The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

September 11, 2008

What I’ve Been Working On Lately

Filed under: Personal Stuff, Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:37 am

Aside from a brief mention on the “about” page, I haven’t really talked much about my job here on this site.  Part of this is a matter of keeping some degree of separation between what I do at work and what I do in my own time, and part of this is because unless some disproportionately large portion of the people who read this Blog happen to work in software development, the stuff I do at work would just bore most of you to tears.  I remember several years ago seeing a recruiting poster for some team which worked on particularly low-level development stuff, which bore a tagline of “Because you never want your mother to understand what you do for a living.”  I’d have to say that in the field I work in, this is probably the case.  Then again, I’m not entirely sure that I understand what my mother does for a living, so we’re even, right?

Another reason that I don’t write much about work here is that a lot of the products I’ve worked on over the years have been the type of stuff that most of you out there wouldn’t even know existed.  For most of my professional career, I have worked as a contract software tester at Microsoft.  All in all, it’s not a bad place to work, and I’ve been able to make a comfortable living doing this, but it also has its disadvantages, the most notable of which is the requirement to take 100 days off after you work there for a year before you can return as a contractor.  With careful planning and savings, I have learned to deal with this period without too much difficulty, even though it does tend to leave me with a bit too much time on my hands.  Another effect of this policy is that during the time I have contracted at MS, the longest I have remained with a single team has been 2 1/2 years over three different contracts, and jumping from one team to anoither is a fairly common occurrence.

It was one of these semi-unexpected transitions that landed me on the Zune team a couple of months ago as an SDET (Software Development Engineer in Test, basically a tester who with a focus on programming for test automation.)  Even though I tend to be something of a confessed gadget junkie, the Zune is a product with which I had very little experience at the time.  For that matter, I haven’t ever owned a Zune, an iPod or anything more complex than a semi-ancient MP3 CD player that I stopped using years ago, simply because I haven’t ever really found a need for one.  I rarely listen to music outside of my car (which has a MP3-capable 6 disc CD changer in it) and even with that, I find myself spending a lot more time driving with the radio off than I used to.  This meant that when I joined this team, I wasn’t really up to speed on what these devices are capable of, and actually found myself surprised at some of the stuff that you can do with one of the things.

Fast forward a couple of months, and just this week the stuff that I have been working on has been officially announced, which means that I can talk about it now.  Although there are a couple of new  Zune models that have just been released (a 16GB Flash device and a 120GB hard drive device,) most of the new stuff going on here is found on the software side of things, which is where I have been working.  Perhaps the most notable feature found in the new Zune 3.0 software is the ability to purchase and download music directly from the device while it is connected to a wireless connection, as well as the ability to tag songs you hear on the device’s built-in radio for either immediate or later download.  Even though it was apparently declared officially uncool to listen to the radio sometime back in the late Nineties or so, I still listen to it quite a bit, mostly to relentlessly mock the insipid advertising thereon.  My personal music collection really isn’t all that big (having a big test server full of stuff tends to expand it a bit though) and limited in scope, so the radio usually provides a better selection of music than I’ve got, depending on which station is on.

New features aside, another interesting aspect of working on this team has been the aspect of working on a product that people have not only heard of, but one that get a surprisingly large amount of exposure in the media.  It’s been a particularly interesting experience to go watch commenters over at Gizmodo and Engadget discuss and speculate about the stuff the team has been working on, even if every Zune related comment thread seems to attract about three busloads of Apple fanboys.  Before I joined this particular team, I had spent most of the previous three years working on enterprise management software, which is the type of stuff that generates a fair bit of revenue for a company like MS, but does so with little glamour and with little exposure.  I can’t recall the last time that I saw a comments thread full of Configuration Manager fanboys arguing with the LANDesk fanboys over some obscure bit of functionality, but I’m sure those people are out there somewhere in some forgotten corner of the Internet (if someone knows where, please let me know so I can stay as far away from those places as humanly possible.)  When you spend your days holed up in a dark and drafty test lab on a team like that, you tend to doubt that you’ll ever run into an actual end user of the product you’re working on without attending some obscure trade show.  On the other hand, on a product like this one, there’s at least some chance that you might see someone using the product you worked on out in public.

Anyway, if any of you out there happen to actually have a Zune, enjoy the new features when they show up on the 16th, and feel free to find someone else to blame if the stuff doesn’t work.

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