. "Virtualization will
help to create the world that is on-demand, mobile and more secure. That's why
my current company, Veeam Software, is in this area. I think some really exciting
things will happen in this space in the next few years, so I want to be a part
of it," Timashev says.
"Virtualization. It changes everything. In today's world every piece of
software has [the] potential for being distributed on the network, on a device,
in a hardware server or appliance, or on a household appliance. Virtualization
takes that even further by making distribution much easier. Functionality doesn't
need be tied to one device; it could pop up all over the network. It changes
the way software functionality is delivered," Ashley says.
For Danny Kim, virtualization and Software as a Service are an industry changing
one-two punch. "Both technologies are potentially disruptive. Either one
can fundamentally change the way we manage IT and business, while solving some
critical pain points in IT today such as cost, scalability and time to market,"
And more horsepower also has our gurus salivating. "I'm most interested
in the adoption of 64-bit equipment and the fact that people will have more
and more RAM available for applications. Between multiple core CPUs and the
extremely high memory limits I'm sure that developers will start to take advantage
of this additional horsepower, both in the server and desktop market,"
Meet the New PC
Where virtualization can fundamentally change the nature of software, Moore's
Law and miniaturization will revolutionize computing devices themselves. Kinghorn,
for instance, loves to think about exploiting the ever-growing power of computer
"The density of computing is pretty amazing. [Look at] how many magnitudes
we've had in computing power over the last eight years. If we continue on that
exponential curve, we're not that far away from being able to consider whole
new ways you'd interact with computing besides a screen and a mouse," Altiris'
"Even the form factors will change. If you look at something like a BlackBerry
or an iPod, it's interesting to consider how much cultural change has happened
in five to six years with those devices. If you extrapolate out another 10 to
15 years, it's mind boggling the ways we'll be able to interact with technology.
So many software companies are built around the traditional stack of a computer
screen and a keyboard and sitting at a desk. But the higher bandwidth and the
new form factors currently emerging will change the way we develop software."
Shavlik fully agrees: "People will no longer care about the desktop, they'll
just care about the applications and data. This is of course what the desktop
is today, it's just a way to find applications and data, so once the Internet
takes over that role the desktop will lose importance."
All this could prompt a move as revolutionary as the switch from huge stereos
to tiny iPods. "I would like to have a computer the size of a USB stick
that I carry in my pocket everywhere. When I turn it on, the holographic monitor
and keyboard with mouse appear as real. When I switch it off, they disappear
and I put it back in my pocket. This stick is also my cell phone, credit card,
key -- everything I need in one small package," Timashev says.
You, Too, Can Be a Guru!
Technology gurus come in all shapes and sizes, from all different backgrounds.
Some are naturally gifted, others work their butts off to get that smart. The
lesson here is that almost anyone, with the right education, avocation and inspiration,
can become a guru. "A person's limitations on what they can achieve in
life are not the limitations of abilities and skills, but the mental barriers
that exist in that person's head about what they can be. The more barriers we
can break in our heads, the more we can achieve," Timashev says.
And perhaps most important, gurus put in the time it takes to succeed. Here,
for instance, is Troy Werelius's typical day. "Up at 5 a.m., in the gym
by 5:30, at the office usually between 7:00 and 8:00, work until 6:30 p.m.,
go home for some family time, at 10 p.m. log on to answer any important e-mails
and work to whenever ..."
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