Since the beginning of the year I’ve been contracting to Microsoft as a Premier Field Engineer, and I’ve been meaning to write about my experiences. Since my team (here in the UK) are looking for new people, now seems like a good time. Also, although I was already fairly close to Microsoft in many respects, it’s interesting being on the inside and seeing how certain things work - especially how MS IT deal with some of the challenges within a large organisation. I’ll talk about some of the cool things I notice at the end.
It’s been a fun few months for me – I work in the SharePoint group within Premier Field Engineering, and the focus is definitely oriented to infrastructure/IT Pro topics, such as:
- High Availability
- Backup and recovery
From a personal perspective, my background is all about development, customization, end-user experience, consulting and so on – within Microsoft, I’d say my “natural home” would probably be Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS), and consequently I thought working instead for PFE would be a good challenge for me. I always felt slightly guilty that some folks labelled me a SharePoint “expert”, but if a client asked me some “Achilles heel” questions (“What should my backup strategy look like in detail?”) I wouldn’t be able to give a good answer. How can that be right if you’re a product expert? If you’re a developer, I highly recommend trying “the other side” – you’ll learn about what’s really involved in running SharePoint (hint – it’s not all about your cool functionality). If you’re a SharePoint IT Pro, I can’t think of many better places to do this work than PFE.
The UK team
The SharePoint group within Premier Field Engineering UK currently consists of 16 engineers. Two of the guys are SharePoint 2010 MCMs (Sam Hassani and Chris Whitehead), and another colleague is on the current rotation. Another of the UK MCMs, Neil Hodgkinson, now works within the SharePoint Online group but is an ex-member of my team. I’m not sure how many SharePoint MCMs there are in the UK overall, but I’d guess that’s the highest concentration for any group here. Needless to say, the rest of the team are talented too - there’s a lot of technical capability here, and that makes it an appealing place to work. I’ve certainly had some highly interesting conversations about the nuts and bolts of SharePoint.
My first interview felt like it went pretty badly. It was in the middle of a heavy period with my project at the time, and I went into the phone interview (with Chris W, one of the MCMs) immediately following a draining 3 hour conference call with my client. At the time, my day-to-day work was more around heavy customization, development sprints and story points, so it was tough to be thrown into quick-fire questions on infrastructure. I guess I’m used to performing quite well in dev/consulting interviews, so it was humbling to not have answers to some of the questions. After I put the phone down, I was kicking myself for not having prepared better – I realised that yes, I *did* in fact want to do this kind of work and that it would be great to plug some of those gaps. In the end, I heard I actually scored in the mid 80s during the technical test so I guess it just felt worse than it was! From there it was onto the second stage. This was a mock presentation to my manager and a SharePoint PFE, and since this is a key part of the transactional PFE role (more on this later) it was a good insight to the kind of conversations I’d have with clients.
A PFE can be “dedicated” or “transactional”. The former typically serves 1 or 2 clients for a period of several months (e.g. during a rollout/upgrade) and spends most of his/her time on the client site. So far I’ve been transactional, which means I spend just a few days with each client before moving on to the next one. This is great for seeing many SharePoint farms and how clients are using the product in the field. I’m mainly involved with the “Risk and Health Assessment Program” for SharePoint (often abbreviated to “RAP”) so I’ll talk about this some more, but other things I’ve done include “chalk and talk” sessions (sometimes these last several days) and client visits as part of a reactive incident (e.g. “Crit Sit”). Some of the engagements have several aspects to them, and I often think back to a description I read in the hiring process – “Frequently, these problems will not only be technically complex, but will be politically-charged situations requiring the highest level of customer skill.”
Other PFE engagements include performance labs and several types of workshops, some of which the engineer needs to be accredited to deliver. Only organisations with a Premier Support contract can make use of these services.
