Disruptive. According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, it’s the adjective form of disrupt, which means to break apart or throw into disorder. But in the tech industry, it’s become the buzz word for transformation, tearing something down in order to create something new and better.
Spend time talking with Dave Campbell, chief technical officer of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise organization and one of the company’s elite corps of Technical Fellows and you understand why. “People have to recognize that there’s a need for disruption,” said Campbell. “There comes a time when you have to make a shift and take a run at the new world.”
Campbell is adept at using disruption as a positive force. “If you can see and sense disruptive forces and really acknowledge them, you can identify points where you need to change,” he said. “It is an incredibly liberating moment when you recognize the need to change in order to succeed.”
Campbell’s approach to work reminds me of a moment in the film “Apollo 13,” when several NASA technicians need to quickly design a carbon dioxide absorber to save the lives of three astronauts trapped in a damaged capsule. One technician turns to everyone assembled in the room and declares, “We've got to find a way to make this [a square canister] fit into the hole for this [a round canister] using nothing but that [the contents of mismatched pieces spread across a table].”
It’s kind of a fitting analogy for the disruption that Campbell’s accomplished in his career, including 20 years at Microsoft. “Dave thinks sideways,” said Dean Hachamovitch, chief data strategist at Microsoft. “Whereas the rest of us look at a problem the same way, he always manages to find another angle.”
That’s why when Bill Gates stepped down as CEO at Microsoft, he anointed 22 Technical Fellows, including Campbell. While a huge honor, Campbell jokingly dismisses it as coming from some process in a smoke-filled room. “Dave is all about the business, the customer and the outcome,” said Ted Kummert, who as former chief of the SQL Server team used to be Campbell’s manager and now remains a good friend.
Whereas the rest of us look at a problem the same way, he always manages to find another angle.
“I've been in meetings where it's gotten heated,” said Campbell. “And I said look, if there's ever a moment where it comes through that you think the project is about me, show me the door, because that's not at all who I want to be. I want it to be about the result.”
That doesn’t sound like your typical disruptive force. Where are the “Game of Thrones”-style power struggles and betrayals? In truth, Campbell’s an executive anomaly. He’s humble, unassuming and down-to-earth in how he talks and presents himself, which today takes the form of a casual dress shirt and blue jeans. You can’t help getting the feeling that he truly listens and cares, and is even interested in whatever thoughts simpler life forms such as myself string together. “He’s a genuine guy,” said Kummert.
He can disappear in a room one moment, then transform that same room in another with one thought. “That’s part of his magic,” remarked Hachamovitch. “He leads by example, role-modeling what it means to focus on moving a project forward.”
Campbell elaborates on that point, the synapses firing in his brain at such a velocity that you half expect to see sparks coming out of his ears. “There was a point in time when a couple of us were leading SQL Server. And what I'm most proud of is that out of the hundreds of significant decisions we made, there wasn't one where it had anything to do with any of us.”
That last sentence could be his epitaph. It defines what it’s like working with him. “I’m still trying to find a group that walks away from Dave without saying ‘wow,’” said Hachamovitch.
In many ways, Campbell has lived his life in pursuit of disruption. As a child, growing up in New England, he bided his time taking radios apart and messing with Heathkits. A voracious reader, he finished the entire World Book encyclopedia – 22 volumes in all – before he turned 10. (Just in case you’re wondering, Campbell recommends the “T” volume.) Today, he focuses more on books about organizational understanding. “I’ve spent the second half of my career on the ‘humans as part of the system’ in terms of the products we build and how we build them.”
When he was 11, about the age most boys stop eating dirt, he built a 150-foot intercom between his house and a kid’s next door. One of his first summer jobs was working at a Lincoln Mercury dealership. Not sweeping floors, like many of us would have done, but rather fixing car electronics. “You had these incredible mechanics with decades of experience, but they couldn't understand the transition from mechanical mechanisms to electronics,” recalled Campbell. “For me it was just another puzzle. I thought, ‘Hey, cool, I get to solve problems these guys don't want to.’ It was fascinating.”
Stories like this reveal a duality about Campbell. He’s half wide-eyed curious child, half human scientist, constantly processing information to use at a later date. “Learning to me is about understanding what's behind something so you can capture it in a model and basically synthesize it again as necessary.”
I felt much smarter at the beginning of our interview. Campbell and his learning model earned a degree in mechanical engineering and a masters in robotics from Clarkson University, in upstate New York. It was there he met his wife, Marcia, who has also proven disruptive, but as Campbell admits, all for the betterment of him. “I give my wife tremendous credit for rounding me out,” he said. “She likes to travel, and I'm like, travel, there's nothing tangible when you're done. But now I have an incredible appreciation for it.” Their two boys, in their twenties, are a mixture of what Campbell calls Marcia’s artistic genes and his geek genes.
