[00:00:08] (Music) SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie podcast, where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I'm your host Saron and today we’re talking to the CTO of Microsoft. (Music) When Kevin Scott was a kid, he wanted to be a computer science professor.
[00:00:25] KS: I had has my mind set on being a CS professor from the time I was a teenager.
[00:00:32] SY: But years later, after almost finishing his PhD, he instead got a job at Google, which was the start of an incredible career in tech. He's been a developer. He's done startups. He's advised other companies, worked at big companies, invested in companies and now he's the CTO of one of the largest tech companies in the world. Not only that, but he's actually the first CTO at Microsoft in almost 20 years. But what does a CTO of a company as huge and complex as Microsoft actually do? Kevin tells us all about it. After this.
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[00:03:31] SY: I was reading the announcement about your appointment in this position, and as Satya said, “Kevin's first area of focus is to bring together the world's leading professional network and professional cloud,” which sounds really important, very big, but also kind of vague. What does… what does that mean?
[00:03:51] KS: Yeah, so I came to Microsoft via the LinkedIn acquisition. So I ran engineering and operations at LinkedIn for six years, I think, prior to the acquisition. And it was sort of interesting. Right after the deal closed, I started chatting with folks about what my next thing was gonna be. And, you know, when I was chatting with Satya, it was like look I've got this interesting challenge in that like Microsoft's a really big company and all of the folks on the executive team are running these gigantic businesses. And he was sort of feeling lonely as the like one engineer in the company. He was trying to like sort of spot the themes that were recurring across all of these big groups and then figuring out like how to connect dots and make sure that we were building technology in this coherent way. Yeah and so that's sort of what my job is. And in the beginning days because I came over with the LinkedIn acquisition, like we wanted to make sure that LinkedIn as it sort of took on its new life as a part of Microsoft didn't lose any of its momentum and that we were doing smart things in pulling the two companies together.
[00:05:08] SY: And what’s interesting is that you are still, I believe, the senior V.P. of infrastructure at LinkedIn as well.
[00:05:14] KS: That was the case for about the first six months, and I'm sort of exclusively the CTO of Microsoft now.
[00:05:20] SY: I was gonna say, each of those sound like full time jobs. So that's, that’s impressive.
[00:05:25] KS: They are very much.
[00:05:27] SY: So my understanding is that you are the first CTO of Microsoft? Is that true?
[00:05:35] KS: Yeah, technically Nathan Myhrvold I believe is the first CTO Microsoft, and I might technically be the second. There have been people in between. Nathan joined the company very early, and I think he left in 1999.
[00:05:48] SY: So it's been a while since Microsoft has had a CTO. Wow.
[00:05:51] KS: Yeah. And so they've had folks who were chief software architects, like Ray Ozzie played that role for a while. But yeah, I’m the, I think technically I'm the first CTO since 1999.
[00:06:02] SY: Wow. So why is that? Why is it that all of a sudden Microsoft decided “hey it's time that we make this position--or refill this position from so many years ago”?
[00:06:12] KS: You know, CTO is one of those interesting roles in that it's slightly different from company to company. And like whether or not you need one I think depends on what your industry is and like what you're trying to accomplish as a company. So the reason that we need the CTO right now is that more and more of our business depends on how well we integrate all of our products together into one coherent whole, you know? So for instance, you know, we've got a hyperscale cloud and Azure and like we've got an office productivity suite. And on the surface it might not seem like these two things have much to do with one another. But in reality, like the infrastructure for Office is very much like a hyperscale cloud infrastructure itself, and you want to make sure that, you know, you're, you're sort of building these investments or like these massive pieces of infrastructure in a like coherent way where the things that you're building for yourself you can sort of package up and build for third parties as well. You know, Microsoft is a 125,000-person company, and so there's so much going on that you really do have to exert more force than you would in a smaller company to make sure that everyone understands what your technology strategy is like which things you ought to be building and like, you know, what's your philosophy about how you build them.
[00:07:45] SY: Yeah. So tell me a little more about that. What does it look like to exert more force? Is it a lot of memos? Is it more repo? Like what, what is that?
