purchased Silicon Valley startup Danger, maker of the Sidekick mobile phone,
employees at Danger felt their startup culture clashed with Microsoft's
corporate one, and things took far longer to build than they were used to. And
many of Danger's people ended up working on Microsoft's own smartphone, the
"In the past, we had the orientation of: 'How's the technology? How strong are the people they have?'?" Pitasky said. "We paid attention to their culture in terms of integrating [them into Microsoft]. But ... I don't think we paid as much attention to their culture in terms of learning from it."
Now, he said, "We are a lot more aware of the culture of the companies that we are acquiring ... not just what they're doing but how they're doing them."
That seems to be the case with San Francisco-based Yammer, the business social-networking and collaboration startup Microsoft bought last year. Yammer, which provides a Facebook-like social network for companies, has about 350 employees in San Francisco and London offices.
"I actually think Microsoft is learning a lot from us, and we've been eager to share some of those things," said Kris Gale, vice president of engineering at Yammer.
Indeed, some engineers on Microsoft's Redmond campus who used to be part of the SharePoint team have adopted some of those principles and re-branded themselves "Yammer North." SharePoint is Microsoft's work-collaboration software.
But, Gale points out, there are two things working in Yammer's favor that were perhaps absent when Microsoft acquired other startups.
The first is timing.
"We're in Office at a time when they're transitioning to services and they're working on increasing their cadence, trying to get faster," Gale said. "It was easy to say: 'We have these cultural things that are important to us and we think they might provide value to you.'?"
Microsoft, like many other engineering-focused companies, is hierarchical and centered on predictability, Gale said.
Yammer's hierarchy is flatter, and its engineers organized in a more free-flowing fashion, forming, disbanding then reorganizing as ever-new projects start.
"There's no traditional concept of product ownership or code ownership," Gale said, leading to fewer turf battles and lots more flexibility.
The second factor in Yammer's success at Microsoft, Gale said, is assertiveness on its own behalf.
As much as senior leaders may buy into the idea that their staff can learn from an acquired smaller company's culture, middle layers often want things done as they've always been.
Though he declined to get into details, Gale said there have been times when Yammer clashed with Microsoft on IT or human-resources policies.
"We were able to appeal to senior leadership and get that resolved," he said. "With Yammer, we've been firm about company values, about employee empowerment."
Acting on idea
Shahine, a development lead with Microsoft's Online Services Division, is working on Bing Offers Card-Linked, which electronically links a user's credit card with discount deals featured on Bing Offers. When someone purchases a deal, the discount is automatically applied to their credit-card statement.
That means the user doesn't have to carry easily misplaced coupons; or, if the offer is for 50 percent off if a customer spends $20 at a certain retailer, the offer is automatically redeemed when you ring up $20 at checkout.
"The idea was about how we can make this simpler, more customer-friendly," Shahine said.
There were questions team members didn't have answers to, he said, such as whether they should first attract merchants or customers. So they decided to just try putting the idea out there and getting a pulse on what works and what needs changing. Card-Linked is now up on the Bing Offers beta site.
Bing Offers, which also will be featured on Outlook.com and Skype (for customers who use the no-fee version of the service), is an example of how the company is integrating its products.
Such collaboration "is a rallying cry. We all feel it," said Ben Gilbert, who runs The Garage, Microsoft's initiative to encourage innovation among employees.
The Garage is a community and actual physical space on the Redmond campus where employees can work on their side projects and get feedback. A number of employee projects that have come out of The Garage have been incorporated into company products -- and at a quicker pace these days.
That's important, Gilbert says, "in a services world, where you have to move quickly."
Then there are the one-time events that attempt to incorporate some elements of startups, such as hackathons -- a set time during which programmers and others create code or software for defined purposes.
One of Pitasky's recruiting-team members came up with the idea to hold a 24-hour nontechnical "hackathon" to brainstorm how they could improve the recruiting experience for college candidates.
They held the event a few weeks ago in The Garage, complete with a Zumba class at night, a yoga class in the morning, and no requirement that people be there the entire time.
Typically, ideas for improving recruitment processes pop up here and there among team members, then take six more months to execute, said Anthony Rotoli, the technical recruiter who came up with the "hackathon" idea.
"I thought it would be better to just knock it out all at once, then implement it immediately," Rotoli said.
Pitasky said this sense of a startup culture at Microsoft is only just emerging -- but enough so that "it's something we're starting to be able to expose to candidates," along with the traditional strengths of Microsoft, such as its scale and resources.
"There's this recognition," Pitasky said, "that maybe we're heading toward trying to get the best of both worlds."
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