Room to dream
When Microsoft selected Satya Nadella as its third CEO in 2014, he took charge of a 40-year-old company in an industry that thrives on innovation and fresh ideas. A longtime Microsoft employee, Nadella was coming off a successful run building the company’s breakout, new Cloud division and wanted to apply that creative, entrepreneurial mentality to the wider company culture. He set out to warn employees against becoming world-weary know-it-alls and encourage them to embrace being passionate, open-minded “learn-it-alls.”
As Microsoft pursued this “growth mindset,” the company was also physically growing around the world, not just in terms of the number of its locations but also in the complexity and dynamism of offices many time zones away from its Redmond, Washington, headquarters. There was an increasing need to build community at global offices in a way that aligned with core Microsoft values but also celebrated the unique characteristics of each specific location.
Enter: The Garage. Originally conceived as a Redmond-based, cross-team hacking space and makerspace, The Garage is now Microsoft’s official portal to hacking culture and an advocate for collaboration and sharing inspired ideas. Through this work, The Garage has become an essential driver for Microsoft’s global creative culture.
“The Garage is a program designed to support our employees’ creative ambitions and innovative instincts,” said Jeff Ramos, general manager of The Garage. “Every person at Microsoft has the ability to come up with a good idea. The Garage is here to help our great people shape and develop those ideas. We need a place for people to feel confident to take creative liberties, and that place is The Garage.”
There are now a dozen Garage sites around the world, including Ireland, Israel, India and U.S. cities like New York and Atlanta. A new Garage will soon be coming online in Nigeria. The Garage is in all of these places because they are rich with talent and have vibrant markets and diverse business ecosystems. But in order to fully appreciate why The Garage has become such an integral part of Microsoft’s culture, one must first understand the Microsoft Global Hackathon.
In the wider tech world, hackathons (hacking marathons) are typically multiday, energy drink-fueled coding competitions for developers and hardware makers. At Microsoft, the annual Hackathon calls on employees of all stripes to team up and bring their unique skills to bear on a project of their choosing.
If The Garage were a year-round sports league, the Hackathon would be its collaborative league championship. The Hackathon is a showcase event for personal and team evolution that puts Microsoft’s cultural priorities into action. It offers the opportunity to try new things and experiment across team boundaries: to try, fail and try again without worry for one’s career standing or Microsoft’s bottom line. In fact, learning and growing from failure is one of the main tenets the Hackathon is designed to infuse into employees’ daily roles.
“Projects that don’t work out are not considered losing projects,” said Susie Kandzor, director of hacking at Microsoft. “That’s learning a new skill. That’s working with people from across the company, taking an innovative approach and learning to work in a different way.”
When Nadella became CEO, he experimented with replacing the traditional Company Meeting with the Hackathon as Microsoft’s main internal event. According to Linda Thackeray, senior director of The Garage Ireland and former Hackathon organizer, the 2014 Hackathon was planned for some 1,500 to 2,000 participants but ended up hosting 11,000 employees.
“Instead of executives standing on a stage talking to employees, it was employees showing the whole company what is possible,” said Thackeray. “Its success sent a message back to Satya and really set us on the path of creativity, ingenuity and curiosity that we’re on today.” The 2020 Hackathon, hosted virtually due to COVID-19, saw over 70,000 participants and was the largest private hackathon on the planet.
Susie Kandzor, Director of hacking, MicrosoftThe Garage is for everyone.
As this culture shift gained momentum at Microsoft, The Garage became the company’s year-round physical manifestation of the Hackathon and daily growth mindset. The Garage not only establishes a dedicated space for the cross-pollination of ideas, it also provides the tools to experiment and learn, including online and in-person talks and workshops tuned to the needs of both the global and local work communities.
