UXR @ Microsoft
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UXR @ Microsoft

Customer-Driven Engineering

Part 1 of 2: The Culture

I grew up with Microsoft.

As a kid, I remember using MSDOS to help my brother launch a pre-Internet BBS from our childhood bedroom. After college, I used Microsoft Visual Studio and ASP.NET to build websites for my first real career job at a children’s hospital. I can’t imagine finishing the books I’ve written, without the expert guidance of Microsoft Word and the incredible organizing tools in Microsoft OneNote and Microsoft Office.

I’ve also had the incredible fortune of being employed by Microsoft, working in the Developer Division (DevDiv) for over the past seven years, as both a UX Designer and Researcher. For the uninitiated, DevDiv is a 2,200-person organization, within Microsoft, that’s responsible for the company’s developer tools and services, helping our customers and partners create software products and services that you probably use every day.

When Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft, one of his first acts was to change the mission statement of the company to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

For me, Microsoft has helped me achieve more than I ever thought possible.

So, it’s been personally gratifying to watch as Microsoft’s leadership and my fellow employees transform the company from the globally dominant organization, I remember from the 90’s, to the humbler, customer-obsessed, and more globally conscious organization I see today.

While no organization is perfect or without fault, I must say, studying Microsoft’s transition from both outside and inside the company has been a masterclass in organizational and cultural transformation.

Within the context of this larger company transformation, I’ve also had the great fortune of being part of DevDiv’s own cultural transformation. When I first joined DevDiv, I discovered that we were in the midst of a massive shift to more agile software making processes and faster release cadences. The goal was to move away from long-lead, monolithic, “boxed software releases” to smaller, more frequent, updates that could more quickly respond to the ever-changing developer tools and services landscape.

To achieve this, we knew that we would have to be more connected to our customers than ever before.

So, my job in DevDiv evolved quickly and I soon found myself in a position to coach product teams in the art of customer and product development; helping them better connect with our customers and each other. I couldn’t have possibly dreamed I would be doing this sort of work at Microsoft. It’s both humbling and intensely gratifying.

Throughout this journey toward a quicker product release cadence and deeper learning from our customers, our teams have managed to grow DevDiv’s customer base from 1.5 million engaged developers (impressive!) to over 14 million (mindboggling!).

In DevDiv we refer to our culture and our software making processes as Customer-Driven Engineering (or CDE).

In a sense, CDE represents two major parts for us in DevDiv: our culture and our process.

There’s a lot to cover in both of these areas, so I’ll separate what I have to share into 2 separate blog posts.

In this post, I’ll talk about our Customer-Driven culture in DevDiv, because it’s necessary to first understand our culture if you want to truly appreciate DevDiv’s process for making products.

In a follow-up post, I’ll outline our Customer-Driven process; our methods and strategies for converting customer insights into products our customers will love.

The Customer-Driven Culture

In The Customer-Driven Culture: A Microsoft Story, Monty Hammontree and I outlined the foundational culture that’s been built in DevDiv which has empowered our teams to connect with customers and continuously learn from them at scale.

The book cover of The Customer-Driven Culture: A Microsoft Story
The Customer-Driven Culture: A Microsoft Story by Travis Lowdermilk and Monty Hammontree

In DevDiv, we see culture as a product and, in many ways, we believe it functions very much like a software product.

Think about it.

When new employees join your organization, they look for belonging cues by observing others around them. They do this because they must understand the operating language of your organization. In a sense, just like computers, your employees are downloading a set of instructions that help them understand how to operate and achieve success.

If your culture has “bugs” (or unchecked, toxic, cultural behaviors), those can unfortunately be downloaded too. Depending on the severity of those bugs or how widespread they are, these negative actors can bring an organization to its knees.

The good news is, just like a software product, your culture can be “upgraded” and continually iterated upon to meet the demands of an ever-changing world.

In writing the book, we were inspired by the spirit of this analogy, and we used it to outline 6 “culture hacks”. These are relatively low-cost ways to “hack your culture” toward a more customer-driven organization. These hacks serve to not only improve the relationships your organization has with its customers, but also the relationship it has with your fellow employees as well.

Below is a brief summary of each of our culture hacks.

An image that outlines the 6 culture hacks.
The 6 “culture hacks” of a Customer-Driven Culture

Culture Hack #1: Establish a Common Language

One of the single most powerful tools that has impacted our customer-driven culture, was growing a common language that allowed us to communicate our values at all levels within DevDiv.

When you’re passionate about the products you create, it can be hard to remain objective and limit your biases. CDE helps our teams identify their untested assumptions so they can formulate them into hypotheses. We’ve also learned that when the operating language of your organization is full of words like: “assumptions, experimentation, sensemaking, and learning-first” it creates a positive atmosphere of continuous learning and psychological safety.

To learn more about the language we use in DevDiv, check out Part 2 of this series (coming soon).

Culture Hack #2: Build Bridges, Not Walls

Everyone in DevDiv, no matter what team or role, is a vital part of our mission to connect with our customers. CDE embraces a Lean approach that requires continuous testing and iteration. This mindset of continuous learning and experimentation is not only serving our customer and product development, but also serves our cultural development as well.

For us, it’s vital that the entire product team joins together on a journey to understand our customers. Nearly all of our customer and product development efforts are a partnership of PMs, Engineering, Design, Marketing, and UX Research (as well as many other disciplines). These roles are deeply connected with each other, interacting daily, and sharing not only their expertise, but what they’re learning from our customers.

CDE celebrates the “generalist with superpowers”, allowing team members to shed their roles and bring their authentic selves, their individual passions and lived experiences into the work they’re doing for their customers.

This not only helps us engineer products that are more inclusive of the diverse needs of our customers, but it also creates an atmosphere that allows employees to bring their full selves to their work.

