Episode 71: Boomeranging Back into Microsoft with Tara Walker

Episode Summary

Microsoft has undergone a major transformation over the last several years. Just ask Tara Walker, principal software engineer, who recently rejoined the company after a four-year hiatus at AWS. Join Corey and Tara as they talk about this transformation, why the world of IoT gets more exciting every day, what Microsoft is focused on today, why Tara is now pursuing a master’s degree at Georgia Tech, and much more.

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Tara Walker 

Tara is a Principal Software Engineer on the Azure IoT product group primarily focused making services for IoT and Intelligent Edge great on Azure. While she now primarily focuses on IoT, Tara has additional expertise and interests in Serverless, Artificial Intelligence (AI) cloud services, and Mobile Development solutions. Over her 20-year career, she has been employed by Amazon Web Services, Turner Broadcasting/Time Warner, Georgia Pacific, and various other Fortune 500 companies.

She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Georgia State University, and currently working on her Master’s degree in Computer Science (MSCS) at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Tara is passionate about technologies including: Artificial Intelligence/ML services & Deep Learning frameworks, Mobile/Game development, Cross-Platform development, and proficient with different programming languages. While primarily focused on IoT services engineering, she also leverages her knowledge and expertise with the aforementioned topics in speaker engagements, as well as, engagements directly to developers & software engineers with OpenHacks and Engineering Code-With activities with Microsoft customers throughout the global community. Her self-imposed goal is to help developers of all walks of life realize they can leverage their tech skills to not only become great engineers but Inventors of the next "Big Thing" that may change the world.

Links Referenced


Announcer: Hello and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, cloud economist Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I'm Corey Quinn. I'm joined this week by Tara Walker, Principal Software Engineer at Microsoft with an emphasis on IoT. Welcome to the show.

Tara: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Corey: You are one of those people that I have wanted to get on this show for a long time because when I first heard about you, you were writing blog posts, among many other things, at AWS, and I wrote up summaries of at least a few of those in my sarcastic newsletter, and eventually it was always ... Everything you wrote was well written. The code made sense to the point where someone who's not great at writing code, hi, could wind up making sense of this.

Corey: Talking to you on the record about some of this stuff was always near the top of my list, and it never worked out, and then one day I got the sad news that you were leaving. Now I encounter you again working at Microsoft, and I can talk to you. First, thank you for coming. It is so great to finally get you on the show ...

Tara: Thank you for having me.

Corey: ... a year after I tried the first time.

Tara: Oh no, thank you for having me. Wow, it's really flattering that you even wanted me on the show so I appreciate it.

Corey: Oh yes. So you ... I misunderstood originally because I saw the blog posts that you put out. They were well written, they were well researched, and my default response was, "Oh, she must be on the blog team." Yeah, turns out not so much. You have a deep background in software engineering, specifically again IoT historically, but also you were doing, are and were doing, a bit of serverless stuff.

Tara: I was, yeah. So my role was never official, you know a blog person. That just kind of happened, if you will. It was like, "Oh, you know, we're really swamping our blog team. We would love for our evangelists, our engineers, to come in and have some bandwidth to write about some releases."

So especially being an IoT and serverless SME, and working very closely with the engineering teams, it just made sense for me to be able to speak toward what was happening in those spaces.

Corey: So that's what the past looked like. Can you talk a little bit about what you're working on these days?

Tara: Yes. So, I am extremely excited. This is ... Okay, I got to tell you. So first I work in commercial software engineering. It is a great group, and it's kind of the intersection between the engineering group and some of our big customers that we're doing some of these cool, new things you saw here had build, and actually putting it in real life. Kind of putting the rubber to the road, making sure we're not only solving their problems but making sure our solutions actually are viable.

So it's a great group because we go out ... by the way, as I said I'm focused on IoT, so I get to work with some of the top companies, and some of the companies were actually on the build slide of the keynote. I will not say which ones they are. Some things that we do from our engineering perspective are great. It works wonderful. The customer's happy. But like any other software, there are things where the customer's, like in real life, "You forgot this." Or in real life, "We would love if it did this."

So we will either build interim solutions to help them get to where they need to go, or we'll work directly with the product group that says, "Hey, let's kind of rethink this," or, "Hey, let's tweak this," or, "Hey, if you guys are working on this," because they can only work on so much, "we'll fill in the gap and build that SDK or build that whatever it is, do that pool request, and get things done."

