Peter Spiro

2011 Career Achievement
Spiro was instrumental in establishing Microsoft’s competitive position in the commercial database industry, and continues to define the company’s future storage platform.

Receipt of the Career Achievement award is perhaps a familiar feeling for Peter Spiro. In 2008, he shared in his first Technical Achievement Award as a driving force behind the SQL Server® 7.0 team, which radically enhanced the company’s position in the commercial database industry. He went on to explore the next breakthrough in database technology: inexpensive and unlimited storage and application-development in the cloud. Equally important, he created a culture within Microsoft that can build on his earlier accomplishments.

Spiro, the 54-year-old Technical Fellow who characterizes himself as a yarn-spinning “village elder” in the Platforms and Services Division, has been focusing on activities outside his corporate responsibilities of late. He’d like to travel more. And he’s also a co-founder of the nonprofit group Social Endeavors with former Microsoft executives Paul Flessner and Rob Short. “We're like angel investors in the social-entrepreneur space,” he says.

Raised in New Hampshire among a large extended Greek family, Spiro entered the computing world in a curious fashion. After making charcoal as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, Spiro returned to the United States in 1981 and found himself growing corn for the University of Wisconsin’s agronomy department in Madison. He enrolled in the school’s forestry department, quickly recognized computing’s potential as a forestry-management tool, and graduated with master’s degrees in each field.

During his nine years at DEC as a hands-on engineer and technical director, Spiro saw his database products set industry benchmarks, which he considers his first noteworthy accomplishment. In 1994, Microsoft recruited him to be a change agent in the SQL organization, which he helped rebuild from the ground up. SQL Server 7.0 contained 80 percent new code, replaced a surfeit of features with an emphasis on ease-of-use, and brought database benefits to small and medium businesses. The organization grew from 30 to 1,200 members, and its income increased from $30 million to $3 billion.

Spiro’s next phase was marked by his stewardship of WinFS, a legendary unshipped attempt to combine database and file-system technologies into one ambitious product. For all its technical issues and management hurdles, Spiro considers WinFS to have been another challenging and educational highlight of his career. “After we stopped WinFS,” he recalls, “I’d go around the company giving these talks about how we messed up—the good, the bad, and the ugly. We need to do more of that sort of post-mortem stuff, but a lot of people are hesitant to say they failed. I never had that problem.” Spiro next took on a hybrid manager/venture capitalist role for his next project, the cloud database that became SQL Azure™. “Most people in the SQL organization didn’t want to pursue building a database in the cloud because they thought it might cannibalize our existing businesses,” he says. Spiro found funding in Microsoft’s Live space and got Azure off the ground.

Culture, Spiro believes, is the common thread running through his career. But the culture he established in the SQL division—characterized by a high bar for hires, customer care, business success, code quality, performance, and creativity—isn’t necessarily optimal for life in the cloud. “Now we have to move a little faster and a little more aggressively to broaden the set of applications we’re building on our system. That’s a big change.”

Having created a thriving SQL culture, Spiro envisions a company-wide cultural legacy that would preserve the wisdom of its most talented retirees. Spiro believes no Microsoft elder should leave the company while they still have wisdom to impart. “We shouldn’t let certain people retire completely,” he argues. “They simply have too much intellectual property—in terms of both corporate and team memory—in their heads.” Which is why Peter Spiro continues to arbitrate, mentor, advise, and, he admits, “cause trouble.”

Watch our Behind-the-Code broadcasts to learn more about Spiro.

View Spiro’s official press profile.