Grassroots Reinvention of Microsoft

Start your own grassroots initiatives.

Those were the words of my Group Program Manager, as we sat in slightly uncomfortable chairs at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, along with a couple other program managers and a UEX researcher.

Before my interview and subsequent internship at Microsoft, my perceptions of the organization were neutral at best. Many layers, lots of red tape, and a buttload of bureaucracy stood in my way. Yet at the same time, it was exciting to consider working at such an influential and powerful company. It was the question whether I could contribute to that influence that worried me. As an individual contributor, starting at the lowest rung on the corporate ladder, what could I realistically hope to achieve?

Although I could picture a rough org chart, I never completely formulated an image of how that structure affected the business processes at Microsoft. In hindsight, perhaps my nebulous idea was that orders were given from on high and the teams decided how to design, implement, and ship those features.

Having participated in early planning work for the next version of InfoPath (I believe I’m in the clear to reveal that planning is starting, since Access has spoken about it, and really, is it shocking that with Office 2010 coming up to RTM, we’re thinking ahead?), I’m seeing that very little is preached from leadership. It is very much up to the teams to decide what the direction of the product should be. Of course, this is within a given framework, which provides consistency and a unified story across the product group, as well as with an ear towards real customer needs. After all, we want people to pay us for the software, which implies they derive value from it. But as long as the team can come up with the product that sells, management stays out of our hair. They give us pretty much free reign over the process.

That’s not to say everything’s hunky-dory. There are significant challenges in a company as large and complex as Microsoft. One of my particular pain points has been that of cross-team collaboration. There are so many product groups at Microsoft that it becomes a) nearly impossible not to have product/feature overlap and b) difficult  to intertwine the goals of different teams. Think about how many web-based file synchronization/storage services Microsoft was providing at one point: FolderShare, SkyDrive, Live Mesh. There’s more to the story that simply ignorance on management’s part to identify the overlap, but I believe some changes in team structures are needed to make Microsoft more efficient. I’m still thinking through what those changes should be. I don’t have a good answer, yet.

The second point applies to every team at Microsoft – the focus on user experience. Just as in the computer market, where selling generic beige boxes no longer brings in the money, selling generic user experiences also doesn’t work. Bullet point feature sets have gotten to a point in many products that adding new ones just don’t bring enough incremental value to customers to justify their purchase. The user experience design must take a leading role in the products Microsoft ships. Apple has done this amazingly well over the past 7-8 years. Only very recently has Microsoft seen some success in this area with Windows 7, and, to a lesser degree, the Zune HD. The products that have a very strong connection with the design folks are very promising. I believe Microsoft is realizing the value this can have all across the business. I’m excited about the prospect of taking part in this change.

The point to take away from my ramblings is that I can make a difference. It is all about driving things at a low level, at the grassroots level, and delivering value to our customers. If I can come up with a feature that is compelling, no one is going to say no to it, without good reason. The products are designed bottom up, not top down. This is accepted and rewarded at Microsoft. I look to the senior members of my team, as well as many others, and I see that it is those who take the initiative to drive good features to completion that move up quickly. At a lower level, no one should feel useless. It is those who make good use of themselves and their own initiative that are then placed in positions of increased influence on the area, the product, the company, and the industry and world.

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