MVP Insider – Q&A with Ken Cox (Visual Developer – ASP/ASP.NET)

Ken Cox (MVP Profile) is a programming writer and .NET developer who lives in Nipissing Township, Ontario during the fair weather months, and Victoria, British Columbia in the winter. Ken is currently writing ASP.NET 3.5 For Dummies to be published by Wiley by the end of the year. As a contributing editor for Visual Studio Magazine, he writes articles and product reviews. His current ASP.NET development tasks include an e-commerce Web application for ordering groceries online. Ken was awarded MVP status when Active Server Pages was first released and has continued to grow with Microsoft's Web technologies. He's a regular participant in the Microsoft ASP.NET newsgroups, a frequent blogger, and an active member of the Victoria .NET Developers Association. In a previous life he was a broadcast journalist in Toronto and Quebec City for major Canadian and international news networks. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson University in Toronto and a Certificate in Technical Communications from George Brown College.

1. What does being an MVP mean to you?

The MVP award is quite an honour. It means that I've gained a certain amount of expertise in ASP.NET and then volunteered my time to help others. In terms of benefits, it means that I get "insider" access to people and resources at Microsoft. That special relationship goes both ways because Microsoft listens carefully to what MVPs say. It's all quite flattering! The MVP designation opens doors for me outside of Microsoft as well. For example, book publishers are eager to enlist MVPs just because of the programme's reputation in technical communities. At Microsoft-sponsored events, developers often say, "Gee. You're an MVP?"

2. If you could ask Steve Ballmer one question about Microsoft, what would it be?

Why doesn't Microsoft develop chip-based technology where you could plug in and run software directly from a USB-like thumb drive? Installation programmes spend hours decompressing and transferring files from a DVD to the local hard drive just so the software can run on the machine. Putting packaged software on a secure type of flash drive would make it load and run faster. If the flash drives were re-writable, they would also cut the amount of plastic going into the garbage.

3. What do you think the best software ever written was?

That would be DOS-based TBBS (The Bread Board System) written by Phil Becker of eSoft. Before the Internet, online communities used dial-up bulletin boards to exchange information. Disk space and RAM were hugely expensive back then, so Becker wrote TBBS in machine language to make it lean and lightning fast. (He had previously worked as a computer systems engineer on the Apollo moon programme and the Viking Mars Lander programme.) With add-on boards, you could connect 64 modems to one TBBS machine. I wrote games for that platform in Becker's database-driven dBase dialect called TDBS.

4. If you were the manager of Visual Studio, what would you change?

I'd like him/her to negotiate a special version of Windows Vista or a one-click configuration that takes into account Visual Studio's need for elevated permissions and settings. I've heard too many stories about people who have tried to do development and debugging on Vista and run into problems. Some developers were so frustrated that they ended up downgrading back to XP. I'm hesitant to upgrade to Vista because I can't afford the downtime. A special Developers SKU of Vista - perhaps with Visual Studio pre-installed - would avoid these issues for all of us.

5. What are the best features/improvements of Visual Studio?

The Web page editor in Visual Studio 2008 is a major bonus for ASP.NET developers. You can work in Design view, Source view or both (Split view) and it doesn't reformat your code. I think the new ListView control is going to be very popular because you can do almost anything you want with the markup it generates. LINQ is a major addition, especially for people like me who have struggled with the old SQL syntax and its lack of IntelliSense support.

6. What was the last book you read?

The last computer book that I read was SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed because I was the technical reviewer. For the most part, I just dip into computer books to get specific information. Does anyone (except the technical reviewer) read a computer book from start to finish? My last pleasure reading was Marley & Me by John Grogan. It's a touching book (for dog owners) about the life of the author's lovable dog Marley. Highly recommended.

7. What music CD do you recommend?

Musically, I'm stuck in the 60's so if I had to pick one, it would be Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album has such great, innovative music and wonderful engineering that it's hard to beat. Most of my CDs are digitally mastered "re-purchases" of LPs that I first bought during what the deejays call "The greatest decade of music in rock and roll history". My favourite CDs are by The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Four Seasons.

8. What makes you a great MVP?

While too humble to accept the word "great", it's probably that I'm fascinated by technology but have no formal training in computers or programming. That contributes to my philosophy that if I can learn to develop software, anyone can. It's also empathy for those who find writing software satisfying but also hugely frustrating. Too often, things don't go as you expect, nothing is easy, and the documentation is never sufficient. Most people hit dozens of annoying little snags and just need a quick pointer to get on their way again. Many of us work alone and need a second pair of eyes to see the obvious. Those are the people I like to help. A great MVP has the attitude that 'we're all here to help each other' and gets a big kick when someone replies, "That's just what I needed! Thanks!"

9. What is in your computer bag?

Not my laptop. It's on the kitchen table for browsing the news sites at breakfast. Let's see... There's a warning tag about installing the Fujifilm software before connecting the digital camera; an empty cellphone case; a pad of paper with notes from a prospective client; a Swiss Army warranty card; a networking cable; two pens; a wrapped candy; a flashing red LED safety light for the dog's collar; and a Pocket PC whose battery is totally flat.

10. What is the best thing that has happened since you have become an MVP?

That would be an MVP Summit on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. I had a chance to sit in a room with the top ASP/ASP.NET experts from inside and outside Microsoft. I remember hearing guys like Scott Guthrie, Rob Howard, and Nikhil Kothari talking about what they were planning to put into their Web platform. My head was spinning with their plans and came away pumped up with enthusiasm. The worst part was that it was all confidential and I couldn't talk about it until months or years later.

11. What is your motto?

"Docendo Discimus". I learned it in high school Latin class and it stuck with me. It means "We learn by teaching" and that's exactly what happens in the computer world. Someone that you've never met has a very practical issue to resolve, so you research the answer. You almost always benefit from your own contributions - even if it's not right away. I have literally learned from my own answers by looking them up on the Internet years after I posted them to help someone else. The more I learn by helping others, the more marketable I become.

12. Who is your hero?

Tough choice. Bill Gates would be tops for his vision, industry leadership, and philanthropy. I love the idea that a guy can "make his own luck" to build a computer empire and then give most of his riches away to worthy causes. In a more practical vein, my hero is Scott Guthrie who runs Microsoft's Web Tools and Technologies division. Scott's a brilliant guy with astounding technical depth. Even while running a large division "Iron Man" Scott writes dozens of very practical blog posts, gives presentations all over the world, and answers emails from people like me. Despite his success and fame, Scott remains a very personable, approachable, and likeable guy.

13. What does success mean to you?

Success is more of a feeling than something you can measure. It's doing something worthwhile that brings you joy and satisfaction. Sometimes the reward for success is a tangible item like money - which recalls the old quip, "Money doesn't buy happiness but it does buy yachts to go around looking for happiness in." For me, success is usually the happy knowledge that I've achieved a goal, earned respect for an accomplishment, or made a positive difference. Today, success for me would be getting another chapter of the ASP.NET 3.5 book finished.

Comments (2)

  1. August 23, 2007: MVP Insider – Q&A with Ken Cox (Visual Developer – ASP/ASP.NET) September 6, 2007:

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