Culture Hack #3: Encourage Learning vs. Knowing

Being customer driven means embracing a culture of continual learning and growth. It’s not about having all the answers, it’s about having continuous desire to seek the right questions. CDE is a complete system of tools, templates, training, and structure to help teams learn from our customers.

We’ve learned that when you’re building a customer-driven culture, your work is never done. It continues to evolve as you learn about the needs of your customers as well as the needs of your team members and partners.

In DevDiv, we’re continually looking for new models or tools that not only help us better learn from your customers, but also help us streamline our product making processes.

Through actions like our onboarding workshops or even our hiring practices, we’re continually investing in ways to build upon our learning-first culture.

Culture Hack #4: Build Leaders that Build Your Culture

When you’re working in a massive company like Microsoft, it can be difficult to determine how to best navigate your own career path. For most of us, we often look to success of others to help us determine the types of behaviors and actions we should be investing in to grow our own careers.

In short, we often adopt the behaviors of those who are finding success.

If a senior leader gives a speech about the importance of “work/life balance”, but then goes onto to shower praise upon the team who’s “dedicated enough to work through nights and weekends”, it can send confusing messages to employees about what the organization really values.

So, it became important for us to ensure that we were elevating employees who were exhibiting the right behaviors. We sought examples of teams who were demonstrating great customer-driven actions and curated their stories to be shared throughout the division. By giving these employees visibility or recognition (and even better if they’re new faces and voices), we were sending a powerful message to all employees. We were reinforcing that, we valued connecting with customers, learning from them, and integrating that learning into the products we make.

Here are just a couple of ways that you can elevate your employees to become examples of the culture you’re trying to build:

Create a Spotlight

Create opportunities for employees to share their exceptional work, in order to elevate their visibility within your organization. Through internal presentations, executive reviews, employee networking groups, or even internal promotional videos, give employees a platform to share how their actions are impacting the business and the customers they serve.

Make Customer Connections the New Currency

In DevDiv, the most successful product teams are those who build a community of customers around them. These teams will become outspoken customer advocates and often share tips and tricks with their peers on how to generate a vibrant community around the work they’re doing. While technical competence will always be important in an organization like DevDiv, creating engaged customer communities has also become an equally valuable skill.

Culture Hack #5: Meet Teams Where They Are

We learned early on that if we wanted to encourage our product teams to adopt new ways of working, we needed to be “passionately pragmatic”. Changes in culture often happen as a result of small wins, collected over time; not as a result of a significant change that happens all at once. Therefore, it was useful to remind ourselves that we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

Teams are less likely to engage with a change in their working process if it requires them to start over or adopt complex tools.

Here are two examples of how you can meet your teams where they are:

Leverage Lightweight Tools

Whenever possible embrace tools already entrenched within your product teams. Avoid trying to standardize them on a set of tools, requiring teams to rethink their everyday workflow. For example, if a product team is using Slack or Microsoft Teams for their primary communication, consider using those platforms to share customer findings; rather than having them invest in learning some other communication tool.

The goal is to make it easy for them to do the right thing (e.g. engage with customers and data to invalidate/validate their thinking) and hard to do the wrong thing (e.g. ship their assumptions).

Think Globally, Act Locally

The CDE frameworks and tools we use in DevDiv are designed to be flexible so that teams can customize them to meet their own local needs. We celebrate when teams take our tools and “make them their own”. Rather than forcing a “one size fits all” set of solutions that are mandated from on high, we encourage teams to take dependencies on our tools and evolve them so they can drive their own success. This, in turn, dampens resistance and encourages teams to take ownership of the global mission.

It also helps us evolve and learn from our colleagues, discovering new ways to work.

We often joke that, the “quickest way to gain influence with someone is to help them get a promotion.” All kidding aside, it’s true. When people truly believe that you’re invested in their success (and not just in getting them to adopt your program), they’re more willing to engage with your ideas and suggestions.

This has required us to understand our product teams’ local needs and evolve our tools to meet them within their unique contexts.

Ironically, this has required us to become employee-driven and engage in the same learning-first mindset we ask of our product teams as they build products for their customers.

Culture Hack #6: Make Data Relatable

As we started to see exponential growth in the number of direct customer conversations and observations our product teams were having with customers, we learned that being data-driven alone wasn’t enough.

A list of validated or invalidated hypotheses was a crucial step in the right direction, but we needed better ways to surface the vivid conversations our teams were having with our customers. Our customers’ stories are what lead us to inspired action, but the nuance of these stories can be incredibly difficult to scale. These vivid conversations are where true organizational empathy is born.

So, our team looked to masterful storytellers, like Pixar and researched the critical elements of storytelling. This helped us provide tools to our product teams that could help them surface, more vividly, what they were learning from our customers.

Here are a couple of ways we’ve helped make our data more relatable:

Share Real Stories, Not Personified Ones

In DevDiv we use real stories, from real customers, over fictitious personas built on assumptions. Our goal is to collect real customer profiles that capture the ever-changing world of our customers. We strive to highlight customer motivations, technology adoption patterns, cultural norms, and other critical customer contexts. Just like our products, we continuously update and iterate these profiles as new trends are discovered.

Vivid Storytelling

To build a culture of customer obsession, you must compel others to action. Our teams know that having numbers isn’t enough. They need to generate compelling stories that help bring their insights to life. We provide tools to not only ensure teams ask customers the right questions, but also help our teams share the vivid stories they’re collecting with the rest of the organization.

Now that we’ve explored our culture in DevDiv (e.g. our 6 “culture hacks”), let’s take a look at the day-to-day processes we use in DevDiv to drive customer empathy at scale.

Read Customer-Driven Engineering — Part 2: The Process.

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