Co-Founder of Xamarin and Ximian
Open Source Champion
Distinguished Engineer Microsoft
"We've already known that we needed to do a lot for people in those positions in order to be retrained and help them and there's an opportunity for all these people to learn these skills and be repurposed but it requires government intervention. If we wanted to retrain these people, it requires a large effort in a large-scale government intervention."
By Heidi Legg
There is something invariably open about Miguel de Icaza when you meet him. When I arrived at the Microsoft offices in Kendall Square, de Icaza, dressed in casual jeans and a sweater, was talking to a colleague in his office while tapping away on his computer and called out to me in the hallway to set up wherever I wanted and to let him know whenever I was ready. I made myself at home. It should come to no surprise that interviewing the poster child for open source coding, likened to the Wikipedia for developers around the world, would be open and freely accessible.
In the early 90s, when de Icaza was living in his native country of Mexico, he was trying to outsmart the likes of Microsoft, eventually cloning their system and opening their software to developers across the globe. As he says, “I’ve competed with Microsoft for almost my entire career.” Today, he sits on the top floors in Microsoft’s Kendall Square offices, a cornerstone tenant on Main Street of America’s east coast tech epicenter next to neighbors Google, MIT, Biogen and Draper, to name a few. This advocate of open source code is rooted in a belief that all software should be free. In 1997, when he came to Microsoft for an interview, he met American Nat Friedman who was intern at Microsoft at the time and they became friends. De Icaza did not take the job at Microsoft and instead a few years later he and Friedman co-founded Ximian in 1999, which finally brought De Icaza to the US, followed by Xamarin in 2011. He also directed the Mono project since its creation in 2001, including multiple Mono releases at Novell. He and Friedman sold Ximian to Novell in 2003 and then sold Xamarin to Microsoft in 2016 . The world took notice and the awards came fast. De Icaza received the Free Software Foundation 1999 Free Software Award, the MIT Technology Review Innovator of the Year Award in 1999, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 innovators for the new century in September 2000.
De Icaza is now an American citizen who, if you follow his personal Twitter, is a great advocate for immigration in America and the power of technology to improve lives, a globalist, and no surprise, no fan of POTUS Trump whom he called ineffective and amateur last March at our recent live event, We The People, at the Cambridge Public Library.
I sat down with this early open source leader to discuss the power of open source, the pervasiveness to come of virtual and augmented reality, imposter syndrome in tech and why he argues for a large scale national effort to bring more Americans into the fold of prosperity. As an outsider who long sought to outsmart Microsoft, his GenX lens, now from inside one of America’s corporate giants, speaks to the irreverence matched only by determination, a GenX trademark, and where he sees us going next.
I think of you as a rabble-rouser. Is that accurate?
You’re now in house with a giant – What are you doing at Microsoft? How's it going?
This quest to compete with Microsoft went through stages. It was 1992, when I first got involved with the free software movement. My intent was to replace everything in the world with free software. That didn't really happen, but that was the goal, and one of the big targets at the time was Microsoft. I've been trying to compete with Microsoft for many years.
The fundamental idea was we wanted to have an operating system that was completely freeing and where everybody had the whole source code and access to the system.
Were you in the US by then?
I worked from Mexico and I collaborated with people on the Internet. It was a different Internet back in the day but there was still collaboration on the Internet. I worked from home and also for the Institute of Nuclear Sciences at the University of Mexico. I was essentially making free software available to people and then Apple came out with the Mac. The Macs came out using Unix in about 2000/2001 and that made it more difficult to compete and there were some fundamental structural problems with free software. So back in the day, I was competing in some ways with Apple and Microsoft.
I founded our first company with a friend of mine, Nat Friedman, in 1999, here and moved to Boston six or nine months later. We eventually sold it off to Novell, where I worked for many years, sometimes collaborating with Microsoft, sometimes competing with Microsoft and others… Yes, it's funny that I ended up at Microsoft.
