Recently I was able to catch up with Zach Owens, a technical evangelist here at Microsoft who is focused on getting the word out to developers about the Microsoft Data Platform. As I think you will see, catching up with Zach is no easy feat. During my interview with him he told me he recalls the exact moment that he decided to study computer science: during his first year in college he was walking down a street in Granada (he was an exchange student in Spain) and it dawned on him that he wanted to be a developer so that he could work from anywhere in the world. Well, it would seem that vision has become a reality for Zach – he has been a developer and has lived all over the world. While he currently calls Seattle home, his work as a technical evangelist continues to take him on global adventures. Somewhere amidst all his travels he has found the time to become fluent in Spanish, a certified Oracle DBA, a certified ColdFusion developer, President of the ACM Chapter at NMU, a Project Management Professional, a board member for the Project Management Institute (PMI) Maui Chapter, a graduate of the IE Business School (where he received his MBA), and a finisher of the 2006 Lanazarote Ironman Triathlon in the Canary Islands.
That list of credentials got me to wondering what exactly Zach does as a Technical Evangelist…
Brian: What does a technical evangelist do? What do you do?
Zach: I think the “what does a technical evangelist do” question varies from company to company. It even varies from group to group within a company. So I’ll tell you what I do and you can go from there. I work closely with the product groups developing SQL Server, SQL Azure and IIS understanding what features and changes are coming the next versions and what impact this may have on developers. Then I get share what I’ve learned by blogging, presenting at conferences, building demos and labs, and by working directly with developers.
Brian: Sounds like fun. What aspects of the Microsoft Data Platform do you focus on?
Zach: I focus on SQL Server, Windows Azure, and SQL Azure. I also spend a lot of time focused on PHP and its interoperability with our platform.
Brian: Why PHP? I mean, why you and PHP?
Zach: Well, before coming to Microsoft I did a bunch of PHP development. Early in college I had an internship at a company called Web Media Works. One Saturday morning in my junior year, the owner called me up because he wanted me to update web application a contractor had developed. I had no web development experience, no PHP experience and no database experience. All my work up until then had been with Java, C++, and systems programming. But, half-jokingly, he offered me part ownership of the company if I’d help him out. In retrospect I see it was a low-risk way for him to bring some resources to the company since I shared the responsibility of earning/not earning money depending on our projects. The company had started by working with non-profit organization and was making a move towards moving into the commercial sector. I think he figured that if we never made any money, he wouldn’t have to pay me since I was an owner! In any case, I took him up on his offer. Now, that PHP experience lends itself well to what I do as Microsoft moves toward better and better interoperability with PHP.
Brian: Do you remember what the PHP application was?
Zach: That first application was a simple membership database for a local non-profit organization that used PHP and MySQL. We ended up doing a bunch of cool applications ranging from e-commerce to building a suite of web applications as a service (we called it Application Service Provider back then). One of the more interesting projects we did had an integrated touch-screen kiosk …all powered by PHP. Now, keep in mind that this was back in 2000. The organization was a Windows shop and didn’t want to move to Linux for a number of reasons, and we knew PHP…so that’s how we arrived there. We were using SQL Server 2000 and running PHP with ISAPI interface! If only things were as easy then as they are now…
Brian: That sounds like quite a learning experience…can you elaborate?
Zach: Sure. It was a great experience. We did some other web-based work after that project…I just kept learning new stuff. I found PHP to be good language for learning how the web works. By the time I did take a web programming class in my senior year, I could practically have taught it.
When I graduated, I used my skills as a ticket to travel. I did some contract work in New Mexico – some PHP/MySQL work, some random e-commerce stuff, and some work doing report generation for some Fortune 500 companies. I also recall that Perl had a CGI library for generating web controls that I wished was done in PHP…so I rewrote it in PHP. Since I was freelancing, I thought it would be a good idea to broaden my skills, so I started taking some ColdFusion/Oracle work and learned them along the way. That turned out to be a good idea, because I found a job in Hawaii building Business Intelligence solutions with ColdFusion and Oracle.
Brian: You really take that “work from anywhere in the world” idea seriously. How did you end up at Microsoft?
Zach: I love to travel. While living in Hawaii, I did a Global MBA program through a school in Spain. That was a cool experience too…took me all around the world to study. After that, I started a global job search. At the time, a buddy of mine was working for Microsoft in evangelism, which sounded like it could be fun. I initially wasn’t wild about moving to Seattle, but I love it here now. The traveling I do for my job satisfies the travel itch, and besides, some of my extended family lives in this area.
Zach: No way! This is a great job, I work with super smart, really hard-working people and I get to do lots of traveling. I was actually in Peru a couple weeks ago for the SQL Server 2008 R2 Launch which was my first time presenting in Spanish and it was a lot of fun! And, I get to learn new stuff all the time…and I get to help other people learn.
As far as missing dev work… I get to be really technical in this role and prefer a mix of working with developers and businesses and I get to sling code as much as I want.
Brian: Where to next?
Zach: I’m moving to Beijing for six months to work on cloud and web evangelism. It’s really cool that Microsoft is providing this opportunity.
Sounds like another interesting adventure, Zach. Have fun!