[00:07:55] KS: Yeah, it's memos. It's talking to developers. It’s reviewing projects. I mean just like earlier today like we've got an exciting new project whose internal code name is Euclid that we, we launched in private preview at our Build conference a few weeks back and that will be in public preview in a few months. And we should have our first general availability version of the product later in the fall. And so I was in a room with the architects of this project and a bunch of other people from different parts of the company, and like we're making sure that that is coordinated with other similar things that we're building at the company and like making sure that the team has like fully thought through all of the sort of gotchas and yeah. So it's like really, I mean for me it's like it's so fun. You know I since I was a little kid enjoyed learning, like I get this real high out of learning something new. And so I get to at this massive scale be in this constant feedback loop where I'm learning new stuff all of the time. And you know, at the same time being able to share what I learned with other people because like part of being an effective CTO is like helping everybody else understand what's going on across the company because they might not have any other way to discover what's going on given, you know, the size of the company.
[00:09:19] SY: Yeah and that's, to me, the most fascinating part about not just being a CTO, but being a CTO at a place as large as Microsoft because when I--I used to work at Microsoft a couple of years ago, and I remember when I was there, people who did not work at Microsoft would come to me and tell me what was happening at my own company. (Laughter) You know, they'd say, “hey, congrats about the, you know, the thing you all announced.” And I'm like, “what?” (Laughter) There's just so much going on.
[00:09:45] KS: Yeah.
[00:09:58] SY: So when you--especially since you were coming kind of, you know, from the outside, from LinkedIn--coming into the organization, how did you level up and how do you keep up with all the very fascinating stuff going on there?
[00:09:58] KS: Yeah, I think that's a super good question, and I've done this often enough throughout my career that it's sort of a pattern at this point. So I typically whenever I jump into something new I, you know, it takes, takes me about nine months to get up to, you know, the point where I'm like ok like I'm actually not an idiot. Now I may have something useful to contribute to, you know, the thing that I've been hired to do. And like a big part of that is just sort of making yourself completely vulnerable and, you know, just sort of going into sponge-mode where you just meet with as many people as you can possibly meet with. You don't go around like throwing your opinion out there until you're well informed. And, you know, as you're exploring and trying to learn as much as you possibly can like you try to make yourself of service to the people whose time you're consuming while you're doing your learning. I’ve done this as a graduate student like when I was trying to go from someone with a, you know, a bachelor's degree in computer science to someone who could perform computer science research, you know, like a competent researcher. I did it, you know, when I joined Google years ago and like had to go from a, you know, sort of an academic-y sort of software engineer to a real software engineer building, (Laughter) building, you know, things at really massive scale. Yeah. Done it. Did it when I built my engineering team at my start up, you know, and I did it again at LinkedIn. You know, so Microsoft is sort of the--it’s like the same pattern just at like a slightly larger scale. And, you know, and the good thing you'll find is you, you know, sort of jump into these new situations. Yes, Microsoft is much larger scale than the other ramp-ups I've done, but it also has more resources to help you ramp up.
[00:11:50] SY: That’s true. Yeah.
[00:11:51] KS: So like there are just these brilliant people all around the company and like the, you know, the really awesome thing about the Microsoft that I joined is that these brilliant people were rooting for me. You know, they were willing to share their time and their perspective and they weren't annoyed when I, you know, when I showed up asking, you know, asking dumb questions.
[00:12:14] SY: (Laughter) That's wonderful. Yeah. So I want to go back to the way you described your role and specifically the example of the product that was launched at Microsoft Build. So when you described that, it sounded very similar to a product launch of a startup of a regular company, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] CTO, you know, doing strategy, figuring out features--that kind of thing. What are the things that make that process more complicated or just maybe just different than if I were launching a product at a startup or just even just a smaller company?