Much of this inter-office collaboration is facilitated by HackBox, a platform designed by Microsoft to match talent for hack teams across disparate locations and disciplines. HackBox users can filter their searches by challenges, roles, expertise, products, customers and venues. The Garage team recognizes that inspiration can come from anywhere in the company, no matter one’s role or known skill set. “People think, ‘But I’m not a hacker,’” said Kandzor. “I ask, ‘Are you passionate?’ Then you’re a hacker whether you have a tech background or not. If you have a good idea, then get out there and make a proof of concept. The Garage is for everyone.”
Some projects end before there is a working prototype, but others make it all the way to the marketplace. Among the many wider-known projects with roots in The Garage are the Xbox Adaptive Controller, Eye Control for Windows 10 and Seeing AI. And many more are featured in The Garage’s Wall of Fame, a celebration of not just the projects but the people and ideas that built The Garage into what it is today.
As Microsoft continues to expand globally, The Garage functions as connective social tissue, bringing together people, offices and whole regions around the potential and creativity of Microsoft employees. Considering that The Garage is not a top-down organization, its true nature can only be understood through an examination of the various Garage sites around the world and the impact they are making on both a local and international scale.
There are over 10 Microsoft offices throughout India. This major Microsoft presence features many thousands of employees working on every level of the company, from engineering and research to customer service, marketing and various support functions.
The Garage in Hyderabad has been open for four years, and now a new Garage is being opened in Bengaluru. The Garage’s work draws from local employees and virtual talent throughout Microsoft India, connecting a vast network of offices into a single national presence.
“The two Garages in India are closely connected with each other and with other global Garage sites. We share best practices and programs on a regular basis,” explained Sanjay Jani, senior program manager at The Garage India (Bengaluru), who has worked at Microsoft for nearly two decades and at The Garage India for the last two years. “We consider both of The Garages in India as one and our focus is to engage with employees across Microsoft India.”
Equipped with a full set of tools from 3D printers and laser cutters to microcontrollers and digital offerings, The Garage India is the perfect venue for experimenting with new ideas. Beyond the makerspace, employees come to The Garage India to collaborate without boundaries, to innovate and create a tomorrow that surpasses the best of any imagination. The Garage India attracts academia, customers, nonprofits and more to connect innovators and creative thinkers throughout India and around the world.
“The Garage India is committed to collaborative innovation,” said Jani. “Working together with diverse groups is an important part of Indian and Microsoft culture. The Garage India aims to accelerate our cultural priorities through Garage program experiences and engagements.”
Lakshmi Misra, senior program manager at The Garage India (Hyderabad), is an engineer and an innovator who also holds a degree in sociology and has spent years working with early-stage tech entrepreneurs, government and academia. Misra recently joined Microsoft and sees The Garage as an opportunity for Microsoft India to further drive positive social and business impact.
“We want everyone to partake in our culture of innovation, to create new solutions and work to improve societal challenges,” said Misra. “The Garage gives us a sandbox to play in and then wings to go and fly. We can bring change to people’s lives, inside of Microsoft and beyond.”
Which type of hacker are you?
THE IDEA PERSON
You’ve noticed a problem or a need, and you already have a vision for a solution. You can envision the people and things that need to come together to make it happen.
The Cat Herder
You are usually a PM – someone to make sure collaboration is organized and the project gets on track (and stays on track). The project team needs you, and they know they need you.
You are someone with an eye for (and the skill for) bringing ideas to life in a compelling fashion with all the right visual and spatial cues; meaning: you make things beautiful and effective.
You figure out the necessary buttons and screens and transitions and functions, and then you build them to work. You make sure the backend runs seamlessly with APIs and data and every other connection.
The Eye in the Sky
You know the big picture of what’s happening in the industry and domain of the subject matter. You watch data to know what others are doing and what is trending. You know what customers love now and know how to figure out what they will love next.
The Biz Strategist
You think in terms of business feasibility and how to get there; you live, eat and breathe ROI, revenue and strategic partnerships. A project can only benefit from having you at the table from the initial stages.
You know how to define and communicate a great product story to catch customers’ attention. You help others understand why the project is compelling and represent it in a way that makes buyers become, well… buyers.
