SQLServerCentral Article

SQL Server Spotlight on Donald Farmer


Welcome to the Spotlight Behind SQL Server, a new series from SQLServerCentral.com. As we've grown and spent more time covering SQL Server, we've slowly gained a number of contacts inside Microsoft, including those that develop the product. And we decided to try and interview the SQL Server people inside Microsoft. There are lots of people working on SQL Server 2005 and our goal to is to eventually get to them all.

We know that there are lots of technical things we could ask, and lots of easy marketing questions we could get from them, but you probably read most of those questions elsewhere. So we thought we'd make them think a bit more and get some interviews that showcased the people behind SQL Server. To that end, these interviews will be a little bit different and give you a look at the amazing team that builds SQL Server.

We caught up with Donald Farmer, SSIS guru extraordinaire for a few minutes.

SSC : What's your official title and responsibility at Microsoft?

Donald Farmer : Group Program Manager, SQL Server Business Intelligence. My responsibility is to lead the program management team for SQL Server Integration Services. “Program management” is a satisfyingly vague job description: it really comes down to ensuring that all things happen, that need to happen, to make the product a success. That includes plotting out the strategy, identifying and specifying the features, and generally herding cats until the program makes it to release. And then, in addition to working with customers, it starts all over again!

SSC : Give us a little background on yourself, how did you get into computers?

Donald Farmer : My father was a telecom engineer: forever tinkering with electronics at home, and at work he was involved in the development of digital exchanges. As soon as home computers were available, we had one. From then on, computers were an essential part of my living machinery.

SSC : Did you see yourself as a programmer/developer when you were growing up?

Donald Farmer : Not at all. Computers for me were always a means to an end, not an end in themselves. In fact, I am not very interested in computers or the mechanics of computing – right now I could not tell you the processor, speed, RAM, or disk capacity of the machine I am writing this on! I can see it is a Toshiba from where I am sitting, so I know that. However, I am enthralled by what can be done with computing power, whether as a programmer or as a user of software. When I was a kid, I used to be fascinated by the hydraulic jack in the garage – look, I can lift a car with one hand! For me computers and software are like that jack – they enable one to leverage intellectual power beyond what is ordinarily possible. Look, I can detect the patterns in 100 million data points and make sense of them! That’s spellbinding. It releases our creativity to work with more information than we have ever been able to in the past. At Microsoft, uniquely, we can release the intellectual power of millions of users. So did I see myself as a programmer? No. But, I was always gripped by the sheer drama of harnessing knowledge and information, so in that sense I am doing pretty much what I always longed to do.

SSC : What was your first computer?

Donald Farmer : The first computer I had for myself was a Sinclair ZX81, but we had a lot of other stuff lying around including a Sinclair MK-14 and a ZX80 that I tried out. The ZX81 was a revelation. For one thing, I discovered that your own code can startle you, and that even simple routines can have emergent consequences that are as delightful as they are unexpected. My example was trivial, but charming. I wrote a little fishing game, the object of which was to guess where a fish was hiding in a pond by entering some coordinates in 3 axes. The computer responded with clues. I spent hours coding and debugging it and even prepared a little graphical fish that flopped on the shore if you guessed right. The first time I tried to play the game I entered the coordinates and the ZX81 responded with “That was too deep and too far out!” Too deep and too far out for sure – it was the seventies after all. I, never mind the fish, was hooked.

SSC : Where did you attend college?

Donald Farmer : “Attend” may be too strong a term – it implies a degree of commitment to which I never quite aspired. I did enroll at the University of Glasgow, and very happily studied Gaelic, History and Philosophy. Other studies I was less keen on. The lack of a degree has never really been an issue, however, as I have never had an uninteresting job since I left. All the time I used computers – whether to build databases of medieval artifacts or for desktop publishing or to develop rainfall models for hydroelectric dams.

SSC : How do you like living in Redmond?

Donald Farmer : I don’t – I live in Woodinville! We’re hugely lucky to live about 25 minutes from campus, but still have a secluded house with a wild landscape.

SSC : What do you miss most about Scotland?

Donald Farmer : The closeness of history and my own culture. That includes the Isle of Lewis, where I can be totally immersed in my family’s life for generations and their groundedness in the landscape. Or in Edinburgh, the most beautiful city on earth, which I miss very much.