[00:12:46] KS: There are a bunch of things that are different and then there are just a surprising number of things I think that are very similar. Like at the basic level, the similarities are the same. Like you have to make sure that you're making a good product that your customers want and that is going to be reliable and fast and meet their expectations of functionality. And like that's true regardless of what you're doing. You know the different things are just that are side effects of scale are, you know, you just have many many more potential interactions with any individual product and everything else that's going on. And you know, it's usually the case like this phenomenon that you observed when you were a Microsoft employee that, you know, you may not be plugged into everything that's going on across the company. It's just a preposterous amount of stuff. Like even though it's my remit to have a view of all of the sort of technological goings on at Microsoft, it's still like really, really difficult to stuff all of that into one brain. And so what these product reviews or, you know, technology reviews tend to, tend to be is like what you're trying to do is sort of take the information that you have in your head about the slice of the Microsoft world that you can see--and like it's not just the Microsoft world, it’s like you know the part of the marketplace that you see and you try to get as many different perspectives around the table as you can so that other people who have a slightly different view on things can also chime in and sort of help connect dots for the team. Like you hope you've got enough people with enough of, you know, the sort of varying points of views around the table that you sort of cover everything. And like that's sort of the challenge. So maybe instead of, you know, being able to throw something out into the marketplace with absolute confidence that you're not making a misstep. Like you need to be a little bit more deliberate at Microsoft. And like some of that's like just the expectation of the marketplace. When I was running my startup like I could, you know, I could occasionally like push out something that, you know, wasn't as awesome as it could be. And you know, like I had a small number of customers, and like they knew who they were interacting with. And they would give us a little bit more leeway than they would with say, a Microsoft, where the expectation is very high.
[00:15:13] SY: Right. Yeah, your MVPs are probably very different from my MVPs. (Laughter)
[00:15:17] KS: Correct.
[00:15:19] SY: So how low-level do you get to be as the CTO? Do you actually interact with the code itself?
[00:15:27] KS: I don't write any code that goes into production. I write some code for prototyping. I do some coding to like try to understand whether our tools are doing what they purport to do. Like one of my favorite things is to just sort of take a whole day and pretend to be one of Microsoft's third party developers. And just like let’s go build a service on Azure or like let's use our development tools and sort of see what's great and what's not great about them.
[00:15:59] SY: So is that like Undercover Boss but the tech edition? (Laughter)
[00:16:02] KS: Yeah. A little bit, right? Yeah, that’s a good analogy. It's a lot of fun. And like I think it's really useful to be able to like have a visceral feel for how your products and your tools--I mean so like you, like I also do the same thing like I use our--I use Office. I use, you know, Word and Excel and PowerPoint very frequently. I use our email clients to read my email, so like I'm in our normal products every day. And like you get a feel for how those things operate just as a consumer, but like it's sort of the--you need the same thing on the developer side. You need to, when we're doing work on typescript for instance, like you need to--like I find it's useful to like write some code in typescript and sort of see what all of the, all of the fuss is about.
[00:16:55] SY: Yeah. Alrighty. So earlier on you mentioned that you were a researcher. You have your B.S. in computer science. You also have your master's in computer science and you just about finished the PhD in computer science. You have a lot of computer science education.
[00:17:10] KS: Yep.
[00:17:10] SY: How important was all of that CS when it comes to actually building your career in tech?
[00:17:18] KS: Well, I think it sort of depends on what you want to do. The reason I went as far as I did is for a very long time, I thought that I was going to be a computer science professor.
[00:17:31] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:17:32] KS: Yeah. And like I had had my mind set on being a CS professor from the time I was a teenager.
[00:17:40] SY: Really?
[00:17:41] KS: Yeah, so like 16, 17 years old I was like, “man, I want to be a CS prof.”
[00:17:45] SY: What made you to say that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a kid saying they want to be a professor. That's so interesting.
[00:17:51] KS: Yeah. So I grew up poor, although my mom would smack me if she heard me say that.
[00:17:59] SY: We won’t tell her.
[00:18:00] KS: Thank you. In rural central Virginia. And you know, neither of my parents went to college, and you know, like I went to a 240-person high school, you know, that graduated sixty kids a year. And a very small percentage of those kids went to college at all. And I accidentally found my way into computers when I was 12 or 13 years old. You know, it was just like one of those things where--I mean, this was in the early 80s, and personal computers, like a thing that you could buy for a few hundred bucks and like bring home and hook up to your TV and play video games on and like write basic programs were just beginning to be a thing. And I had always been this, you know, sort of kid who liked taking things apart and like this seemed like, you know, the ultimate thing that you would want to take apart. And like I wanted--so like I got one and saved up money for two summers and bought my first computer and like, you know, my first code that I wrote was a game. But like I was a sort of a tinkerer, and then I got the opportunity when I was a senior in high school to go to the Central Virginia Governor's School for Science and Technology which was, like you had to apply to. And like they took a couple of kids from each school in this three-county area in central Virginia. Like I took a real honest-to-god computer science class from someone who had a PhD in computer science education, and it like literally changed my life. It was just like this bit flip, and I was like this is what I want to do.