And actually, believe it or not, my first foray whenever I was in my other life in the other company, one of the first things I did was work with the product group, and they didn't have bandwidth, so I built an SDK for one of the services. So it's kind of like back in my engineering world, I've always been an engineer, but now I'm fully in an engineer, and I'm not kind of straddling between, "Oh right, this code. Now go talk about it in the blog." So it's back to my engineering roots, and it's where I love. So it's IoT, it's robotics, it's getting to what we were talking about on edge, that's my passion.

Like, I've always had a bunch of devices. I've always been the person, to the chagrin of my parents, that would tear down my toys and try to rebuild them. Especially electrical ones. So this is ... I'm back in not only my space, but this is a place I'm really passionate about.

So what I'm really focused on now will be IoT edge, things on the edge, implementing things on the edge in interesting projects like with robots and manufacturing that I cannot talk about, but talk about the customer, but how do I get this robotics data to do what it needs to do in the cloud and actually affect, based upon changes, to deliver something to customers that is really cool that I can't say what it is, but I'll just say a few of the customers that I've been working with, to make sure not only we understand the product is right but doing things in production ... we're on the build side, so I was excited.

Corey: I was never that into the whole IoT devices and robotics world for a few reasons. Primarily, that when you break things in the real world it's expensive to replace them. When you break things in code, you just restore to your last save point and try again. And given my proclivity for doing things incredibly wrongly, even a success story means, "And now I have a robot that hunts me through the streets," which let's not kid ourselves, I've had that coming to me for a long time.

Tara: No, no. What's good about IoT now, it's really evolved though where it was before. IoT when it first came out wasn't as connected as it is now. It was a bunch of liking to tinker with things, "Oh, GPIO, I can make this relay go," and things of that nature. But now we're in a space where connected devices are something that's becoming more mainstream.

Now that it's more mainstream, you now see that there are nuances to develop a software for, and I don't want to say the average developer because that sounds kind of remiss, for any developer, you know, can get into IoT, use their skills, your software skills that you have, to now build a device that does things.

So you don't have to be an EE. I'm not an EE. My background is ... I have a CS degree, and I'm getting a CS Master's so I'm not ... Yeah, I'm at Georgia Tech. I would advise all your listeners, do not work full-time at a tech company and go to grad school, especially at someplace like Georgia Tech that actually wants you to be a grad student.

But yeah, so my background is not an EE, it's as a software engineer, but this intersection now where we're really making IoT available for any developer, and you can now solve solutions whether they are complex or simple by the simple fact that we're democratizing the ability to get into internet of things.

I get it, a lot of people say, "Oh my God, the soldering iron, the everything else," and they're a little bit afraid of diving into it, but IoT now is truly, in my mind, for everyone. And this, the fact that we now have machine learning that is now also becoming more democratized, that marriage between IoT and ML, you can do so much.

Even with, as you say, the robot hunting you, you can at least hopefully program the robot and through the cloud push the button, have him stop hunting you, shut down his operations, and protect yourself and save yourself. But you know, IoT now is really for everyone. It's not just for the geeks who like to tinker with the soldering irons.

Corey: It's always interesting to talk to people who have interests that lie in different directions than what I spend my time on. Because at that point, every time they open their mouth I'm learning something. As opposed to winding up in an argument about the best way to structure a web app, and that's why Twitter For Pets is going to be the social media network that takes over the world of pet communication any day now. We're waiting for traction, we're waiting for traction.

So changing gears a bit, let's see if we can have this conversation in a way that doesn't result in angry letters to either of us, but you worked at Microsoft for give or take 11 years, and then you left and went to AWS for five years, and now for almost a year you've been back at Microsoft which first, is a fascinating boomerang story, and it means additionally that you left in such a way that you didn't torch one of the many buildings to the ground to the point where at least, well-

Tara: Everything was still standing, yes.

Corey: Or it was the building that had the records in it, and no one could understand why, but I guess the question I have for you is, "Why did you leave, and then why did you come back?"

Tara: I did a myriad of different things at Microsoft the first time, and I loved Microsoft the first time, but it was going through a transition. A transition in management, in leadership. It was going through a transition in trying to find its direction. It was going through a lot of transition points that people that were really passionate Microsoftees were like, "No, let's not go this direction."

One of those for me was our direction in forcing people, and forcing is such a strong word, and encouraging people very strongly to only use Microsoft tech. And so I had interest in things like Mono and Linux and building not just for the Windows Phone, God bless and rest its soul. Also for iOS and Android. I really was digging Xamarin which was formerly Ximian and everything else, and that was where I was starting to really get passionate about.

