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From hackathons to new products, Northwest neighbors T-Mobile and Microsoft team up to innovate

The project wasn’t going as planned, and the team at T-Mobile realized it needed a different approach.

The team had worked with two different companies over a three-year period to develop a pet-tracking device T-Mobile wanted to bring to market. But team members weren’t happy with any of the three versions the companies developed. They decided to build their own device, with help from a trusted partner.

T-Mobile enlisted Microsoft, which provided a team of Azure architects to consult on which technologies would best serve what the product was designed to do and help build a platform that could be leveraged for other uses. Working in consultation with Microsoft, whose campus is just a few miles away from T-Mobile’s Bellevue, Washington headquarters, the T-Mobile team built and rolled out its SyncUp PETS tracker, which launched in February, in just 10 months.

“In less than one year, we went from not even a concept on a napkin to an operating, deployed, scaled product to customers,” says Parag Garg, T-Mobile’s vice president of Product & Technology. “Together, we really quickly came to an architecture that worked and a solution center that worked. Microsoft brought in architects, they gave us support, they were really good partners and they’re right there in Redmond.”

Microsoft’s involvement “helped us validate our decisions and gave us confidence to commit and build faster, because we were able to check in with the experts,” says Nick LaVassar, director of product and technology for T-Mobile’s branded Internet of Things (IoT) products and solutions.

The home screen of T-Mobile's pet tracker app
The Home screen of T-Mobile’s SyncUP PETS app.
The activity screen of T-Mobile's pet tracker app
And the Activity screen. (Courtesy of T-Mobile)

The collaboration is part of a broader partnership between T-Mobile and Microsoft that has grown over the past few years as T-Mobile, which merged with Sprint in April, has sought to disrupt the wireless industry and establish itself as a product-focused innovator.

Those efforts culminated most visibly at Microsoft’s global Hackathon last July, when an eight-person T-Mobile team spent several days working alongside Microsoft employees on a remote-controlled car called T-Racer that uses machine learning and edge computing.

The project provided insights on both sides: T-Mobile learned about network latency and performance across different types of edge computing, and Microsoft was able to assess how its machine learning models were impacted by network connectivity.

Perhaps as importantly, the Hackathon enabled T-Mobile to present itself as a technology company at a high-profile event that draws more than 27,000 participants to Microsoft locations worldwide.

“So many people were surprised to see T-Mobile there because we’ve traditionally been seen as just a telco. We’re now a technology company,” says Rainya Mosher, “cultural architect” for T-Mobile.

“It was a great opportunity for us to say, ‘Hey, we are a tech player. We’re out there on the edge of the frontier with our great partners like Microsoft.’ It was a wonderful opportunity to get to say that and have fun while doing it.”

The event was also a chance to connect with developers who could be future employees, Mosher says.

“We have such a strong brand in the consumer market, but it’s not as strong in the developer community,” she says. “They don’t realize we’re looking for people who want to come in and do something differently in a cutting-edge environment. So it became an employer brand opportunity as well.”

The T-Mobile team included employees from across the company who had worked together remotely, but some hadn’t met in person before. Mosher says the Hackathon fostered connections and a spirit of collaboration that lasted beyond the event.

T-Mobile's remote-controlled T-Racer
T-Mobile’s remote-controlled T-Racer. (Photo by Scott Eklund)

“We were able to leave our normal responsibilities behind and just come together,” she says. “It created this place where you have these great relationships and get to work collaboratively on a common problem. That’s a lot harder to create in a normal work week.

“It increased the sense of community within T-Mobile once we got back to our day jobs.”

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T-Mobile has long used Microsoft technologies in its products and services, but the relationship between the two companies has recently evolved into a true partnership, says Gina Kirby, a senior Azure specialist who works closely with T-Mobile.

“There has always been a synergy between the two companies, but we hadn’t necessarily dug in so deep as to build things together,” she says.

That changed about three years ago, when T-Mobile sought to use blockchain technology, which allows digital information to be distributed but not copied, to improve security for internal identity management. T-Mobile reached out to Microsoft about its Azure platform capabilities — and specifically its enterprise blockchain service, which was created to help businesses build applications on top of blockchain technology.

T-Mobile had been working alongside Intel, another Microsoft partner, on the Next Identity Platform, an open source blockchain-based identity governance platform. The T-Mobile team wanted to ensure the integration with Microsoft’s technologies was both technically advanced and operationally mature. To further those goals, Microsoft hosted a “code with” event at its campus, where teams from the two companies worked together for a week to develop solutions.