Garages around the world are places to engage with the next generation. In addition to inviting students and academics to The Garage and holding virtual events, Microsoft hosts a Garage Internship. Microsoft product groups compete to have The Garage interns focus on their idea and build a prototype. In India, The Garage Internship program lasts for 10 weeks and is run in partnership with the Microsoft India Development Center, giving students an inside look at Microsoft work culture across teams on the subcontinent.
“Under high pressure at universities, students are not always familiar with taking risks that have probability of failure,” Jani said. “In a Garage Internship, they take the opportunity to experiment and learn from the outcome, whatever it may be.”
Israel is known as a startup nation and draws comparisons to Silicon Valley with its high concentration of R & D investment, scientists, venture capitalists and engineers in a country of fewer than 10 million people. The Garage Israel is based in Herzliya, outside of Tel Aviv, and reflects the country’s entrepreneurial character by partnering employees with local industry to devise creative technical solutions.
“We founded a makerspace in Israel on a small scale with a few machines,” said Eli Carmon, chief financial officer of Microsoft Israel R & D Center. “Then Microsoft started a global Garage program, so we joined it. We wanted to become part of something bigger, and The Garage Israel became the first Garage outside of North America.”
The Garage in Herzliya has a well-equipped laboratory that is available to employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week (except holidays). And there is a Garage pub right next door, where customers and employees can get to better know each other and brainstorm ideas in a comfortable and relaxed environment.
When Israel’s medical community needed to rapidly manufacture more respirators in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic or to harness machine learning to improve surgery outcomes, they turned to The Garage for support.
“One reason for opening The Garage in Israel was our belief that the new platform would create collaborations with various communities in Israel for Microsoft in Israel,” added Nir Levy, principal program manager at Microsoft Israel R & D Center. “Throughout the years, The Garage has collaborated with social causes, hospitals, academic institutions, businesses and more.”
Over the last decade, Ireland’s capital city, Dublin, has become a burgeoning crossroads for international tech culture. The newly minted Garage Ireland offers an exciting chance to further define the work culture of Microsoft Ireland and eventually connect with other Microsoft locations throughout Europe.
“The Garage Ireland is all about building community across the rich and diverse teams we have in Microsoft Ireland and bringing people together who may not normally connect in their day jobs,” explained Linda Thackeray, senior director of The Garage Ireland. “The Garage program really helps tap into people’s passions, bringing them together in new and different ways.”
Thackeray has spent over 20 years at Microsoft, working across multiple roles including engineering events before running Microsoft’s first global Hackathon in 2014. She moved from the U.S. to Ireland last May, inspired by Microsoft Ireland’s rich engineering ecosystem and the prospect of creating lasting impact in Europe and beyond.
“We built The Garage Ireland to be a progression of learning,” she said. “You can start small, build things and spark curiosity. People want to work for a company where it’s OK for them to have an idea, and even more so if given time to work on it and move it forward.”
Thackeray wants The Garage Ireland to help break down the physical and mental barriers that can limit creativity in the workplace. She added, “In addition to providing the tools for innovative thinking, The Garage Ireland is also working to show employees that it’s not only OK to and create – it’s essential.”
The walls are currently bare at the new Garage Ireland, but that’s by design. Thackeray wants the wider Dublin creative technology community to collectively take ownership of the space. As part of that process, The Garage has partnered with the Dublin-based Institute of Art, Design & Technology to challenge students to create lightboxes for The Garage walls. “This will be a place made for Dublin, by Dublin,” Thackeray said.
For employees who haven’t been in the office for many months, or joined the company during the pandemic, The Garage’s virtual offerings from classes and lectures to collaborative creative sessions have been a tether to Microsoft culture in Ireland and beyond.
LeAndra Jordan, Program manager, Garage AtlantaWe don't dawdle on problems. We aim to solve.
