Mining for digital gold
When you watch the video, you think, wow, the man is cool. Amir Netz is cool. The video in question, which is easily found on YouTube, shows Netz introducing Power BI for Office 365 to an audience of thousands at the 2013 World Partner Conference. Watch it and you’ll see a TED-quality speaker who pretty much owns the room. He’s effusive, upbeat and genuinely funny, even giving a sort of stand-up routine: Using Power BI’s data visualization features, Netz analyzes some fifty-plus years of number-one pop songs, from Elvis Presley to Rihanna, with a breathless, dizzying flair. With rapid-fire delivery, he describes Mariah Carey’s 1990s run of number one hits as if she were a soccer player advancing on goal (“she's faking to the left!”), offhandedly dismisses Paula Abdul (“what’s she doing here?”) and sums up Nelly’s music as “songs my kids love but I cannot stand.” It’s a tour-de-force presentation, one worthy of a concert stage. And when it ends with a shouted, “Thank you, Rihanna! Thank you, Power BI! Thank you all!”, the audience erupts in well-deserved, deafening cheers for Amir Netz.
I half-expect the rock star when I interview Netz, but what I get is a soft-spoken, thoroughly modest fellow. He politely shrugs off the rock star comparisons—“I don’t have any groupies,” he says, grinning—and immediately begins talking to the thing that put him in front of that crowd in the first place: his work with Microsoft’s Business Intelligence team.
Netz is quietly proud of his work on BI, which has touched a number of products that include Power Pivot and Power View for Excel. He loves doing design work (“It’s a great passion of mine, a passion I discovered fairly late”) but you can tell that the real fire driving his engine is data. He loves taking hard data—like, say, that of Mariah Carey’s 1990s record sales—and making it into a tune you can hum along with.
“Business intelligence is all about people being able to gain some understanding by looking at data,” he says. “Understanding what's going on in the company, understanding what's going on in the market, identifying opportunities to improve, discovering insights that were previously hidden, and most importantly reacting and adapting quickly to change. This is what all business intelligence is about.”
For many companies data is buried treasure. There are riches in there that can completely and utterly transform a company’s fortunes, but they don’t do you any good if you don’t have the tools to dig them up.
Put another way: For many companies data is buried treasure. There are riches in there that can completely and utterly transform a company’s fortunes, but they don’t do you any good if you don’t have the tools to dig them up. BI provides those tools: shovels to dig deep, hammers to break up the hard rock, panning sieves to separate the precious stones from the worthless ones. With his work on BI, Netz has fashioned a set of tools that could well set off a gold rush.
It’s soon after Netz begins talking about his work, his prospector’s toolpack, that I notice something: Oftentimes, after you’ve asked him a question, he regards you quietly for a fraction of a moment, with a soft smile playing across his face. But here’s the thing: You can still see the wheels turning. And at that moment you know: this guy is figuring me out. He’s not judging you, not criticizing you; he’s only attempting to divine what makes you tick, and what you need from him.
His brother Ariel Netz, who worked with Amir in a startup company and now works for Microsoft himself, says that processing on several levels is kind of Amir’s thing.
“Amir would never introduce me this way, but he’s one of the smartest guys that I know,” says Ariel Netz. “He sees the big picture without getting slowed down by the details of what could go wrong. Working with him is a liberating thing because you don’t even start to worry about what would not work.”
That’s why he’s met with cheering crowds at conferences. Amir Netz looks at his customers, really looks at them, and endeavors to figure out what they need to do and makes the tools that allow them to do it, without giving too much thought to the obstacles in his way.
It’s an ability he’s had since he was a boy growing up in Israel. Netz was born in the Central Israel city of Giv'atayim and grew up in what he calls a “typical Israeli” household: His father was a soldier, his mother a teacher. It was “a very, very different Israel at that time,” says Netz, remembering his childhood as a happy one.
“It was an unsheltered life,” he says. “We were running in the streets. We were playing everywhere, between the cars. Sometimes we would go with 20 other kids and play all the way until midnight, and it was acceptable… Today, our parents would be arrested for such child negligence, but that was the norm in those days.”
His interest in computers manifested early. By the age of ten, he’d written his first Fortran program on a mainframe computer at a local university—“using punch cards,” he adds, chuckling.
His mother and father were encouraged by Amir’s passion, if not by his classwork. (“I was not a model student at that time” he says, noting that he was almost kicked out of school at age 16.) Together, they made a decision that would change his life: They decided to furnish him with a tool set of his own, one he could use to unearth his fortunes.
