There was a time when Microsoft and “open technologies” were diametrically opposed, but the Redmond company has increasingly been changing its approach, and philosophy, when it comes to open source technologies, interoperability and standards. One sign of that change: The creation of Microsoft Open Technologies in 2012.
The subsidiary is led by Jean Paoli, a Microsoft veteran whose diverse background includes serving as one of the co-creators of XML, the widely used markup language for documents and data.
So what is it like to lead a Microsoft subsidiary dedicated to open technologies? Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Mini Bio: Who are you, anyway?
I am president of Microsoft Open Technologies, Inc., the wholly owned open source and open standards subsidiary of Microsoft. I am the product of many cultures: I lived a third of my life in Beirut (during the Lebanese Civil War, in a country once a crossroads of civilizations), a third in Paris, and a third in the Seattle area (Kirkland). I also have Greek origins, and I am fascinated by China where I just launched a new subsidiary. I grew up speaking French and Lebanese and I am deeply and emotionally rooted in France as I was immersed in the French ideals of Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité. I am now proudly naturalized American and love our beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Altogether, my life is about bridging diverse points of views.
I was lucky to meet, during my studies in France, Gilles Kahn who enabled me to work in French startups of INRIA, the renowned French Computer Labs. I learned there about advanced thinking on semi-structured information, met the SGML community, Charles Goldfarb, Jon Bosak, the European scientific community, Tim-Berners Lee, Vincent Quint and many other wonderful people. This led me in 1996 to be hired by Microsoft with a proposal to “move from Paris to Redmond and change the world.” I co-created XML, with industry friends, in my first few months at Microsoft. All-in-all, I always worked in the “startups” that I created inside Microsoft: the original XML team, the InfoPath product for semi-structured information, my passion for opening up the Office Documents Formats and today MS Open Tech.
What do you do, and why do you do it?
At MS Open Tech, we help bridge Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies: Today, many product teams in Microsoft are delivering services and devices that are fundamentally open. For example, you can run Linux or Java on Azure, connect Android phones to Office 365 services, use open source frameworks like Cocos2d-x, Apache Cordova or W3C HTML5 Standards to build Windows apps. At MS Open Tech, we support the product teams’ openness strategies by writing open source code, helping create open standards specs and connecting with many open source communities and standard bodies. We build bridges.
A culture of open development is shaping how technology is built at Microsoft. Microsoft is generating today a lot of “internal startups” that organically try new ideas, work fast with customers, embrace open source and one should see the diverse set of technologies from Microsoft and others that are today used across Microsoft. At MS Open Tech, it is truly rewarding to work at the same time with those internal teams and with many non-Microsoft open source engineering teams, many times with competitors. In our subsidiary, we are a diverse team of engineers, standards professionals and technical evangelists. I have colleagues from all over the world with a variety of backgrounds. All of this diversity – mixing open and proprietary models, technology origins and people from all over the world – is captured in our logo: a patchwork of colors with a bridge.
I personally do it because I truly believe in the potential of the open Internet. I am a semi-structured open data guy. I see those pieces of information (I once called them in an internal memo “Diamonds of the Internet”), being created, shared, re-routed, modified by users or small devices, understood through big data and machine learning, and processed by cloud services. I see the potential of fundamentally designing open platforms connected worldwide. By bridging technologies, you create higher level abstractions and thus more complex organisms (softwareJ) that can help everyone. So openness make sense. It is good for the user, the customer. It is good for business. It is good for Microsoft.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? (The long-term potential, surprising applications, a misconception debunked, etc.)
“Magical Interoperability” is hard. I genuinely believe that technology should just work like magic for users. Today, consumers have a strong — and justified — expectation that everything interoperate seamlessly across multiple platforms and across technologies, almost “magically. Any device works with any cloud from anywhere with any app. But in fact, it is a LOT of work to help design intrinsically, at the worldwide level, open platforms that enable those bridges. In my world, code is called “open source” and specs are called “open standards”. We need many geeks and a lot of imagination and willingness and diversity to work together across the industry to build code or specs (or both) to ensure “Magical Interoperability”.
How has the attitude toward working with open source and other “competing” technologies changed inside Microsoft in your time there?
At its inception, Microsoft helped connect people by putting a computer on every desk and eventually in every household. Code was shared around Windows, a first in many platforms. And then the Internet came, TCP/IP & HTML opened up a global communication channel, and Microsoft was at the forefront of the XML vision that unleashed the ability to exchange semi-structured data freely between different platforms. Through learnings and partnerships with open source communities, we have developed an appreciation for both how the open source development model can be applied to our own software development, and the potential for Microsoft technologies to be great platforms for open source applications.
Today, I can tell you that with Satya’s mobile first, cloud first strategy, a new openness page is definitively in full implementation at Microsoft.
Here are just a few key indicators of how far we’ve come: Linux, Java, Hadoop, MongoDB, Node.js, PHP, Python (and more!) are welcome in the Microsoft cloud. Microsoft engineers are actively contributing to supporting the Linux kernel. Microsoft is working with Google and Mozilla to define the future of the Open Web. Developers can use their Macs to build applications for Microsoft devices and services. Android apps can connect to the Office 365 services. Large chunks of .NET are open source in the .NET Foundation. And the company invested in our MS Open Tech subsidiary that is fully dedicated to open source and open standards. Many things at Microsoft have changed, but our passion to connect has always been there.
