‘I want to believe’: how the ‘top secret’ Area 51 project is shaping the future of Windows
Meet Microsoft's latest rapid prototyping group
” Warning! Area 51. It is unlawful to enter this area without permission from the Installation Commander. While on this installation, all personnel and the property under their control are subject to search.”
It’s not a sign you’d expect to see hanging on a doorway in a Microsoft office building. But there it was, bolted to the door of a lab in Redmond’s Building 99 last summer.
Despite the warning label, nothing menacing lurks behind the door. In fact, Ed Doran and Brian Meyers, with their collective humor, warmth, and knowledge, are more like NPR’s raucous radio hosts Click and Clack than they are the guarded custodians of highly classified information.
Ed and Brian are the “Installation Commanders” of a rapid prototyping group—called Area 51—for Microsoft’s Windows and Devices organization (WDG), the team responsible for Windows, Surface, HoloLens, and more.
(It’s named after the real Area 51, a notoriously secretive US Air Force base located in Nevada. Also a favorite subject for conspiracy theories, Area 51 is rumored to be the location for developing and testing experimental aircraft and weapons.)
Brian and Ed love to capitalize on the mystique of the Area 51 name. “I like to tell people, ‘Area 51 has been communicating with aliens and giving us all of these great ideas! Come check it out!'” said Brian.
Unidentified lost ideas
Area 51 was born out of a need to try new things and take risks in Windows—a driving mission that can present challenges.
“The Windows and Devices team ships products to hundreds of millions of people and geographic areas; Windows is a massive, global product,” Ed said.
“We asked if there was a chance to be more innovative without breaking 5 million devices. We wanted to create a team whose sole job would be to provide innovators with a no-risk platform equipped with privacy and tools to go do innovative sprints,” said Brian.
Brian, who spent 14 of his 28 years at the company in Microsoft Research and was consistently working with researchers on ideas that were 10 years ahead of their time, said that they wanted a way to bring those unidentified lost ideas to the forefront, to not let the ideas become by-products of working at a large company.
So Jeff Johnson, corporate vice president in Windows shell research and development, decided to start Area 51—a facility in Redmond’s Studio X building that gives employees an easy way to take a break from their jobs to go play with ideas.
Now, a little over a year after Area 51’s launch, more than 100 engineers have taken two weeks away from their regular jobs to do an innovation sprint with other employees. At the end of the sprint, the teams demo their ideas to an executive.
During their sprint, some employees might continue developing a project from previous teams, the way software engineer Carmen Quan did. She spent her time iterating on a more visually compelling way to work with virtual desktops. She didn’t know what to expect, but she left Area 51 with a new perspective.
“It was nice to get out of the daily grind and see what else is going on in the organization. It was so valuable to experience iterating with freedom,” Carmen said.
All who go do return
Some employees have big ideas but lack any resources to realize them. They might use their time at Area 51 to dig into the technology and craft a compelling demo in order to rally executives around the idea.
Brandon Pollack got to work on one of these brand new ideas. The biggest lesson he learned? How to collaborate better, which he says happened because there was no hierarchical structure.
“I’d been working on Settings for a long time, and you can eventually get tired of working on the same thing. It was so nice to do something completely new for a change, without the pressure of code reviews,” he said. “There’s no lead, so everyone has an opportunity to lead the conversation and vision. It felt cool to have that kind of direct influence on what the product would be.”
Other employees have used their sprint at Area 51 to kick an existing project into warp-speed. For example, technical architect Gurpreet Virdi, who happily boasts that she was Area 51’s first participant, used the two weeks to build a quick demo related to Cortana features that she was already working on.
Gurpreet had such a successful experience that later, when she was feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced on another big project she wanted to fast-track for Cortana, she signed up for Area 51 again.
“I was innovating a new project for Windows, and we wanted to launch a quick prototype to some folks in Microsoft and needed immediate feedback so we could come up with the right feature list and the right architecture. I needed help; I couldn’t do it single-handedly,” Gurpreet said. “So I thought of my old friends in Area 51.”
She approached Brian, who in turn kicked off a sprint for the project. Gurpreet’s new Cortana prototype launched within a month, which Gurpreet said would have been impossible to do during her day job, where she is typically balancing multiple projects at once.
Area 51 was solely focused on her project—now a Cortana feature that was fully funded and is shipping in a future update to Windows 10, which Gurpreet said felt amazing.
“In the past, when I had worked on a new idea, we would ship it and then prototype afterward. Here, we’d already launched a mini prototype and got feedback,” she said. “It gave me extremely high confidence because the product wasn’t such a big gamble anymore.”
Confidence is one of the benefits Brian and Ed see a lot.
“People will show up on Monday convinced that they can’t work on something they know nothing about and they will all be quiet—they don’t know each other. And we tell them, ‘You will be so amazed. I am going to show you how in two weeks you’ll be so amazed at what you can accomplish,'” Brian said.
Plus, this new way of working has a ripple effect on the company at large.
“Innovation is the heart and soul of technology,” said Gurpreet. “But without a precedent, if you are trying to do something entirely new, the only way to take technology forward is to incubate and innovate. Area 51 is promoting that culture of great ideas.”
‘I want to believe’
While Area 51 is specifically for Windows engineers, there is a greater message here, Brian said. “There is innovation going on at the company, and employees should feel really good about that.”
“The best thing about working here is that you have every resource you need. But then how can you use those resources to actually build something you are passionate about?” said Ed. “We are trying to bridge that gap.”
“It’s so humbling as innovators,” Ed confessed. “It’s a constant reminder that there is so much talent just walking down the hallway. We want to get out of their way.”