You built Ximian and Xamarin with Friedman. Why monkey names?
We were both reading books about how the mind works and research on evolutionary psychology. It was interesting to read all the things that people were learning from monkeys and animals and how they relate to human psychology. Our computers were named DNA and RNA and one of the missions was called Galapagos. The main project that we're working on now, started in 2002, is called Mono.
What’s it like for you to be inside your nemesis, Microsoft?
It's a very different Microsoft. The previous Microsoft was very much a fully integrated, fully proprietary company. The new CEO is very open to open-source, and very open to Linux. Microsoft produces, I think, the most open source software today, publicly, than anybody else. It’s a radical change. Not a lot of people know that. We produce vast amounts of open source and consume a lot of open source as well. Microsoft is a very different company than the one that I was competing with in 1998.
Did Microsoft choose to change? Or did the market force it? And why does it want its software to be open?
I think both. Linux and open source, in general, went from being an interesting social movement to being something that effectively powered a large portion of the Internet. What happened is that because it was open, people could fine tune it and optimize it in different ways: Linux networking, for example. Everything had to do with networking and communicating and that was very important for people doing business on the Internet. It was built on Unix. There was a long history with Unix developers and a culture had emerged around this. Then Amazon adopted it and Amazon Elastic Cloud (EC) was a big part of it.
Who is resisting open source?
I think it's hard to find someone not using it or producing it, today. Even Oracle has its own Linux, now.
Everybody's open today?
Everybody's consuming it. Open source essentially belongs to everybody. It belongs as much to you as it does to me, and the people that wrote it. It's licensed under terms that give everybody rights to use it. It's essentially like an invention in the public domain. Think of it that way.
Did Microsoft sue you for making the .net clone?
They never tried to sue us. For many years it was a subject of intense debate and, in fact, the debate was so intense that the adoption of Mono, open source .net implementation on Linux, was severely slowed down because there was a lot of concerns over it but we kept working on it. We never stopped and eventually, at one point, Microsoft ended up acquiring us for that tech and other pieces and realized that the future of .net really depended on it becoming open.
Is the 'cloud' what's powerful for you?
We essentially took .net and we put it on all these mobile devices and it's very nice to develop applications with .net. It's very simple and very nice to work with and the group that acquired Xamarin was the Microsoft Cloud Group.
All of these mobile applications communicate with something on the network: either to store your photos or some machine learning on your pictures or your voice or sentiment analysis or posting of comments, and all of these things. In the end, all of these mobile applications end up having a strong component on the Cloud. It can be either a private server that you own or on Cloud.
What do those of you who understand Artificial Intelligence (AI) think of those of us who don’t understand this technology and only consume it?
I'm not worried because I think it's fairly easy to pick up. I don't think it's that complicated to learn how to do it. A friend of mine has an eight-year-old and the kid likes Minecraft. He wants to migrate to the next stage of Minecraft and the next stage is a little bit complicated. He needs to pull it apart, apply patches, modify the source code, recompile. And this eight-year-old motivation is that he wants to play this next level, but it was very complicated. Essentially, he learned it. I think that provided you have an incentive… (laughing.) It’s like when you incorporate a company, you may not be a lawyer but you learn what papers you need to file.
It’s not difficult to learn and you should take it for a spin. I think I would encourage my kids to do these things.
Technology is so pervasive in every detail of our lives now. I think those of you who understand it have moved to an accelerated place where the rest of us cannot catch up. Do you pity us for our own survival?
No, we have a different trauma. It's called impostor syndrome and, in particular, our whole computing space is so vast that nobody really understands it all.
And it touches everything now.
Yes, but you know little pieces here and there. One of the problems that we face – my engineers and people that work with me including my peers – is that we don't know everything. But as you read things on the Internet or how Facebook does this or how Uber does that or Google does this or Apple does that, in our minds we create this superhuman that knows it all with everything scaled to perfection: They do AI, they do everything. We mentally create this superhuman that has these attributes and people feel inadequate. That's the struggle right now – there are a lot of people struggling with this impostor syndrome. That's what they call it because people feel that they're fakes, that they don't know enough, or that they're being paid too much for what they know and the reality is that nobody knows all of this.
