By Richard Zaragoza
Name: Will Portnoy
Title: Principal Software Design Engineer
Years as a developer: 13
Years at Microsoft: 9
I can personally tell you that Will Portnoy is a great guy—among the best. If this interview ended with that sentence, it would be enough. I’ve worked with him for nearly two years, and we’ve become fast friends. In that time, I have concluded that he is like a maraschino cherry in the center of a cherry cordial, not bouncing around or locked in a wad of nougat, but rather floating blissfully in the midst of thick slow-moving syrup. He is like a sweet candy Buddha, even-keeled and a trusted rock in the storm. As if that isn’t enough, he’s also an excellent computer scientist and yes, a professionally trained dancer.
Growing up in the New York school system, access to computers came early for Will: “During class I would furiously finish my assignments; which might be why I am fast at things today, so I could get back to the computer labs. I’d spend the rest of my day there.”
Yet despite his intense interest in computer science, Will originally studied biomedical engineering at Duke with the intent of becoming a doctor. Fortunately for us, however, he was unable to shake his love of programming. So in his sophomore year, he added computer science as a second major. After years of study and writing a dissertation titled “Distributable Defect Localization Using Markov Models,” he was granted a Ph.D. He ended up being a doctor after all.
Facts, analysis, and reason are the syrupy goo Will floats in. He describes himself as a “quantitative, algorithmic kind of developer,” and because of a mathematical background, he consistently provides the team factual answers in a calm manner, like a long-tenured professor. He goes deep into details, and you always leave feeling good—you got your answer, plus help you didn’t realize you needed.
RZ: What do you do at FUSE?
WP: There seems to be several different perspectives of what I do, but I’m certainly perceived as “a backend guy.”
RZ: Tell me about your first forays into programming.
WP: I entered a contest in the second grade to print an American flag. It wasn’t that advanced—just printing text—but it was kind of cool to be programming back then. As a result, my parents soon got me an Apple IIc for Christmas. Later in high school I took introductory classes for programming but moved onto 3D graphics in Turbo Pascal once I finished my regular assignments. It was all DOS back then, but it was fun to write assembly code. [I will quietly add for your information only that there may have been the occasional virus that may or may not have filled the teachers screen with happy faces. Clever lad. - RZ]
RZ: Do you have any advice for getting into software development?
WP: You have to actually like it because there are times it is going to be frustrating, and there are people who like doing it even when it gets frustrating. Don’t decide to do programing because you think it makes a lot of money or is somewhat prestigious. You have to spend hours concentrating about the smallest little detail. However, there is always a more hybrid role. For example, FUSE has people who are more designer-types that can also program, and they use programming as a mechanism to illustrate their ideas.
RZ: Tell me about swing dancing. A little bird tells me there is some history there?
WP: [smiles] I took up dancing to meet girls. There were very few women in my computer science program, and so I took a swing dancing lesson. I met my wife and then promptly stopped swing dancing lessons. It worked, but she’s still upset with me, because she came to have fun and wasn’t simply trying to meet people. Earlier in college I was on a formation dance team for ballroom dance. For guys it’s not so hard, you’re just basically providing a rigid frame for the girls to flourish, but we went to New York for a competition and all that.
And once again, Will is supplying a rigid framework—one in which the FUSE team flourishes. Huzzah, Young Portnoy, you are indeed a great and intriguing man.