Students ask the most interesting things

Skynet Last Wednesday I gave a presentation to SkyNet, the University of Limerick Computer Society.  About 30 undergrad and graduate students turned up for Atlas, Vista and pizza, in that order.

What I showed them was basically a riff on my ASP.NET "Atlas" presentation from ApacheCon Europe, but I also spent some time talking about the big .NET picture, and closed with a much-requested lap around Vista RC2 and Office 2007.

These guys weren't afraid to ask questions, enough so that the original trail I'd intended to blaze through the material warped into an off-piste ramble through impromptu demos -- which is always the best fun. 

So let me tell you a bit about what struck me. 

First off, these students were almost exclusively open source users, with a few Mac aficionados sprinkled among them.  This was a "let's see what's happening on the other side of the fence" gig for them.

None of them had heard of MSDNAA - a program which, for effectively the cost of the media, gives all faculty and students in a department access to all the Microsoft developer tools and platforms.  Even use at home, for academic purposes.

Those who developed on Windows used C++, and tended to have some interest in graphics.  They wanted to know if DirectX 10 will support Shader Model 4.  It sure will, but hardware acceleration is a future prospect.

They were intrigued by Vista, although nearly every feature in Vista was reminiscent of something they'd seen on another operating system.  I think that being constantly reminded of the ancestry of all ideas is the software equivalent of what the South Park guys described as "Simpsons did it" (and, I think, by the nth time they did it, the students knew it, too.) 

They were impressed by IE7, particularly by its security enhancements, and its intuitive handling of RSS feeds and subscriptions.

They use IRC and Bebo to communicate with classmates and share notes.  IRC?  Internet Relay Chat?  Isn't that about as elegant and trendy as ham radio?

They wanted to know what happened to WinFS, the new Windows File System.  Good question.  Rather than shipping as a separate offering, parts of it are rolling into SQL and ADO.NET.  More on the WinFS blog

We had a really interesting discussion about the challenge of OS footprint - if Vista clocks in around X megabytes today, how big will it be by SP1?  Many open source distros are all about modularity and choice.  IIS7, Microsoft's web server, uses modularity to great effect.  Vista also offers modularity, but not with quite zealot-level partitioning, so that some default bits of the install, such as the dormant drivers, may strike open source OS purists as cruft.  (Disclaimer: I am not an expert on what's included in the Vista install, I just install it in the evenings, more frequently than my girlfriend would like.)  I come down on the side of considering what some might call cruft a worthwhile tradeoff that allows me to, say, just plug in my mobile device in a random location, let's say Prague, and suddenly find myself with a GPRS modem attached to my PC and ready to go (in this increasingly hypothetical situation.) 

It's difficult at events like this to know if it's worth my while to attend.  Even though I had a great time, it's a long haul out of my schedule. 

Obviously the SkyNet crowd were very savvy, but were they even listening to the Microsoft Guy?  I mean, did I register?  Even after being shown an impressive set of free tools and a demo of how easy they are to use, I didn't see a single person write down the URL for the free Visual Web Developer Express Edition.  (Perhaps, even though it clocks in at under 100MB, they've only sized their Windows partitions big enough for Tomb Raider: Legend.)

I think my biggest mistake was failing to talk about .NET adoption in Ireland.  I know these guys are in academia, but if they plan to move into industry, odds are near fifty-fifty (better than fifty-fifty in many market sectors) that they'll be required to use .NET.  They should hear the guys on my Developer Council lament the near-impossibility of finding local .NET experts that they can pay the big bucks to.

And lest students feel downtrodden when being encouraged to explore this .NET-ty stuff, let me offer here my second biggest mistake of the evening: failing to show them the graphs of the ever-rising satisfaction ratings of .NET developers worldwide.  In other words - like they say on the airlines, we know you have a choice of development technologies, but we appreciate your flying .NET.  And we're glad you like it too :)

One student, the most ardent Mac zealot, and certainly one of the brightest lights, said to me after the talk that he didn't expect to be saying this, but Microsoft is doing a lot of really impressive things.  I think, in one go, he made it all worthwhile.