What’s your best advice for others trying to take big companies in new, unconventional directions?
Bottom up. Then top down: Have a Vision. Work first with individual developers. Get them excited. Ship quickly something small but fundamental and get users, customers genuinely excited. Be humble, because it is just the start. Find top execs that are known to listen and ask them to scale up the investment. Be extremely persistent. And go big.
I would add that you need to be personally deeply attached to your vision. As if your life depended on it. I am extremely pragmatic and people say I am very passionate but very patient and persistent. I always followed a path to contribute to Microsoft’s openness since I joined the company 18 years ago.
How has XML impacted the tech industry, and business, and what is its future?
XML has trail blazed the highways for exchanging open data on the Internet. Let’s remember that originally, the web was based on exchanging presentation-based (HTML) information. Now, big areas of our vision for XML have become a fundamental part of the core fabric of the internet: Clouds and Internet servers routinely exchange semantically rich open data to enable essential parts of human activity such as internet-based ecommerce. Clouds and devices routinely communicate through REST-based protocols equally exchanging semantically rich data. I still remember the day Alex Hopmann and Chris Lovett came to me and I hectically approved shipping, in the very last weeks of building IE5 Beta 2, a brand new thing Microsoft invented called XMLHTTPRequest to enable the web version of Outlook. Everyone agreed because we knew that rich data interchange between browsers and servers will change how people build rich Internet UI. I am extremely happy to see XML and JSON and other YAML and Markdown heavily used everywhere.
But our XML vision has much more to achieve. We made great strides both with XML as data exchange and with XML as documents but there is much more to do as I always believed in a unique vision unifying documents and data through semantically-rich semi-structured information. This vision is critical today in the new world of Cloud Services and Devices and I am extremely bullish about it.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why?
Microsoft Surface. Work. Home. Anywhere. I was always a tablet enthusiast – carrying a Microsoft tablet around campus since the early 2000s. I love to take notes manually and the new 12″ Surface is simply amazing.
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you?
I need a place to brainstorm with 3 or 4 people with a whiteboard or a big touch screen. A lot of light and preferably pastel bright colors. I tend to work in my office or one of our Hub rooms that have windows with lots of light and green trees peering in. My desk is truly minimalistic and irrelevant. But the important piece in my office is my round table. Weirdly sized – it is not quite big enough for more than four people to sit– the round table looks to have come straight from a cubicle circa 1989. It’s ugly, and I know it. But it holds sentimental value for all the XML specs that we designed with the industry around it, specs that became part of the core fabric of the Internet. And so it remains in my office no matter how many times my colleagues try to get rid of it. :)
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.)
I need a clear early morning of alone time, 15 minutes of no electronics, with green tea, looking at the beautiful views, trees and water of our amazing Pacific Northwest. Best thinking time. I also do not read emails during my vacations: people needs to leave a voice message on my home phone if there is anything truly urgent that cannot wait a few days: nobody ever called in 25+ years. Dedicated time to travel, to connect with family and friends, helps me gain the perspective necessary to move forward with renewed commitment and energy. I also take notes manually as it helps me digest information. But I discard them afterward (or quickly re-transcribe the gist of ideas) as I rarely re-read them later.
10. Mac, Windows or Linux?
<plug> Azure </plug>: you get Linux and Windows, and connect to Macs. :)
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway?
Kirk. Out-of-the-box leadership.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility?
I would invent a 4th thing: The XML Magic Bridge™.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would …
I would work on user interfaces and processing of semi-structured data for devices and services. Or I would work on digital privacy: read Craig Mundie’s enlightening article. By the way, no need for all this money: Start low-budget and lean.
I once waited in line for … Ferry to the San Juan Islands: I truly love our Pacific Northwest and many people do not realize how lucky we are to be able to go see orcas on a regular Saturday morning. Bask in the views and no electronics.
Your role models (And why?):
My significant other for her deeply and strongly ingrained fairness, as strong independent women were always part of how I see the world.
My father, as a building engineer and an architect, showed me that solidly built structures need also to be aesthetically beautiful.
Greatest Game In History: Tawle (Lebanese Backgammon)
Best Gadget Ever: Very small pedometer, always inside my blue-jeans pocket. Simple. Works.
First Computer: I am a Unix guy. Going earlier, as a very small kid, I got a low-tech wired Chinese abacus with small light bulbs counting in binary. I tinkered, re-did it J with more switches and lights and it went from counting to 64 to 256. I did not know it was a computer.
Current Phone: Nokia 1520 – Beautiful 6” screen – I brag about it constantly.
Favorite Cause: Just give.
Most important technology of 2014: Azure Machine Learning. Big data and the Internet of Things has been the two biggest buzz words of late, and machine learning will help us understand all the data generated by all those devices, giving developers so much more freedom to explore.
Most important technology of 2016: Not a specific technology, but the actual rich “glue,” the bridge that will connect the devices around us (I am trying to avoid the “Internet of Things” buzz word) with the tools that will provide ambient insights.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Have a vision to change the world. Hire small lean teams with truly diverse people (I love this). Brainstorm and always learn. Ship extremely often: Code Talks. Write code that purposefully connects with other people’s code. Be passionate, patient and persistent. Your vision will happen.
LinkedIN: Jean Paoli