Java Engineering at Microsoft: Interview with Reiley Yang

Today I have another post in my Java / Azure interview series, this time with Reiley Yang. I met Reiley recently as we were both visiting the Microsoft Shanghai offices at the same time, and I learned more about what he is doing in the area of remote Java debugging with Azure. So, please, enjoy! 🙂

Hi Reiley – can you please introduce yourself to everyone?
Hey, I’m Reiley Yang. I started my career 12 years ago as a C/C++ developer (working on the low level stuff, C Runtime Libraries, compilers, debuggers, etc.), and later worked on different technologies and platforms. My hobbies include working on personal IoT projects, piano playing, woodwork, yard work, and cooking.

You and I met each other recently when we were in Shanghai at the same time, but you’ve been based out of Microsoft HQ in Redmond for some time now. You said you moved from Shanghai partially because you’re a keen piano player but couldn’t easily play piano in Shanghai without annoying your neighbours. Now that you have a bit more space in Redmond, I wondered if any of your piano music was recorded and online?
I do have some recordings, more for myself when I try to see what can be improved, I never published them though. I am a big fan of Chopin and J.S. Bach’s keyboard music. I hope that one day I could play all their works 🙂

When did you start working at Microsoft?
I started in 2006, then quit and worked in a start-up company, and re-joined Microsoft in 2011.

If I recall correctly you previously worked on C++ compilers and the like, and today you find yourself working on Java debugging on Azure. That’s quite a big change! Could you talk more about what you do at Microsoft today, and how you came to be working on Java at Microsoft?
Sure! I started working on the C++ runtime libraries and compilers. Later there was a need to improve the C++ / CLI debugger, which requires knowledge and experience from compiler, so I started to work on debuggers. Since then I’m always connected with debuggers and debugging.

There has been a long history between Microsoft and Java, and Microsoft was not doing well in the Java area in the early years. Now we have put tremendous amount of effort into making Microsoft technologies available for Java developers, and we want Microsoft tools and services to stand out in terms of Java support.

Debugging services in the cloud is hard, we’re experimenting with cloud debugging support for Java, and will add other language support in the future. Here’s a diagram outlining how things go together (click to see a bigger version):

As I understand it, remote debugging is still a proof of concept and you’re still seeking community feedback. How should developers test this functionality, and how should they provide feedback?
We have documented the steps, which explains the steps to debug Java-based Azure Functions in the cloud, and we use GitHub to track issues and collect suggestions.

The scope of the work required for remote debugging is considerable – the debugger must be part of the JVM, it must be exposed through a port in the app service, there must be tooling written that can communicate with this debugger, VS Code will provide a visual interface for remote debugging, etc. It seems like your work cuts across a number of different layers – it must be difficult to line everyone up and get a shared vision of this feature. On top of this, Microsoft has engineering teams in a number of different geographies – how does working on something so complex across so many layers in many geographies work?
There is no magic 🙂

Yes there has been ongoing communications among different teams, the conversations are all based on the BI data and customer feedback. When you put the customers’ requirement in front of the table, you’re more easily to get support from your partner teams.

The VS Code team is in Zurich, Azure Application Platform and Azure Functions team are in Redmond, the Java Debugger team is in Shanghai. Some of the team members need to fight against the jetlag and travel abroad, and some need to switch their working hours so we can have conference meetings across the ocean.

[Jonathan Note: There is a blog post on using VS Code to debug Java applications that might be of interest to readers, as well as a recent article on the latest improvements].

What does a normal day look like for you? Are you able to dive deeply into coding, is there a lot of planning / communication required?
I actually spend a lot of time with customers.

One big difference in the last couple years at Microsoft is the faster release cadence. In the old days, we used to have new release every 3 years, and now it is 3 weeks. We’ve keep a close eye on the feedback from our users, the number of downloads, error reporting, etc. This gives us chance to bring new features to the market as soon as possible, and we can adjust the direction / priority based on the results.

Thanks so much for your time! Do you have any other final words that you want to share with the community?
Yes, I would love to hear how people are using Content Assist / IntelliSense while writing in Java.

