Wow, where do I start with James Mickens? Describing his “dojo,” his penchant for impersonations of English school kids and English rock bands or his membership in two bands, that both have a lineup of one musician?
I can safely say that Mickens is one of the funniest people I’ve met at Microsoft. I dropped by Building 99 on our main campus in Redmond recently to chat with him about his work – and so much more. James greeted me from his “throne” – an office chair remodeled with the help of a pair of large, green “Hulk” boxing gloves and two staffs ready to be attached. All necessary equipment for the self-styled Galactic Viceroy of Research Magnificence. This was the title James was aiming for during his recent campaign to become head of the Redmond research lab – he tells me he lost out narrowly to Peter Lee but the pair remain comrades. Our whole interview was conducted with the same level of humor as that title and his campaign.
James is a member of the Distributed Systems Group within Microsoft Research (MSR). He studied for his undergrad at Georgia Tech, receiving his bachelors in computer science, and then realized that he didn’t know what snow was like so moved to Michigan to study for his Ph.D. in computer science. He arrived at Microsoft a little over three years ago following two internships, one in the Redmond lab where he now works, and an earlier period spent in the Cambridge, UK, lab. It was during his UK term that he realized the old adage of ‘you never forget how to ride a bike’ is a lie.
Anyone familiar with Cambridge will confirm that the city is bicycle mad, so upon arrival James visited the local bike store and emerged on his new steed. Five yards later he fell off, only to be met by a young schoolboy who looked down on him and advised “it’s a long way back home, mate.” British humor, how I miss it.
His internship also allowed James to explore his passion for UK rock bands such as Black Sabbath and the vagaries of vending machines that sell triangular sandwiches from hell. All part of growing up in the UK I assured him.
For most of his life James thought he was going to become a professor following in his father’s footsteps, but his two internships at MSR convinced him than you can do great research without being a professor – yet still have many of the same benefits. He still gets to publish his work; James gets to work with students and admits that he just really likes the people at Microsoft, explaining that they’re very friendly, very sharp and foster a deeply collaborative atmosphere. It’s a welcome change from the academic environment that he feels can be unnecessarily competitive.
“People don’t have guns pointed at each other here…there is good competition but everyone is rooting for you to succeed, not fail” – James says.
When I ask James about his view of MSR versus other industrial research labs, he explains it’s the basic research approach that sets it apart from others. It’s not simply a set of product groups looking to the “pointy heads in the ivory tower” to solve their challenges.
“I don’t want to give you the impression that we’re drinking Courvoisier out of ice sculptures though…you have to choose the right projects, but there is a great sense of free rein. And, when the time is right, you also have direct contact with product groups that literally give you access to millions, or billions of users. It’s the perfect mix that allows you the best of academic and commercial worlds”
I pause for a moment to check my audio recording is working fine and James nods, assuring me that he’s glad we’re not losing any of his “floetry” as he likes to call it. I understand where he’s coming from when he says that “once that spigot is turned on, it’s hard to turn off.” We’re now fully in the James vortex and when a phone call comes in, he dismisses it deftly and reassures me that this interview is more important. Time management skills, learnt from Donald Trump he notes.
We move on to talk about James’s current research and a tool he’s been working on called Mugshot – designed to help debug web based applications. It’s a fascinating field of work that’s trying to bring the same rigor and discipline to web based programming as we’re familiar with in tools like Visual Studio. James explains that while the web based app delivery model is very powerful, the speed at which it has grown up means the tools are really not there to help developers build robust applications or to debug when things go wrong.
We’ve all had the experience of clicking a button on a web page and nothing happens. Or hovering over a button only to have it obscure the precise text we need to read to enter in to the text entry field. The web breaks all the time, James explains, and there are so many variables on a page that it’s hard for developers to second guess all of them.
That’s where Mugshot comes in. It’s non-invasive to a user and by adding a Java Script library to a page, a developer gains access to a raft of useful data that will help them replay an entire web session – mouse click, random numbers, timings etc. It provides a huge amount of insight and could lead to far fewer buggy web pages.
After a lengthy discussion about how buggy web pages slow the performance of the web, we take a diversion into James’ other passions. Music is clearly one of them – a stack of CDs sit on his desk and he confirms that when in high school he was a member of a critically acclaimed band called Metallica 2 (or is it Metallica too?). I ask about his interests outside of Microsoft and he laughs, saying you have to be careful when you tell people in Seattle that you do anything.
“Oh, you run? Wanna go run to Vancouver. #false…I run because I wanna live forever, not because I like running.”
“You enjoy cycling…wanna go cycling down to Berkeley? No!”
Sometimes chatting with James did feel like some of the output of the browser debug window he referred to earlier. It’s a fun experience.
He plays guitar in two bands, one is a metal band called Ten Times Your Master. Themes for the band are time travel and robots – and James is the only member. His second band is a folk metal outfit known as Blistered Oak, where once again, James is the only member.
During 40 minutes of chatting with James, I feel like I have time travelled myself – to Cambridge, Michigan and “Saturday Night Live”. He could easily grace the stage of that show, and then debug their website for them.
In many ways, James personifies all that is great about Microsoft Research. Hire smart people, give them free rein and challenge them to push the boundaries of science. James is pushing plenty of boundaries and I suspect this isn’t the last you’ll hear of the Galactic Viceroy of Research Magnificence.