Microsoft remodels its workplace methods with aim of retrieving mojo

The computer giant has slipped from the public imagination but the Garage aims to change that


When chief executive Satya Nadella took over at the helm of Microsoft in 2014, he came with a mission to change the culture of the company.

It wasn’t difficult to see why a new approach was needed. Microsoft, despite its efforts, was being left behind in the race towards mobile as its more nimble rivals reacted to market demands. The 40-year-old company, once the mainstay on desktops in offices and schools, was losing out to tablets and smartphones, with its Windows Phone software failing to make much impact.

When you think of innovation, your mind – fairly or unfairly – doesn’t immediately move to Microsoft. The firm, which employs 120,000 people around the world, is more often associated with spreadsheets and word processors than innovative mobile software. A Vanity Fair article in 2012 laid out how, in its opinion, Microsoft had lost its mojo.

Behind the scenes, however, Microsoft has been working on building its future.

There are some surprising elements. Take the Garage for example. The movement began as a small community in 2009 as “a bunch of people who got together around a central motto which was ‘doers not talkers’” explains Ed Essey, senior manager of the Garage.

Corporate speakeasy

“They wanted to be people who actually showed up and worked on things together, learning by doing. It was sort of like a speakeasy for working on your idea without have to make a business plan and share it to your executive. It respected ideas that began small.

“People would show up, knock knock, secret handshake, I’m a doer not a talker, and they would be allowed to come in and work on what they wanted.” It turned out to be a surprisingly popular idea, and it soon spread throughout the company.

Since 2009, more chapters have formed at Microsoft sites around the world, and now it has 45 chapters, including one in Dublin. The community has grown to tens of thousands of Microsoft employees.

Essey is one of the very few people who work on the Garage full-time as a day job.

Most people who are members of the Garage are members of it as a community, with jobs elsewhere in the company. The Garage projects are a side thing, a labour of love rather than a hard-nosed business decision. Some projects are purely experimental and will never see a commercial release.

But they can also have a real impact on Microsoft’s core business, the money-making software and the hardware that the firm has invested millions in developing.

Smart ideas

The Forgotten Attachment Detector has been incorporated into the company’s Outlook product, while a three-in-one docking station that allows you to use your Surface Pro 3 in a portrait mount alongside your regular desktop monitor is available as a maker project. Plans can be downloaded for free and the entire device can be printed on a 3D printer.

Nadella is taking the Garage seriously too. Prior to his appointment as chief executive, Essey said, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the project. When he was appointed to the job, he made his first public address to the company standing in the Garage at Redmond.

“It makes a statement about the kind of culture he wanted to see happen at the company. a culture that’s about having a growth mindset, a culture about customer obsession, a culture about leadership by what you do, not leadership by what your position is.”

One of the first things he did after taking over, Essey pointed out, was change how the company meeting worked. Instead of employees gathered in a room, listening to executives talk at a podium, it became a company-wide hackathon. Employees would work on what they wanted while the executives could wander the room and ask them about it.

The first year at the Garage, the aim was just to get people to show up; the second year, the project wanted to help people get their projects made and off the ground. Starting first with its community events such as ‘stay late and code’, the Garage evolved to hackathons and science fairs. It even has its own volcano dubbed Mount St Awesome.

At Redmond, and at other chapters around the world, there is not only a space for people to meet and discuss projects, but also equipment for them to create physical projects when required, with a maker room that has 3D printers, laser cutters and high-end equipment. Any new members of the Garage can see a video welcome from Nadella himself, outlining the importance of the project to Microsoft – and it’s not just about the end project.

“Start with an idea that excites and challenges you,” he says. “Take what you’ve learned back to your group . . . and have a greater impact on the world.”

The Garage is building more than software and hardware; it’s also creating a sense of innovation and a buzz around Microsoft. “It began as a movement where people could work on what they wanted without a business plan,” said Essey. “Now it’s supported around the company as just a different way to operate.”

While Microsoft may not be trying to style itself as a large start-up, it’s clear that the new attitude is having an impact on the company culture. The Garage hit a milestone this year. with the 50th project to ship to its audience, 16 months into the Garage ship channel. That honour went to the Hub keyboard, created by Steve Won.

Experimentation outlet

“We refer to this as an outlet for experimentation. We are trying to learn whether our feelings about the project are actually true. Does the idea we have meet people’s needs? We’re intentionally releasing it to a small market. We often pick a single app platform we think is representative of the audience we’re trying to target and we release it to that audience,” explained Essey.

That platform is not always Windows, by the way. The Hub keyboard is available for Android and iOS, but not Windows Phone. WordFlow is a keyboard designed for use with iOS devices.

Perhaps that’s one of the more curious things about the “new” Microsoft. It’s not all about furthering the Windows platform and shutting out competitors; the company seems happy to get its software to as many users as possible, even if that means helping out their rivals a little in the process.

Will the new approach be enough to shift the public perception of Microsoft? Time will tell. But one thing is clear: the new Microsoft is trying to distance itself from the old way of doing things. It’s fighting to get its mojo back.

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