A Rainy Trip to Redmond
We started our day rather early with our departure time being at 7:30am. From there we walked a fair distance in the rain to a bus stop that would end up taking us to Redmond, WA where Microsoft('s) Office is. Our bus was rather packed nearly the whole ride there and since the trip took the better part of an hour, I had ample time to think about public transportation. During this time, I realized that I did not enjoy being shoulder to shoulder with strangers on a tiny seat when stretching out my legs would be blocking the entire aisle. This, along with being largely separated from anybody in our group that knew when we were supposed to get off, really soured my perspective of public transit. I Thought that I could not possibly do this every day, twice a day for my career since I couldn't even stand taking the school bus in the morning. Skipping ahead to our travel back, I realized that my previous opinion was a bit of an overreaction. The more time I spend in Seattle, the less I really mind "living" in a large city. There are still things that I would prefer not to worry about, but Seattle has definitely grown on me. Perhaps its because I feel more comfortable on this trip. Perhaps Seattle is just a cool place.
Back to this morning: as it turns out, none of us really knew exactly when we were to get off the bus and when it came time, it seemed like everyone else on the bus got off except for us. After a beat or two, Professor Miller went up to the bus driver and inquired about where we were and how to get to where we wanted to go. We were on a bit of a time crunch so it seemed that our best option was to get off at the next stop and walk to where we needed to go. Little did we know, that when we got off the bus, we were right near Microsoft's campus by building 88. Unfortunately, we needed to be at the Microsoft Conference Center near building 1.. So, we began our 25 minute trek through Microsoft's campus. To say I was not prepared for this amount of rain would be an understatement and I know my mom will be reading this saying, "I told you so!" I put too much faith in my Luther College Pep Band jacket which appears to be water proof, but sadly is not. The worst part is that I had already taken it out in a torrential downpour back in Decorah already and gotten soaked. But, I thought that this had to do with the sheer volume and velocity of the rain so I figured I'd chance it in Seattle. By the time we got to the conference center, I was soaked through three layers of clothing in some places! Some of the other students faired better with their umbrellas and actual raincoats, but there were others still like so I didn't feel too out of place.
The Envisioning Center
Once inside the conference center, we met our host, Cherry, and our guide who would be taking us through the Envisioning Center--an exhibit that is usually only shown to enterprise clients. The exhibit was filled with various technologies that were in Microsoft's vision of the future. Such things ranged from a smart meeting room that dynamically changed camera angles on Skype calls to a smart home that fully integrated Cortana into nearly every part of the home. I'm talking chalkboard screens that can update with the family's pictures and locations, picture frames that double as a image and camera for video calls, wide-angle projectors illuminating the living room, smart tabletops that can detect what is on them and project images to aid in recipes, and gluing it all together was a seemless integration with Cortana. For some, the idea that these AI assistants have the ability to manipulate every part of our lives is a nightmare, but for others, it is a world of wonder and amazement. But fear not, the Envisioning Center is similar to a concept car--the items in it represent an idea or vision of the future but most of the items inside are not even prototypes and are not even guarenteed to make it to production. But man, was it slick. Also, the chairs of future are amazing and we all want one.
After our visit at the Envisioning Center, we walked across the street to Building 1, which was a part of the original campus at Microsoft. There we were taken to a conference room where we would meet some of the other employees of Microsoft. First up was Mads Torgensen, program manager for the C# programming language. It was rather interesting hearing about his passion for language design and how C# differed from similar languages like C++ and Java. Additionally, he showed us some of the new changes to that language that were aimed reducing the issue with null and explained the difficulties of updating a language with as many users and legacy code as C# has. Essentially, the difficulty lies with the fact that if they made it so that you had to be more explicit with the language, then there would be a bunch of already existing programs that would crash which would likely upset the programmers. But, in order for C# to address some of the issues it has, these updates need to take place. This is where the challenge lies. I am reminded of a humorous line that Bryan Jones once said whilst we were working on Runestone: What one person sees as a bug, another sees as a feature.
Some advice that Mads offered to us was to keep an eye on machine learning as it might be changing the way we program in the future. His idea was that there might come a day when machine learning could come to understand the general idea of what we are going for with a given program and would give suggestions or even auto complete a section of the code. It is an interesting concept that lends itself to some interesting dilemmas with regards to how much influence machine learning would be able to manipulate our thinking. It could also take all of the creativity and art away from coding if the machines all converge on a single way of programming. Then from there, we run the risk of stagnating ourselves in terms of programming techniques since the one's that everybody is using are the ones reinforced by the machine learning algorithm. Some really interesting ideas on a really nerdy topic. I love it!
