Be the Next Microsoft Employee – Fifth Challenge: I am the architect. I designed the Matrix.

The Buckster

   Well, it’s hard to believe the final challenge is finally here. By now you’ve probably watched, and we’ve announced that we did in fact make an offer to a contestant…but wait, you still have a chance at this week’s prize – and after this submission, I’ll go through all of the submissions for a grand prize winner for a new laptop! Read on to find out how…


Challenge Background

This week I’m joined by two guest judges instead of one: my friend Karen Lopez and another friend Pete Harris. This was an immense challenge – VERY hard to do – and an incredibly short time to do it. It will exercise everything the candidates know about systems, business requirements, and SQL Server – and even data beyond SQL Server. While there is no single “right” answer, there are lots of pitfalls.

 To make it even tougher, we’re checking for technical accuracy, completeness, complexity turned into understandable, and presentation skills. I think any technical professional would find this a worthy challenge indeed.

 You’ll recall from the last episode that I dropped in unexpectedly at dinner the night before the final challenge. I gave the contestants the following information, warned them not to stay up all night, and left. I was told I had a way of ruining a perfectly delightful dinner.

Here’s a sample of what they got:



We have a customer request to help them design a SQL Server layout to meet their data platform needs. You’ll need to evaluate their requirements, and suggest the proper mix of software installations and any configurations you think they need to meet their goals. They have the hardware they are going to use – in fact, they just renewed their lease with their vendor, so it gets refreshed every couple of years. You don’t have to include servers, networks or storage in your suggestions. They are multi-national, with this data system spanning multiple countries.


We have a need for a data system to integrate with our internal software and the external software we run for our clients. The internal software is a mix of smaller applications running the .NET stack, an SAP system with another RDBMS server, and an internal reporting system. We currently take a 100GB or so extract of data from the SAP system, which is used by a mix of the internal systems and the external software. After value is added to the data, we pump that out to a reporting system. Right now, we’re having issues around scale and features. We’d like for the system to perform better and also we want to replace the current simple reporting system which uses de-normalized tables into something more along the lines of a full BI solution.  That’s on our short horizon.

The external application houses customer data from what they enter and also from the SAP extract. It has Privately Identifiable Information and Credit card information in it, so security is top of mind. We also need to ensure that we maintain high-performance on this system, and we can’t sacrifice High Availability – our RTO/RPO is really tight. This is a typical OLTP system, but it does have a reporting component for the customers – although we don’t show PII or Credit Card data in those reports. We seem to see spikes from time to time in the reporting at certain times of the year. We do have a record of those times. The way the applications work is each customer gets their own database, which average around 50-100GB each. We currently have about 300 customers, and are looking at doubling that every 4-7 years in current projections.


The candidate who uses the proper editions, layouts, security considerations, asks the right questions, and presents the solution the best.


I explained that the contestants could use any tool they liked to present their solution. It could be as complex or as simple as they liked – and in any style they wanted. Unlike the previous challenges, there would be no interruptions, no questions, and no feedback. At Microsoft we face these kinds of challenges every day.

Challenge Recap

So what would you do if you were given a huge requirement like this at dinner? Would you work a while, sleep, and then practice the next morning? Would you stay up all night? Would you present to each other to make sure you did it right, or keep your design secret?

 They stayed up all night. We have film of it. I am amazed at these folks, the level of effort they put into the solutions, the care they exercised to understand the requirements, and the way they presented it, all on no sleep. Truly amazing. I would happily hire each of the contestants, and I’m honored to have them on the show. They worked hard, researched, came up with designs and refined them. This time, no interruptions, no silliness. Just pure focus for an entire night.

The presentations were different from each other. It’s clear they took a different approach in each one. Some of them had mistakes or omissions, but to be able to put something together of this quality after no sleep is just truly awesome.

In the end, the decision was so tight that we had to take a judges vote. Up until now, there were pretty clear winners, but everyone did so well that it wasn’t unanimous. But we did pick a winner. Mike’s design was well thought out, complete, and he explained it incredibly well.

I’ve been asked about a few of the challenges we offered the contestants. Weren’t some too easy, and others too difficult? After reading my recap, some have said “I’d be able to do that easily.” Really…

Perhaps you wouldn’t. When you’re in a stressful situation, in a strange place, with minimal information, the difficulty level rises tremendously. You've had the benefit of reading the challenge and its intent, seeing the results, and watching the show. Remember, we didn’t clue the contestants in to what we were really after – so they were solving not only the technical challenge, but the challenge of what we were really asking. Is that part of life here at Microsoft? Oh yes. Is it stressful here? Yes – but not always. It’s a stress that we take on willingly – we believe in what we do, and we want others to work with us that are passionate as well. We strive every day to do the best we can – and we want others that feel that way too.

So in the end, yes, this was “unrealistic”. It’s pretty rare that you run the gamut of all the parts of SQL Server, in one week, with little to no sleep, less info, and a film crew following you around while you’re away from home and still have your day job calling you at night. These contestants are a cut above your average technical professional. Each one is a winner, regardless of a contest.

How about you? Think you’ve seen something that interests you at Microsoft? Or perhaps you’d like to know more about what you need to learn to work at one of our amazing clients…. Check back here on “Born to Learn” and with Microsoft Learning frequently. There are resources, classes, materials, books and more to help you become a technical professional at the level of these contestants. And when you do get that knowledge, stop by and chat with us. I promise, no cameras this time. J

Your Challenge and Last Week’s Winners

It’s your final turn to have a say. Design a challenge that combines everything there is to know about SQL Server – in one design. It can take longer than the previous challenges did, but you must include how your challenge shows a person really knows SQL Server – not just technical detail, but how to use it, and how to describe that use to others. It’s trickier than you think. :)

Last week’s winners:   Joseph Hagan, Ryan Roper, and Martin Cox. Congratulations! Next week I'll announce this week's contest winner and the winner of that laptop…