Startup culture emerging at Microsoft

Why and how is Microsoft attracting ‘startup’ talent?

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I shared in a previous post, “Microsoft is often misunderstood,” about how our team facilitates focus groups with new hires. One reason we do this is to listen and better understand their perceptions versus the reality of being a Microsoft employee. I met Guy Shahine in one of these groups just over a year ago. Guy is currently a development lead working on Bing Offers. Inspired by his passion for his work, I’ve stayed in touch with him.

Guy planted a seed in my head last year that I’ve heard from more employees since: There’s an emerging startup culture at Microsoft. To hear one person talk about how their team is functioning like a startup is intriguing. To hear it from several people, across many areas of the company, is exciting. This observation is more than perception— it’s a reality happening in pockets across the company.

To learn more about this startup vibe, Janet Tu, technology reporter, The Seattle Times, joined Guy and four other employees on the Microsoft campus. Each employee shared specific, concrete examples of how this vibe is showing up within their specific teams. Examples that shine a light on this workplace culture shift include working on smaller, more focused teams and delivering on faster release cycles.

Out of this discussion Janet shared her thoughts in a recent story, Startup culture stirring at Microsoft.”

Guy’s story is the first in a series of stories I’ll be sharing about a few of the people featured in The Seattle Times story. Read on…

Guy is proof that if you are determined, work hard and pursue your passion… you’ll achieve your goal. 

Guy grew up in Lebanon, where access to technology was limited. There was no internet. He was fascinated by technology, but owning a computer was cost-prohibitive. He often went to his cousin’s house, who was a doctor, to get access to a computer and the internet. In 7th grade, his school had a lab with eight computers. With such minimal access and sheer determination, he taught himself how to write code. He fixed family members’, friends’ and teachers’ computers on his own. He learned the most by pulling parts from different broken computers and making them work or upgrading them. By high school, he could see a future for himself in tech.

DigiPen University, a U.S. college, had a campus in Lebanon. After studying at DigiPen in Lebanon for three years, Guy had the chance to transfer to the Redmond campus. In four years, he earned a Bachelor’s degree that takes most people five years. Guy moved back Lebanon, where he worked for a startup. Then DigiPen recruited him to back to the U.S., to the Redmond location, to pursue his Master’s degree in Computer Science. In fact, Guy was the first person to graduate from DigiPen with a Master’s degree to publish a thesis.

Having recruited him to pursue his education, DigiPen then identified Guy as talent to join the new DigiPen Corporation after his graduation.

In his new role, Guy worked as a programmer on a small team. He loved getting to work alongside a small group of engineers. During this time, he was working out at the ProClub in Redmond, where he was approached multiple times by leaders at Microsoft to bring his ideas and experience to the company. He was finally convinced to work on Windows Azure before it was introduced to the public. At the time it was a “super-secret” project. Guy was told everything would be flexible, and that he’d have the opportunity to grow and learn.

From the outside, Guy saw a huge company that seemed overwhelming. So what’s it really like?

Here, he shares some of his concerns about joining Microsoft and why he took the plunge.

“You only hear the bad and intense stories from people who have left the company… the worst things are amplified. I had a fear I’d be slaughtered,” he says. “I thought Microsoft would be this big black box, where, like labor workers, you clock in and people micro-manage you. I expected it to be stiff, full of politics, back-stabbing, slow and bureaucratic.”

Guy experiences a Microsoft that understands he has a life and offers him flexibility. Some days he works from home or a coffee shop. And, his work has impact.

“Day 1 when you release, you’ll release products that hit millions of people. Your work has scale and huge visibility,” Guy says. “If something at Microsoft goes down, everyone will know – so you have more accountability here. You have to be more disciplined in your engineering practices here (than at a startup). No one likes to be disciplined, but the business requires it.”

He calls out three ways Microsoft acts like a startup:

  • Two-week sprints: “On my team, we commit to a certain amount of work to be done in two weeks. Every day, we provide a quick status so people can get help. Every two weeks we evaluate what was done or not done and prioritize. In those two weeks, we stay the course. We don’t wait three months to address things.”
  • Consolidated roles: “On our team, engineers own their features end to end, so there are no testers. The developers make fixes and changes.”
  • Ship faster: “We deploy, update and publish the latest code immediately because of Windows Azure. The Cloud gave birth to change. We’re more agile now.”

When I asked Guy why he stays and what’s most important to him in his job today, he narrows it down to three things: Impact, flexibility and challenge. He says challenge is a self-driven thing, and that he’s always challenging himself. Clearly, there are opportunities for ambitious, talented ‘startup’ people like Guy at Microsoft. Inside the company, Guy is sought out for new opportunities. In fact, he has moved groups several times in his short five years here.

Congratulations, Guy, on celebrating your five-year anniversary! If you want to check out what Guy and his team are up to, check out Bing Offers.

Inside the JobsBlog: Learn more about other employees’ jobs at Bing. And read my earlier post about Changing the conversation at Microsoft.

In the Seattle Times: Startup culture stirring at Microsoft

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