Thursday, 10 September 2009 19:32

Sara Ford - the Microsoft open source leader who gives and gives

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Meet Sara Ford. She’s the program manager in charge of Microsoft’s answer to SourceForge, CodePlex. She’s also responsible for donating some $29,000 to families affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Sara Ford is presently in Australia to speak at Microsoft’s Tech-Ed. She stopped to talk to iTWire and believe me, having Sara Ford stop moving seems to be a feat in itself.

Ford’s petite frame hides away a high-energy personality that works and works, and when she isn’t working, she’s spending time preparing for her second Karate black belt or hiking or cycling.

Prior to her current role with CodePlex, Ford began her time at Microsoft working on accessibility for Visual Studio. “How would a blind person interact with Visual Studio,” she mused. In a move that would drive most crazy, Ford determined to use her computer for three months with the monitor switched off and only working with a screen reader.

During this time she discovered the first incarnation of Visual Studio.NET would crash if Intellisense was used while a screen reader was active. The fault was subsequently resolved in Visual Studio.NET 2003.

She also wrestled for 10 days with a problem a blind programmer mailed to her, his Windows’ screen reader crashing whenever he opened his project in Visual Studio.

After trying every route, Ford ultimately asked the developer how big his code files were. The answer was a whopping half a million characters in one single file. It turned out the screen reader could only handle a maximum of 499,999 characters before exceeding its buffer.

In one of several magical moments she describes, Ford says she met this programmer in person a year later at a conference. He thanked her for her persistence on the problem, with his ability to continue programming helping make him feel he still had contributions to make despite his lack of sight.

In a move characteristic of Sara Ford, she decided one day to blog a tip on Visual Studio every single day for a year except weekends, joking she was “too cheap to tip on weekends.”

Ford kept this up for 382 days documenting more tips than many would think might exist. Not surprisingly, one of Ford’s topics at Tech-Ed is her list of “Top 25 Visual Studio tips.”

The Visual Studio tips became a highly popular addition to Ford’s blog and the idea struck that she could compile and expand on them in a book. “Visual Studio Tips” was born, published by Microsoft Press.

For anyone who makes a living working in Visual Studio the content of Ford’s book can boost productivity. However, the story of the book didn’t end with its publication.


Ford grew up in Waveland, Mississippi where her parents continue to live. Seeing her hometown devastated by Hurricane Katrina moved Ford to action. She vowed that one day she would do something to make a difference.

That day came when Ford received her initial royalties cheque for the book. Armed with $12,000 and a pledge by Microsoft to match her donation she was able to make a significant donation to the Save Waveland Scholarship Fund. This Fund enables any resident of Waveland to attend Gulf Coast Community College. Ford later donated additional royalties that came after the advance.

This Fund was meaningful to her, Ford told iTWire, because the children beginning high school at the time of Katrina are now graduating and have lived with the aftermath of its devastation for their entire high school period.

As a result Gulf Coast College – which Sara Ford attended for a semester – named her “Alumni of the year” for 2009.

I asked Sara Ford what her absolute favourite tip is. She told iTWire it is a power user tip and that even the Principal Architect of Visual Studio was surprised and impressed when she showed it to him.

The “Find” dialog combo box actually permits commands to be executed, Ford explained. If you type “main” and then press F9 you can actually set a breakpoint on the “main()” method within your project, for instance. Other commands and keystrokes work with similar results.

Of course, being Sara Ford, she gave me a second favourite tip. Under the Tools menu Visual Studio permits configuration settings to be imported and exported. A macro can be used to automate this and then in turn be bound to a button with a customisable icon.

This means, Ford explained, it is possible to set up many different environments and then switch between them at the mere click of a button. For example, she has a regular coding environment and then another for presentations which hides toolbars, increases the font size and more. She can freely move between environments at a click.

I concluded my time with Sara Ford with no doubt as to why a Sara Ford fan club exists. She’s a lady of action with a heart well in excess of her size. The only problem I could imagine anyone ever having with Sara Ford is simply in being able to keep up with her.

Disclaimer: David M Williams is attending Microsoft Tech-Ed as a guest of Microsoft.


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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