What are the most annoying things and what are the features you would love to have. My team is thinking to make improvements in this area, let us know what you would love to have 🙂

We’re looking for crazy ideas that push Content Assist / IntelliSense to a new level using machine learning and AI.

Take one example – developers would spend a considerable amount of time searching for code samples and follow common patterns while using certain API, we want to see whether developers would find it helpful if the IDE could help to generate a code snippet based on the API being used.

Another example is the async feature in Java, will people feel excited if there is a tool to automatically convert sync code to async, or vice versa?

[Jonathan Note: Please leave any feedback you might have for Reiley as a comment below, or else feel free to email me and I will forward it on to Reiley].

Thanks Reiley!

Java desktop links of the week, March 5

Some good links this week – enjoy! 🙂

Azure Cosmos DB async Java SDK now available and open sourced

There are a lot of Java SDKs being released by Microsoft these days, and here’s another: the Azure Cosmos DB folks have released version 1.0.0 of their asynchronous Java SDK, and at the same time they have open sourced the SDK repo! There is a getting started application ready for people to sink their teeth into, and the artifacts are already up in Maven Central. Finally, the team has released a benchmark tool, and they said to me that they could reach 43,000 document inserts per second (on a 16 CPU core Ubuntu VM) for documents of 1KB size in gateway mode.

For those unfamiliar with Cosmos DB, check out the Azure Cosmos DB introduction. In summary, “Azure Cosmos DB is Microsoft’s globally distributed, multi-model database. With the click of a button, Azure Cosmos DB enables you to elastically and independently scale throughput and storage across any number of Azure’s geographic regions. It offers throughput, latency, availability, and consistency guarantees with comprehensive service level agreements (SLAs), something no other database service can offer.” From there you can find quick start documentation for SQL, MongoDB, Graph, Table, and Cassandra.

Java Engineering at Microsoft: Interview with Rikki Gibson

Today I have another interview to share! Following my interview with Yoshio Terada, a Java evangelist at Microsoft, today I have an interview with Rikki Gibson, a software engineer at Microsoft, working exclusively on Java-related projects. I am quite envious of his role, as engineering and solving fun problems is always what excites me most! So, to everyone reading – enjoy this post, and I’ll work on getting more stories about Java people at Microsoft up every week or two 🙂

Hi Rikki – can you please introduce yourself to everyone?
Hi there! I’m Rikki Gibson. I come from Corvallis, Oregon and I’m a 2017 graduate from Oregon State University in Computer Science. When I was in school I worked part-time for a few years on .NET-based systems for the Oregon state government, and I have some Java background from a small foray into Android development. When I joined Microsoft in July 2017 I was brought on the Azure SDKs team within Microsoft Developer Division working on Java and .NET libraries.

Outside of working for Microsoft, do you have any hobbies, open source projects, or other things that keep you busy?
I continue to maintain a set of apps for finding out when the bus will arrive in my hometown. I’m also starting to work on writing a Game Boy emulator on the side on weekends. Certainly a solved problem, but I find exploring all the little behaviors of an embedded system like that to be pretty interesting. I’m also into PC gaming, D&D, and hiking when the weather is good 🙂

You’ve only relatively recently joined Microsoft as a Java engineer. What are your impressions of Java at Microsoft?
Yes, it’s been just 7 months, although it feels like that’s gone by fast. Java has an incredible, long-established open source community. It’s a big shift for Microsoft to try and start being a citizen of that community. Even people within Microsoft might find it surprising that unless confidential / preview Azure features are involved, my team typically does work, issue tracking, and code reviews in the open from the very first commit. I’m very happy being in that kind of a space as an engineer.

.NET has the lion’s share of usage on Azure, so it can be harder to raise awareness about our Java offerings. We also have to occasionally fight the tendency to foist .NET-isms onto Java developers. On the bright side, we have more latitude than the .NET SDK teams to make changes that we think will improve the developer experience in Java.