Campbell’s post-collegiate career started with Sanders Associates, a defense company where he worked creating robotic workcells. This didn’t endear him to the people already on the shop floor. “Everyone was thinking this robot kid is going to put us out of a job,” said Campbell. How he handled the situation says a lot about how he handles business relationships. “I moved the dialogue towards telling them my goal isn’t to put you out of a job. If we both succeed, you'll have a better job.”
Campbell eventually ended up at Digital Equipment Corp (DEC), where he got to build databases on an extremely fast processor. “We set a world record in an industry benchmark at the time,” recalls Campbell. “But the new CEO wanted to focus on DEC as a hardware company, and opted against publishing it.”
Around this time, Campbell met Microsoft CTO David Vaskevitch. Vaskevitch wanted Microsoft to get into the enterprise software business. His goal was to have a suite of software that would run on Microsoft’s new server operating system, Windows NT. So in 1994, Campbell moved his family across country to work with the SQL Server group as a developer on the Storage Engine team.
To bootstrap its database server offering, Microsoft acquired the source code of an older version of Sybase’s database server. Even with the code however, Microsoft still had to reverse engineer the knowledge that went into it. “You couldn’t walk down the hall and ask anyone why things were done in a particular fashion,” said Campbell. “In many cases, we simply had to make changes and observe whether the change worked or violated some assumption which caused the server to fail spectacularly. We disrupted it to learn how it worked.”
The first version of Microsoft SQL Server, containing the Sybase architecture and code, was highly functional but not scalable. “The problem was that with hardware changing so dramatically, our solution wasn't set up for the next 10 years,” said Campbell. The team came to the conclusion that the old architecture would have to go. Then they had to convince Bill Gates.
These were the days when Gates lived in the trenches. Many of the stories you hear about Gates’ intensity during the review process are true. “He would push and push because he was testing us and our convictions,” said Campbell. “If our answers were valid, and our conviction was strong, he would give the green light. And if he found inconsistencies, he’d call you on it.”
Gates ultimately sided with the SQL Server team, leading to the rewriting of SQL Server. “When you work with Dave, what you value about him is how you can throw him into any ambiguous controversy and he can get people aligned,” said Kummert. “That has a lot to do with who he is as a person and how he goes about what he does.”
Campbell likened keeping SQL Server operational during the rewrite to changing a cow to a horse, one organ at a time. In the end, SQL Server 7, the foundation for SQL Server today, became one of his proudest career achievements.
In time, Campbell migrated from SQL Server to his current role in shaping Microsoft’s cloud and big data strategy. A big part of that work involves understanding how businesses are dealing with the opportunities and challenges that big data and the cloud present, and using that understanding to create products that will help them make the best use of the technology.
His vision aligns well with that of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who is a big advocate of growth-hacking and using statistics to figure out what users want, what they think about products, and how they use them. “Satya said it best on his first day,” said Campbell. “This is an industry that doesn't respect tradition. It respects innovation.”
Campbell marvels at the potential of the cloud and how it can completely transform how we think about so many things in our lives. “Ultimately the real value is going to be in 10 to 15 years when you get through to platform and software as a service.” According to Campbell, you’ll see data insight that can lead to faster medical breakthroughs, greater academic learning and more efficient use of natural resources.
To make his point he singles out the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The relief agencies on the scene had tremendous communication barriers to overcome because most of the locals only spoke Haitian Creole while the helpers did not. So somebody got a message to Microsoft Research and asked for help. Through statistical machine learning, Microsoft created, in less than five days, a machine translation service that could go from Haitian Creole to English and vice versa. “We have this vast computing power and the ability to quickly process large amounts of data in the cloud,” he said.
Campbell particularly enjoys the cloud’s instant gratification. “What's interesting is that we are returning to a point where a developer can make a change, and the next day, see its effects. We're able to close the loop in different ways that we weren't able to five years ago.”
People are recognizing that their information can be more secure by having us look after it in our cloud rather than in their own premises or data centers.
One of the obstacles he faces is people’s fear of cloud security. To that Campbell replies, “There's the perception of what the risks are and then there's the actuality. People are recognizing that their information can be more secure by having us look after it in our cloud rather than in their own premises or data centers.”
So as one of the longest-tenured Microsoft employees, a Technical Fellow and a recognized leader, what more is there for Campbell to accomplish? What other projects can he help disrupt? To answer that, Campbell redirects me to a buzz word I had not heard: “finitiative.” It means having the initiative to completely finish what you start. With Campbell, he thinks less about the specific project and more about the challenge of seeing it through to its natural conclusion.
“I've done a bunch of different things and there are still new frontiers. That's the thing I need to continue to keep pushing.”Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft