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An interview with John Robbins of Wintellect

, 17 Jan 2001 CPOL
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John Robbins talks about .NET and life at Wintellect

<!----> John Robbins works for Wintellect, along with Jeff Prosise and Jeffrey Richter. John has taken some time out of his busy schedule to have a chat about what he is up to these days, and his thoughts on .NET.


What exactly is it that Wintellect does?

Wintellect is an education and consulting firm. On the education side we help our clients figure out how to use and deploy all the technologies they are facing in the Windows world. We cover the gamut from COM, to debugging, to VB, to .NET, to ASP.NET and beyond. What makes our education services different is that they are totally focused on using the technologies to solve business problems. We do everything possible to ensure that you will be immediately productive with the technology to meet your business needs. All the Wintellectuals (that's what we call ourselves) have shipped products using the technologies so we can get you over the hurdles you will face working with them on your own.

On the consulting side, we focus on helping our clients solve the nastiest bugs that they are facing and preventing them from shipping. We specialize in the impossible problems that completely stump entire development organizations. Additionally, we offer services on a retainer basis for companies that need support and answers through the development cycle.

What's your official job title and where do you fit into Wintellect?

It's "Golf Caddy" since I always carry Jeff Prosise's golf bag when we end up in the same town. He's always playing golf so I always carry his bag. Actually, I really don't know, and I kind of like not having a title. If I had to pin it down, what I'd like on my business card is "Problem Solver".

At Wintellect, I am responsible for the Debugging Windows Application course. 50% of development time is spent in debugging and the goal for my five day course is to help you trim that 50% so that you are shipping better software faster. In the course we cover everything from how to think about debugging, how to really use the debugging tools at your disposal and how to solve all sorts of nasty, impossible problems.

Additionally, I coordinate the consulting and debugging work coming in. I love figuring out those problems developers get themselves into. At this point, I am doing most of the debugging work myself, but we will be expanding this business line soon because we are getting a good deal of interest from companies wanting help.

How does it compare to other places you have worked?

There are two great aspects to being at Wintellect. The first is that I am always working with the best engineers in all sorts of companies such as eBay, Microsoft, AutoDesk, and NCR. It's so motivating and exciting to see what really bright people are doing to solve all sorts of interesting business problems. I'm in complete awe of what our clients are doing and extremely thrilled to play a small part in helping them get there. The second thing is actually controlling my own destiny. If Wintellect succeeds or fails, it's because of me and my efforts alone. If I think Wintellect should do something as a company, it's up to me to make that happen. I find that completely motivating. Sometimes the amount of travel gets a little crazy, but it's the best job I have ever had.

How did you end up where you are?

Unlike many people in this field, I didn't start out programming when I was 10. I had a whole other career before I got interested in making a computer I bought work the way I wanted it to. After high school, I wasn't ready for college so I joined the U. S. Army and ended up as a paratrooper and Green Beret. It was a great job, though it didn't give me much in the way of hard skills for the business world. However, if you want to kill the competition, I'm your man.

After the Army, I started college and was working as an engineer long before I got my degree. A year or so after I finished college, I managed to get a job at NuMega back when they were a tiny little company. I had written a Win32 debugger out of pure curiosity and I was asking a lot of questions about many grungy things on the CompuServe Windows 95 Beta Developer's forum. When someone asked why I was fiddling with something so goofy, I joked that maybe I would get a job at NuMega someday. The next day I had email from the founders asking me if I was interested in a job. Focusing on the problems developers were having was a lot of fun at NuMega. I started there as a regular engineer, became a product architect, and eventually ended up as a product manager. While there, I worked on BoundsChecker, TrueTime, TrueCoverage, and SoftICE.

When I was still working at NuMega, I managed to talk Dave Edson, the technical editor of Microsoft Systems Journal, into letting me be their debugging columnist. The column lead to the idea I might like to write a book on debugging so I left NuMega to write Debugging Applications. Along the way, I met Jeff Prosise and Jeffrey Richter. We all became friends and started talking about how we could form a company. The most fortunate thing we realized was that we were complete idiots when it came to business. Even more fortunately, Jeff Prosise knew Lewis Frazer, who is the former CFO of a major theater chain he helped take public. Lewis was interested in running a startup and we needed someone to run us!

What single word would you use to describe the new .NET initiative?