Needless to say, SharePoint PFEs aren’t the only breed – different groups exist for many Microsoft technologies, and each will have engineers who can run the respective RAP offering:
- AD RAP (Active Directory)
- EX RAP (Exchange)
- SQL RAP (SQL)
- SP RAP (SharePoint)
- CM RAP (System Center Configuration Manager)
- OPS RAP (Operational Excellence/Service Management)
- WD RAP (Windows Desktop)
Risk and Health Assessment Program
A SharePoint RAP is a deep SharePoint health check, which assesses where the client may have deviated from what Microsoft consider to be good practice, particularly in terms of product configuration and management processes. From the service description - “The Risk and Health Assessment Program for Microsoft SharePoint Server includes an extensive environment review completed by a highly skilled, accredited field engineer. The onsite engineer will also complete hands-on knowledge transfer with your engineering staff, passing on some of the best real-world knowledge.” A big part of the RAP process is passing on key information which will help the client get to a better place with their SharePoint deployment, often down to low-level detail such as whether each of the changes being recommended will require a service outage. Being able to closely understand Microsoft’s view of health/risk issues for a SharePoint farm is certainly interesting, and I’ve definitely learnt a lot about SharePoint in the process.
If you’re interested in the RAP process, I came up with this diagram which represents the different phases (my interpretation only):
A good proportion of the “magic” of the RAP process is the use of an analysis tool written by a central group within Microsoft. This is effectively a shell, where different rule sets can be plugged in depending on the RAP being performed (e.g. a SharePoint rule set for SP RAP, Exchange rules for Ex RAP etc.). Like many developers, I might look at some tools and say “Pah, with enough time I could build that!”, but frankly, I’m deeply impressed with the RAP tooling and how it works. In addition to the core “environment interrogation” tasks, several other tasks are simplified – one aspect of a SharePoint RAP is performance analysis, and tool helps out with the process of monitoring all the servers in the farm for a period (usually 24 hours) using appropriate PerfMon counters. Of course, interpreting the results of much of this data and applying knowledge of how the organisation is using SharePoint is completely down to the engineer.
Still, it’s clear that a lot of development has gone into the tool and the tests it performs, and to protect this IP the tool is digitally-signed to each Premier client who receives a RAP. This means that if the tool ever finds it’s way onto the internet, it’s of zero use to anyone other than the original client for their original environment.
No tool can find everything though, and so other aspects of the RAP include an “operations interview” where several topics are covered. These include:
- Change management
- Operational Excellence/Service Management (e.g. SLAs)
- DR/backup and recovery
- Database maintenance procedures
- Security (e.g. anti-virus arrangements, service account configuration etc.)
So the RAP process is quite wide-ranging, and personally I’ve yet to have a delivery where the client hasn’t concluded it was extremely valuable.
Working at Microsoft
As I mentioned earlier, it’s interesting seeing how various things happen inside Microsoft. Perhaps more than anything, it’s the MS IT stuff that really gets my attention – after all, I’m just an end-user in terms of the helpdesk and operations teams. Here are my rough notes on “cool things” I’ve noticed along the way – what’s striking is that many are just good uses of Microsoft technologies:
- Efficiency of helpdesk
- Immediately take control of desktop via Lync
- When connected to Corpnet and browse to Bing, see beta/dogfood build
- SearchVote site – uses an IFrame onto both Bing and Google. Sends your search term to both and allows you to compare results, highlight areas of page and submit feedback (e.g. “this result is missing from Bing”)
- Remote access
- DirectAccess - DirectAccess is simply awesome. Effectively provides secure VPN access automatically when connected to internet, without needing to connect to VPN or use VPN client
- VPN via smart card – provided as a fallback option to DirectAccess
- Use of Forefront Identity Manager (FIM) to add yourself to AD groups and distribution lists (self-serve)
- Many internal websites/systems, usually just accessed by an internal DNS name (e.g. http://somesite)
- Check products for known bugs
- Access product source code
- See slide decks from Microsoft conferences
- Large array of intranet sites, all running on SharePoint
- Case management systems (MS CRM)
- Secure FTP site creation (for sharing large files with customers)
- IRM'd e-mails - can't open on personal PC/iPhone
- Can't forward/copy from/print etc.
- Automatic software updates via System Center 2012 Configuration Manager
SharePoint PFE’s needed in the UK (May 2012)
The team is on the lookout for talent, and I’ve been asked to help out. If you are based in the UK, are looking for a permanent role and think you have the technical expertise, then the team would like to hear from you. PFE look for people that have a solid technical base, can clearly convey their message, and who are willing to learn. Candidates who are successful in the pre-screening phase will go to face-to-face interviews at the Microsoft UK campus in Reading.