Transitioning to Office Labs

It's been about a month since we went live with Of course as a team we’ve been operating a little over a year, but only now do I get to talk about that period. I thought I might fill you all in on my transition from OneNote to Office Labs.

As Office 2007 was wrapping up, my second son Skye was born. (I'm sitting next to him on a plane to Toronto as I write this).  I took my paternity leave and when I came back in the fall of 2006 Office 2007 was just wrapping up. I went to work for Jeff Raikes, the president of the Business Division at the time. He had asked me earlier to come do a job for him whenever I was able to move on from Office2007.

Jeff had a two-part mission for me that was simple to say and hard to do. Basically he said, "help the division try more ideas", and "explain to the world and the company what our long term vision is for productivity". Right, roll up those sleeves and start knitting Petunia!

For background, the business division covers several product lines: Office System (which includes the Office applications, SharePoint server and a lot of other components and servers), Office Live  - the productivity service, Unified Communications (UC) which includes Exchange, Live Meeting and Office Communicator (enterprise IM), and Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS), which provides "software to run businesses" such as ERP, CRM and several other three letter acronyms . Basically the business division as a whole is focused on "productivity" - helping people get stuff done  - whether it be at home, school, or work.

I worked in the Office group for 12 years, first a little on Excel, then a lot on Word, all of OneNote, and a little on Publisher. I was quite familiar with the Office team's processes for developing software which are in my opinion first-rate. Relative to just about any software project in the world, the scale of a release of Office is huge, the quality that comes out is excellent and always improving, and it gets done more or less on time which is a semi-miracle in software development. But that doesn’t mean Office and its processes can't improve - in fact the Office team is first to criticize themselves and work on ways to do better.

The other parts of our division have their own styles and personalities. Office Live is fairly fast moving, Unified Communications is always up for a new idea, and MBS is consolidating  and growing its scope at the same time. Jeff had asked me to help the division "try more ideas". Ok, where to start?

One thing that was clear was the different viewpoints on "innovation". Some people in the company felt that we didn't explore new ideas and technology well or fast enough. Others felt we had no problem and that we took the right measured approach to new things. I think many readers who work in corporations are familiar with this range of opinions about their business. Sometimes it can get a little nasty - the "gotta innovate" people think the others are blind curmudgeons who couldn't imagine anything other than what they have today. The "steady as she goes" folks think the others are lightweights, chasing the latest trends and not being appropriately thoughtful about business results. That's a caricature but you get the idea.

Our popular culture definitely is biased toward the new - we tend to place it on a pedestal, and imbue words like "invention, innovator, entrepreneur" with mystical heroic qualities. People admire and many aspire to be seen as innovators. The innovator who makes a $100m/yr company is lauded. The guy who quietly makes a billion dollars a quarter doing what they did last year is ignored. Note: as much as John Q. Public admires the former, shareholders really like the second type of guy. Delorean makes a good story, but we can't name who at Toyota made them the #1 car company in the world.

I'm conscious as I write this that the "blogosphere" tends to have a huge bias in favor of rapidly embracing the latest thing - most of us are in that "gotta innovate" group - more than even the general public. But a criticism of that approach especially for a larger company is that you can't always be chasing "shiny objects". You have to deliver business value. Speed for speed's sake is also not a good idea. How do you act appropriately fast enough without just churning? After all, while consumers might say they want a new thing every day, enterprise customers tell us they can't handle the pace of change we throw at them today. What to do?

I didn't want to fix a phantom problem. I also felt during my time in Office that we could make some improvements to the system, as good as it was.

One thing I felt strongly was that the people who said we don't have enough good ideas were flat wrong.  There is no shortage of great ideas at Microsoft. I also felt that our product groups, even the "old" ones, had the appetite to take big risks. Just look at the new Ribbon UI for Office 2007. We also had the capacity to develop entirely new things on our own - look at OneNote, or SharePoint. Where it seemed we could use a "tweak" was in five areas:

  1. Improving the number of risky or uncertain areas we explore at any time
  2. Increasing the "stakes" of the areas we explore - place bigger bets
  3. Decreasing the iteration time for designs (more iterations, faster in response to user feedback)
  4. Accelerate in time the delivery of new ideas (get them to market faster)
  5. Easier exploration of ideas that didn't already have someone working in the area

We're trying to tackle all of these with Office Labs. Our team extends the already solid Office development process to enable those product teams and others across the business division to try more stuff. When I write next I'll go into more detail.

One closing thought. We work with the whole business division (which makes more than Office). We also aspire to create entre products and services, which may not be called "Office".  So why did we call ourselves Office Labs? The answer is that Office is really well known and is much bigger in scope than most people realize. So it actually covers a lot of the productivity area. Trying to come up with a name that was generic like "business division labs" or "productivity labs" seemed lame. And choosing a fancy sounding name just to be cool was not our style. So Office Labs it is - Office System is our largest and most important client, and its definition is always growing - in fact we hope to be part of that growth.