Especially around ... That was during the time where the world was just opening up to mobile, and I just thought this Xamarin thing was so cool. I could take ... Instead of me writing all this code in Java and then changing my mind, well not changing my mind, but then redoing it again in Objective-C and then redoing it again, maybe, for the Windows Phone in C#, what if I could actually write something that could be compiled down natively?

So for me, Xamarin, and this is way before Microsoft and Xamarin came together, was fascinating. Then we were doing things like dropping support for XNA for people who were C# developers, not code and everything, but I just thought that was wrong. You know, C# developers were your bread and butter, and now you're saying they can't build games?

So that's when I got into the open source project, MonoGame. That was super cool. So I wrote a bunch of tutorials of how you would build ... I kind of just dived in. My boss at the time, Bob Familiar, who was fantastic hi Bob, was like, "Hey, let's just dig into this and figure this out."

So while he was very open to that, as a culture during that period of time, it was very much, "Why are you doing that? You should not be doing that. You should be focused solely on our own products, only Microsoft 7." I just thought that was really shortsighted. Culturally, it was very much changing from the Microsoft I joined.

Then my management changed, and I lost a support who understood that looking at these other technologies was important, and I really just wanted to do something different. I wanted to get out in the world where it wasn't all Microsoft, I wasn't "very strongly encouraged," I won't say forced, to only use Microsoft products, and that's when I started to think maybe I actually would leave, and that's kind of how that story came.

I'll be honest with you, I never thought I would come back. Like never, ever thought I would come back.

Corey: Hey, I hated Microsoft for the longest time, and 2006 was the last time I used Windows in anger. I swore never again, and today if my current venture were to collapse out from under me, I think Microsoft would be the first company I would call as far as places to work, and I don't know how they did that.

Tara: I mean, I have to give credit ... I had to watch that transformation from afar, so I have to give Satya the credit. He was actually, in my opinion, really looking at where we used to be as what I call the Oh Microsoft where we were going during the period of time I was looking to leave, and then was like, "But we're not this company." This is one of the places I have met the most smartest, I mean like brilliant, genius level people in my life, and genius level people that actually can form a sentence and are really amenable to talk to you.

Corey: Their first language was not math.

Tara: Right. It's amazing, right? So it really hurt, honestly, to leave. When I left, to see him make that transformation, not just back to what Microsoft used to be as far as innovation and send vision, but also to embrace every other technology out there whether it's open source, whether it's Linux, whether it's anything because we wanted to like developers, and for developers' whole purpose in this world, and this is why I like Microsoft's new vision, is to really empower you to build and change the world.

That was what the initial mission was, and I feel like we kind of got a little bit away from that for a period of time. When Satya took over, the transformation of him getting back to that was amazing, even to watch from afar.

So I just happen to see a former colleague that didn't leave, and he just like, "I'm telling you, it's amazing. It's a different place." The good management is really important, and he was like, "I have the most fantastic manager," and he was right because actually we're in the same group, and this guy, oh my God I was like, "How great can you be?" So he kept trying to convince me to really look back at Microsoft and that was, for me, just crazy because I was like, "But that's going back. I'm supposed to go forward," kind of thing.

It was one of the best decisions I think I made, given that I have been not only embraced amazingly coming back, but it is truly a new company. I don't feel like I've come back. I feel like I just joined a new company because it is completely different than when I left. Both in tech, both in culture, and everything. It's not the same place, and it's wonderful actually.

Corey: You are an incredibly well respected engineer. They don't pass out that principal title like candy at any of the major tech companies out there. So with that in mind, if you don't mind the question, why are you pursuing a Master's in computer science?

Tara: Okay, so that's a good question. So it's for two reasons. Really, you're going to laugh, but two reasons. First of all, my family is huge on education. I mean, huge. Every last person, almost, in my family, especially immediate but even outside of that, has multiple degrees. It is completely understood that you are going to get multiple degrees. In fact, my parents tricked me for so many years. I did not know people didn't go to college. I thought ... I don't know what I thought. Looking back on it I was like, "You were so daft," but I didn't know people didn't go to college. I didn't know that was an option because they tricked me. They did trick me. Anyway, so.

Corey: For you, it was not an option.