I believe that if you need it and you want to learn it, you should try it. I started to learn cooking a few years ago and it's been interesting.
But which of these skills today is more about survival?
Or at least not make the steak like cardboard!
I wouldn't feel badly about not coding. I think that anybody could pick it up if they wanted. Right now the whole world is obsessed with Deep Learning and I don't know much about it. I started reading up about it but it's a new thing and it turns out that I'm ill equipped to understand Deep Learning.
What is Deep Learning?
It’s a system by which you can use a lot of data to teach a computer something. For example when you tell Google to find images of cats, how can you know that that's a cat? They've trained their computers so it can actually look at a picture of a cat and tell you it's a cat and it works like neural networks. It's a style of neural network programming that they do to teach a computer to recognize things or invent things.
When you dictate to your phone, there is machine learning that picks up your voice, that make up the phrases, that extracts the meaning from what you said: Set a timer for twenty minutes, or tell me a joke. These are all Deep Learning. Sometimes they can be used for recognizing things and sometimes they can be used for generating things, which is very interesting. You can say this is a modernist painting style or more specifically a Picasso style and then you give it a photo and it turns the photo into that style. Amazing. It's unbelievable.
Where are you in your thinking today?
We want to build tools that help developers make IOS and Android apps. How do we make better applications, better interactions, and faster development?
All of these applications keep growing in scope and there's a consumer application and then there's all the company applications and the phone is now the computer that everybody carriers. We need a system to develop software for these computers that everyone carries, all the time, all day with all these sensors that track where you are, what you're saying, what pictures you're taking.
Do you think we will still have handheld phones in a few more years?
I think so. Yeah.
I think everybody's going to have a phone – tablets, certainly. Laptops I think are going to become a more specialized thing.
What's the next thing besides improved apps?
I’m actually working on this tiny little space right now and I'm very interested in it. We are doing a lot of work on helping developers build Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) experiences that go from the phone to the desktop to the headsets. It's not only the app for taking pictures and messages. What things can we build so developers can create those new experiences?
How much do you keep off open source now?
There are a lot of things. I started keeping things from open source either to keep some control or to monetize, if you want to build a business. It's very difficult to build a business with open source – very, very hard. I've been doing proprietary software since about 2001. I was fully open source but since about '92, I always had a chunk of proprietary software. We've always done a chunk that was proprietary. There were a couple of years when everything was open, but once we started Xamarin, there was definitely a very strong proprietary component.
What are negatives to open source?
The one problem is that everybody has every right. You have the same rights as me. I may not believe that my computer should use text. Perhaps, I believe everything should be graphical. So, I'm going to remove all the text and make everything graphical and then you make some improvements in your version and I cannot get your improvements. Now you've made it all graphical and mine requires text and then I make some improvements and you can't take them back. Now we have a split in the community. Differences of opinion on project direction and what they should do is where it happens. So, you have this fragmentation that happens across the board.
Is there a governing body?
No. That's the problem. There's no governing body.
Does it contradict the open source ethos?
Baked into the license is that we use essentially encourages the modification and the distribution. Imagine that every book that you read says, ‘you're encouraged to make changes to the book and improve the story.’ You may read the Iliad and say, ‘actually, I didn’t like the ending. So, we're going to write that off and the gods are all gone. They're all going to be western characters.’ Essentially when you build open source software, you give all those rights away.
Can you retrieve what someone deleted?
Historically, you can.
Does this happen often?
All the time. We have very sophisticated tools for managing that. It's called Source Control or Version Control. It has grown from being a situation where you wrote the first half of your book and you make improvements and the publisher sends you notes and you make edits. Your editor says, ‘this character's not believable.’ But you have all the versions going back to your first draft. A big theme that happened was this idea of branches where you create an alternative view of the world. Now you can create a whole new chapter where the bad guy turns out as the good guy.
