Geek of the Week: Microsoft’s Raghu Ramakrishnan geeks out on data, how we use it and secure it

Raghu Ramakrishnan has been at Microsoft for six years. (Photo courtesy of Raghu Ramakrishnan)

He’s been a professor and a chief scientist, a founder, a technical fellow and a chief technology officer. Through it all, Raghu Ramakrishnan has been focused on the data.

Ramakrishnan is Microsoft’s CTO for Data and our latest Geek of the Week. In his six years at the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, Ramakrishnan founded the CISL applied research team and led the development of Azure Data Lake, Microsoft’s exabyte-scale storage and analytics platform.

Prio to Microsoft, Ramakrishnan spent 22 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in addition to being founder and CTO of QUIQ, an early online crowd-sourced question-answering company.

“My early work in database systems has influenced query optimization in commercial database systems and the design of window functions in SQL:1999, and has received the SIGMOD Test-of-Time Award for work on clustering and the ICDT Test-of-Time Award for work on nearest-neighbor indexing,” Ramakrishnan said. “I’ve also written the widely used text ‘Database Management Systems.’”

In his six years at Yahoo! as a chief scientist, Ramakrishnan led, among other things, the science teams for major initiatives, including the CORE project that was the foundation for Yahoo’s personalized portal pages.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Raghu Ramakrishnan:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I think about what’s around the bend in the space of data — the trends in how we’re capturing data, how we are using it, the concerns around appropriate data use and regulatory changes, and the implications for data platforms and technologies. In SQL Server and Azure, Microsoft has industry leading data management and cloud platforms, and we need to constantly up our game to ensure that these are state of the art.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Increasingly, many aspects of the world we live in are reflected in data that we gather to operate or improve aspects of that world. This data is at the very heart of the AI revolution that we now hear about everywhere — you can’t apply machine learning without data to learn from — and database systems are the key to securing this data and ensuring that policies for appropriate access and usage are indeed enforced.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “The fact that data is center-stage in our world today means that we need to build powerful and dependable systems to secure and interpret that data. In a very real sense, your most private data (and mine) are protected by data management systems. So, it’s more than bits and bytes at stake here, it’s about the most important aspects of our lives.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “The internet. It’s how I learn what’s going on in the world, it’s how I call people more often than not, it’s how my entertainment is delivered.”

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “Open, informal, good coffee — what more could you ask for? Oh yes, the only professional team that’s community owned. Say cheese.”

Raghu Ramakrishnan’s allegiance to the Green Bay Packers is evident in his office decor and in some of his answers to our questionnaire. (Photo courtesy of Raghu Ramakrishnan)

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Work hard, but don’t mistake work for life.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows or Linux.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter. Too many back-to-back meetings in different buildings.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Tell them I’m too busy to think about a startup.”

I once waited in line for … “An autograph from William Henderson, a guy who made his living by creating lanes for Ahman Green to run through.”

Your role models: “School teachers. The best ones change the lives of our children when they’re most in need of direction, and I value what they do enormously—and I’m humbled by how much the best of them put into their work, regardless of how shamefully they are underpaid.”

Greatest game in history: “The Ice Bowl.”

Best gadget ever: “The wheel.”

First computer: “Fingers.”

Current phone: “Android.”

Favorite app: “Outlook (seriously!)”

Favorite cause: “Against Malaria Foundation.”

Most important technology of 2018: “GDPR support.”

Most important technology of 2020: “Transporters.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Dif-tor heh smusma.”

Twitter: @raghurwi

LinkedIn: Raghu Ramakrishnan

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