Careers: Interviews
World Renowned Top-Ranked Development Expert on ASP.NET and Microsoft Technologies

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Stephen Walther.

Stephen Walther is the author of ASP.NET Unleashed, the best-selling book on ASP.NET. He was also the lead developer of the ASP.NET Community Starter Kit, an application published by Microsoft which demonstrates best-practices for building ASP.NET applications. His company (www.AspWorkshops.com) has provided ASP.NET training to companies across the United States including NASA, the National Science Foundation, Boeing, the U.S. House of Representatives, and Microsoft. He is an ASP.NET MVP, a member of the INETA Speaker's Bureau, and a Microsoft Software Legend. Stephen got his start building Web applications by developing two large commercial Web sites. He created the Collegescape Web site, a Web site used by over 200 colleges -- including Harvard and MIT -- for online college applications. He also created the CityAuction Web site, the auction Web site used by CitySearch and CNET. He was completing his Ph.D. in philosophy at MIT when he became involved in the World Wide Web.

Discussion:

Q: Stephen, you are the acknowledged by many as the world’s foremost authority in ASP.NET and Web development. Thank you for doing this interview and sharing your many insights. 

A: You are very welcome.

Q: Describe your journey into computers and the lessons learned along the way?

A: I got involved in computers while I was a graduate student teaching an introductory philosophy class at Harvard. I was teaching the class with a good friend and fellow philosophy graduate student who had a plan to build an online college application Web site.

At the time, I had absolutely no formal background in computers or the Internet. Nevertheless, I decided to drop out of my graduate program and build the Web site. The Web site eventually provided online college applications for MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and more than 200 other colleges (The company was finally bought by the Educational Testing Services).

The lesson that I learned from this process is the best method of becoming a good programmer for the World Wide Web is to get practical experience building actual Web sites. All of my programming knowledge grew from facing real-world programming challenges on a daily basis and attempting to overcome them.   

Q: Can you detail your time at MIT?

A: I was a graduate student in the Linguistics and Philosophy Ph.D. program at MIT. My main focus was cognitive science and metaphysics.

Q: What is your most surprising experience?

A: The birth of my daughter. I'm a new father. It still seems very strange that there is a new person that will be sharing the rest of my life.

Q: How did you get involved with the CityAuction Web site and what valuable experiences/tips can you share?

A: The CityAuction Web site was one of EBay's largest competitors before EBay went public. The Web site was used behind the scenes by both CitySearch and CNET (CityAuction was eventually bought by CitySearch for more than 50 million dollars).

The challenge behind building the CityAuction Web site was creating a highly scalable and reliable Web site with almost no money. Auction Web sites are very resource intensive (imagine the stress on a database server when everybody is bidding on an auction item the moment before the auction expires). The lesson learned from the CityAuction experience was how to maximize performance with limited resources.

Q: Please share your most important best practices from your work with the ASP.NET Community Starter Kit?

A: I've created two Starter Kits for the Microsoft ASP.NET team: the Community Starter Kit and the Issue Tracker Starter Kit. These Starter Kits are distributed by Microsoft to illustrate "best-practices" when building ASP.NET applications (You can download both Starter Kits at the www.ASP.net Web site).

I wrote the Starter Kits to illustrate some of the cool things that the ASP.NET team was doing. They have since incorporated these features into the next version of ASP.NET. Some examples of features that were first demonstrated in the Starter Kits are skins, themes and the provider model.

All of the ASP.NET Starter Kits include all source code written in both C# and VB.NET. There is a forum located at the www.ASP.net site devoted to each Starter Kit. All of the Starter Kit forums contain active discussion about the source code.

There is no question that having thousands of people examine your source code improves the way the source code is written. I've personally become a much better programmer by having the code that I have written for the Starter Kits examined in such detail.

Q: Please share your experiences from your speaking engagements. Can you provide advice to prospective speakers?

A: I am a member of the INETA Speaker's Bureau. This membership has provided me with the opportunity to speak at user groups across the country (I spoke at more than 15 user groups last year). I've also spoken at Microsoft DevDays, ASP.NET Connections, and TechEd.

My wife, Ruth Walther, started the first .NET user group in the country (www.DotNetUsers.org). User groups are an invaluable resource for developers. If you are interested in becoming a Microsoft speaker, my advice is to get involved in your local user group.

Q: Describe your work with www.AspWorkshops.com. Could you provide your top tips for effective teaching?

A:  My company, www.ASPWorkshops.com, provides training on building Web sites using ASP.NET. We’ve provided training to companies across the United States including Boeing, the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and Microsoft.

Our workshops are very hands-on. My goal while teaching a class is to have students spend as much time as possible writing code.

Q: What future books, columns, and articles can we expect from you? 

A: I'm currently at work on the next edition of ASP.NET Unleashed. The next edition of this book is focused on the new features of ASP.NET 2.0. Covering the new features of ASP.NET 2.0 will require an entire rewrite of the book. There are so many exciting new features included with this release including a new development environment, new data controls, support for page templates, and a new portal framework.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A: For the past eight years, I've been writing books, training companies, and building software based on Microsoft Web technologies. If the future has any resemblance to the past, then Microsoft will introduce a disruptive but significantly better technology for building Web sites within the next couple of years. Whatever form the new technology takes, I'll be building Web sites with it. 

Q: As a widely respected ASP development expert and conference speaker, we need your advice. If IT professionals could only choose to attend two conferences, which ones would be your pick for the top two and why?

A: Conferences like TechEd and the PDC are great for getting insight into the future of Microsoft technologies as represented by Microsoft. However, the best talks on ASP.NET that I have attended have happened at local user groups. A great talk usually results directly out of a problem that a programmer has faced and solved. If you want to find a user group in your area, visit the INETA (International .NET Association) Web site at www.INETA.org.

Q: Stephen, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: Thanks, no problem!

 

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