Can you kick people out of open source?
You can't. You can kick them out of communities. So if you have a community of people that like one thing and somebody's being disruptive, you can kick them out but he can go and create his own community. He can have his own playground over there.
Can he take the code with him? Can you get the code back?
You have your version. He has his version and some licensing terms allow you to take it back. Some don't let you take it back.
Are there rogue groups?
They have not gone rogue, themselves. They're people with differences of opinions. Some people, for example, care a lot about performance. The only thing that matters is performance. Other people think more about resilience. The only thing that matters is resilience.
What does that look like?
A focus on making the hardening of the software and making sure that it's resistant to attack or resistant to user errors or resistant to all these things. There are different opinions of what matters the most.
How many code languages do you use?
On my day-to-day basis, I probably use three or four - C Sharp, C, Shell, Python, and Java Script. They're so close to each other.
Are most of your developers now inside Microsoft?
My team is about a hundred and fifteen people and forty are here in Boston. The rest are spread out in the world. They’re people that have been working from their home in Tokyo or Italy for years. By not taking them away from their homes, they get to stay with their families. They have their network of support, their friends, their environment, and their schools. I think that the Internet allows you to do that. You can hire them. They don't need to move to New York or San Francisco or Boston to have a career. They only downside is you have to work in your pajamas or something like that. Two thirds of my team is remote.
Do you think working remotely is the way of the future?
I think so. I don't know that Microsoft is there yet. Microsoft has a strong culture of people living in Redmond, but at least my team members and a bunch of other teams are starting to be very distributed.
These days in America, we are headed to being a closed society while big tech companies are becoming more open as global players. How do you see us resolving that?
The current administration makes no sense to me. It seems like it is policy by tantrum. It looks like when a kid throws a tantrum in the supermarket because you won’t buy the lollipops and now they're empowered to buy and do whatever they want. It's just very bizarre.
There is such a diverse view of the world from this conversation with you how we are consuming technology and yet, we are on a political stage where we are talking about coal and Americans killing Americans for having a different cultural background. If it is jarring for me, how does it look for people like you who are in this modern global industry?
I think we were all operating in this modern world up until November. I think that we saw the world through a world of possibility and a lot of challenges. I think it was clear that we were not living in a perfect world and that there were a lot of progressive views that wanted to push the government. We wanted to get Obama doing certain things and Hillary doing certain things but we were on a path to get those things going and people were talking about issues that matter and now it just seems like we're regressed so much. It's very regressive. All these issues that mattered eight months ago, and they still matter, have now taken second place to the urgency that is the disaster that is happening across the board.
Tech companies are not only very wealthy and but have many immigrants working for them. What role do tech companies have to bring along people who are feeling left behind?
If I look back at October or even two years ago, I think that we've already known that we needed to do a lot for people in those positions in order to be retrained and help them and there's an opportunity for all these people to learn these skills and be repurposed but it requires government intervention. If we wanted to retrain these people, it requires a large effort in a large-scale government intervention.
I think the problem has been known but I think that for the last six or seven years, there's been a systematic blockade on all of these initiatives. From my point of view, it's a blockade based not in a gross mindset but in a zero sum game mindset. What I am trying to say is that people blocking some of these initiatives think, ‘if I spend my tax money in these people, I don't get to spend that tax money for something else such as my favorite project.’ I think that the flaw there is that helping people be repurposed for another job makes the economy grow makes your job opportunities grow. It's a virtuous cycle and instead what we see with all of these budgets cuts and all of these moves to block progress in the past seven years are essentially that they want to stop growth and they want to go backwards. I think it's a difference in mentality between a growth mentality and a zero sum mentality. The taxes might go up but you'll get more benefit. In the end, you might be better off, even if your taxes are more. You might have more opportunities. Your kids might have more opportunities, your family and your friends.
