Interview with Lars Heill, Release Engineering Manager

Lars Heill

Hi Lars, it was a pleasure meeting you in person at the MySQL Developer Meeting in Riga some time ago. Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your personal background and where do you live?

Lars: Let's see — I was born in Northern Norway 41 years ago and I have lived in Trondheim for the last 22 years. I am a Physicist by education, I have a master degree on semiconductor heterojunctures and have earned a PhD on high temperature superconductors. I worked briefly on nuclear power fuel optimization and petroleum related rock mechanics before I joined Clustra in the year 2000, which was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2002. Clustra was a database software vendor that specialized in clustered, high-availability databases that were required by telecoms and service providers.

The Clustra team's knowledge and expertise in clustering and HA is probably a very welcome addition to our MySQL Cluster product development group! But please tell me, how does a physicist end up becoming a database architect?

Lars: The joke is that a physicist is like a potato: you can use it for anything... I chose to switch because I wanted to work differently, and Clustra back then was a rather dynamic place!

I joined to do testing, but soon moved into build and release engineering as my main area of responsibility, making up a one-man team for some 6-7 years. I truly enjoyed the very wide contact area that position gave me, working with all teams, products and functions locally, and throughout Sun.

Also, I have been managing our internal "TestTool" database: eating our own dog food since 2001 with a Clustra (now-HADB) database supporting QA, lab, release engineering, bug management and other efforts. I have up to recently been handling our lab resource allocation.

Yes, I also enjoyed the part about being in contact with so many different teams and products when I worked in product engineering. And it's great to hear that eating one's own dog food is a familiar practice for you as well - this is what we had been doing with MySQL for quite some time now as well. So how and when did you join the MySQL team (aka the Sun Database Group)?

Lars: Through Sun's acquisition of MySQL AB earlier this year.

What team are you in at the moment and what is your role there? What tasks are you responsible for?

Lars: I manage the release engineering team, and we build and deliver MySQL as well as the other database products that Sun ships, e.g. Java DB, BDB, MySQL on OpenSolaris, as well as the now retired HADB (the former Clustra product).

Having worked for this team before by myself, I am very excited to hear about this! Please tell us a bit more about your work — what are you currently working on?

Lars: I am currently working on synchronizing our releases, preparing for the post-5.1 GA world, figuring out how we can improve our tools and methods to streamline our releases and the build and test services we provide to our developers.

What would you consider to be the biggest challenge here? In comparison to some other Sun products, the MySQL Server is built on quite a large number of operating systems and architectures. Does this cause any particular problems or challenges for your team?

Lars: While all those platforms will have their own peculiarities and challenges, I see the biggest challenge in having the right methods and tools to handle any ugly interfaces and quirks and rather focus on producing consistent, high quality deliverables to give our customers and users, allowing for flexibility and offering services

I agree that providing consistent and repeatable builds is very important, and also a very challenging task! Have you been involved in the creation of the MySQL 5.1 release? How did you contribute to it?

Lars: My team produces the actual packages that go out to our users, and the last sprint before a GA is a always a high intensity affair. My focus was on getting the ducks in a row so that we produced good binaries for test and release.

So congratulations on getting the 5.1 GA release finally out the door! This must have been a great relief for your team. Speaking of your team, how does it feel like working for a virtual organization? Do you see any advantages/disadvantages in this working environment?

Lars: I have sort of been doing that for quite some time, even though with fewer "nodes". It is a great way of tapping into a lot of distributed talent, but it also does invade my private life quite a bit, being available across multiple time zones.

Virtual organizations can make it easy to reach out and get help or move things along, though it can also be very inefficient compared to meeting people face to face to decide and move on. I would prefer to have the full "music, lyrics and the dance" - when communicating, a huge amount of information is carried in the tone of voice (music) and the body language (dance) - the text (lyrics) alone is sometimes limited/limiting.

I agree that working in a fully distributed environment has its challenges and benefits. Even though you're not working from home primarily, can you tell us how your workplace looks like? What do you see when you look out the window?

Lars: I have an office on the 4th floor in Sun's site in Trondheim. I prefer to disregard the empty lot left after a fire just below and enjoy a nice view towards trees, a church and the mountains behind the Trondheim fjord. There are some 45 people here, a lot of them working together since 6-8 or even 10 years, a fun and inspiring environment!

That sounds like a nice place to work from, indeed. So what do you enjoy most about your job?

Lars: Meeting with my colleagues every day, and being presented with challenges and handle them together with really skilled people across a very large and diverse organization - Sun and MySQL.

And what do you do outside working hours?

Lars: Photography feeds my soul... I love spending time with my son, walking, hiking, traveling, watching films, losing myself in music.

I think it's essential to have a good work-live balance. Interestingly, photography seems to be a pretty popular hobby among the developers at the Sun Database Group! How has your job changed since MySQL joined Sun? How did this affect you?

Lars: Quite considerably - I am now managing a distributed team and entered a, well, quite "different" organization :) We have an enormous workload, but I hope that we will manage to get it down to becoming only a "huge workload" at some point.

How do you see your work on release engineering changing the future of MySQL? What are your future plans with regards to your work?

Lars: There are improvements to be made on what we deliver and how we do that. Streamlining and automating our build process will help us ensure timely, high quality releases to our users inside and outside the organization. Our users and customers should rely on us to deliver predictable and high quality software packages.

My focus will be in this area, and for my own I am looking forward to contributing to those results while improving on my own skills to continuously improve to make that happen ever better.

I am looking forward to these improvements and wish you and your team much success with this! Thank you very much for answering my questions, Lars.

This interview was performed in December, 2008