“Bringing the team into Microsoft’s innovation space and sitting side by side with their experts allowed us to rapidly accelerate developing system designs, data flows and ultimately production-quality code,” says Chris Spanton, principal architect of emerging technology strategy for T-Mobile. “We were able to solve complex technical challenges and in the process, develop lasting relationships and a deep sense of co-ownership over the outcomes.”

The exterior of the T-Mobile store in Times Square
T-Mobile thanks customers with free gifts on Tuesdays. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/AP Images for T‑Mobile)

Microsoft also worked with T-Mobile around the 2016 launch of T-Mobile Tuesdays, a customer appreciation app that offers weekly promotions, freebies and a chance to win prizes. The offers are limited to certain hours of the day, which led to traffic spikes that threatened to overload T-Mobile’s platform.

“Sometimes we had challenges when we couldn’t handle the traffic loads that we get on Tuesdays,” says Abigail Franco, director of Product & Technology at T-Mobile, who previously oversaw the T-Mobile Tuesdays team.

“For the first few weeks, we had the Microsoft team at T-Mobile 24/7. Microsoft was there with us and helped us get back on our feet. That was huge.”

More recently, Franco says, Microsoft is partnering with T-Mobile to upgrade its Azure-based platform to handle an anticipated uptick in T-Mobile Tuesdays participation following the Sprint merger.

“We have been trying to build knowledge in-house to make sure we can support our Azure solution, but it’s not the same as having the expertise from Microsoft to guide us through the process, provide best practices, tell us specific areas we should look out for and give us recommendations on how to test various scenarios and proof-of-concepts before we start building a solution,” Franco says.

“It’s been immensely helpful to have the Microsoft team support and help us with that effort.”

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In 2018, T-Mobile launched a new event aimed at raising awareness about data science and identifying budding data scientists within the company. Datapalooza brings together about 150 data scientists, software engineers, and data and business analysts who work together in teams to solve specific problems with generic data sets over two days.

T-Mobile’s data-analytics platform is built on Azure, and Microsoft provides training to Datapalooza participants on using the platform in the weeks leading up to the event. Microsoft engineers are also on-site during Datapalooza to assist teams and serve as judges.

Microsoft’s experience with large hackathons helped shape T-Mobile’s event, leading to the addition of mentors and other details, says BK Vasan, T-Mobile’s director of data engineering and advanced data analytics.

“We were thinking about something small, but Microsoft partnering with us helped us shape this into something bigger,” he says. “That partnership is very fundamental for T-Mobile. We were able to show the entire division that we have a scalable platform we can run advanced analytics on. At the same time, we were able to rapidly provision the platform for multiple users in less than a day.”

“I think that’s a powerful statement that we were able to make in partnership with Microsoft,” Vasan says. “That gave us confidence, not only for my team, but also the senior leadership in terms of yes, we do have a viable platform for advanced analytics.”

That platform, he says, eventually became T-Mobile’s advanced analytics platform, T-Insights, used by more than 10 of the company’s teams.

Beyond Datapalooza, Microsoft has provided input on using Azure for advanced data analytics, IoT and marketing initiatives, Vasan says. “We do a lot of visioning with Microsoft in terms of tech strategy for the future.”

T-Mobile's 2019 Hackathon team
T-Mobile’s T-Racer was a highlight of the 2019 Microsoft global Hackathon. (Photo courtesy of T-Mobile)

Like much of life in the U.S. at the moment, both companies’ work has shifted during the coronavirus pandemic. An Azure-focused hackathon that T-Mobile and Microsoft were planning is now on hold, and Microsoft’s global Hackathon is going fully virtual this year.

Still, Kirby says Microsoft envisions its partnership with T-Mobile as a long-term effort, and T-Mobile plans to put together a team to participate virtually in this year’s global Hackathon. This time around, T-Mobile will be exploring how Microsoft technology can help the company create even more inclusive user experiences for employees and customers with physical disabilities.

For Garg, who worked for Microsoft from 2006 to 2011, the pet tracker collaboration gave him a new perspective on his former employer. Microsoft’s evolution into a “customer-first company” was evident in its team’s approach of focusing first on what the product needed to do for T-Mobile’s customers, then determining what technologies met those priorities, he says. And it underscored Microsoft’s cultural shift under CEO Satya Nadella to a new era of collaboration.

“When I think about my relationship with Microsoft, it’s not a customer-vendor relationship. It really does feel like a partnership,” Garg says. “It feels like a relationship of friends that are trying to solve shared objectives.

“With Microsoft, it’s never about, ‘I’m trying to sell you something.’ It’s like, ‘How am I going to help use the set of things I have to solve your customer problem?’”

Top photo: A very good dog shows off a T-Mobile SyncUP PETS tracker. (Photo courtesy of T-Mobile)