If you ran into Steve Anonsen at the grocery store, he'd be the guy with only a couple of necessities in his cart making his way directly to the checkout counter. He's not a big eater and he doesn't have time to spare. You wouldn't know, because even geniuses need milk and bread and he looks just like all the rest of us, but he's really smart. If, by chance, you had a conversation with him, you'd find him to be a nice, mild-mannered Midwestern guy, a dad and a husband like most of the rest of the guys in line. Unless you got him to talk about computer programming. Then his eyes would flash, just a bit, and he'd tell you that software is a thing to be controlled. He tells it what to do and it does what he says. But so quickly that you'd wonder if you saw that fire in his eyes, he'd revert to his basic persona of a slightly introverted, nice enough seeming guy.
Steve Anonsen is in fact a nice guy who is one of the top programmers at Microsoft Great Plains in Fargo, N.D. His title is chief software architect, the same description Bill Gates has at parent-company Microsoft. Steve and Tim and another guy (this is how they talk) will be meeting with Gates in the next few weeks to keep him posted on the progress of their latest work and to see if he can detect any flaws in the programming. The programs end up to be millions of lines of code, so it's important for the architects, like Steve Anonsen and Bill Gates, to keep their eyes on the big picture.
Anonsen is kind and articulate, and if he were the sort of guy who had time to chat in the aisles of the grocery store, he would like to sink his teeth into a hypothetical conversation on information technology with Rip Van Winkle. Under the circumstances, he has just a few minutes to discuss such a whimsy, and at first, to this analytical computer scientist/mathematician, the layers seem too deep, the time span too long. How to explain interfaces, portals and cross-platform functionality, much less binary code? But soon Anonsen begins to imagine that his buddy Rip would be able to understand about manipulating data. After all, computers were named for the practice of using mathematics to determine an amount or number. In Latin, computre, to reckon. Rip might find it astounding, but he could get the idea that machines are used to capture and manipulate extremely high volumes of information, that tasks once performed slowly and imperfectly by humans are rapidly automated at the command of languages invented for this purpose.
His conversation with Rip would be cut short, though, because he's got a bunch of other really smart people waiting for him. They need to talk about a finished product, about writing code today that achieves the needs of businesses tomorrow. Even though his colleagues haven't yet developed the eclectic taste in art prints that Anonsen has hanging in his office-ette (it has walls, but it's more of a glassed-in cube), they are his team. Their appreciation for the avant garde of a Rothko landscape or the subtlety of a Renoir scene will have to come. After all, they did just move into the second of the new buildings on the Great Plains campus in south Fargo. Meanwhile, the code must be developed.
His crew may not grasp the finer points of his artwork, but the drawings on the white board in that office have their full attention. This is where the minds meet to diagram functions that must be crafted in the code. They work in a new programming language of Microsoft's. Pascal, C and C++ are in the past. Anonsen, as the architect, has to be able to see what the thing should look like and how it will withstand not only the near term changes in technology, but how it will get along in the future. "It's like building a building," except that the ground shifts a lot more often. The builders, some engineers, some computer scientists, do the actual construction, writing the millions of lines. The last project Anonsen was on took 10 years. This time, the Internet and the increasing interaction between businesses affect the decisions about where to put the windows and doors, so to speak. "Technology will shift," Anonsen knows. That's one thing he will guarantee. You can tell he talks about this all the time.
When he followed a girlfriend from White Bear Lake, Minn., to North Dakota State University in Fargo, Anonsen thought he'd be studying engineering, but switched to computer science and mathematics before graduating in 1987. He had no idea back then that he'd become one of the nation's leaders in software development, much less be with Great Plains 14 years and begin counting again when Microsoft took over in the spring. When he started with the company, it was a small gang, looked at by the locals with hope and, to be honest, a bit of doubt. Now he is among 2,000 Great Plains employees throughout the world. And Great Plains is among 44,000 Microsoft employees.
It would be easy to get caught up in the science and engineering of software and technology, and the possibilities of the Internet, but Anonsen also has to be talking about the limits. "People won't stop being human," he says. Technology, after all, is supposed to be a way to make people's lives easier. Business is still business, even if the opportunities and the pitfalls are more plentiful and complex. "There hasn't been a time like this," Anonsen says.