This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview Neil Simon, Microsoft Career Factor Idol Winner in Cloud Computing – The Azure Developer, Chief Scientist and Senior Engineer, Keynote Session Speaker "24 Hours in the Cloud." Neil will also be at TechEd as a Career Factor Idol.
Neil Simon is a computer scientist and software engineer from Dublin, Ireland, who has used computers since he first laid hands on one in 1982. He started programming a few years later, and as a young adult earned his primary degree in Information Technology. Generally he is interested in supercomputing and solving very large computational problems, with a focus on making it all easier to do.
He spent 7 years working as part of an exceptionally competent team of engineers on supercomputers and in the end, decided that to continue advancing his work he needed to move on. Around the same time, he realized that many of the problems which face users of very large computers were remarkably similar to those that would soon face an increasingly network-dependent consumer. He then started tackling those common problems.
In 2007, he joined Trinity College Dublin’s Computer Architecture Group and started working on his PhD. It became a quest to not only help users to get the most out of the resources that they already had, but to also enable new technologies. The solutions would help tackle aspects of technology that are advancing more slowly, and therefore better allow the use of those which were advancing at a more rapid pace.
He has completed most of this research, but his plans for graduation took a bit of a detour when he moved to remote Northern BC, Canada, with his wife. During one of his many trips from Ireland to Canada, he met with one of the board members of iGEN Knowledge Solutions and decided to join their team of skilled professionals.
Neil, as a Career Factor Idol Winner in Cloud Computing, you are speaking at the GITCA "24 Hours in the Cloud" event. Can you overview this event from the viewpoint as one of the global experts invited to present?
A: "I’m really thrilled to be involved in this event. "24 Hours in the Cloud" is going to be 24 high quality presentations by some of the best and brightest people in computing on what is the hottest topic in computing today; how could I not be so enthusiastic to be involved? I think that anyone involved in computing, and especially anyone involved in Cloud Computing, should be looking at attending."
What are the topics of the two sessions you are hosting and why should people attend this virtual conference and particularly your sessions?
A: "One of my sessions will introduce people to Cloud Computing and the other will walk developers through their first Windows Azure application. The first of these will really appeal to those who aren’t quite up to speed with Cloud Computing, and will help them see what it can do for them and the opportunities it opens up. I firmly feel that all people who use computers for their work should be aware of Cloud Computing, just as they are aware of the Internet or email.
The second presentation will be more of a workshop, starting from scratch with downloading the Windows Azure SDK and going all the way through to deploying a first Windows Azure application. It’ll also have a few pointers for those who want to take it a little further. There is something so satisfying when you first get a new technology working and Windows Azure is so simple to get into that I suspect there will be many smiles on faces after people complete this workshop."
How do you see this "24 Hours in the Cloud" work enhancing your continuing Idol role with Career Factor?
A: "The Career Factor programme is primarily about education, and in these presentations I will be imparting some of the valuable lessons and knowledge that I have learned through Career Factor. More than that, I hope that the other presentations will also be attended and viewed by my Career Factor followers, who will learn so much more about Cloud Computing from these. Since I see much of my Career Factor role to be one of educator, I feel that bringing people to such a high quality event where they will learn so much is a great way to support them."
What triggered your interest in applying for Career Factor?
A: "A friend and trusted mentor suggested to me that I should look into Career Factor. My first response was that this was exactly the kind of programme in which I wanted to be involved. It focuses on education and the personal experiences of people. All too often people forget that education is all about people, how they learn and what they want to do with their new found knowledge and understanding. Career Factor gives me the opportunity to show the human side of learning and through example, help others reach their goals."
Can you describe your personal experiences for the challenges and process leading up, winning, and after winning Career Factor?
A: "I found out about the Career Factor programme quite close to the closing date for application, and it came at a time in my life which was already very busy as I was preparing to move country, and marry my wonderful wife. I knew though that I had to give it my all, and get my application in as soon as I could. I received some tremendously useful support and advice from my friends and family, and without this support, I don’t think I would have been successful. As you may be aware, one had to record a brief video. At the time, my house was undergoing renovations, so I had a bit of a challenge getting the conditions right for filming. In the end, I had an application I was really proud of and I felt comfortable submitting. You can only imagine how happy I was when I found out that I had won a place among these truly wonderful people.
