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Elite engineering team ready to take on any tech mission

Like the supersoldiers of Halo, the Spartans mobilize for special projects and ‘hit the ground running’

An elite team of engineers at Microsoft is always ready to go wherever they’re needed and dive into building a brand-new technology, solving a problem or otherwise using their varied expertise to help get an important job done — and it’s no coincidence they’re called the Spartans.

Technically, the name stands for the Special Projects and Resources Team. But really, it refers to the supersoldiers of the popular Halo video game franchise who swoop in and brave unpredictable dangers as they do whatever it takes to complete their assignments.

True, these real-life Spartans aren’t exactly risking their lives — but it certainly makes for an exciting tech job.

“I send them off and say, ‘I need you to go attack this project or look at this area,’ and they hit the ground running,” says Shaiwal Singh, the Spartans’ leader. “They basically look at the lay of the land and figure out how they can make an impact.”

The Spartans — a growing squad of 14 that will expand to some 20 members in the coming weeks — have tackled a broad array of assignments. They’ve helped create the user interface for a mobile analytics platform for Skype, for example, and helped build a real-time pipeline to process Bing Ads data.

They often work on innovations that are among the company’s top priorities, from creating intelligent bot technology that lets people accomplish tasks through natural-language chatting to building the platform that enables machine learning and artificial intelligence at scale.

“Every new project is a new challenge and a fresh, energizing new experience, and I love that,” says Hugo Aponte, a senior software engineer on the Spartans team. “That’s why I’m with the Spartans and plan to be here a long time.”

Aponte has been a Spartan ever since the team was created three years ago. He’d worked for a large oil company in Venezuela, where he grew up, and then for a major digital-media company, where he rose through the ranks but found himself wanting to do less management and more “cool stuff” with technology.

He set his sights on a big company like Microsoft so he could do big things, and the Spartans role sounded like an interesting challenge and an extraordinary opportunity to learn.

“I liked the idea of not being attached to a single technology or product or component,” Aponte says. “I would be able to move around the company and have the opportunity to see and work first-hand with a lot of different things.”

“The Spartans are very strong engineers that are bringing massive experience and are boosting our team.”

The Spartans began as a little-known group within the Bing Ads team. But these days, its assistance is in high demand in a variety of different areas across Microsoft’s Information Platform Group.

Aponte says he’s enjoyed all of his projects so far, perhaps most the one he’s working on now. In January, he was asked to help a team create a bot that helps users make restaurant reservations, call a cab, schedule household services or do other tasks easily by chatting.

“Immediately I recognized this as a great opportunity,” he says. “It was something in the company that people were starting to talk about.”

Now several months into the assignment, things are “moving fast, and soon we will be truly enabling our users to be more productive in their day-to-day life,” he says. “In the near future, it will be natural to just ask the bot to book a flight, given some constraints, and you won’t need to spend time chasing a good deal for your next getaway.”

Yael Karov Zangvil, the Microsoft partner scientist who leads the bot project, says the Spartans have been an integral part of it. Their assistance allowed the group to kick off development even as the team was still being built in January, and the combined team has already created “the most sophisticated and productive conversational bot,” she says.

“The Spartans are very strong engineers that are bringing massive experience and are boosting our team,” she says. “They are fully motivated, and each of them owns significant parts of the bot.”

Spartans team member Rosa Enciso grew up in Peru, earned her doctorate in computer science at the University of Central Florida and planned a career in academia. Then she attended the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, where she met many women who were doing exciting things in the tech industry and found herself inspired to give it a try.

“I joined Microsoft because I wanted to put my background in algorithms to use in solving shorter-term and high-impact problems,” she says. “Microsoft is one of the few companies that develops products in so many areas, you could never be bored.”

Enciso started with MSN and had been working at Microsoft almost five years when the Spartans opportunity came along. She liked the idea of having very well-defined projects that had a specific length, crystal-clear goals and the opportunity to achieve great things.

“Microsoft develops technologies that have an impact in the order of millions,” she says. “We are in a unique position where we can build smarter products and services with our rich data and advanced machine learning technologies and expertise.”

The chance to learn so much from talented people at Microsoft, all nearby or just an email away, turned out to be one of the best parts of the job. So did the fast-paced environment.

“When you work in development, there is always this high point when you’re working really hard to ship, and then there’s some maintenance and incremental features to work on until the next wave comes,” she says. “But in the Spartans, you’re always on the top of the wave — always working toward shipping. That part is really exciting.”

Completing an assignment is also rewarding.

“It feels good. I like being able to say, ‘In this time, I did this. This is what I accomplished,’” she says. “I don’t know if, on other teams, you know when you will be able to say that… It’s very clear, and many times, you can quantify what you did.”

“Microsoft doesn’t just care about advancing technology; it also really cares about people.”

Enciso, who’s currently working with Bing’s Satori team to improve the coverage and precision of social profiles for millions of entities in the knowledge graph, which enhances search-engine results, also feels like the culture at the company is caring and inclusive.

“Microsoft doesn’t just care about advancing technology; it also really cares about people,” she says. “Our management team has been extremely supportive in initiatives to recruit, advance and retain women and other underrepresented minorities.”

Singh, a principal group engineering manager, was tapped to start the Spartans a few years ago and has led them ever since. He says the team is made up of skilled, full-stack engineers who have differing backgrounds but one thing in common: a “learner mindset.”

Each member has “the incessant desire to learn and know everything inside and out,” he says — and being able to do that while making an impact at the same time is what makes the team so revolutionary.

“The Spartans model allows us to take some of our best talent and apply it to solving the most critical problems our division is facing,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter what category it is. As long as it is critical and aligned to the success strategy of our division’s mission and vision, we are on top of it.”

Spartans get assignments based on company priorities, as well as their own skills and interests. Some jobs call for a group of Spartans; others, just one. They go to where the need is, assess the requirements of the project and quickly become part of the team working on it.

The projects usually last six months to a year, and the Spartans typically get outstanding feedback on their work, Singh says; it helps that “they’re awesome developers who have great attitudes and are extremely good at collaborating,”

Singh says he has “the enviable job of hiring the best and most diverse set of talent” for his team. He enjoys meeting skilled engineers and getting to know their unique perspectives and the strengths they bring to the table.

“What I love most about interacting with great engineers is understanding their potential and helping them unlock that to make the most impact that they can,” he says. “In many cases, it’s more than what they imagined.”

Singh is proud of the Spartans and all they’ve accomplished, and he believes it’s an incredible time in general to be working at Microsoft.

“There is an opportunity to make an impact in many different places, whether it is to build next-generation breakthroughs in technology, products or services, or in organizational structures and systems, like I did with Spartans,” he says. “No doors are closed. Everything is a possibility.”