Mads also talked about the importance of diversity in the workplace--particularly at a large company such as Microsoft. He explained that a diverse staff brings in diverse perspectives which in turn will be able to service a diverse customer base. Additionally, on a lighter note, he also talked about the so-called "turf wars" of the various Microsoft products that took place a number of years ago. According to the story, each product department would be very protective about who within the company could interact with their customers. This persisted for many years until changes in the CEO shifted the culture at Microsoft. Today, he mentioned, that this way of thinking is largely obsolete.
Lunch and AI
After Mads, we dismissed for lunch at the Microsoft cafeteria. The process was incredibly streamlined with terminals at each of the many different food stations where people would just walk up to them, place their order, pay and move on. We all got our meals to go and mosied on back to Building 1 for our next meeting with Xuedong Huang a Technical Fellow who is leading Microsoft's AI and Research department in the area of speach and language. It was also quite clear that Xuedong was also very passionate about his work and even gave us a demo of the Microsoft Translator feature in Microsoft PowerPoint. Essentially, PowerPoint itself has built-in functionality to transcribe and even translate live speech onto either the screen, or a helper app that can be downloaded onto any mobile device. He encouraged each of us to download the app and join the conference room that he was presenting in where he was actively speaking Chinese whilst displaying Chinese subtitles on the screen. Once in the room, our phones began reading out a live transcription of what he was saying in whatever language we chose! We even had the ability to type out a question in a language and it would be sent to the presenter and translated into his language. It was a really cool experience to be in a live demo of that sort. He told us that part of the inspiration for the software was for international students such as himself who are not only adjusting to college life, but also a new culture with a new language and most likely a different dialect than what they would be used to. Professor Miller seemed particularly impressed and eager to integrate it into his classroom. The mobile app itself can be used as a standalone translator that is very quick and easy to use. If you have any interest I highly recommend searching for it on your respective app store.
The last part of our visit with Microsoft was with our host, Cherry, who works in the marketing department. So far on our trip we have heard from recruiters, software developers, project managers, but not marketing, so this was a new experience for all of us. What I found particularly interesting was learning about the cultural differences of various countries and how those differences changed their perception of Microsoft products. For example, since Microsoft switched from selling a liscence of their Office line of products such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to the new subscription based model of Office 365, the people of Japan have given a bit of pushback. Culturally, Japan was adverse to being asked to pay a subscription for a service that they previously had to only pay once before. Additionally, the fact that the subscription did not allow an installation to be stored perminantly on a device but rather accessed through multiple devices through the cloud had caused some frustration in the Japanese market. This brought to mind a perspective about software development that I had not thought of before which was that changes in how a product is engineered can have a real impact on the marketing team and how they are able to market the product. The core functionality might be the same, but if the way the user can access the product changes, then there can be some real consequences to that change. Also, as somebody with very little business knowledge, I found it particularly interesting to hear about the different ways Microsoft trys to convince potential customers to purchase their products.
Our last meeting for the day was with a couple of Luther alumni, Jake Nowostka and Kevin Williams who are software engineers in various departments and Daniel Rediske who is a security engineer at Microsoft. Kevin and Jake were not too far removed from Luther so, like the guys from Amazon, it was cool to hear what they had to say about how prepared they felt coming out of college and what they wish they had learned more about whilst still in school. It seemed that Luther prepared them fairly well and that the only things they really felt that they would've tried to learn more about were classes that they just were not able to fit into their schedules rather than oversights on the department's part. It was also reassuring to hear about their experiences coming to work at an industry giant straight out of school. Kevin in particular mentioned strongly feeling "The Imposter Effect" which is the feeling that you don't belong at a company because you feel you don't have what it takes. As somebody looking and applying for internships this summer, I can definitely understand this feeling. It was also interesting to hear some mild horror stories about being a part of some broken tools and systems and how they managed to fix these issues.
Back to Belltown
After our time was up with our alumn, we all thanked our hosts and filed back into the hall where we returned our visitors badges and were on our way. This time, Danny led us to the bus stop so we did not get lost. Also it had finally stopped raining and we even go to see some of the blue sky! If you've never been, them let me tell you that the Seattle area when it is not raining is the most green and refreshing sight to see. I don't think I've ever seen such vibrant green grass next to tall deep-green evergreen trees below a beautiful blue sky. It really makes me want to visit in the summertime when the weather is a little less wet. Once Danny dropped us off at our bus stop we boarded the next transport to Seattle and were back in the city about an hour later. On our way back we were all chatting about our visit and the future of AI and those gosh darn chairs and how cool they were! When we got back to our hotel, a group of guys decided to take a brief siesta before trying to find some grub. Ultimately, with all of the walking we did and the long day we had, we decided to simply go to the pizza place next door. Their prices and people are good and the pizza is excellent so when you couple that with a literal 15 second commute time, there simply wouldn't be a better option!
From there we engaged in some hearty fellowship and then returned to our condo. We all will certainly sleep well tonight!
Excerpt taken with permission from Tyler's blog.