When Career Factor took off, I found myself like a kid in a candy store. I had access to some great people and some amazing resources. Sometimes I have to stop myself and think how it was without these at my disposal. The greatest benefit has been getting access to some very capable people indeed. There are so many capable people out there who are similarly interested in Windows Azure, and they have been sources of great advice and encouragement."
How does social media accentuate what you are doing in Career Factor and how will social media factor in "24 Hours in the Cloud"?
A: "Social media is so crucial to getting across the human element of Career Factor. As I said earlier, education is about people, and bringing it and social media together has allowed us, the Career Factor winners, to bring our educational experience to people in a way that allows them to be part of it themselves. I have found this interaction has given me some very valuable feedback, and access to some really great people. I hope to use my existing social media following to bring people to the "24 Hours in the Cloud" event and hopefully give even more back to those who have supported me so far."
What are your future career aspirations? Why are you passionate about Windows Azure?
A: "My future will centre around making technology more accessible to all and in particular, making that same technology work for people in a way that it often has failed to do in the past. I hope to be able to help people see the myriad of possibilities that Windows Azure creates, to continue to educate people, and help them use technologies to get what they want in the way they want it.
I am passionate about Windows Azure as I see it as a crucial technology to the advancement of computing. There are so many technologies we take for granted in our lives, such as the Internet, email, and mobile phones, and I feel that in future we will see Cloud Computing in the same light. In my opinion, Windows Azure is the finest Cloud Computing offering. It is a technology that so many of my peers and I dreamt about having and I can still barely believe that it is really here."
What drives your passion for Microsoft and other specific Microsoft technology solutions?
A: "I feel that they provide many of the finest solutions to the problems that technology people face today, from the wonderfully simple, but effective Metro interface of Windows Phone 7 to the tremendously scalable Windows Azure system, these are wonderful building blocks for anyone involved in providing solutions."
What are your tips, lessons, and best resources for those wanting a career in computing?
A: "I guess the first tip I would have is that whatever you do, make sure you enjoy doing it. There are so many areas in computing that most people should be able to find some aspect they enjoy. I also found that for me, having a firm grasp of the fundamentals of my field has given me an edge when it comes to computing. Finally, I suggest that anyone involved in computing should be agile, ready to learn new technologies and move from one to another. If you’re not able to embrace change, you’ll very quickly find yourself behind the curve instead of being ahead of it."
Neil, describe your PhD research and the value of the research to business and industry?
A: "My research was into finding ways to hide the network latencies for file transfers. The techniques developed will significantly improve the experience of using network filesystems and in part, make network filesystems seem to perform similarly to local filesystems. They will be particularly applicable to Cloud Computing and help handle one of the biggest issues facing Cloud Computing today. These techniques will most greatly benefit people using networks over very large distances, such as accessing data over the Internet, and with broadband connections. A significant amount of the work was in developing a method for caching using a much finer level of granularity than is usual. By doing so, and doing so in an efficient manner, it is possible to significantly improve the end user’s experience when performing many day to day tasks. This is particularly of interest to businesses offering content over the Internet or from the Cloud, as latencies can heavily impact the end user experience."
What are usable best practices, lessons and tips derived from your research to IT professionals and leaders?
A: "Perhaps the biggest lesson my research provides is to remind us to re-examine the assumptions that we make when designing systems. I found that assumptions which were made many years ago were a little less appropriate today, and that revisiting them allowed me to develop an improved solution to a core component of modern operating systems."
Why does certification fit into your career plan?
A: "I see certification as a way to prove to the world, and perhaps more importantly, myself, that I have a good knowledge and understanding of the subject. Additionally, I see it as a credential to show customers and employers so they can be sure that they are getting the level of service they require to stay competitive in today’s marketplace."
In all that you do, what are the biggest challenges, and their solutions?
A: "On a personal level, I find the biggest challenge is to make sure that I give my family the time and support they deserve. It’s all too easy to get caught up in other things, but it is so important to realise that while family takes work, it provides me with strength and support in the times I need them, and with them I can achieve more than I would without.
On a professional level, I find the biggest challenges I face are often working through the ideas I have and getting a perspective on which ones are most important. I find that a good network of trusted peers is a real help here. They will listen to my ideas and give me a degree of perspective that I wouldn’t have without them. Additionally, their ideas often trigger ideas for me, helping me come up with new and interesting solutions to problems. It was through some of these discussions that I developed much of the core of my PhD research, and my Career Factor application idea too."