Only one word! Whew. Can I use two? "Life Altering" is what comes to mind. Going from MS-DOS to Windows was a change, but the change from Windows to .NET very huge. When I first looked at .NET early last year, the phase "forget everything you know" came to mind.

What excites you most about .NET, and what are the main benefits you see for the average developer?

The emphasis on web services and ASP.NET are too cool. Everyone wants to write server apps and with today's technologies, it's doable, but it's much harder than it needs to be. That's because today's technologies are square pegs being jammed into a round hole. With .NET, it's a technology that has the web/interconnectivity built right in.

Another thing I find fascinating is that the object model is clean. Granted, Microsoft finally made the break from the past and didn't have to drag all of those weird things forward. I've always thought it insane that a window and a dialog were two separate things in Win32!

What are your main criticisms? If there is anything you could change what would it be?

Performance is the big problem that concerns me. Beta 1 is not exactly the speediest thing in the world. We have to face that facts that .NET will never hit native code speeds. The question really is how slow will the final versions be? Microsoft has their work cut out for them.

Another very big concern I have about .NET is not a technological concern. In talking with many clients, I'm seeing a pattern emerge that might not be in Microsoft's favor. When I have asked if they are going to migrate to .NET, numerous clients have indicated they are evaluating it. But more importantly, they figure since they have to re-write their applications anyway, they are evaluating which operating system they need to be running on. What's surprising to me are how many committed Windows shops are evaluating that basic premise. Microsoft must work very hard this year on getting the real benefits out about .NET and why people want to wait for it.

What do you see as the future for software development in 5 years? 10 years?

I'm still holding out for Microsoft Visual Object Oriented Assembler, but I don't think it will ever catch on. (Darn!) I really don't think software development will change that much. While there is some really interesting research going on about different programming metaphors, Aspect Java for example, I still don't see that they will revolutionize the business. I'm not a pessimist, it's just that the software development world is dominated by commercial interests. In order for some of today's pie-in-the-sky paradigms to become reality, we will have to scrap lots of existing programs and people. The only thing Y2K taught me was that my programs will really be running 30-40 years from now.

There will be advances in things like speech recognition, biometrics, and such, but basically it will always be a programmer sitting in an office asking the age old question how to I get this thing to get the data from here to there. We will still be battling bugs and performance problems, except that the number of layers where the problem could be is growing exponentially.

What technology would you suggest graduates first start tackling in order to be successful? What technology would you suggest experienced developers ensure they are up to date with?

For both recent graduates and experienced engineers, it doesn't really matter what technology you focus on. The whole thing comes down to interest. Work after hours on the things that interest you and the jobs will come. One thing I always ask interviewees for is a code sample. You would never hire a graphics designer without looking at their portfolio and the same applies to engineers. The thing I look for is the ability to complete a project the interviewee started. If they can complete a reasonable project on their own, without a boss standing over them, they are someone worth talking to. Just having that code sample you did on your own puts you in the top 20% of developers out there.

What does the future hold in store for you?

We feel in a couple of years that Wintellect will be in a position to acquire Microsoft.... We're having a lot of fun building Wintellect so that's going to take a quite a bit of my future. There will always be bugs and performance problems so I sure think I'll be working for a long time to come.

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About the Author

Chris Maunder
Founder CodeProject
Canada Canada
Chris is the Co-founder, Administrator, Architect, Chief Editor and Shameless Hack who wrote and runs The Code Project. He's been programming since 1988 while pretending to be, in various guises, an astrophysicist, mathematician, physicist, hydrologist, geomorphologist, defence intelligence researcher and then, when all that got a bit rough on the nerves, a web developer. He is a Microsoft Visual C++ MVP both globally and for Canada locally.
 
His programming experience includes C/C++, C#, SQL, MFC, ASP, ASP.NET, and far, far too much FORTRAN. He has worked on PocketPCs, AIX mainframes, Sun workstations, and a CRAY YMP C90 behemoth but finds notebooks take up less desk space.
 
He dodges, he weaves, and he never gets enough sleep. He is kind to small animals.
 
Chris was born and bred in Australia but splits his time between Toronto and Melbourne, depending on the weather. For relaxation he is into road cycling, snowboarding, rock climbing, and storm chasing.
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GeneralI found some grammer PinmemberAnonymous22-Jan-01 19:30 
Generalspellin mistakes PinmemberAnonymous20-Jan-01 6:26 
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