[00:19:37] SY: Ok. So that's what you wanted to do. At some point, I guess that that changed, but you still had all that CS education. Tell me about that.
[00:19:45] KS: Yeah. So I--yeah, I went to school for a really long time. So at some point, like I'd been working on my dissertation for a while, and I made this mistake that a bunch of us made at about the same time. So I had a good chunk of my dissertation written, and I was broke. And like I was like I got to get a job and I decided that I wasn't going to be a college professor anymore. Like I had become a little bit disillusioned with that prospect. And I also had met my future wife at this point. And like she was she was a history PhD student, and so like we both at approximately the same time decided that we didn't want a career in academia that that wasn't going to be the right thing for us. I still intended to finish, but I applied for a job at Google on a lark. Like I didn't know why, why it is that I would want to go work for Google. I just saw like a bunch of my academic buddies were going there, and I was like ok, well I'll send my resume. And I interviewed there, and it was like a terrifically fun interview. And I took a job, and I started in November of 2003. And I told myself, and I told my advisor it's like, “great. I'll start. I'll go through the new hire orientation stuff. And then over the holiday break, I'll finish my dissertation. I’ll defend in the spring.” And like it just...
[00:21:18] SY: Wow.
[00:21:19] KS: I got so busy with Google, and I was so happy with what we were doing (Laughter) and we were moving so fast that I just never did finish up. And it was hilarious because there were like a whole bunch of us who did the same dumb thing. (Laughter) You know, it was really funny like how many of us had abandoned the very last stages of our PhD dissertations because we told ourselves the lie that we were going to go finish it up. (Laughter)
[00:21:49] SY: So wait was that part of like the recruitment strategy of Google to get these folks who were just shy of that PhD degree, and, you know, let them think they're going to finish their dissertation over winter break and then keep them forever? Is that part of the plan?
[00:22:02] KS: No, I don't think that was deliberate at all. (Laughter) You know, the funny thing about Google in the early 2000s, the first time that I was there was very academic in nature. So it was an easy transition to make from grad school to Google. You know, the environment was sort of engineered to be very, you know, familiar in that way.
[00:22:24] SY: Yeah.
[00:22:24] KS: And so, you know, you could plausibly tell yourself that lie, “oh, this is like not (Music) too much different than, you know, like grad school anyways. So like of course I'll be able to finish.”
[00:22:34] SY: Coming up next, Kevin shares his thoughts on whether or not a computer science degree is actually valuable and what you can do as a code newbie to work at Microsoft and maybe even be CTO one day. After this.
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[00:24:41] SY: So sounds like getting that first job at Google really did come from the fact that you had all this CS background and all this academic background. How relevant did that end up being in the long term when it comes to actually getting the job done?
[00:24:56] KS: So from a specialty perspective, so like me using like all of this hyper-specialized stuff that I crammed in my head, not at all. My dissertation was about low-level dynamic binary translation, and so this super arcane stuff where you have one computer program that's rewriting another computer program on the fly as it's running.
[00:25:23] SY: Oh, that sounds awesome.
