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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

10 minutes in a room with microsoft

As the title suggests, I spent 10 minutes in a room with reps from Microsoft. It counts as probably the 2nd least productive time span in my life - second only to the hour I spent at lunch while the Microsoft reps told us why they were visiting.

So, you'd think this would be educational, but in reality, it was rather insulting.

Wisdom presented by Microsoft during the first hour included the fact that Silverlight is cross platform, Microsoft is a major supporter of interoperability and that bioinformaticians need a better platform to replace bio{java|perl|python|etc} in .net.

My brain was actively leaking out of my ear.

My supervisor told me to be nice and courteous - and I was, but sometimes it can be hard.

The 30 minute meeting was supposed to be an opportunity for Microsoft to learn what my code does, and to help them plan out their future bioinformatics tool kit. Instead, they showed up with 8 minutes remaining in the half hour, during which myself and another grad student were expected to explain our theses, and still allow for 4 minutes of questions. (Have you ever tried to explain two thesis projects in 4 minutes?)

The Microsoft reps were all kind and listened to our spiel, and then engaged in a round-table question and discussion. What I learned during the process was interesting:
  • Microsoft people aren't even allowed to look at GPL software - legally, they're forbidden.
  • Microsoft developers also have no qualms about telling other developers "we'll just read your paper and re-implement the whole thing."
And finally,
  • Microsoft reps just don't get biology development: the questions they asked all skirted around the idea that they already knew what was best for developers doing bioinformatics work.
Either they know something I don't know, or they assumed they did. I can live with that part, tho - They probably know lots of things I don't know. Particularly, I'm sure they know lots about doing coding for biology applications that require no new code development work.

So, in conclusion, all I have to say is that I'm very glad I only published a bioinformatics note instead of a full description of my algorithms (They're available for EVERYONE - except Microsoft - to read in the source code anyhow) and that I produce my work under the GPL. While I never expected to have to defend my code from Microsoft, today's meeting really made me feel good about the path I've charted for developing code towards my PhD.

Microsoft, if you're listening, any one of us here at the GSC could tell you why the biology application development you're doing is ridiculous. It's not that I think you should stop working on it - but you should really get to know the users (not customers) and developers out there doing the real work. And yes, the ones that are doing the innovative and ground breaking code are are mainly working with the GPL. You can't keep your head in the sand forever.

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Blogger dawe said...

Are MS people really forbidden to look at GPL sw?
BTW, here in Italy there's a MS-founded center for systems and computational biology... would you apply for a job there? :-)

August 5, 2009 12:33:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Anthony Fejes said...

They said they are not allowed to look at GPL code on the basis of their lawyer's advice.

It makes sense though, as being aware of what's going on in your field means you can't patent things that are obvious - and Microsoft are becoming quite good at that, in my humble opinion. (It also explains why they have no clue as to what's going on in bioinformatics.)

And no, I couldn't take a job at MS - I love Linux far too much. I think, more importantly, would they even want me there? I'd be trying to convert all their scientists away from the Windows platform.... (-;

August 5, 2009 8:56:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know who you talked to but Simon Mercer seems pretty sound he's on the Microsoft Research side though.

But yea, in general I don't think they like to look at GPL code at all and would rather reimplement. Though they have been forced to release some code under GPL lately:

August 5, 2009 12:35:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Anthony Fejes said...

My comment wasn't directed at any one person at Microsoft - it was at the collective discussion that ensued. I'm sure many people there are bright and committed to their jobs.

However, (IMHO) they did a very poor job of engaging the researchers here - and I don't think (as a group) that they were willing to listen or learn from us.

Anyhow, I certainly don't speak for UBC or the GSC, or anyone else - this is just my impression of my own time spent with Microsoft.

With respect to your other point that they've recently been forced to release code, Microsoft spun that as a statement that they were happy to work with the GPL, and that it demonstrates their commitment to open source.

Microsoft is the master of spin.

August 5, 2009 12:58:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Clive G. Brown said...

Amusing but not surprising. I think this is not a Microsoft thing but a big company thing. The hubris of prio success in a way - and the subsequently inability to take on the notion that things can be done differently and still also be successful.

August 12, 2009 3:57:00 AM PDT  

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