Working in the open can be daunting, but also very rewarding. From my experience contributing to OpenJDK for 9 or so years, you can get all kinds of people appearing to contribute. Do you have anybody from the community helping with development, and do you have any messages to people who might be on the lookout for an open source project they can contribute to (in relation to why yours might be a fun one to join)?
David Moten, who’s very knowledgeable about RxJava, has come and made some really useful bug reports recently from reading our code. Besides that, there have been several people who have showed up with bug reports or PRs to try and make something in particular work better for their use case.

If you’ve got a REST API that you want to create a Java client for, you might enjoy being bold and trying to create it using our stack 🙂 The experience of it isn’t half bad! Otherwise I’d just encourage people to take a look at the libraries they currently use in their own projects and to do a little digging about what the community for those libraries is like—many library teams like to answer people’s questions and hear their feedback. You might find small bugs or work items that you can pick up and complete. It’s very good to have open source projects on your resume.

Microsoft is a huge organization, and Azure is massive. How do all the puzzle pieces fit together between the teams?
The problem we face in delivering Azure services to developers is that we need to multiply the number of Azure services by the number of languages we wish to offer first-class support for. Completely hand-authoring the libraries for communicating with these services would be prohibitively time-consuming and difficult to keep consistent between each other.

Swagger, otherwise known as OpenAPI, is how we formally describe the endpoints available in each service. Azure service teams author these documents, and then we use the AutoRest code generator to generate code in a variety of languages. Ideally, some amount of hand-written code wraps the generated code so that we can be sure we’re presenting a coherent, pleasant experience to developers. This isn’t always the case, depending on the size of the audience for the service, the stability of the service API, or the urgency of delivering new API features. We do a significant amount of work to try and make the generated code usable out of the box, but it’s hard to reach the same level of quality that way.

Today you are a software engineer working on Java at Microsoft. What exactly are you working on?
I work on the core tools that we use to generate API clients in Java. Specifically, I’ve been working on an overhaul of our Java code generator and “runtime” library, which is referenced in our generated Java code to make network calls, authenticate, serialize/deserialize, and many other various tasks. The overall solution has to be suitable both for a user who just wants to show up and learn to make a few simple calls, and a user who wants to have a high level control over how things are done and get as much throughput as possible with minimal usage of system resources.

So your code is what all Java SDKs use to connect to Azure? That feels like a big responsibility! What kind of challenges do you have in your job?
Some of the biggest challenges are around delivering convenience features based on the needs of various teams that depend on us while continuing to function fully across such a general space. It can be a bit of a tightrope walk to implement features for one team without breaking features for another team, and we wind up supporting a lot of implicit “convenience” conversions that stay with us. We have to spend a lot of time considering finer details, like what URL escaping means for different types of URL parameters or what empty strings/collections vs. nulls should mean in various contexts.

It was particularly challenging to implement the network layer of our new Java core using Netty and RxJava. I learned a great deal about concurrency in Java by doing so. Although it’s sometimes discouraging to debug issues that only show up on a server under heavy load, it’s also very interesting and rewarding to reason about and solve problems in that kind of a setting.

I have been quite vocal about the importance of convenience APIs, and I feel like sometimes when you’re in a meeting with me that I’m unintentionally attacking your work. So, sorry if you feel ambushed! 🙂 I have a lot of respect for the challenges you face in auto-generating APIs, and feel bad for arguing the importance of hiding these APIs behind a convenience layer! The fact that you need to cover such a massive surface area, and a surface that is frequently changing, makes your work super important. I know you’re constantly working to improve the auto-generated APIs, so some of the language features in JDK 8 must have you pretty excited. Apart from that, are there libraries you’re fond of using? Reactive APIs, dependency injection, etc, or do you try to keep external dependencies to a minimum?
No worries—I don’t see criticism of the product as criticism of myself 🙂 I don’t disagree with your argument. I just hope we can find a balance that lets us ship code of respectable quality on a reasonable schedule. I pray that something like “void getMetadata()” never ships.

Regarding Java 8: I think CompletableFuture is the right answer for many of our users, and Java 8’s lambdas are already simplifying our code generator considerably. I find RxJava enables some really powerful sequencing of asynchronous tasks, but we also have to think about our users who just want to make a few calls with straightforward semantics that resemble the JDK APIs they already know. Before we made the call to standardize on Java 8 recently, it was particularly challenging, as the JDK didn’t really provide a fundamental type for composable asynchronous programming at that point.

