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When Microsoft set out to build a new tool for its Office 365 suite, the team took an unusual approach: have the development process mirror the product being developed.
By Jigar Thakkar, Chief Technology Officer and Head of Engineering, MSCI
Before joining MSCI in mid-2018, I was head of engineering for Microsoft Teams, a new collaboration product for Office 365. When we began working in early 2015 on what would become Teams, we knew we needed to approach the project in an entirely new way—a way that reflected our goals for the new tool. Over the years, Microsoft had developed and improved upon personal productivity software for the workplace, from the earliest versions of Microsoft Word and Excel in the 1980s to our email software in the 1990s to the Office 365 suite of hosted tools introduced in 2011. With Teams, however, we aimed to create a “we app,” not a “me app”—a tool engineered to support group collaboration in a world in which teamwork is increasingly at the center of everything.
We needed to start fresh, essentially purging ourselves of our past habits and experiences in a way that set us up to create something different. What’s more we wanted to emulate the sort of team-based environment that we hoped to support with Microsoft Teams.
From the engineers we recruited, to the locations we chose for initial brainstorming, to the way we used the very earliest versions of Teams in our development of the software—the entire product process was designed to stimulate new ways of thinking and working. Our aim was to produce an app—Teams was successfully launched in early 2017—that would support the new ways our customers are thinking and working in the digital world.
The Future of Work
Microsoft already had Exchange and Outlook, SharePoint, Meeting, Skype, and our many Office applications. However, there can be multiple steps and tools involved in getting something done with these tools, and what can get lost as a result is the focus on the task at hand. The missing piece was something that could bring that all together—along with other third-party applications—into one place to create a bird’s eye view of what’s happening day to day across them. Our goal was to create a communication and collaboration hub, something that would bring all these great assets together in a way that created a new experience for groups of users.
For some time, Microsoft has been researching the way people are working today and it’s clear that, across industries, it’s all about teams coming together to get things done. Companies are moving away from hierarchical organizations with CxOs at the top in their shiny offices, managers in the middle, and everyone else on the lower floors. The new world of productivity demands flatter structures, open spaces, and open communication.
However, most productivity tools are designed for the individual, not a group. The vast majority of the communications we share and the information we create is hidden behind digital walls, even when most of it does not need to be protected. That thwarts efficiency and effectiveness in a team-driven environment. The aim of Microsoft Teams—with its channels functionality—was to enable team member to get up to speed on the status of a project or objective in minutes.
Now for Something Completely Different
If this new product was going to enable users to think and behave differently, we needed to think and behave differently as we developed it. We built a team of people who had worked well with each other on other projects at Microsoft in the past. Those that joined our effort had a strong vision for what we might be able to build.
Significantly, we began developing Microsoft Teams not at our Redmond headquarters, but in remote locations. Brian MacDonald, head of Microsoft Teams, and I each took a portion of the team offsite to begin brainstorming; my engineering team headed to Las Vegas and Brian took the rest of the group to his fruit farm in Hawaii.
For four days, we imagined what this product might look and feel like. We were building a new kind of culture different from any of the teams we had worked on in the past. The off-sites were about more than group bonding, however. We needed to reset our thinking. And by heading to remote locations, we were able to switch off and think about what features would be most important to enable virtual collaboration and communication. We were able to consider new approaches, not just to what we were building but how we planned to build it.
Eating Our Own Dog Food
Within a month of returning to headquarters, we had created a working prototype of our new software. It was a bare-bones tool, but we committed to using it as our sole team-based productivity app from then on. It was important that we lived with it day in and day out, in order to understand what needed to change and evolve. We experienced the pain points and frustration ourselves and were motivated to address them.
Every Friday we had 60-second demos by each developer on the team to showcase what they had built to the rest of the engineers, program managers, and designers on the team. Every week, the product improved.
It was hugely beneficial that both Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, and co-founder, Bill Gates, were huge fans of our vision. Having that basic prototype up and running, however, was even more critical in galvanizing the rest of the company. Several senior folks at Microsoft got their teams dogfooding the Teams prototype. This was important in winning their trust in a team like ours that was running so fast. They could see that what we were building was a complement to our other products within the company.
The marketplace was changing, too. We weren’t the only company trying to carve out a space in collaboration. This drove us to move quickly, although not so quickly that quality suffered. In fact, we ultimately decided to postpone our beta version by a few months, because we just didn’t think it was ready yet.
The ROI of Fun
The biggest challenge was getting our customers excited about the product. Our customers trust us, but they needed to see the value of this new tool. What became clear in our first year in development was that for this to work, the product needed to be fun to use. And, thus, we needed to have some fun with it. We were creating software to support this world where the lines between work and personal lives are blurring. Individuals will take work home and weave it into their personal lives, but they also expect to enjoy their work. If people had more fun using Microsoft Teams, we surmised, would be productive and happier.
“Fun” may not be a driving principle of most office productivity software. But as we built Teams, we focused on ensuring that fun was an important element of the product. There were some within the company who questioned our decision to add features like Giphy integration, emojis, editable memes, or direct messaging functionality. But those turned out to be some of our customer’s favorite features.
The Future of Collaboration
We launched Microsoft Teams globally in February 2017, two years after we began. And the numbers have been even better than we expected. Today, more than 500,000 organizations and 91 of the Fortune 100 companies have adopted Microsoft Teams, and adoption continues to increase.
During the two years before the 2017 launch, the Teams team grew from 30 engineers who I hand-picked within Microsoft to a large group recruited from industry companies and universities.
While we studied what our competitors in this space were doing, we realized we would succeed if our value proposition focused on what we were good at. Microsoft has hundreds of millions of users of its other products, so we focused on building a tool that they could pick up very quickly. It’s also easy for non-Microsoft users to understand. In addition, we made sure that we created APIs that enable the integration of hundreds of other applications into the product.
Every team is unique—and every individual on that team is unique. Our goal was to provide something highly customizable to adapt to different workflows and different types of users in different types industries
CIOs today are charged not just to be the technology providers for their organizations but to create the infrastructure to support employee engagement and satisfaction. Our goal with Teams was to help them galvanize their functions around that mission and create more energy, excitement, engagement—and a healthy dose of fun—into their organizations. That’s what modern collaboration is about.
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