The premise of Be the Next Microsoft Employee is fairly straightforward: Rather than simply applying for a job at Microsoft, four accomplished tech professionals – referred to, affectionately for the most part, as geeks or nerds – travel to the Seattle area and compete for the job.
With the goal of showcasing their technical expertise as well as their ability to think and compute quickly, the four contestants must solve challenges using SQL, a programming language for managing data in relational database management systems. To make sure they were able to perform quickly and with a maximum degree of mobility, HP gave each contestant an HP Folio 13 Ultrabook.
I’m a big fan of reality shows based on competitions – the brainier the better, in my opinion –so I jumped at the chance to sit down with the four contestants and ask them about the experience. Alex Aguilar is a database administrator for an educational software company based in Phoenix, Ariz. Stacy Luciani of Richardson, Texas, is also a database administrator by profession but is currently in more of an analyst role with Bank of America. Michael Kett develops tools for sales reps in Canada and the U.S. to use for fundraising for high schools. And Chris Williams is a SQL Server database administrator for the Texas Natural Resources Information System.
Our conversation began with each of the contestants sharing their opinions on what’s important when purchasing new technology for business purposes:
Alex Aguilar: I look for performance. If it’s a laptop I’d look for performance to make sure the CPU is getting enough horsepower. Memory is also important. I wouldn’t buy anything with less than four gigabytes and I’d also make sure that the hardware is flexible enough to add more memory if needed. And the battery life is important. A lot of time we’re moving from place to place so you need a battery with at least five hours. If you’re going from meeting to meeting the last thing you want to do is have to stop and plug it in. Finally, I’d make sure docking stations are readily available.
Stacy Luciani: That relates to what I think is really important, which is that there’s a good name behind the product. I made the purchases for a law firm where I worked and we went with HP because of the good name and the good reputation. When you’re purchasing for business, you don’t want something flaky. You should just be able to grab your laptop and go without worrying if it’s going to run or not. As far as I’m concerned, end users don’t care about excuses. It’s a tool and it needs to work.
Michael Kett: Reliability and security are also important. If it does go down, there needs to be a good warranty program. Performance is important too, and to me that means speed, because I’m very impatient.
Chris Williams: We look for quality, reputation and performance – all the normal stuff. But as a state agency we have a limited budget so we really need to make sure our purchases count. There’s a bit of cool factor worked in there as well, but it’s mostly quality and bang for the buck.
When I asked the contestants to share their favorite features of the HP Folio 13, at or near the top of everyone’s list were three items: It’s light, it’s small and it’s thin. But there was more:
Stacy Luciani: I used it for two months before I noticed that it doesn’t have a CD ROM/DVD drive. You don’t need one. I also play Poker on it.
Chris Williams: It’s boots up in eight or nine seconds because of the solid state drive, which is the next wave of technology. It’s very powerful, actually. I was using SQL Server on it during the show and I never had a single hiccup. I love this computer.
Michael Kett: I like the large form factor of the keyboard. I don’t feel like I’m typing on a tiny keyboard. And the nerd in me really likes the fact that the keyboard is backlit.
Alex Aguilar: The webcam is great for my video blog and I’ve also used it to Skype with family members.
It was at this point that the conversation took a bit of a turn. Normally, asking how a computer improves what you do at work every day is pretty standard fare. But the answer to the question, of course, depends on the place of employment. And the place of employment, in this case, depends on who wins.
Alex Aguilar: It’s very slim and lightweight. It fits in my bag so I can have more than one device because this one doesn’t take up so much space. And it’s compatible with Windows 8 so I installed the preview version. I can install software that I can test.
[Why is Alex testing Windows 8? Maybe he’s just curious, like millions of others.]
Stacy Luciani: My old laptop had a great screen but it was very heavy. With the Folio 13 I don’t hesitate to pick it up. I have my resources at my fingertips rather than having to get back to someone.
Chris Williams: The big computers are still preferable for hardcore number crunching but the Folio 13 definitely has its place. One of the things is that I can pick it up and take it to meetings and not lose any connectivity to what I’m doing. I can also use it to present during meetings, which you can’t really do with a desktop. It won’t replace what I have, but it enhances it. I’ve fallen in love with it.
Michael Kett: It’s great for doing every day corporate stuff. The portability is great and the weight and the size are negligible. It’s like using an iPad except it’s not just a tablet – it’s a real computer.
Finally, I asked the four where they’re headed, career-wise, once the show wraps.
Chris Williams: My job is to manage the GIS layers in maps such as contours, elevation data, counties and cities and do the magic behind the scenes. I make sure cartographers have what they need to make the map pretty. I plan to continue doing database administrator work and teaching the subject at the community college level.
Alex Aguilar: My short-term goal is to become a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) in SQL Server. It’s the highest certification you can get. One of the judges on the show is in charge of the exam so I’ve had a chance to talk to him.
Michael Kett: I plan to continue working with SQL and Windows.
Stacy Luciani: Even if I don’t win the show I’ll have the links to it to share with potential employers, especially my favorite part of the experience, which was winning the second challenge.
Who would you hire? I honestly can’t decide, so my vote is for all four.