SSC : So, beer or scotch?

Donald Farmer : Scotch always. A well-aged Islay malt is hard to beat, but I do love Isle of Jura, because we could see the whitewashed distillery glittering in the sun across the Sound of Jura from our home in Scotland. Springbank is also wonderful, and Mortlach well worth the effort of finding, although both are little known in the USA.

SSC : Who's the most fun to work with at Microsoft?

Donald Farmer : If you have ever been to one of the chalk talks that Bill Baker’s team give, you will realize that we all have a blast. There are a ton of great people here and that entire team is fun to work with. Bill’s weekly staff meeting is frequently hilarious, but the thinking that goes on there is equal to the hilarity. They are among the smartest people you will ever meet, but they can also reduce a conference audience to tears of laughter.

SSC : We've all heard stories of some characters at Microsoft. Any interesting ones that stunned you or surprised you when you first went to work in Redmond?

Donald Farmer : Euan Garden really stunned me when I first arrived at Microsoft! We used to work together in Scotland in a company where even developers had to wear suits and ties to work. First day in Redmond, there was Euan tootling round the office in casual shorts, t-shirt and sandals. Not a sight I had planned on seeing!

SSC : Which event was the most fun for you at which you attended or spoke?

Donald Farmer : That’s difficult – most of them are fun in their own way. My first for Microsoft stands out – at a technical preview of Yukon in 2002. Honestly, I had been struggling in my first year at Microsoft, but I had the chance to do this presentation with Ashvini Sharma. I was a little nervous; it was a large audience, the first big public showing of the new product (still called DTS back then), it was the last presentation of the day, and I was generally unsettled anyway. Once we got on stage, poor Ash must have thought I had a dual personality. Rather than the rather quiet program manager he was used to working with, I was up there telling jokes, making fun of him during his demos, and in general having a good time – and people really enjoyed it. I came back from that presentation knowing that I had turned a corner in my career, and it has been enormous fun ever since. It’s a huge privilege to present SQL Server BI to an audience. SQL Server users are amongst the smartest, friendliest, and most appreciative technical crowd out there.

SSC : SSIS is a radical departure from the DTS model. Is this an evolution or a completely new beast?

Donald Farmer : The Ohio board of education may disagree, but this is evolutionary and a completely new beast! It has not one line of code in common with DTS, so for sure it is new, and its capabilities are far in advance of what DTS had to offer. However, we have worked hard to keep many good things about DTS – the ease of use, especially in a DBA-friendly wizard, a good programming model, and excellent integration with other SQL Server tools.

SSC : In developing SSIS, did you do a lot of visits to client installations or work with any users of DTS or was this mostly developed internally?

Donald Farmer : We did a lot of work with clients. One of the great things about SQL Server BI is that people come to us. We have a highly developed, active and vocal community and we rarely have to seek out feedback – we’re more often overwhelmed with it. However, we have also done a lot of customer visits, and we gather very specific requirements and pain points from those visits. And of course that continues throughout the development cycle.

SSC : Who's more fun, the relational team or the BI team?

Donald Farmer : Sorry, you’ll need to repeat the question. I dozed off at the word “relational.” (Yes, I am a BI-bigot, but I’m too old to change.)

SSC : What's your current favorite tech gadget?

Donald Farmer : My noise-canceling headphones. I travel a lot and they really help on the plane – especially the little turbo-props or seaplanes out of Seattle. I tried them at home, but they don’t work there – I can still hear my wife asking me to fix the fan in the shower-room!

SSC : What does Donald like to do when he's not working on SQL Server?

Donald Farmer : I cook. And I work in my garden – or our patch of wilderness to be more exact. We have about 1.5 acres and we’re keeping it as a wild landscape, but even that requires a lot of work. We have paths and resting places and sculptures all through it. In the evenings, I like nothing more than to sit out there with a large cool glass of good Beaujolais and a favorite book.

SSC : What's your culinary specialty?

Donald Farmer : Fideo – a kind of paella made with short noodles instead of rice. Or pamboli, which is a sort of Mallorcan open sandwich of bread and olive oil. See http://www.pamboli.com to see why!


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