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Windows consulting: Getting the bugs out

John Robbins
John Robbins  

January 9, 2001
Web posted at: 4:47 p.m. EST (2147 GMT)

Name

John Robbins

Position

I'm a partner and owner in Wintellect, a software consulting and education firm based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Our focus is on helping companies develop software for the Microsoft Windows operating systems. I'm responsible for most of the debugging business, which is exciting -- I get to move from one emergency to the next.

I wrote and teach our "Debugging Windows Applications" course. That course teaches developers how to solve their hardest bugs, how to get the most out of their debugging tools, and how to write the fastest code possible for the Windows platform.

Years in position

Wintellect has been around for less than a year, but I've been working as a software engineer since 1992.

Age

36

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Would you like to put together a company of your own, as John Robbins and his colleagues have done?

Yes, and reading his comments about it makes it even more attractive to me.
Maybe but it's a hard call. Robbins has a good niche that needed filling. That's important to make a venture successful.
No, I'm better working in someone else's outfit than trying to lead my own.
View Results

 

Education

After high school, I spent five years as a paratrooper and Green Beret in the U. S. Army. While not exactly the traditional training for software engineering, it was a great education in life. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, I was able to go to North Carolina State University and get a BS in computer science after I left the army.

How did you get your current job?

While some specialization is common in today's software field, specializing in debugging other developer's applications is out of the mainstream, to say the least. The reason there aren't more people doing it is that you have to overcome quite a barrier of entry, proving to clients that you have an expertise and can solve their bugs.

In 1995, I managed to get a job at a small software development company, NuMega Technologies. It produced software tools for developers to help them find and fix bugs in their Windows software products. At NuMega, I started as an engineer and helped develop BoundsChecker, TrueTime and TrueCoverage.

While at NuMega, I became a contributing editor for Microsoft's programming magazine, MSDN Magazine. I write the "Bugslayer" column, in which I talk about tools and techniques for debugging and performance tuning software. I started getting quite a bit of e-mail from developers and companies asking for my help debugging their software.

After four years at NuMega, I was ready for new challenges and I was enjoying the writing, so I thought I'd write a book on software debugging. I spent the latter half of 1999 writing "Debugging Applications" (Microsoft Press, 2000).

I'd met my future business partners, Jeff Prosise and Jeffrey Richter, at computer conferences , in which we were all doing presentations. Fortunately, the first thing Jeff, Jeffrey, and I realized was that we were complete idiots when it came to running a business. Even more fortunate, Jeff knew Lewis Frazer, the former CFO of a publicly traded, major theater chain and a real business guy who was interested in running a startup.

How many hours do you work per week?

My wife always complains about this one. Because of the rate of change in the software business, I have to work all the time. On average, I probably work 10-12 hours a day, five days a week, and do 6-8 hours on the weekends. If I'm working on a bug, I put in as much time as possible since I know my clients may lose tens of thousands of dollars every day their product ships late. On these days, it's not uncommon to start at 9 a.m. and go until 2 a.m., trying to figure out where the problem is.

One downside to this business is that there's quite a bit of travel involved as well, which eats a lot of time. Sometimes I can do some of the consulting work at home, which is nice. But many of the software problems we work on run on Internet servers. Since most problems are duplicatable only on live servers, I have to go where the clients are to work on the problem. One of our clients has 350 front-end servers handling their Web traffic.

"Engineers all want to be 'alpha geek' in their organizations and are loathe to admit they don't know something. They hide behind a fašade and end up attempting to learn and build at the same time. What happens is that designs and code end up being built on a foundation of quicksand. If engineers could be more honest about what they know and don't know, companies could focus training needs better as well as ensure people had learning time built into their schedules."

What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?

If I'm at a client site, I'm totally focused on solving their problem. This means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem at hand. If I'm working at home or have the time, I check my e-mail first thing. My Bugslayer column and book generate quite a bit of email questions from other engineers. I do my best to answer them all because I feel that anyone who reads my stuff deserves an answer. After I get through the email, I hit CNN to see what's happening in the world as well as a few other Web sites related to software development. After that, it's working on whatever project has the closest deadline.

What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?

Generally, I eat around 1p.m. I'm not too fussy an eater so if I'm at home, I eat whatever is in the kitchen. At a client site, I eat food from whatever restaurant happens to be closest, or whatever food we can get delivered so we don't waste time.

What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?

Any day I'm working on a client's bug is tense. By the time I get called in to help a client, it's imperative we get the problem fixed as quickly as possible. They've already probably spent a considerable amount of time and money working on the problem, and the product schedule has probably slipped, costing them more money. In addition, the problems are usually complete mind benders, involving a large number of wild technologies and "dead ends." The tensest part of my job is when a client is staring at me expecting me to fix their bug and I completely run out of ideas.

