REDMOND, Wash., May 30, 2000 — From outside, the four-story Tudor house looked like any other home on the tree-lined streets of Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood. But what was going on inside was much different. Microsoft had leased the house, packed it with college students and technology, and assigned one task: develop a dot-com venture. The software company then spent three weeks, 24 hours a day, watching, listening and learning..
This exercise was just one in a series of efforts by Microsoft to determine how today’s teenagers and twenty-somethings — the so-called Internet Generation — work, learn, live and use technology. The company plans to use this knowledge to ensure its products and services keep pace with the generational and technological evolution of its customers.
“Microsoft has always put a priority on understanding the needs of its customers,”
said Tammy Morrison, group product manager for the Knowledge Worker Solutions Group and head of Microsoft’s new NetGen Strategy Team.
“This is an extension of that effort, with a new generation.”
Along with the recent technology house experiment, the
Microsoft conducts focus groups and research, and consults authorities in many fields on Internet Generation trends. The company also recently hired two Internet-savvy teenagers to provide additional insight.
“The people at Microsoft are inspired to really affect change. They embrace the knowledge that is being gained through our research efforts and the insights we offer about our generation,”
said 17-year-old Michael Furdyk, one of the teenagers hired by Microsoft.
A Huge Generation
Microsoft is interested in the Internet Generation for a couple of reasons. One, it is huge — 79 million strong, even outnumbering the post-World War II baby boomers. It also is the first generation whose members have grown up with computers, the Internet, cellular phones and other technology as part of their everyday experience.
“They were born digital,”
“There’s no mystery for them around the Internet and other technology. Going online is as natural for them as opening the refrigerator.”
Microsoft suspects the way the Internet Generation uses technology today will provide insights into how everyone will want technology to perform in the future. Understanding how this generation uses technology differently from traditional workers should also help Microsoft develop ways for all people to work together more productively, Morrison added.
Morrison gained her first insights into the Internet Generation when she began visiting schools in Australia and parts of the United States where all students work on Internet-wired laptop computers. The technology allows them to speed through mundane tasks such as drafting term papers, and leaves more time for them to think and evaluate their work. The constant Internet access allows them to do more in-depth research and to work with people from around the world, not just in their city or state.
Furdyk is a prime example. When he was 15, he started his first Internet company, MyDeskTop.com, with an online friend from Australia, whom he had never met in person. They sold the company a year later. Furdyk, who now lives near the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., helps run his second venture, BuyBuddy.com, almost entirely over the Internet, or
The business, which helps users understand and purchase technology products, is headquartered in Toronto. The independence and flexibility offered by the Internet allows Furdyk to overlook the traditional benchmarks of status — wealth, social rank, age and gender — when seeking partners.
“To earn respect from our generation, someone has to have done something significant,”
“We judge them on their contributions or their ideas, as opposed to how much money they have, or whether they’re a top-ranking official at a big company.”
Morrison learned more about the Internet Generation when she recently saw two twenty-something workers conduct a business meeting. Although they were sitting an arm’s length apart, they flipped open their laptops and began trading instant messages. To the traditional worker, this might seem impersonal, even alien — much the way people accustomed to face-to-face meetings and telephones felt when email transformed business communication. The two twenty-somethings told Morrison that instant messaging allowed them to communicate more thoughtfully and productively. When they’re online, they can complete other tasks while waiting for a response or considering their answer. And when they’re done, they have a written record.
“Every generation sees inherent value in technology that people who came before them don’t,”
“And they take that technology to a new level.”
The NetGen Lab in Seattle provided additional insight. Microsoft brought a dozen students from Oberlin College in Ohio — all under age 24 and with a variety of professional interests — to live at the lab for three weeks earlier this year. The company provided each student with a desktop or laptop computer, along with high-speed Internet access, scanners, video and digital cameras, and Pocket PCs. A group of observers from Microsoft lived with them and watched how they went about creating their dot-com.
Technology was woven throughout their days. Some began browsing the Web before they got their first cup of coffee in the morning. They worked on the computer while talking to housemates, chatting on the phone or working on other tasks. Along with the Internet, they used traditional research tools, such as the library.
“They are not completely different people; there are subtle differences,”
“Understanding those subtleties is what’s important.”
The dot-com the students created was subtly different as well. It combined communication, commerce and entertainment with other opportunities in a manner Morrison has never seen. Although Microsoft has no plans to market the idea, the company learned a lot.
“The whole point is that they think of the Internet in a different way,”
“They are the ones who will figure out its future.”
Furdyk and fellow teen Jennifer Corriero have an assignment opposite to the one given the 12 college students. Rather than being watched, they are doing the watching. They conduct focus groups with teens across the country and help translate what they learn into possible new directions for Microsoft products and services. They also attend meetings with Microsoft executives and offer insights into the way the company operates.
They work out of offices at Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters. Corriero, who talks a mile a minute but still can’t keep up with her thoughts, has decorated her office in bright colors and large flowers. A throw rug with a rainbow of colors covers the floor. The more easy-going Furdyk has a quote painted on one wall:
“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. It is that we are powerful beyond measure. Embrace the fear.”
Microsoft hired the two after several employees met them at a conference on the
technology creates between the poor and the affluent. Both teens, who hail from Toronto, were representing a group called
“Taking it Global.”
They moved from Canada to Redmond to begin work in February. While working at Microsoft, Corriero, who graduated from high school last year, is earning college credit from York University’s School of Business in Toronto. Furdyk is working with tutors to complete his high school requirements, and expects to earn credits with his new job.
The two are helping develop a strategy, based on their focus groups and other research, for Microsoft, to meet the needs of the Internet Generation. They are also identifying the products the company should focus on to win over their peers. Along with the two teens, dozens of Microsoft employees are work to understand and appeal to the Internet Generation. Morrison notices people throughout the company embracing these ideas.
So does Corriero, who previously ran a Web site called CoolGirls.net and helped companies develop multimedia and marketing solutions for products targeted at young people.
“The company is cutting edge,”
“Senior executives sit down with us and they really listen to what we have to say, and are truly engaging in conversation.”
Microsoft plans to hire more teenagers to complement Corriero, Furdyk and the many twenty-somethings who already work there. Morrison expects their influence to make the company an even more attractive place for the Internet Generation to work.
“What we are learning is that there are different people with different needs,”
“We need all of them as customers and as employees.”