The Garage Nigeria, in Lagos, is in advanced planning stages, as are other Garage locations in Africa. Lagos, the second-largest city in Africa, is a natural fit for The Garage as a thriving metropolis where informal and formal tech industries overlap with a huge population under the age of 30.
“The Garage will be essential to both tantalize and satisfy employees’ creative curiosities,” said Gafar Lawal, principal group manager at Microsoft Nigeria. “It will support them as they continue to learn at every stage of their careers.”
Lawal grew up in Nigeria but spent much of his career working as a chief technology officer for major Wall Street firms and as an architect for Microsoft Windows Server. When the Microsoft Africa Development Centre (ADC) opened in 2019, he saw the chance to return to his home country and help elevate the company’s engineering presence in Nigeria. He jumped at the opportunity, envisioning a roadmap for upscaling the tech ecosystem throughout Western Africa and, eventually, the African continent.
“We want to be a pioneering influence and a hub of innovation,” Lawal said of Microsoft in Africa. “And The Garage will be the single most necessary part of showing everyone who we are and what our culture is about.”
Africa’s median age is between 17 and 19, and the continent will have more working-age people than the rest of the developing world combined by 2035. Nigeria already has Africa’s biggest economy, but Lawal thinks there is still infinite room to grow and evolve.
“Due to the lack of formality in much of the current African tech industry, people are forced to innovate on their own,” explained Lawal. “Students are starting school having already run multiple entrepreneurial ventures.”
At The Garage Nigeria, tech talent will have the chance to collaborate with advisers and get access to robust hardware and software tools, marrying the inventive spirit of the informal tech industry with more formal resources. Lawal noted that Africa has its own, independent trajectory of tech development and adopted such things as mobile payments and mobile banking well before the U.S. And the continent will continue to be an early adopter of other innovations as well.
“In Lagos, we see a tremendous opportunity for Microsoft to learn as a company and as a culture,” said Ramos, The Garage’s general manager. “We are going to learn how to do business better worldwide by learning in Africa.”
Microsoft’s Atlanta engineering office might be brand new, but The Garage Atlanta’s senior program manager, LeAndra Jordan, has already hit the ground running.
Jordan grew up in Atlanta and was a longtime tech-services small-business owner prior to coming over to Microsoft. She is keen to share all that is happening in her city in terms of art, music, food, fashion, design, entrepreneurship and, of course, technology.
“I can’t wait to keep exploring the intersectionality between the city, business, and The Garage,” she said. “We’re hustlers in Atlanta. We don’t dawdle on problems. We aim to solve.”
Jordan explained that Microsoft Atlanta is hiring locally and throughout the U.S. The campus is connecting with local universities such as Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and Emory University, as well as with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) including Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. The team is also engaging with the next generation of budding, talented hacker students from elementary through high school.
Jordan wants to use The Garage to introduce future tech talent to hands-on labs and connect the students to current Microsoft employees “so that kids see that they can make these kinds of careers a reality,” she said. “The time is now.”
The run-up to opening The Garage Atlanta has included an HBCU hackathon addressing fairness, equity and equality in AI, and it debuted the Rise + Shine Experience video series showcasing interviews with Atlanta-based artists and examining the crossover of local culture and technology.
“There’s so much going on here that we are ready to share with the world,” Jordan said. “And to quote André 3000 of (Atlanta’s own) OutKast: ‘The South got something to say.’”
Manhattan considers itself to be the center of the universe, and while that’s debatable, it is, without a doubt, the world’s biggest stage for businesses. New York is the perfect opportunity for Microsoft to step beyond its engineering roots and collaborate with some of its highest-profile customers to help them evolve as digital organizations.
“As word about the success of our Global Hackathons spread, our customers wanted to learn more about our approach to innovation in The Garage,” said Mike Pell, director of The Garage New York City and a seasoned design leader whose career has ranged from being an entrepreneur to leading Silicon Valley startups to authoring books on the future of technology. “We designed The Garage New York City to help share with Microsoft employees, our customers and the local ecosystem exactly what we’ve learned about innovation and intrapreneurship over several years of helping move projects forward.”