Tara: Right, right. I didn't know the rest of the world had options out there. But so it was always ... I came out of school, and I got some really cool opportunities as far as job wise, and then just the ball kept rolling. I got a few certs here and there. Like, I got my ISSP and some other things just to go for it or whatever, and I was just doing good progressing and learning in this craft.

My parents still were like, as I've been doing this journey, "But you are going back to school, right?" Like, I would get at the Thanksgiving dinner, "Yeah, we're just waiting for Tara to go back to school," and so Georgia Tech is ... I live in Atlanta so Georgia Tech is a great engineering school. I was like, "Okay, well, let me just bite the bullet. I'm not getting any younger," and there was just a great opportunity to go back to Georgia Tech.

What was great about it was this is also when they were offering their online program, and so I went first just as a traditional student, which I'll be honest was kicking my butt because trying to work and the travel and everything else, and that's when they had this option that you can also take this exact same degree and do it virtually. So the streaming classes, the you take all the same exams and everything else. That's when it really opened up to me that I could actually do this because actually going to classes was not ... I mean, I was making it, but I was sleeping 0%. It was always expected for me to go back. I think I've been forced, but no, so that was kind of why I went back.

I think the biggest catalyst for me finally taking the bullet was, believe it or not, I was at Georgia Tech doing a talk about, you know, I like to go back and try to inspire students. So I was doing a talk about something, some coding, something going on, and one of the professors there ... You know, I don't want to even put that on them. Maybe he's not a professor, but one of the guys that was at the talk came up to me and just said, "Oh, that was great," asked me to what school I went to.

He was like, "Yeah, you know, because we don't ... People like you," these were his exact words, "don't do well getting grad degrees here at Georgia Tech. So it's probably good you got into your career when you did," and so when he said that to me, it was a great, "Okay, I got to back anyway. This is a challenge. Did you just say I can't graduate from Georgia Tech at the grad school because I don't look what you believe like an engineer should look like?" Or someone who can matriculate at Georgia Tech, and so I am horrible about being challenged and then just going for it.

So that was kind of the catalyst. I knew I could stop the conversations at Thanksgiving about, "When is Tara going back?" And also this guy challenged me to say, "We don't really have your kind to graduate here with graduate degrees." It was on. I was like, "Oh really? I could show you." So I foolishly took that. I mean, I'm in it now, and I'm excited. I'm just taking my time going through it, and I'm sure I'll be glad when it's over, but I'm in it now.

Corey: Until then you get to enjoy the journey.

Tara: I don't know about if enjoy is the right word. I get to suffer through the journey, but I'm sure ... Everybody keeps saying it's going to be worth it. But yeah, you're right. I don't think per se that it'll, maybe or maybe not, affect my career, but it's just a checkbox that I just need to go ahead and get out the way.

Corey: Which makes an awful lot of sense. Tara, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. If people want to hear more of your wise words of wisdom, where can they find you?

Tara: My wise words of wisdom, oh my. So if you want to chat with me, and I'm really responsive on Twitter believe it or not. Maybe it comes from my old evangelism days, but you can always follow me at @taraw on Twitter. Also, while I've been here at Build, we've done a series of IoT ... I was a dev in IoT for ... dev and seat for IoT here so I've done a lot of conversations with some of the execs around IoT and some of the sessions of IoT so you can follow me there also on the Windows Developer Dev Collective, and they have a section just for me, and we're talking about IoT and some of the enhancements that have happened with IoT, the advancements, the announcements, etc, etc. So you can also follow me there.

Tara: I'm also on LinkedIn. I suck at LinkedIn. So I'm going to ...

Corey: I think we all do.

Tara: Okay. Because I've had people fuss at me that they're mad at me. I'm like... I suck at LinkedIn, but I will give you my LinkedIn because I have no problems people reaching me out to it. It's Tara E Walker. Of course do the LinkedIn.com, but-

Corey: Of course, and they would like to add you to their professional network on LinkedIn.

Tara: I'm sure that'll happen. That's fine.

Corey: Perfect. Once again, thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I appreciate it.

Tara: No, thank you for having me. This is fantastic.

Corey: Tara Walker, Principal Software Engineer with an emphasis on IoT who has boomeranged to Microsoft. I'm Corey Quinn. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

Announcer: This has been this week's episode of Screaming in the Cloud. You can also find more Corey at ScreamingintheCloud.com or wherever fine snark is sold.

Announcer: This has been a HumblePod production. Stay Humble.
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