Increasingly, Microsoft is seen to be at the forefront of innovation in the tech industry, partly helped by the HoloLens boom, but also through its open collaboration with startups from around the globe. We spoke with a few startups and with Petro Soininen from Microsoft, who runs the Commercial Software Engineering business in the Nordics, to see what has changed.
Soininen joined Microsoft through its acquisition of the Nokia phone business, back in 2014. His first task at the new company was to help set up a new spearhead technical team that Microsoft was ramping up.
“The team that we set up at Microsoft was only given basic guidance: you guys go out to the innovators and influencers and make Microsoft more relevant in the eyes of those people. We asked questions about how we should do it, but the instructions from top management were just to go, figure it out and get stuff done,” Soininen told us in an interview.
As a first step in trying to figure it out, the team of about 50-60 engineers in Scandinavia, UK, Israel and a couple of sites in the US went to talk to the top startups, open source communities, some interesting enterprise customers and people in academia. Each time they asked a similar question: “What are the toughest and most impactful problems that you have, whether they are technical or in business, and do you think a no-nonsense engineering team could come in and really help you accelerate the work?”
The mission was simple. “Bring more benefits for customers and, obviously, more benefit to Microsoft – directly or indirectly, in terms of added platform consumption, reviving those relationships, or just making sure that we got good PR out of the stories we generated from the engagements that we did.”
Soininen remembered his visit to Slush in 2014, when the new tech team had just been launched. “I was skimming through the companies that were coming to Slush, trying to figure out which companies I should be trying to meet, to explore whether there could be some potential collaboration with those companies,” he recalled.
His eyes were caught by a Finnish company called Valoya, which creates professional LED lightning for plant cultivation. No software was involved at that point. “Since they had a customer base that was about 70 percent of the top 10 companies in agriculture globally, I was pretty keen to meet them.”
In the middle of a nice chat, Valoya’s CEO asked Soininen, “You are Microsoft, why are you interested in agriculture? Why were you interested meeting me? We do not have any software or code.” The discussion shifted to the future of technologies, IoT and edge computing technologies, and the two continued talking after the show.
“What that conversation actually resulted in was us walking into a four- or five-month engagement where a couple of our engineers worked directly with the Valoya team to create the first prototype and the first pilot installation of their IoT-controlled plant cultivation lighting solution,” Soininen said.
The starting point for the team in 2014 was not the most usual for a big corporation, and Soininen stresses that the spirit has continued ever since. “That mindset still resonates within the organisation. Even though we are a big global organisation, we go in with the mentality that it’s about impact, tangible outcomes and figuring out what are the right things to do, rather than someone giving us very exact scorecards where you need to have X number of engagements with a list of startups. To a lot of people that kind of autonomy and flexibility is a blessing, but for others, who are probably used to working in a model where you get a bit more guidance, stricter guidelines and Key Performance Indicators that you should be reaching, we need to tweak their mindset. I haven’t had anyone complain though, once they have realised that there is a whole lot more flexibility,” he said, describing the situation.
How does that flexibility come across in the day to day business of the Commercial Software Engineering team? “Whenever we, as an organisation, have made an investment decision to work with a partner – when we have identified the scope and people get the green light to execute – then anyone doing that work, whether it’s our engineers or technical programme managers, can just go free, have fun, learn and hack with the customers. They make sure that there will be a good outcome, but also make sure that they’re not afraid of failing. We are going into scenarios that are pretty darn difficult to solve and there are going to be moments when we figure out that the technology is just not ready, or it’s not feasible for the benefit the customer wants to receive. That is a perfectly OK outcome. In that situation, we’re just going to be able to pass more feedback to our engineering teams.”
In 2017, Microsoft reshuffled the engineering unit, merging it with the global operations of the developer relations team. “Now we try to marry the best of both worlds. There’s the local understanding, local connections, business understanding and the ability to be evangelists, which are all skills found in our global field team. Then we also bring the engineering DNA and a mindset of actually wanting to go very deeply into the technical engagements we have with our customers and partners,” Soininen said in the interview.
This means the team is often working with Microsoft’s more established enterprise partners and looking for reliable startups to partner with.
“We focus on slightly later-phase startups – companies who are past their ideas stage and have at least prototypes available, some solid funding already available, or are established in the sense that we can collaborate with them with criteria or links to the Microsoft business.”
Does that mean that the team’s role in helping startups will change in the coming months and years – will they disappear from the startup venues? Not really. “Obviously, there will be some light touch work that we still do with startups. Hypothetically, we could go to some of our target accelerators, communities and ventures to provide ad-hoc technical advice – some storytelling about the things that we have done with startups – just to stimulate them, so that they consider Microsoft. This is a by-product of the work we primarily to do with them though. We want to make sure that the ones we single out make sense for us to work with – that they have the right type of commitment to providing their own resources, that they can scope and qualify the problem that we could potentially solve together with the technology. Then we identify the impact and what output we can evaluate that we are going to get out of that particular engagement – what resources do we have ourselves and what are the risks associated with the engagement.”
Read the article in the latest issue of CoFounder magazine.