[00:25:24] KS: Yeah. No, it's not super fun. My training that led up to that dissertation work was in compilers and programming languages. So like I wrote software development tools. And like I, you know, in my work at Google, the first thing that I did was like a bunch of machine learning stuff, you know, a bunch of web application stuff. And so it was like I didn't use my discipline's skills at all. Now there's a bunch of stuff that, you know, sort of the practice of being a graduate student where, you know, you have to go in and do research and like you sort of jump into these brand new areas, and like you, you sort of practice absorbing a lot of information very quickly and being able to like read and synthesize research papers and whatnot--like that's something that you actually have to practice in order to get good at. And so like that was really useful and like continues to be useful. I've been giving advice to folks for years and years like they ask like “should I go get a PhD or not?” Like go get a PhD if you are in love with a particular aspect of computer science and like you really want to focus on it and like you have the financial luxury of being able to do that. Go get a PhD if it's a credential that you need to have in order to get the job that you want to get. Go get a PhD if like you’re sort of super passionate about teaching the next generation of computer science students. Don't get a PhD because you think you've gotta like download a particular set of skills and you're skulled to like get a general software engineering job because like our field changes so fast that the half life of the skills that you acquire in a computer science program are probably very much briefer than we would like to think.
[00:27:12] SY: Yeah. Absolutely.
[00:27:12] KS: And so like the important thing that you can do as someone who's trying to learn software development or, you know, you learn computer science is get into the habit and like try to sort of cultivate your own curiosity where, you know, you just sort of make it a constant process in your life because like everything is gonna be changing all the time and you're constantly gonna need to, you know, be learning new stuff in order to make sure that you're relevant.
[00:27:41] SY: Absolutely. And for our community specifically, you know, we have a lot of folks who have a degree in something else. You know, they came from business, from the life sciences, from, you know, physics, from all these other careers, all these other fields. And they are recently discovering this thing called “code.”
[00:27:58] KS: Yep.
[00:27:59] SY: And wanting to break into that industry, and they're asking themselves, you know, should I go back to school--not to get a PhD, but just even to get a bachelor's in computer science? How would you advise them? How would you possibly make that decision?
[00:28:14] KS: So one I think good for you. This is the best time in the history of computer science and software engineering and development to want to get into the craft. The crap that you had to stuff into your head before you could be productive thirty years ago was like really... it was a hill to climb. And today, like I think, you know, one of the--and this particularly true over the past 15 years with programming languages, and they’re, you know, sort of accompanying runtime environments, and API is getting to be more sophisticated with cloud computing with open source software. The amount of power that an ordinary software developer has in their hands to go off and create something is like at an all-time high. And like I think the barrier to entry, the amount of stuff that you have to know in order to create something useful is not as high as it used to be. I don't know that you need a bachelor's degree in order to go off and build the next mobile app or the next web app. You've got proof points for this all over the place. Like I know all sorts of high school kids who like do amazing things, and I know we have programs at both LinkedIn and at Microsoft where we bring folks in with nontraditional backgrounds and like give them six month apprenticeships where they have on-the-job training. Within the course of these apprenticeships they are often able to do extraordinary things. I can sort of see it in what college interns do. So, you know, like a kid who's coming in after two years of a computer science degree, spend a summer, a summer at Microsoft or a summer at LinkedIn--they're usually shipping stuff to customers in that amount of time. It's like routine that they're able to have like real world impact in, you know, just a few months. So it's like, like I think it’s really a good time to test the waters, so to speak.
[00:30:21] SY: Yeah. And what's really fascinating about that is, you know, we see examples all day long of people who are self-taught, who, you know, read a bunch of books, spent sometimes years just, you know, doing one tutorial at a time, one video at a time leveling up to the point where they're just as awesome as that, you know, person with the CS degree and can produce, you know, just as much. But part of the issue isn't just gaining the skills, it's also making sure the system reflects that they also can do the job, right? So when you think about a big company, specifically, you know, Microsoft, have the processes around hiring--has that changed at all to make room for these newly skilled nontraditional folks?
[00:31:04] KS: Yeah, we, I mean we've got a bunch of programs that we're trying out to create on-ramps for, for these folks. So one is a program that we run called LEAP, which is, you know, sort of explicitly for the folks who are like making a career change or like who just for whatever reason don't have a bachelor's degree in computer science or they dropped out of the workforce for a while and, you know, spent 15 years, you know, at home raising kids, and you know, like their skills might be a little bit rusty. LEAP has proven to be like enormously effective, given folks that are in one of those categories an on-ramp. We’re trying to do more and more of that over time. You know, I don't want to discourage people from going to get a bachelor's degree because there are like certain things that you do in building software or certain flavors of things that you may want to build where, you know, there's just no substitute for putting in your 10,000 hours. Like if you want to be designing the lock management algorithms in a database kernel like yeah, that is some deeply…
[00:32:12] SY: That’s serious stuff.
