From infrastructure testing to cloud lead: Unboxing the transformation of Brent Burtness

Apr 5, 2018   |  

Brent Burtness looking at the camera in front of a computer screen.

Brent Burtness didn’t set out to become one of the first ever cloud leads at Microsoft.

“It wasn’t planned,” Burtness says. “There was a reorg, my team moved on, and I was suddenly without a team and needed to figure out what to do next.”

Left to his own devices, the longtime Microsoft employee gravitated toward the cloud and Microsoft Azure, which the company’s IT organization was just beginning to explore.

“Microsoft IT was just starting its cloud migration,” he says of the organization now known as Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO). “They scooped me up and told me I was a cloud lead.”

Burtness was a software tester when he first started working at Microsoft 19 years ago, methodically making sure the various parts of internal customer support products that he was supporting worked like they were supposed. Test this, test that, send it back with detailed feedback, and test it again. “It was functional testing,” he says. “I was making sure all the fields in the UI worked, that the data was showing up.”

The work was highly repetitive, and even before the move to the cloud came, he was already angling for more vibrancy. He moved over to lead the infrastructure for his team and to manage deployment testing, where he got to work on complex, highly integrated systems.

“I got to work on deploying new stuff,” Burtness says. “I’d deploy it, try it, break it, find the problem, recommend a fix—lots of troubleshooting on why things didn’t work, lots of investigation.”

It was about understanding how the infrastructure works, details that a lot of people take for granted.

“MS Solve was one of the very first deployments I got to work on,” he says, speaking of an internal incident management system built on Dynamics. At the time, this was the largest deployment of Dynamics CRM (it was handling all the commercial support tickets for Microsoft).

“I remember during a major version upgrade that Jim DuBois (the former CIO of Microsoft) was sitting right across the table, making sure that the deployment worked correctly. It was a pretty intense time. We could not fail this one.”

As time went along, Burtness felt he needed to stay sharp to stay relevant, so he studied how the tech industry was evolving and tried to keep up with the latest trends. That meant doing cloud and Azure homework. “What helped me was being curious about everything,” he says. “It wasn’t just one area—I’m curious about everything.”

Adopting a continuous learner mentality allowed Burtness to move from being a specialist tester to a generalist advocate for moving to the cloud. He learned skills related to program management and financial knowledge, information that wasn’t relevant in his previous role as a tester or infrastructure lead.

His curiosity and personal investigations are what helped him reinvent himself as a cloud lead. That’s why, when the Microsoft Solve Team moved out of CSEO, he was snapped up by a team of leaders who were trying to figure out how to move the company’s IT infrastructure to Azure.

Those leaders dubbed their effort Project Stratus and searched for people like Burtness to work on it. “They told me I was a cloud lead,” he says. “They wanted me to help them figure out how to move one of our data centers to Azure.”

As cloud lead, intuitively as it sounds, he helped build the infrastructure that would help the IT organization move the company’s 60,000 servers to Azure.

In the early days that meant first figuring out what the company had that needed to move (the picture wasn’t at all clear), how to move it, what principles were needed to guide the move, figuring out what would move first, and so on.

“Those were the days when we developed our plans for moving the cloud,” Burtness says. “We had to assess what we had, and to develop best practices for moving it—it was the kind of work that would set us up for success later.”

Now three years later, with the Stratus Team and CSEO in nearly finished with moving the workloads on the company’s 60,000 on-premises servers to Azure, the cloud lead role is changing. Today, Burtness is focused on helping teams get the most out of having their “stuff” in the cloud, doing things like coaching his colleagues to turn off Azure when they’re not using it to save money, to share best practices on how to get the most out of living in the cloud, and by showing them how to gain new insights by looking across all of their data, which is now available in real time on Power BI. Now he must keep his eye on the big picture, to nudge the CSEO engineering community when needed, to be a sounding board for when someone is not sure about his or her next steps. In truth, it’s about being a trusted advisor.

What’s clear to Burtness is that the cloud lead role is changing all the time. What started as tracking on premises server migrations to Azure is turning into helping his team leverage Azure in the most efficient way. This requires that he maintain a lot of technical depth about Azure and that he keep up to date on the latest it has to offer (which is challenging because the product changes all the time). His adaptivity and need to stay on the bleeding edge keeps him sharp.

“Every time Azure announces something new, I get an alert,” he says. “That’s how I try to stay ahead—that’s living in the cloud.”

Burtness is living the life of a continual learner, and he’s loving it.

“It’s a fast-moving world,” he says. “It’s exciting to be in the mix, always chasing what’s new.”

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