Quiet collective: The unseen experts behind Microsoft’s coronavirus response

Early on a Saturday morning in January, Juan Lavista-Ferres, who leads Microsoft’s AI for Good research lab, penned an urgent email to his team. Although there were fewer than 2,000 cases worldwide of a yet-unnamed disease with little data available, he warned that something serious was coming.

“The reported cases follow a very scary exponential curve,” he wrote. “In this type of virus outbreak we typically expect this type of curve, but the rate shows that the virus is spreading very fast. If the data is accurate and the outbreak is not stopped soon, it can reach 70,000 cases in late February, and potentially millions after that.”

Just over a month later, after multiple positive cases of what is now known as COVID-19 were confirmed in Washington state, and the first death in the U.S. from the disease occurred at the Life Care Center nursing facility in a Seattle suburb, Microsoft became one of the first major U.S. employers to insist all but those deemed essential employees, or around 2% of the workforce, stay home to stay safe.

Illustration of Juan Lavista-Ferres

Juan Lavista-Ferres

And Lavista-Ferres, a data scientist, joined a collection of experts brought together from multiple teams at Microsoft — physicians, epidemiologists, disaster specialists — who had quietly been working behind the scenes to prepare and protect employees from just such an event. Working together, this collective would now play a critical role in informing Microsoft’s senior leadership, responsible for deciding next steps for employees and the company, around a moment whose next steps were unknown.

The decision to require tens of thousands of people to work from home, and communication between large employers in the Puget Sound region and government entities, helped slow the spread of COVID-19 in the early days of the local outbreak in the Seattle area. But perhaps as important, the swift and strong response indicated to the wider population the seriousness of the challenge being faced with an easily transmissible, deadly virus that still today has no cure.

Microsoft’s perspective was rooted not only in the broad expertise of the experts working together to help inform the response, but also in the company’s global experience, learning from colleagues around the world already coping with the disease.

By mid-January, Colleen Daly, Microsoft’s primary contact when there is a communicable disease outbreak, was deeply involved in the company’s COVID-19 response with employees in China, Singapore and Italy. As global wellness benefits manager, her day job has long centered on executing the company’s strategy around physical and mental health. She’s been involved in Microsoft’s response to past outbreaks, including Ebola, Zika and smaller clusters of measles, tuberculosis and whooping cough.

Daly has a Ph.D. in public health focusing on health services research and occupational health — or the study of healthcare systems, economies and policies — and a master’s degree in public health focusing on health behaviors and epidemiology.

Illustration of Coleen Daly

Colleen Daly

Daly soon became a fixture to help lead the pandemic response calls involving Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and his senior leadership team to figure out the company’s next steps, beginning each with an update on the latest from Seattle, King County and Washington state health officials.

“These connections have been pivotal,” she says of the public-private coordination. Daly has also been impressed by the “thoughtfulness and care” taken by Microsoft’s senior leadership team as well as the emphasis on the importance of science to inform decision making.

“They’re trusting the subject matter experts they have hired. You can’t underestimate the value in that,” she says. “I think this is also Satya Nadella’s perspective, and the idea of growth mindset that he’s shared with employees over the past few years, to support understanding and learning versus being scared to share information. That foundation has been so important in our response to this.”

Though already steeped in this work across the company, Daly says she’s been surprised by the level of internal know-how Microsoft has been able to bring to this crisis. “I didn’t realize how much public health expertise we have in this company.”

She already had established relationships with her counterparts in local, county and state government, so when the call came in that COVID-19 was becoming more serious in Washington, she was well positioned to help lead the effort.

Being a mother with a 2-year-old at home has been challenging to say the least, and it was important for me to find a way to help while still keeping my family safe.

This response team also includes Grace Huynh, a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in epidemiology who worked on tuberculosis modeling at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation before coming to Microsoft. As part of the collective, Huynh, a senior researcher in Microsoft’s Health Futures group, looks at model comparisons, testing and the transmission of this new virus over time, focusing also on a potential global second wave in the fall. She says Microsoft plays a unique role in this effort as a large private company that can bring a lot of experience and expertise to the table.

