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Microsoft open source exec: Not the loneliest guy in Redmond

By , Network World
August 10, 2005 11:16 AM ET

Network World - The name Microsoft still engenders boos and moans from the crowd at LinuxWorld, but increasingly open source advocates and Microsoft executives recognize the need for the two camps to play nicely.  To that end, Microsoft hired Bill Hilf, an open source industry veteran to help it chart its strategy in the choppy open source waters. Hilf, director for Microsoft’s platform technology strategy organization, is leading a technical session at LinuxWorld – a first for Microsoft – that focuses on managing Linux in a mixed environment. Network World Senior Editor Jennifer Mears sat down with Hilf at the show to hear about Microsoft’s Linux/open source software lab and where the software giant sees the industry heading. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Tell me about your background and how you ended up in this rather interesting role at Microsoft.
I started at Microsoft about 20 months ago and I’ve been working with open source and Linux for about a dozen years. My background is in software development. I ran the engineering group for a company called eToys.com, which was a very large almost entirely open source based ecommerce site. I then joined IBM when IBM was starting to ramp up its interest in Linux – around 1999 or 2000. Microsoft contacted me in the late 2003 time frame and said, “We need to understand open source software and what we can learn from it.” I’m a software guy at heart and I was interested in working for a company that builds software at the scale Microsoft does, just from a career perspective, and from a technical interest perspective. So I started in January 2004.

Did you have an internal conflict about going to work for Microsoft, considered by many in the open source community to be the evil empire?
Sure. But a lot of people look at Microsoft from a 10,000-foot view and see a company that makes a ton of money and sells proprietary software. Microsoft is really a technical company, full of technologists and led by technologists. As a technologist, it is to me a very interesting place to work. I love IBM. It’s a great company. But it’s a sales company, run by sales people. And as someone who has a raw instinct for technology, Microsoft was a perfect place for me.

What about the comment that Microsoft Steve Ballmer made a few years ago about Linux being a cancer?
It’s like gum on a shoe. No matter what happens it can’t come off. That was well before I joined.

How have your friends in the open source community responded to your move to Microsoft?
I just did an interview with Slashdot. I gave my e-mail address and said if you’re having problems, write to me. I’ve already gotten about 1,200 emails and I will answer every one. About 99% of the e-mails have been positive, saying thanks for being open and honest. Thank you for just having a dialogue. People were saying that it was refreshing to have someone who is from the open source community at Microsoft who understands open source issues and understands how to communicate with the community. I spend time with a lot of people in the open source development community all the time, sometimes daily. I talk to a lot of the leaders in the open source community on an engineering level about what we can do to work better together. You’d be amazed at how many of those people have been receptive to the point of saying, “You know what, thank God that I have someone I can actually contact, because I’ve been working in this space for years, and I didn’t know anyone in that company called Microsoft.”

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