When doing one of my classes, it's a little less tense, but it's still public speaking, which is supposed to be many peoples' No. 1 fear -- and engineers are introverted people. I've practiced to make my presentations sound as natural and entertaining as possible.

If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?

I'm happiest when I find the bug I'm looking for. When we can isolate the problem, figure out how to fix it, and get the client going again, it is a wonderful feeling. When I'm doing a class, a great day is when one of the attendees tells me that the information I'm giving them is very cool and they see how it will make their lives better.

How much work, if any, do you take home?

Since I work out of my home, all of my work is always with me. Occasionally, I think it would be nice to have a separate office, but a three-second commute is tough to beat!

  WINTELLIGENCE
John Robbins tells us that Wintellect counts among its clients helps its clients Microsoft, eBay, Intel, NCR, and AutoDesk. The company works to optimize its clients' use of Windows products, debugging and fixing problems for clients during development and providing training classes in Microsoft technologies (.NET, COM+, Visual Basic). Robbins, who lives in Hollis, New Hampshire, formed Wintellect in May 2000 with Lewis Frazier and Jeff Prosise of Knoxville, and Jeffrey Richter, who's in Clyde Hill, Washington, near Redmond. Robbins says he and Richter have yet to see their Knoxville offices. And we met Robbins when he used our submission form here at "A Day on the Job." If you'd like your day to be considered for a profile here at CNN.com/career, let us hear from you as Robbins did.
 

What does your work contribute to society?

Software bugs are costing business and end-users countless hours and dollars. If I can do my part to help trim those costs by getting developers thinking and working harder on quality, I think I've helped made society a touch better.

Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?

Yes, programming was my hobby before it became my career. I've been extremely fortunate to be paid for something I'd do free. The fact that I'm also starting a company means I can morph the job to match my interests for the future if I want to try new challenges. Additionally, working with partners you really respect and like is lots of fun.

If you could have two more careers, what would they be?

I would like to try that "retired" job! My dad seems to be having way too much fun doing it. But seriously, I don't see myself moving out of this field any time soon. As Wintellect grows, I might slide out of the day-to-day bug battles and into a more sales-and-business role. If I do get to realize the usual dream of retiring early, I could see going back to college and getting a Ph.D. in History and possibly teaching after that.

What's an unforgivable trait in a colleague?

Dishonesty has to be the worst. In the software business, there's a particularly bad form of dishonesty that leads to more bugs and poor quality: not being honest with your colleagues about what you know and don't know. Engineers all want to be "alpha geek" in their organizations and are loathe to admit they don't know something. They hide behind a fa┴ade and end up attempting to learn and build at the same time. What happens is that designs and code end up being built on a foundation of quicksand. If engineers could be more honest about what they know and don't know, companies could focus training needs better as well as ensure people had learning time built into their schedules. The result would be more robust designs and a much higher likelihood of hitting delivery dates.

"When I start to feel like I hate computers and wish they were never invented (and, yes, this does happen occasionally), I think about what we're trying to build as a company. Wintellect is expanding and we're bringing on more Wintellectuals (that's what we call ourselves). The fact that these folks and their families are counting on Wintellect to provide their income is quite a responsibility."

What do you do to relieve stress?

Vacations and motorcycles. It's even more stress-relieving when I can combine the two. My wife and I have done some big trips through Canada the last couple of years and it really helps clear the brain. Getting out and doing a couple of hours through the winding mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont on a motorcycle will do wonders for your sanity. Unfortunately, winter in New Hampshire and motorcycles don't mix so I am going through withdrawals right now. My wife and I also like to travel and see other places. In 2000, I took four weeks off to travel around and I will try to take six weeks off in 2001. There's quite a bit to be said for owning a company!

What have you been reading lately?

My wife and I got rid of our TV in 1993, so I read all the time. I'd strongly suggest getting rid of your TV. In addition to reading The Economist every week, on average I read a book or two on American history a week. Last week I read:

"A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson (Broadway Books, June 1999); "The Best American Travel Writing," Bill Bryson and Jason Wilson, editors (Houghton Mifflin, October 2000); "Up Front" by Bill Mauldin (W.W. Norton, 1945); "With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa" by E. B. Sledge (Oxford University Press, 1996).

When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?

When I start to feel like I hate computers and wish they were never invented (and, yes, this does happen occasionally), I think about what we're trying to build as a company. Wintellect is expanding and we're bringing on more Wintellectuals (that's what we call ourselves). The fact that these folks and their families are counting on Wintellect to provide their income is quite a responsibility. We're still in the startup phase and most of the people are putting their faith in us as a company. Additionally, the other Wintellectuals are also very excited about what we are doing so if I get frustrated, I just remember why they told me they want to work with us.

graphic

 

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