Illustration of Grace Huynh

Grace Huynh

For Huynh, the effort is also personal.

“This crisis really hit home because of my previous work as both a doctor and infectious disease expert. Reading about some of the heroic exploits of former colleagues in the medical community has been both inspiring but also distressing at times,” she says. “Being a mother with a 2-year-old at home has been challenging to say the least, and it was important for me to find a way to help while still keeping my family safe. I’m grateful that Microsoft has given me the chance to leverage my skills and make a contribution.”

This experience has also highlighted for Huynh how small the world is. “It’s important that we continue to think about how connected we are.”

Connecting dots is what brought Bill Weeks to Microsoft a little over a year ago. Weeks, a board-certified psychiatrist who also has an MBA and holds a Ph.D. in economics, has spent his career examining the economic and business aspects of health care services, utilization and delivery.

Illustration of Bill Weeks

Bill Weeks

Now a principal researcher on Microsoft’s Healthcare NExT team, he brings a unique perspective to this moment. “As a physician, I care deeply about the population’s health. As an economist, I know that economic downturns can have lasting adverse impact on the population — particularly younger populations — that can negatively impact their long-term health.”

He says the pandemic is forcing necessary change in how the U.S. delivers health care. It’s also bringing together some pivotal public-private partnerships.

“This is a really good thing for public health — we’re learning together,” Weeks explains. For Microsoft to be “contributing to governments’ understanding and, ultimately, helping communities recover, is a good thing.”

Though much is uncertain, Weeks believes these opportunities for collaboration will reveal a bright future. In his short time at Microsoft, Weeks says he’s amazed by the caliber of people focused on this effort. “There is a wealth of smart people — smart and humble people — who have the public good in their heart… The atmosphere here is fabulous. Everyone is pitching in.”

Lisa Reshaur, another leader on the response calls, agrees. “The sheer volume of people from all different skill sets willing to pause or add onto their day jobs and come together to help has been phenomenal.”

Reshaur, who has a Ph.D. in disaster science, has spent her career thinking about how people make decisions during challenging situations, including when a crisis strikes. As the general manager of the company’s governance, risk, continuity and compliance team, her purview incorporates Microsoft’s enterprise-wide crisis management program, including 16 area teams and 44 local teams around the world, plus the senior leadership team.

In short, she’s been busy.

Illustration of Lisa Reshaur

Lisa Reshaur

“The first meeting I had at Microsoft as a new employee was about incident management and how we need to bring different programs together and address gaps for a globally unified approach,” she says. “Under Satya’s leadership we have been able to move toward that vision. Last summer, we brought two major parts of the program together.

“Thank God we had six months to make many changes in alignment.”

Despite her specialty looking left to right across both risk and crisis management, Reshaur was just as surprised as others on those early calls to know that Microsoft also had experts in epidemiology, public health and data science who could interpret Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization data and make informed recommendations.

“We also have senior leaders involved who are hands on helping with a crisis like this, while still doing their day jobs,” she says. “Their time and guidance have been invaluable. I can’t say enough about how proud it makes me to work for Microsoft.”

Every country, we’re learning something more from. We’re taking that information, integrating it and improving the process.

Reshaur has also been inspired by how global the collective effort has been. “Every country, we’re learning something more from. We’re taking that information, integrating it and improving the process. That’s been an awesome experience too,” she says.

Those early days at the beginning of the year seem like a long time ago. As the team continues to meet regularly with company leadership, as well as public partners to help guide employees through a still uncertain time, there continues to be a realization that this is a marathon and not a sprint.

“Yeah, I’m tired,” says Reshaur. “We’ve all been working long hours. But on the other hand, it’s super fascinating. I hate to say it, but for a crisis manager this is the Super Bowl. And something you hopefully will never see again. You just want to do your best to make it as easy and clear, and as helpful as possible, to everyone that you can.”

Top image: The usually jammed parking lots at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, remain empty, with employees working from home because of COVID-19.