Microsoft Evangelist Blain Barton discusses systems administration

While at a Microsoft Heroes Happen Here event, TechRepublic blogger Justin James took the opportunity to chat with Microsoft Senior IT Pro Evangelist Blain Barton about topics that range from systems administration to development to customer feedback. Also find out what Barton says Microsoft looks for in potential Evangelists.

On April 8, 2008, I went to the Microsoft Heroes Happen Here event in Charlotte, NC. I registered late, so I was only able to attend the IT Professional track aimed at systems administrators. (I was hoping to also sit in on the Development track.)

Blain BartonIt was a great event. I learned a lot about Windows Server 2008, especially with regards to virtualization. But I was particularly struck by the presenter, Blain Barton (pictured at right), who is a Senior IT Pro Evangelist. He did a remarkable job of conveying the information in a clear -- and humorous -- manner.

Barton mentioned that Microsoft follows an "eat our own dog food" approach to new products. He also shared personal stories about the joys and frustrations of working with Microsoft technology, which helped me connect with him and his message. I got the impression that he really knows his stuff.

I had a chance to catch up with Barton after the event and ask him about topics that I thought might be of interest to TechRepublic readers.

"Breaking" paradigms

My first question was a tough one: How is Microsoft addressing the fact that its current batch of mainline products (Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, and Microsoft Office 2007) "break" so many paradigms that developers and users had gotten used to?

He said Microsoft knows it's a tough road and that it will be "like going from Windows 3.0 to Windows 95." He reminded me that many of the same problems were experienced with Windows 95 and that it took years for everyone to catch up, but they eventually did. This is not the answer I wanted to hear (I remember the Windows 95 transition with not-so-fond memories), but it is a reasonable one.

I agree with him that Microsoft is going in the right direction. Windows really needed security enhancements (at the risk of breaking some applications and being a hassle), and Microsoft Office was pretty hard to use, even if millions of users were used to it.

Looking ahead to mobile computing and sys admin advances

Since he is on the road a lot, I asked him to share his thoughts on mobile computing. He replied that ActiveSync is able to ensure that a device meets certain requirements before being allowed onto the network. Microsoft is also pushing the use of RADIUS servers and 802.1X security with certificates. During his presentation, he briefly discussed the increased use of smart card technology.

I find it particularly interesting that Microsoft systems can save a device's configuration when it is on the network (including remotely over a cell link, in the case of Windows Mobile devices). Even more intriguing is that the systems administrator can flag a lost or stolen device to wipe itself out; the moment the device connects to a network, it receives the signal and kills itself. This is definitely a step in the right direction, although I assume that a savvy thief would simply turn the device on in a cell signal shielded area or in the presence of a cell signal jammer.

Getting desktops apps to work with mobile apps

I inquired about what developers should do to help their desktop apps work side-by-side with mobile applications. He replied that working with Microsoft's latest crop of improvements to its server products and the .NET ecosystem would be of immense help. He suggested that developers and systems administrators evaluate the possibility of using the new remote Web access system in Windows Server 2008, Terminal Services, XAML, ASP.NET, and Silverlight. The mix is interesting.

Windows Server 2008 and Terminal Services turn the mobile device or desktop into a thin client, which accommodates the lack of resources on mobile devices. XAML and ASP.NET are based on the idea of a declarative (rather than an imperative) programming model. As a result, it allows the interpreter (in this case, the mobile device or desktop) to have the final decision about what happens. This allows the devices to do what makes the most sense given the form factor and input capabilities, instead of the application programmer needing to figure out the right thing in all possible situations. Silverlight also uses XAML in the same way, essentially trying to replace HTML and JavaScript with XAML and the .NET CLR to provide a portable presentation layer over a server-side application. 

Addressing customer feedback

In his presentation, he frequently mentioned the customer feedback loop. When I asked how Microsoft collects feedback, he replied that the company is making a lot of progress in giving the support staff access to development and product teams and allowing them to significantly influence future changes.

Anther significant change is that Microsoft has been quite diligent in "tagging" every incident to help the company mine and identify users' pain points.

From what I've seen in Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007, and Windows Server 2008, Microsoft is hearing the customer's voice with regards to identifying the problems. However, I still feel that Microsoft often chooses the wrong path in fixing the problem. Listening is the first part of being responsive to customers, but there's also the matter of correctly fixing the problem.

Becoming a Microsoft Evangelist

My final question was a softball: How does one become a Microsoft Evangelist? He told me that, at Microsoft, "what you know is more important than who you know." The magic ingredients to becoming an Evangelist are: good public speaking skills, desire, a technical skill set, the ability and desire to learn new things every day, and a solid history with the company. I think this sounds reasonable enough, yet I imagine that this combination of skills and talent is not easy to find.

He also mentioned that Microsoft has an opening for an IT Pro Evangelist in the Northeast US. From what I can tell, if you know the material and have an interest, it could be a pretty fun job.

Check your local listings

Overall, I enjoyed Barton's presentation, as well as the short time we talked afterwards. If there is a Heroes Happen Here event near your area, I highly recommend making an effort to attend. And, if Barton happens to be the speaker for your session, be sure to let him know that you read about him on TechRepublic.

If you had the chance to interview a Microsoft Evangelist, what's the one question you would ask him or her? If you have been to a Heroes Happen Here event, what did or did not impress you about your speaker? Do you think it sounds like a fun gig to be a Microsoft Evangelist?


Disclosure of Justin's industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine.