From Trek to Zune
Alumnus Brodsky Spans Early Computing Days to Latest Microsoft Products
by Kevin Rayburn
If it hadn’t been for Klingons and Romulans, who knows where Mark Brodsky ’88S would be today?
That’s because an early fascination with those intergalactic enemies of Captain Kirk on TV’s Star Trek helped steer Brodsky toward what has become a successful career as a software development manager at Microsoft Corp.
Long before he helped develop major products at the Redmond, Wash., software giant—including the Microsoft Money personal finance program and Microsoft C/C++—Brodsky dabbled in the now-quaint world of 1970s computing.
“I’m probably dating myself talking about this stuff,” he says, recounting his career and his youthful days as a student at Livonia Stevenson High School in Livonia, Mich., in the late 1970s.
“Computers became interesting to me around the ninth grade, and that was from playing some text-based games, including Star Trek, on a Hewlett-Packard mainframe.
“It was pretty primitive. You would basically just choose to move in a particular direction at a certain light speed and then you would fire a weapon based on entering a certain coordinate—trying to kill Klingons and Romulans before they got you.”
Pretty soon, Brodsky—who took drafting courses at the school—found his interest in architecture as a possible career choice lessening as he learned more about how computer programs worked.
“I spent a lot of time looking at the source code of these text-based games,” he says. “At the time all of this stuff was done in BASIC (programming language), which was pretty easy to read.”
The timing of Brodsky’s interest was perfect because the school began offering a course called computer-math for the first time.
“That’s where I started programming BASIC on an HP mainframe,” he says. “Most of the programs we wrote used relatively simple data structures and simple algorithms. We were actually entering the data on either mark-sense cards or punch cards and everything would be submitted as a batch job and we would use a TTY printer to get our output.
“Like I said, this was pretty old school.”
He then moved on to working on an Apple II, writing programs including one simulating a chessboard.
“At first we were using a cassette player for storage, so it was a big deal when we got our first floppy drive.”
Brodsky remembers the whopping memory capacity.
“It was a 143k single-sided, single density floppy drive, running on a 16k RAM machine—that only had upper case (input).”
It was around this time that the presence of certain little company founded in 1975 entered Brodsky’s consciousness.
“While in high school I sold computers at a couple of retail stores, so I became familiar with the software that Microsoft put out, certainly MS-DOS and all the flavors of MS-DOS that were out there for each manufacturer.”
Despite a growing interest in computing, the lure of architecture still appealed to Brodsky—until he realized some harsh facts.
“The housing market was in a slump back in ’81 and ’82 when I was ready to graduate, so I decided I would bypass architecture and give this computer thing a whirl.”
Brodsky initially enrolled in the computer science program at Michigan State University, but after a few years a program cutback at the school forced him to make a key decision.
“Rather than change majors, I changed school.”
He chose to attend Speed at UofL.
“To be honest, my decision of where to go was based on proximity to family,” he says. During his first months in Louisville, Brodsky was able to share cheap digs with a locally residing cousin while getting himself established at UofL.
During his Speed days, Brodsky served several co-ops at Structural Research Dynamics Corp. in Milford, Ohio.
Brodsky says he got a leg up on other students because—unlike many of his peers in the engineering math and computer science program—he was writing software during his internships.
“For me, that was playtime, and I was getting paid for it.”
Brodsky wrote code that went into the company’s computer-aided design and modeling software.
“I was seeing my work go into actual products sold on the market.”
This training, plus Brodsky’s previous experience in high school using Microsoft compilers in creating software, looked good when Brodsky went job hunting after graduation in 1988.
A job interview at Microsoft yielded fast results.
“I had just flown back from Redmond and barely had my hand on the doorknob when the phone rang with the news.”
Brodsky had the job.
At that time, Brodsky says, Microsoft had about 2,000 employees. Today, it employs more than 89,000 full-time employees worldwide.
His first duty as a software test engineer was to write software that tested utility libraries.
“I would get to beat up the code before it was OK to put into another product,” he says. The code Brodsky worked on went into early versions of software that would evolve into popular programs such as Excel, Microsoft Access and Word for Windows.
After two years as a software test engineer and a test lead Brodsky moved to a position of software design engineer. He then worked on debuggers, a tool used by developers to diagnose software bugs.
In that capacity he began to work on high-profile projects such as Microsoft C/C++, Visual Studio software and Microsoft Money.
Eventually, Brodsky was promoted to software development manager, leading development teams of up to 43 people.
His awards include an in-house Most Valuable Player honor for his role in developing Microsoft Money.
More recently, he was the development manager for the first edition of the Zune device, the company’s media player designed to compete with the Apple iPod.
Now, as part of Microsoft’s Ads and Commerce Division, Brodsky is heading up development on new software targeting mobile devices.
In recent years he joined the computer engineering and computer science department's Industrial Board of Advisors in Speed to help ensure that the school maintains high educational standards required by the corporate world.
Brodsky—whose Microsoft duties include extensive personnel recruiting—has enabled two Speed students to obtain co-ops at Microsoft and hopes to hire more.
The need for more talented engineers is great, Brodsky says, which is one reason he works with Speed to produce qualified graduates.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here at Microsoft,” he says. “We have thousands of open positions at any given time.”
Brodsky says the advantages of working at Microsoft are many, including the satisfaction of seeing your work translate into products used by people worldwide.
“The software I’ve worked on during the last 20 years has literally touched millions of people,” he says.
“I can go anywhere and see something that I probably had something to do with, and that’s really cool.”