“When the personal computer revolution started, I knew that I just had to have one,” says Netz. “It was the early ‘80s, and the first really affordable personal computer showed up: the Sinclair Z80. It was a very, very small computer that cost 100 British pounds at the time – which was quite a lot of money, but still affordable.
“My parents were really frugal, and I knew that I had to be very careful not to ask for too much. I asked for the Sinclair, but instead of buying that, they bought me the most expensive configuration of personal computer of the day: An Apple II with two-disc drive and a dot matrix Epson printer. This was probably the most expensive thing they bought in their life. They decided that if they were going to do it for me, they were going to do it right.”
He began working on the computer relentlessly, even skipping school for three months to stay in and write code. By the time he was chucked out of high school, it hardly mattered: The carefree kid who had only written his first program six years prior had his own software and his own business.
“I wrote my own word processing software,” says Netz. “In Israel everything goes right to left, so English word processing software would not work for Israelis. So I built one.”
Well, sort of.
“At the time, you have to understand, the notion of hacking into software and taking somebody else's source and sort of making it your own was not something that, at 16 years old, I thought there was an issue with,” says Netz. “The whole notion of intellectual property was not highly developed at the time. It wouldn't bug me until many, many years later.”
That day came shortly after Microsoft acquired his company, Panorama Software Systems. While an adult Netz was on a tour of the Redmond campus, he happened to look down and notice some plaques on the ground that feature the products released by Microsoft, box by box. Suddenly, one box caught his eye: Microsoft Typing Tutor, from 1984.
“I said, ‘Holy cow! This is the software I hacked when I was 16 and sold it.’” He laughs hard. “I’ve kept the secret all these years, but I think we have a good line of communication by now.”
It took a bit of cultural adjustment for Netz to build up that line of communication. Netz says that his first few years in Redmond were all about turning his volume down:
“In Israel, aggressiveness is taken for granted. We’re all aggressive in nature. If you want people to hear you, just shout. Shouting is allowed. Politeness is a sign of weakness. It took me awhile to realize that some of the habits that I have from Israel are probably not very appropriate here.”
Whether his attitude was inappropriate back then or not, his brother says that Amir’s present temperament is “the opposite of angry.”
“One of the things that he can do is take any argument and break it into small chunks,” says Ariel Netz. “It makes the conversation, the argument so much easier. I’ve rarely ever seen him raise his voice.”
Curiously, Amir’s method for dealing with problems seems to be the exact opposite of what he built Power BI for Office 365 to do: He takes something big and breaks its down to pieces of data. It allows him to “avoid problems to begin with” by spotting them out and heading in another direction, just as Mariah Carey faked left to score a goal on Boys II Men.
Today, Amir Netz’s contentment extends far beyond the office. He’s been happily married for 22 years and has four kids (“three boys and a princess”) and is an avid reader and gamer. He coaches kids’ soccer, which is about as physical as he likes to get: “I'm not diving deep into the ocean. I'm not jumping out of airplanes. That's not me. Most of my adventures are at work.”
And those adventures are rooted not in pieces of data, or in the love of computing that’s been with him since age 10. It’s rooted in his love of figuring out what people need … and bringing it to the stage.
“I'm actually on stage quite a lot because I have this connection with customers,” he says. “I love giving presentations.”
There are action movies in theaters this summer that contain less action than Netz’s presentations.
Well, yeah. There are action movies in theaters this summer that contain less action than Netz’s presentations.
“But I get really nervous,” he says. “I really fear. That nervousness transforms into excitement and you can see me really bubbling with energy – and it's not an act; that nervousness is now fully, just completely morphed into that energy you see onstage. It really works for me. I care a lot about the product. I care for these folks. I care that people will enjoy it.”
So, is that where it comes from? I ask. Are these presentations what enables you to get in touch with what people need from BI?
“It's not just talking to them, it's hearing them,” he says. “I look at their facial reactions. What they say is one thing, but what they feel might be different, and the face rarely lies. I want to see the excitement in their face. That's something I'm always looking for. When you try to build software that really gets people excited, you have to have that.”
And with that declaration, I fully expect Amir Netz—treasure hunter, vanquisher of Paula Abdul—to drop the mic and walk off the stage in triumph, fists aloft. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he thanks me, genially wishes me a good day, and goes back to work refining his prospector’s tools.Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft