Empathy and innovation: How Microsoft’s cultural shift is leading to new product development

The young Microsoft software engineer had just moved to the U.S. and was trying her best to stay in close touch with her parents back home, calling them on Skype every week.

But their internet connection in India was poor, and Swetha Machanavajhala, deaf since birth, struggled to read their lips over the glitchy video. She always had to ask her parents to turn off the lights in the background to help her focus better on their faces.

“I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t we build technology that can do this for us instead?’” Machanavajhala recalled. “So I did.”

It turned out her background-blurring feature was good for privacy reasons as well, helping to hide messy offices during video conference calls or curious café customers during job interviews. So Machanavajhala was one of the people who influenced the decision to develop similar features for Microsoft Teams and Skype, and she soon found herself catapulted into the spotlight at Microsoft – as well as into the company’s work on inclusion, a joy to experience after having been excluded at a previous job where her deafness made it hard to fully participate.

Software engineer Swetha Machanavajhala poses with her parents in front of the Taj Mahal in India.

Microsoft software engineer Swetha Machanavajhala and her parents. Photo by Swetha Machanavajhala.

Microsoft employees say those twists and turns of innovation – aiming for A and ending up with a much broader B – have become more common at Microsoft in the five years since Satya Nadella was appointed chief executive officer.

Nadella’s immediate push to embolden employees to be more creative has been exemplified by the company’s annual hackathon. Machanavajhala and others say the event has helped spark a revival where employees feel energized to innovate year-round and to seek support from their managers for their ideas – even if those have nothing to do with their day jobs.

“The company has changed culturally,” Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management who wrote a book about Microsoft 20 years ago, recently told The New York Times. “Microsoft is an exciting place to work again.”

Chris Kauffman, a marketing manager in product licensing who has worked for Microsoft for 13 years, said Nadella’s focus on fostering collaboration was a turning point for her, as she noticed silos being torn down. Kauffman also realized the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) could help business people like her broach the realm of engineers and IT specialists. She and her team capitalized on both of those developments to create a chatbot and virtual colleague, answering thousands of licensing questions from around the world and helping to handle the accelerated pace of Azure cloud computing service updates.

“I went to my first hackathon three years ago and fell back in love with Microsoft,” Kauffman said. “I realized that I now have permission to talk to anyone I want to. I’m no longer limited by my job function or level. And my experience with the chatbot is a great example of how technology can be democratized and used by everybody.”

That new openness has led to an explosion in new products or fine-tuned improvements across Microsoft, for customers as well as for internal use. Employees say the resurgence is showing up both in product improvements and internal events such as TechFest, an annual showcase of Microsoft research that takes place in a few weeks.

Participants at the inaugural Abbey Road RED Hackathon November 2018. The first company-wide annual hackathon took place in 2014 in Redmond and inspired many others at Microsoft locations around the world. Photo by Archie Brooksbank.

Nadella, only the third chief executive in Microsoft’s four decades, made his innovation intentions clear from the first email he sent to employees on his first day as CEO in February 2014. In short order, he had clarified his vision for the company to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” His book “Hit Refresh,” published in 2017, emphasized empathy as the way to accomplish that goal.

The message: Empathy leads to understanding and collaboration, which helps innovation push its way through the often-messy journey toward helpful products.

“My personal philosophy and my passion … is to connect new ideas with a growing sense of empathy for other people,” Nadella wrote. And later, “My approach is to lead with a sense of purpose and pride in what we do, not envy or combativeness.”

That’s something Rene Brandel experienced firsthand.

Brandel joined Microsoft two years ago on the Skype team in Prague and was impressed to find that employees there were encouraged to take a couple days off every quarter to work on new ideas or interesting concepts that previously lacked support.

A project from one such hackathon quickly gained traction, and Brandel and his colleagues soon launched an all-in-one service for job interviews for developers, by combining Skype and Visual Studio. Skype Interviews allows recruiters to observe coding skills during interviews with just one click, getting rid of the awkwardness of downloading separate programs and messing with logistics. The team then developed a scheduling tool that proved even more popular and is now being used by mentoring programs, consulting services, small businesses and others looking for an easier way to set up meetings, without the back-and-forth hassle of email calendaring.

Brandel said the product’s quick launch – from hackathon to shipment in only one month – was a direct result of Nadella’s emphasis on collaboration. The CEO led the way after he saw a description of the project by sending an email connecting Brandel’s team with others who could help – and they did, smoothing out wrinkles within hours.

“There’s this feeling of empathy among teams now to try to make each other successful, instead of so much internal competition,” Brandel said. “I’ve never talked with Satya in person. But he fosters this culture of learning and of respectfully questioning each other, to try to understand the other perspectives. The whole emphasis on empathy is really shining through in situations where there’s a dire need to innovate and create something individuals need and want.

Success always hinges on passionate people who care about something greater than themselves and can motivate and attract like-minded collaborators with unique skill sets.

The mantra of empowering everyone to do more prompted a flood of innovative solutions that use AI for people with disabilities – Seeing AI, Soundscape, Immersive Reader, Eye Control and live captions for Skype and PowerPoint, to name just a few. Support for those projects is rooted not only in the desire to help people achieve more, but also to help Microsoft achieve its business objectives.

“People with disabilities are the ultimate early adopters and in many ways are ahead of the curve in terms of tech,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineer in London who leads Microsoft’s Seeing AI research project. “They have a lot more to gain so are willing to try things out a lot earlier on, when things aren’t quite ready yet, and then they help that technology mature into something for mainstream use.”

Until 2014, Shaikh had tried to hide his blindness as much as possible at work, saying he “just wanted to be a regular developer.” But then he noticed “a buzz” around the new CEO and Nadella’s talk of culture change. That encouraged him to see his disability as his strength and to experiment with a dream he’d had since his university days, of eyeglasses that could see for him and tell him what was happening around him. A collaborative effort with colleagues resulted in a smartphone app called Seeing AI that can read menus and documents, identify currency, recognize people – along with their facial expressions and emotions – and more.

When the app launched in 2017, the team was swamped with messages from the blind community as well as from sighted people and people with learning disabilities who all appreciated its usefulness in different ways.

A teacher who is blind taught Seeing AI to recognize his students and then put his smartphone on a stand pointing toward the door, where it calls out the names of the kids as they arrive; a sighted system administrator started using the app to read the serial numbers on the backs of computers, rather than having to crawl under desks; and a blind man in Puerto Rico used it to help him navigate after a hurricane – if Seeing AI recognized the space in front of him as a pathway, then he knew it was clear of debris. The technology behind the app is being used to improve other AI projects at Microsoft as well.

“Disability is a driver for innovation, not a charity case,” Shaikh said. “It’s a field worth watching for what comes next.

Microsoft Product Strategist Amos Miller demonstrates his Soundscape app on Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, campus. Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

Amos Miller had a similar experience with his Soundscape app, which provides a map in 3D sound. Miller, a product strategist with Microsoft Research, envisioned his app helping people with vision loss to participate more fully in their surroundings as they navigate through cities, with non-textual audio cues that guide without intruding. But when a group of sighted Tennessee high-schoolers got their hands on it for an audio scavenger hunt earlier this year, they surprised him with ideas for how it could help them and their friends with challenges such as reading difficulties, attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

Innovation often blooms from personal experiences, highlighting the importance of diversity in the workforce as well as getting out of “the bubble” of company headquarters.

Miller, who lost his sight to a genetic disease that left him blind by the time he’d finished his computer science degree, made sure his team of developers and engineers designed Soundscape out in the field, away from their computer screens. That helped them better understand and meet the needs of their customers – such as building the app to work hands-free so a user can hold an umbrella and a guide dog’s harness, for example.

“Diversity of thought and creativity will be imperative to designing the technology of the future,” said Jill Bender, a software engineer for Azure IoT who worked on a hackathon project to create a tool that evaluates job descriptions to help weed out language that would only appeal to limited groups. The company’s Dynamics 365 for Talent product team has been looking at how that work could be incorporated into recruiting products.

Finding time to get out and pursue one’s passions and turn them into helpful tools isn’t always easy, and the paths of innovation are often crooked. But many at Microsoft now say they’re heartened by the efforts they see to smooth out the process.

“There’s a good culture now around empowering individuals to come up with new ideas, so that’s the first step, but everyone is fighting their own battle to figure out how to go beyond that,” said Shaikh, whose boss gave him two months off his job developing features for Bing and Cortana in order to work on a presentation that eventually became Seeing AI. “It hasn’t always been rosy, and that’s the reality of innovation. But it’s becoming easier for people to change jobs and find ways to work on the projects they care about.”

The unexpected zigzags inherent in innovation mean it flourishes under leaders who are flexible and are comfortable with uncertainty and change, and who aren’t looking for an immediate financial payoff.

“Innovation is a non-linear process,” Miller said. “You can’t say to innovation, ‘Start over there when I tell you to.’ And there’s a risk of killing innovation by over-systematizing it.”

When Harish Kulkarni joined Microsoft Research’s NeXT Enable team, the explicit job definition was to create a wheelchair that could be controlled by tracking the user’s eye movements. It had been a challenge given to Microsoft by former NFL player Steve Gleason, who is paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. An outgrowth of that project was an eye-tracking app to help people with ALS to better communicate with their loved ones, since the disease eventually robs them of their ability to talk.

The team began spending more time with various groups of people living with ALS, and they began to understand “a long trail of problems” that tech wasn’t addressing, Kulkarni said. Ultimately, people with motor and speech impairments wanted to use Windows the same way others do – to compose documents, manage their finances, play games, create music, make Skype calls with loved ones and more. But Kulkarni’s team wasn’t big enough to write all the apps necessary to meet those needs, and matters were complicated because each company making eye-tracking hardware had its own software.

[Satya Nadella] fosters this culture of learning and of respectfully questioning each other, to try to understand the other perspectives. The whole emphasis on empathy is really shining through in situations where there’s a dire need to innovate and create something individuals need and want.

Much of Kulkarni’s 18-year tenure with Microsoft had been spent in operating systems, however, so he understood how hardware gets integrated and knew the right people to reach out to. He also took advantage of Nadella’s “positive and very refreshing” emphasis on accessibility and the emerging value of “grass-roots innovation” to bring multiple parties together.

He and Eric Badger, who heads up the Windows Text Input development team, partnered on a prototype to introduce the feature to Windows leadership. Once the hardware manufacturers saw the close collaboration among Microsoft teams, they agreed to standardize their products, and this “little side project” by Kulkarni’s group was added to Windows last year for a whole new feature called Eye Control that works with any software operating within that system.

It’s not only bringing people with disabilities back into everyday communication with loved ones and business partners but could also help anyone who needs to access information or connect electronically without the use of their hands – such as cooks who are elbowdeep in dough yet need to look up a recipe online. And researchers from different teams are exploring ways the feature could help people conquer reading difficulties, boost productivity and more.

“This cross-pollination of ideas is happening more now, and the important thing is fostering a culture that actually supports that,” said Ann Paradiso, who’s in charge of user experience for the Enable team and has been with Microsoft for 17 years. “There’s a shift that’s been happening where leadership sees that the amount of problem-solving that goes into designing for the most constrained situations actually leads to all sorts of innovation that benefits a broader audience.

“Gnarly, impossible problems require creativity, resourcefulness, grit and resolve to work through,” she said. “And success always hinges on passionate people who care about something greater than themselves and can motivate and attract like-minded collaborators with unique skill sets.”

Paradiso and her team have made plenty of prototypes that failed and have seen lots of closets in the homes of people with disabilities that were filled with devices that didn’t end up being helpful. But none of that experience is wasted when different groups collaborate and end up making a huge impact, Paradiso said. Failures are never thrown away, she said, but instead the lessons are absorbed and projects are adapted to solve different problems in other contexts.

Eye Control was just this accidental twist that the hackathon wheelchair project took,” Kulkarni said, “but what we have now makes everything else possible.”

Top image: Microsoft software engineer Swetha Machanavajhala demonstrates the background-blurring feature on Microsoft Teams on Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, campus. Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.