It feels like a seismic shift right now. Those people in technology or global space are zooming ahead of the rest of us.
I think that these were well known things. The previous administration was trying to get funding to do these things and another one of the problems that I think, in terms of educating the public, that has been very damaging for everyone is this monetary idea that we have that money supply is finite and that the government budget needs to operate like a household budget.
Sounds like you are OK with debt if it is being used properly. What does debt say to you?
There's a revival now and last year by the Keynesian economists and it is a very interesting observation. Essentially their point is that public debt is private surplus and government surplus is private debt and it's almost a mirror image, if you look at the data. What is very interesting when people talk about debt, they show these horrible graphics. like when the government is in debt. What they're not showing is that it means surplus to the private sector. Should private citizens hold treasury? Yeah, of course, it's great. But it can only come if the government goes into debt. It's a very interesting observation and what these groups of economists essentially say is that we should essentially inject more money into the system as long as there are people interested or people willing to work.
I'm curious what big tech companies can do to bring America along on the high tech wave?
I don't know what the company's policies are but all these companies have been taken by surprise by the election outcome. Everybody's thinking they need to get involved. Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Google have all added their support for immigration. I think that people are getting involved.
[On July 10th, Microsoft president Brad Smith called for the U. S. to eliminate the rural broadband gap within five years, a plan that would bring access to the Internet to 23 million Americans. Calling it #RuralBroadband. They published a white paper today with the firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) with the best strategies to achieve this. They will invest some of their capital to get this started.]
Again, any talk about bringing tech jobs to the middle of America?
There are certainly funds available. There are people opening offices and they're trying to do things but there are a couple of problems. One is recruiting enough talent to have the kind of skills that you need for a particular office or project. For example, look at the movie industry. They film in LA or in Vancouver and it's not because they can't film anywhere else. It's that the ecosystem, the people that you need – the gaffers, the writers, the copy editors – they're all there. Bootstrapping new locations is hard and it's not only a tech problem. It happens with every industry. High tech is another one. Finance is another. You can do finance anywhere, technically. But you're probably better off in London, New York.
We can't build central processing networks (CPU) anymore. We can't build chips. All that knowledge is now in China. Even if we wanted to and even if we have the knowledge: The fabrication, the experience, the day-to-day management of those processes is now there. I think there is a role for government to play in terms of creating artificial demand.
Not around coal. In the past they've used the Pentagon for doing this and you can use the funds for something else.
What changes do you foresee in tech right now?
There's the whole movement around virtual reality and augmented reality. Right now, the equipment that you have to use is a little bit bulky and it's a little cumbersome but I have to say it's a lot of fun. The kids go crazy with that stuff.
Have you read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman?
Yesterday we were having a heated debate over startup culture. Somebody was saying, ‘if you're doing a startup company, you need to work eighteen hours a day.’ No, you have to put in your eight hours of fresh work. There are exceptions like today for a keynote speech I need to write but I don't think it's healthy and I don't think you get good quality work if you work sixteen hours. Get your eight hours of fresh, clear thinking and then go to your family and kids. Spend time with the kids, do your thing and come back the next day. Have a little bit of entertainment. Watch a movie. Play a video game.
Where will VR be applied outside of games?
There is a big push for VR but, personally, I like augmented reality a bit more because it blends with your world. When you wear the HoloLamp for example, you're in this room and it creates a puzzle for you. It's a mystery and you're trying to solve a crime and the crime has been customized for the room.
Where will AR be applied?
People want to use it for design. One of the demos that they have playing downstairs is this thing where people walk with their HoloLamp and people around the globe help with the design. There is a lot of 3D modeling that is being done with this. All those movies that you see, there's a lot of opportunity for creating using AR.
They're tools. I think they're going to be really good tools.
Will the driverless car use it?
You know I don't drive, right?
You and every other Millennial.
Just put them in a car.