Darren grew up on a farm near Cottonwood, ID. His interest in computers developed in high school where he was able to take computer classes all four years. "I was using TI99s. I coded up some games using 'sprites' and my teacher actually tried to interest gaming companies in buying them. Since I graduated with only 40 people in my class, I actually had a lot of individual help."
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Commenting on how he ended up attending the University of Idaho Darren says, "I went there because it was close to where I grew up and I heard it was a good engineering school. My older brother was there in Mining Engineering so that was somewhat of a draw for me as well."
For three of his years at the University of Idaho, Darren lived in Snow Hall, and when time permitted, took advantage of the many recreational opportunities available. "I played intramural sports, but it was just a small percentage of the time. I mostly played pick-up basketball in Memorial Gym or played racquetball." To help finance his education Darren worked about 15-20 hours a week for the Athletic department. "I really enjoyed this job. I was doing non-techie work but it was fun and a good escape. I was washing and folding towels, setting up equipment for football practices, and would help with football practices during football season."
In 1993 Darren received a B.S. Computer Science degree. "It wasn’t until I was out of school and working with people that had degrees from around the world that I realize how good of an education I had. I would say things about what I did in school and people would say, 'Wow – we didn’t do that sort of thing.'"
"Software engineering, database, and capstone design courses teach real world skills that ease the transition into the profession."
After completing his degree, Darren joined OUM, a Bellevue, WA malpractice insurance company where he worked in their IT department testing in-house billing, policy and claims software. ''I chose OUM because the job was a software testing position and I had the opportunity to start and then demonstrate the value of dedicated testing resources." Darren worked at OUM for 2 years. "It was a great experience to see how businesses use software." In looking back the beginning of his professional career Darren had this to say, "There was very little transition from school to the working world. My senior design projects, software engineering classes and database classes set me up for an easy transition. It was like I just continued my senior design projects."
"Having a network of contacts can be very helpful in advancing your career."
During his time at OUM Darren kept in contact with a friend who worked at Microsoft and was also a University of Idaho graduate. "My friend wanted me to come to Microsoft. I was hesitant to go because I heard they expected you to work very long hours and they were tough." His friend eventually prevailed and Darren joined Microsoft in 1995 as a member of the SQL Server Tools team. At the time, the division had about 100 people and generated about $100M a year, but had only four testers for all the tools.
His first position was that of a Software Test Engineer (STE) supporting development of the SQL Server product. The work environment and processes were very structured and consistent. A build would come out at midnight, our automated tests (in VB and SQL scripts) would run, and we would come in the morning and check our test results. During the day they would do some manual testing and it was just as structured as the automated testing.
As he gained more experienced, Darren took on the added responsibility of a Test Lead overseeing the work of several contractor and Microsoft test engineers. "When I was a lead, I would spend maybe 10% of my time doing actual testing." After about five years as a Test Lead and with an internal reorganization looming, Darren had to make the decision -- move into a full time management position or return to the role of an individual contributor. He elected to become an individual contributor taking a position as a Software Developer in Test (SDET) that gave him the opportunity to test and write code. "I stayed in the SQL Server organization but moved from Tools to Replication. I was a technical lead but didn't have any people reporting to me. I did C# coding for automation and I wrote test tools that were used by the test team. My SQL career finished while helping ship SQL versions 6.0, 6.5, 7.0 and SQL 2005." When Darren left the SQL organization it had about 1500 people and was making more than $1B a year. The tools team was easily numbering into the 100s. Quite a change from when he first started.
"At Microsoft Research we get to do cutting edge research and development that could range from web stuff, to digital picture frames, to face recognition."
In early 2005 Darren joined the staff of Microsoft Research (MSR). MSR has a unique flavor that he found appealing, with a staff of researchers, and developers that help the researchers. "My former manager, the one I worked with in the SQL team, came to me and wanted me to come to MSR. He wanted to build a team that would take researcher’s ideas and put them into code that was easily transferrable to products, or as simple prototypes, or free downloads." This meant the projects would be as diverse as MSR itself. All the people brought in had been through product groups and had management experience, but now wanted to do cutting edge research and development. When he started in this group, the team averaged 13 years of Microsoft experience with some people having 20 or more years.
Darren was recruited to MSR because his manager felt that the group was doing a bit more than prototyping and needed a test specialist. "I basically became MSR's first Software Developer in Test (SDET)." Darren's responsibility was to test the research.microsoft.com web site and research projects." We now test products ranging from digital picture frames, to astronomy applications, to web applications, to standard Windows applications, to Office add ins, to Internet Explorer add ins. Aside from the short projects, we also test the tools that researchers and business folks use to put their information on the web site."
"In MSR my projects here can last ½ day or up to six or seven months. Researchers request my time and along with my manager, we review the projects and we choose which ones make the most sense. This allows us to pick good projects and usually ones that are fun to work on. We have about 4 or 5 projects going on at one time and they are really diverse. I rarely spend all day on one project."
"Our work is really international. I get to work with different Microsoft Research labs in China, India and England."
"Over the past couple years, test in MSR has become a popular commodity to the point where I again supervise other full time testers. It was just a situation where we needed it and it made sense that they report to me. Our work is really international. I get to work with different Microsoft Research labs in China, India and England. I do weekly conference calls with their teams."
Although working at Microsoft Research is demanding, Darren is still able to find time for some leisure time pursuits. "I use some of my free time playing all sorts of sports -- softball, racquetball, ice hockey, and working out at the gym. But I now have a 2 year old at home, so being with my wife and child is really important."
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