Erik Meijer

2009 Outstanding Technical Leadership
As head of Microsoft’s Data Programmability Languages Team, Meijer creates unity between research and product development.

How do you make an anarchist software architect happy?

"I've been walking around with a huge smile on my face for the past two weeks," says Erik Meijer about winning this year's Outstanding Technical Leadership award. Meijer, who heads Microsoft's Data Programmability Languages Team, says he first felt shocked, then humbled, and finally "liberated" by the acknowledgment of his peers to let his "volcano of ideas" continue to flow freely. But just having ideas isn't enough, as he's the first to admit.

"Erik creates new ideas faster than most people can follow along," says Distinguished Engineer Chris Brumme. "And not crackpot ideas: he not only thinks of what to do but how to do it. He is quite good at implementing things himself, but he is also good at showing others how to build them." With 162 patent applications under his belt, Meijer thrives on watching his "crazy" ideas flourish in the real world. As he once said, "I see my role at Microsoft as a transformer who bridges the impedance mismatch between research and product development."

As a designer, Meijer focuses his efforts on another significant impedance mismatch: that of databases and programming languages. His 1992 dissertation at the University of Nijmegen offered a mathematical justification for what would later become known as Language Integrated Query (LINQ), the important .NET technology that smoothes out differences in data forms by identifying a common set of operations that work across all data. Meijer's acclaimed work on lightweight code generation, the C# language extension C-Omega, and C# 3.0 and Visual Basic 9, has helped bridge object-oriented, relational, and hierarchical data types—the three major contemporary data models that prevail in the industry today. He also shares in the invention and development of Haskell, the advanced pure functional programming language.

Meijer considered himself primarily a theoretical computer scientist until 1997, when, during a sabbatical at the Oregon Graduate Institute, he began a "long-term quest" to resolve some of the complex practical difficulties presented by computation in an increasingly distributed world. Currently attacking problems of latency in the distribution of data and programs in the Cloud, Meijer is excited by the "asynchronous" programming enabled by forthcoming Live Labs developer tools. He's also working on a Dolby-like system to eliminate programming "noise." According to Meijer, "A lot of the stuff we're doing with Web programming is about trying to get rid of all the boring parts. They're like a ritual dance but have nothing to do with the original problem." An ardent collaborator—"My personality profile is ENTP, so I like to work in groups"—Meijer prefers to shape his ideas alongside others, "throwing pies at the wall and seeing which ones stick." He's also undoubtedly one of only a very few self-characterized anarchists to win a leadership award. "I completely disregard official hierarchies and management chains," he admits. "Leadership should be emergent, and I believe deeply that you cannot shape a person to a job. You have to shape the job to the person, especially with intellectual work."

Meijer plans to divide the monetary aspect of this award between public education and the local community. He wants to support underserved aspects of the local school system through contributions aimed at arts education. "I feel like an artist, too," says Meijer. "It is important for students to learn to express themselves creatively, and be able to communicate ideas through a wide range of different media." He also intends to support human and youth services, noting the importance of such contributions in these tough economic times.

Watch our Behind-the-Code broadcast to learn more about Meijer.