Provide your predictions of future IT trends and their implications/opportunities?
A: "I hope I’m not cursing any technologies in saying this, but I see a future where PCs are rare, and have largely been replaced by smart phones, and Cloud Computing. Modern smart phones are already powerful enough to meet most computing needs and with modern network speeds they are capable of using Cloud computing to provide all the power that the vast majority of users will ever want through an interface that fits into the palm of their hands. With more and more content being developed to take advantage of these phones, and apps moving off the desktop and onto the Cloud, it’s really a small step to completely eliminate the PC for most people."
Please share 3 stories (something surprising, unexpected, amazing, or humorous) from your studies, work, or time with Career Factor?
A: "A couple of months ago, I attended a local breakfast tech-talk on social media. The talk was interesting, and the crowd was definitely excited by the possibilities that it offered them and their businesses. Of course, as someone who had been using social media for Career Factor, I gave a few of my own insights, and they were well received. Afterwards, a few people came up to me and told me that they recognised me from seeing me online (Career Factor). It was an interesting feeling to be a bit of a local celebrity and it was great to see that Career Factor had already been so effective at reaching people.
About the same time, I contacted an old friend from when I lived in Galway (West coast of Ireland). We had worked together on some rather interesting supercomputer stuff, and he was surprised to hear that I had moved into Cloud Computing. Amazingly, he and a few others I had worked with had decided to focus on Cloud Computing too. These are some of the finest engineers I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Since Cloud Computing is a hot topic for them, I know I’m in good company.
I’ve met quite a few IT professionals in the last few months, but there is this one thing that happens from time to time, and that is that I meet one who doesn’t know what Cloud Computing is. This initially shocks me a little, but when I tell them they get so excited about the possibilities it offers. There was one man who realised that he could use it to offer so much more than his website currently could, and also grow his system as required. There are many others who are just the same. When I talk to these people, I realise that I have a lot more evangelising to do, but I also realise that as the word spreads, people will be just as excited about Cloud Computing as I am."
If you were doing this interview, what 3 questions would you ask and then what would be your answers?
A: Q1. Give one prediction for Cloud Computing.
A1. I feel that Cloud Computing will allow for many traditionally computationally demanding applications to become more accessible to ordinary users and potentially even make them more useful to businesses too. For instance, I have a brother who works a lot with finite element analysis software. A single processing job can take days to run, but if he had a much more powerful computer at his disposal, or a few dozen Cloud based processors, he could work more efficiently and effectively. Were the tools he used to be made accessible through Windows Azure, he would be able to get results much quicker and dramatically improve his productivity. This kind of system would also suit many hobbyists and small businesses too as it would give them access to the tools they want for much more reasonable costs.
Q2. Where do you place education in your professional and personal lives?
A2. For me it has been crucially important. Some of my earliest memories revolve around education, from my early days at school to memories of my parents, and indeed myself and siblings, teaching my sister to read. I may not have always been the most diligent student, but learning was always fun, and I feel that it always should be. I get a great sense of satisfaction out of learning.
In my professional life, I have always treated education as central to my work. I’ve always loved to teach, learn, and take advantage of that which I did learn. Teaching university students is a particular rewarding experience for me as it gave me a chance to contribute to the next generation of computer professionals.
Q3. What’s the biggest difference between living in Dublin, Ireland and Terrace, British Columbia?
A3. Ireland has very mild weather, rarely cold and never hot, but Terrace can get very cold indeed and also quite hot too. Other than the weather, I would have to say that the biggest difference is the sheer scale of distances. Basically, everything is 5 times further away than in Ireland. It’s hard getting used to the idea that to visit a different country requires a full day’s worth of travelling just to get there, and that a trip to a major city is a 3 day round trip. At the same time, I love the wide open spaces, the incredible scenery, the open road and sense of freedom they provide. I’m happy with my new home and I am really looking forward to summer days with my family and hopefully some trips to beautiful lakes and mountains. I don’t imagine that I will ever fully get used to the immense beauty of British Columbia."
Neil, we will continue to follow your contributions with Career Factor and more broadly. We thank you for sharing your time, wisdom, and accumulated deep insights with our audience.
A: "Thank you. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed answering your questions and I do hope that the readers will continue to follow me in Career Factor, and join me for my presentations at "24 Hours in the Cloud"."