You do what?!

It seems wrong not to start a new blog with some sort of introduction, so here it is. My name is Chris Rae - I've helpfully entitled my blog similarly, so you can't possibly forget. I've worked for Microsoft for three years now - until recently I worked as a Program Manager on Excel, and I actually wrote a couple of posts on the Excel shared blog - one about Iteration and Conway's Game of Life, and another about Reading Excel Files From Linux.

A couple of months ago I switched job titles to be a "Standards Professional" and joined Microsoft's Office Interoperability Group. A question I've been fielding a few times (both inside and outside of Microsoft) is "what do they do?". Perhaps, if I answer it here, nobody will ever ask me again. The Interoperability Group sit in between Office product groups (Word, Excel, Sharepoint, et cetera) and the world of international standards. What we do for different products and standards varies quite a bit - the majority of what I will be doing for the foreseeable future is dealing with IS 29500, the international standard that Word, Excel and PowerPoint use for their default file format.

The question I am immediately asked following this is usually "how on earth can that take the majority of your time?". Well, first off I'm a very slow worker and make frequent errors. Secondly, file formats are very critical for us - any change in the way we write out customers' data changes other applications' ability to read and write this data, even other versions of Office. The very worst thing we can do is lose our customers' work, so we can't afford to have big bugs or breaking changes in this area. Because the file format we use is an ISO standard this means that any interested party can propose changes to it, and these changes go through the ISO standardisation process. I sit between Microsoft's and that standardisation process, trying to make sure that the standard represents what's best for our customers, and trying to make sure that we conform to the standard without breaking anything.

So far, my job has been pleasantly varied - at the moment I'm working with internal teams to improve our schema validation processes, at the same time as working with WG4 (the ISO working group tasked with maintaining IS 29500) to fix "bugs" in the standard itself, and again working with internal teams to see what product changes we need to make in order to accomodate those. The ISO standard and Microsoft Office evolve comparatively sedately and with different rhythms, so it can be a bit of a challenge trying to keep our standards conformance in tip-top state at the same time as shipping the right products for our customers.

In some ways I'm a cost center for Microsoft - if we weren't using standardised file formats, we wouldn't need me sitting on WG4. However, file format interoperability is great for our customers because they can develop solutions which use our output in clever ways, and they're not tied to using the Office suite for everything. We're already seeing a bunch of interesting applications coming from other software vendors using IS 29500 to share data with Office applications, and our big customers are developing some amazing in-house solutions for true front-to-back data processing. Happy customers buy more things from us, so we need to do this right.

Over the coming months I'll be posting about a variety of topics - I used to be a programmer so there's a reasonable chance they'll be of a fairly technical bent, but I've been given carte blanche to do what I want with this so I'll be making the most of that. I see here that it's proposing I attach a Podcast, so perhaps I might even do that...