[00:32:13] KS: ...deeply technical stuff. And like you need to you need to go get yourself expert at that, which means like having read a ton and written a ton of code and like getting mentorship from folks who are experts in the field. Yeah, some of the cutting edge AI things are in that category, like some of the cutting edge systems engineering stuff is in that category. But the thing that I think the industry needs to get better at is not treating all of our engineering tasks as some sort of monolithic hole where you are hiring to the highest common denominator so to speak. So I think, I think there's a huge amount of opportunity for all of us to rethink our hiring processes. You know, like at the end of the day like this sort of goes back to--from a skills perspective--some of the software development skills that, you know, you need to be productive in the modern world have an incredibly short half life. So finding smart people with tons of initiative who are naturally curious and who love this continual process of learning? Those are your stars. Like I don't, you know, we should care what their background is.
[00:33:31] SY: Yeah, absolutely. So if I'm a code newbie, I'm in the middle of my learning, I'm hoping to get a job at Microsoft one day in the future, what advice do you have for me? What can I do? What should I start thinking about to maybe even be CTO one day?
[00:33:44] KS: You know, I think it's always great to actually go do stuff. You know, so rather than just focusing on your grades or certifications or degrees, yeah, I think it's a really powerful thing to go contribute to an open source project. Go create your own mobile application. Go get, you know, some real experience working with like more experienced, you know, software developers. And find ways to sort of demonstrate that you're passionate about what you're doing. And like again, that can be like, you know, building code or like being part of a community of coders. It could be that you're an advocate for the craft, like you're trying to figure out how to empower more kids to enter the field, like you’re teaching CS at your local high school, you're mentoring. It's like just the little things that you can do that like show real enthusiasm for, you know, the software engineering discipline really matter. I mean the other thing is, you know, I think folks at the beginning should, should remember that it's ok for hard things to be hard. So like sometimes--and like this was true for, for me in particular just because, you know, when I was learning to program, you know, my parents weren't engineers, and like I was in a small town where like there was no one like me--I didn't have anybody to bounce ideas off of or who could help me level set on like what's hard and what isn't. And so like I would run into things that are legitimately hard and sometimes like I would ask myself like am I too stupid to be doing this? Like am I ever gonna get good at things? I think it's easy especially if you don't, if you don't have that experience around you to convince yourself that you're an imposter when really, you know, no, you're just like struggling against a hard problem and like you struggle, you struggle long enough, you're going to get through to the other side. And then it will feel like you've just gained a superpower. Having that persistence and, you know, confidence in yourself like I think is super important.
[00:36:00] SY: Wow. That was beautiful. Wow, that’s such a great way to end the interview. Before I let you go, I know that you are also working on a podcast of your own. You want to tell us a little bit more about that?
[00:36:10] KS: Yeah, absolutely. I have a podcast that is coming out in June called Behind the Tech. And you know, what we're going to be doing there is talking with some of the folks in the industry who've had a long track record of doing interesting things. So like our first episode is gonna be with a gentleman named Anders Hejlsberg, who is a technical fellow here at Microsoft now, but he's had this 35-year career of building software development tools. In fact, he wrote this compiler for Pascal called Turbo Pascal 5.5. Turbo Pascal 5.5 is the tool that I used in 1989 when I was taking my first computer science course in high school, and it literally changed my life. And so I think that there are folks like that who, you know, sort of work behind the scenes of the technology industry, and like they might not be as well-known as you know these sort of billionaire founders who, you know, rightfully get--they create amazing things and get recognized for it. But to me, Anders is just as big a hero (Music) as Bill Gates. Folks like that have lots of interesting stories to tell. And like Behind the Tech hopes to tell them.
[00:37:26] SY: Wow. That sounds like a great show. We’ll make sure to put a link to that in the show notes as well. Thank you, Kevin, so much for spending some time with us today and telling us your story. You want to say goodbye?
[00:37:36] KS: Thank you. It was a pleasure chatting with you. I had such a good time. Thank you so much for having me on your show.
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