I’m in favor of keeping a minimal dependency count, but the truth is that we have some essential dependencies that we couldn’t live without. They tend to also be the ones where we have to work through the greatest number of breaking changes when we update, and where we hear about our customers getting in trouble with version conflicts the most.

Some of the architectural decisions we made for v2 amount to us choosing to replace some of our dependencies with internal solutions that handle our use case more effectively (particularly Retrofit), and to rearchitect our API surface to hide the dependencies more effectively–particularly the abstract HttpClient/Request/Response types that are meant to allow users to adapt any HttpClient out in the world to work in our stack. I’m optimistic that moving in that kind of a direction in the long term will help our customers use our library in a wider variety of environments.

As you look ahead, what are some of the areas of focus for you and your work? Are you looking into Java 8 to simplify your APIs or Java 9 to modularize the SDK?
After quite a bit of examination of telemetry and release schedules, we’re deciding to require a Java 8 minimum for our upcoming major release later this year. I’m particularly hoping to reduce our third-party dependency burden through use of APIs that are new in Java 8.

I’ve picked up a book on Java 9 modules recently to try and figure out the best experience we can provide for Java 9 users moving forward. I don’t know a ton yet, but I want to make sure we start off on the right foot in terms of which classes are being placed in which packages so that we can properly hide our implementation details.

Microsoft isn’t historically known for its support of Java. How do you find being an engineer working with Java inside Microsoft?
I’m lucky to be on a team with a lot of Java experience and a team culture that expects participation in the open source community. It’s been good for us to be kind of an underdog in this space—we have to work to win the trust of Java developers, and that pushes us to come up with better solutions.

Thanks so much for your time! Do you have any other final words that you want to share with the community?
Thank you for having me. I’d like to say thanks to Dávid Karnok and David Moten from RxJava, and Norman Maurer and Scott Mitchell from Netty for being welcoming and helpful when I showed up with questions or bug reports.

Azure for Java developers

When I did the last blog post about building a cloud backup app in Java with Azure, I kept it very high level, to just introduce the project and get a discussion rolling. Then an interesting thing happened that I’ve never, ever seen before – people on the internet had opinions that were wrong.

The comments I got were all over the web, but the fun was mainly on the Reddit post. There were some almost incoherent responses, so the one I’ll point out was the comment that writing a Java app on Azure was “Like doing c# on linode. No thanks.” It’s an interesting, and really quite weird, response 🙂 The basic failing here is simply the assumption that C# is the only first-class citizen for Azure, which is just plain wrong. Certainly C# is a first class citizen, but there is also support for Python, Java, JavaScript, etc. In many cases each Azure service offers a SDK for a large number of programming languages, which enables developers to write really quite simple code to connect to and use Azure services.

Just in the last few weeks I’ve recently opened two GitHub repos. The first one was a short-code URL generator using the Azure Functions service for serverless programming, and the second was a cloud sync backup app using Azure Storage. The key point is that in writing this code in Java I never dropped down to writing HTTP code to connect to the REST endpoint. From my opinion, if that is ever the solution to a web service problem, then the job isn’t yet complete!

If you are building a Java application that needs any kind of cloud functionality – storage, compute, serverless, you should consider Microsoft Azure. If you are doing cool stuff with IoT, artificial intelligence, or machine learning, you should consider Microsoft Azure. At Microsoft we now have huge number of people who are working solely on ensuring that the Java developer experience is first class – through APIs, through services, through documentation, and through developer advocacy. On a daily basis we are discussing how to fill gaps, improve experiences, and make what Java developers see and consume is the best it can be. If you want to play with Azure, there are even free offerings with substantial amounts of credit and free resources available (my personal favourite is the free 1,000,000 Azure Function calls a month – forever!).

So, I’ve been link heavy, but to wrap up, here are some important links to become familiar with as you dive into Java on Azure:

With that clarified, time to get back to working on The Cloud