In many ways, The Garage New York City is a prototype in itself – an experiment in a new type of collaborative innovation, which requires a more design-oriented Garage. The space itself is a physical manifestation of the methodology The Garage developed over years to support small scale innovation, called the “Garage Growth Framework.” Visitors and Microsoft employees work their way through The Garage New York City in zones specifically designed to provide an experience of the different parts of The Garage’s process for developing ideas and creating vehicles to quickly test them with customers.
Located in SoHo, the heart of fashion and design in Manhattan, The Garage New York City is a stylized, bleeding-edge collaboration space to enable and illustrate what innovation at Microsoft looks like in 2021 and beyond.
The Garage New York City has started to work with a wide range of clients, from major banks to global design firms, in order to help them reimagine key growth areas of their businesses and find new ways to evolve during these uncertain times.
“We are very transparent about how we approach things, what worked and what didn’t, and often dig into the data and details with people,” said Pell. “We love to roll up our sleeves together with customers who want to experience a different approach to innovation. People sometimes think this is all about solving a particular tech problem with teams, but it’s really about helping teams see what’s possible and getting them started on working toward that exciting new vision.”
Garage Growth Framework
It is also being shared with customers in locations like The Garage New York City, which recently hosted key members of the city’s innovation team for a working session to rethink civic engagement.
The Garage Growth Framework starts with passion. Beginning with the Ideate process, hackers learn best practices for forming a team to focus on a concept. Then they move on to Hack and flesh out a proof of concept. Via Validate, they evolve that work into a vetted solution. Finally, teams learn how to find a Sponsor who supports the project to achieve its outcomes.
In The Garage New York City, Mike Pell and team physically walk Microsoft’s customers through spaces dedicated to each step of the GGF (while fueled by New York’s finest pizza).
“We had a very creative and productive session with the city’s innovation team,” Pell said. “We started in our storytelling area talking about why we’re here in NYC and transitioned into the team’s challenge. We then worked on the ‘Ideate’ module with a focus on quickly getting to some new thinking around their approach to civil engagement. Next up was ‘de-risking’ ideas about this issue, looking at who is underserved, who is overserved and – via this particular exercise – what events or trend would be disruptive.”
While that city team is already steeped in innovation methods and practice, the GGF is still a useful and valuable way for Microsoft to share what it has learned about culture change and help customers to reconsider ways to do things. Working through ideas and challenges together with The Garage Growth Framework helps both customers Microsoft think about how to address problems, and deepens relationships for future collaborations.
In the years since Nadella took the helm in 2014, the Microsoft cultural shift gained critical mass. Customers, employees and the media quickly took note. “The changes started showing up faster than many expected,” said Kandzor, the company’s director of hacking. “The Garage and the Hackathon played a central role in helping employees around the world put growth mindset into practice.”
But this successful change need not stop within the boundaries of Microsoft. Now, all types of companies in the world – even centuries-old industrial giants – are transforming into digital organizations, and to do that, they all need to have a fast, innovative work culture.
“Increasingly, customers ask us, ‘How are you driving culture change?’ and, ‘How do you do it?” explained Ramos. “And over the last years, our answer has been that it’s more art than science. But now we are thoroughly documenting processes and sharing best practices in a more structured fashion.”
And beyond just telling customers about cultural evolution, Microsoft is working together with customers in The Garage to show what the company is about and how it is doing things. It is an opportunity to solve technical problems for customers but also to build and evolve relationships over time, thereby shifting their perception of Microsoft.
Microsoft recognizes this opportunity to demonstrate industry leadership around openness and collaboration – and to influence wider tech culture.
“Every company in the world is becoming a digital company,” Ramos explained. “Being a successful digital company means having a digital culture that embraces innovation. Hacking has emerged as a core method for having a vibrant digital culture. That’s how we continue to innovate and build trust. And by extending The Garage outward, we hope to help customers with their most strategic problems.”