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Microsoft's Chris Pratley, Mike Tholfsen and Chris Yu dish on Redmond's culture shift

A company's culture is arguably the most significant quality that a firm possesses.

Culture is pervasive. It affects how employees and divisions interact with each other, how a company serves its customers and how a firm perceives itself in relation to competitors. Culture can make or break a company.

From the outside looking in

In recent years we've been positioned on the outside, looking in, as Microsoft underwent cultural shifts.

In 2013, we saw Ballmer initiate "One Microsoft (opens in new tab)." This initiative was both a reorganization of the company's personnel and divisions as well as a phrase intended to convey an ideological shift of the firm toward a more collaborative model.

In July 2014, five months after Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft, he addressed all employees via a memo titled Bold Ambition & Our Core{.nofollow}. This memo was expansive and outlined Nadella's long-term vision and short-term goals.

He also made bold statements about his vision of the company's culture:

Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving.

Throughout late 2014 and 2015 we saw these words put into action as massive layoffs ensued, divisions were reorganized and innovative category-creating products were introduced.

Microsoft has gone from a company that walked on eggshells following an antitrust lawsuit in the late 90's to a company that boldly introduces ground-breaking innovation such as HoloLens, the Surface and Surface Book and the precedent-setting form-agnostic OS, Windows 10.

Ballmer's tenure gave us a shift toward a more collaborative Microsoft. While Nadella's leadership brings a cultural move toward a "do more" company, customer obsession, training, learning and experimentation and more efficient teams.

But how do employees within Microsoft perceive the cultural shifts of the last two years?

This, at least, is the change we see from the outside looking in as we grab soundbites and quotes and analyze business strategies. But how do employees within Microsoft perceive the cultural shifts of the last two years that have transformed the company?

Microsoft HQ

Microsoft HQ (Image credit: Windows Central)

To answer this question, I caught up with three Microsoft employees who were kind enough to answer a few questions. I introduce to you:

  • Chris Pratley is the General Manager of Sway and Docs.com. Chris has worked for Microsoft for over 21 years and is responsible for the team that designs and builds Office Sway. He supervises 120 people, some of whom work on Docs.com and Office Lens. Here's a fun fact, he also invented OneNote.
  • Mike Tholfsen is a OneNote and Education Product Manager. Mike works on a variety of projects including the OneNote Class/Staff notebooks, OneNote Learning Tools, and a set of upcoming, unreleased education projects. A typical day for Mike includes communicating with customers, working on roadmap and strategy, working with the engineering team, helping remove any roadblocks to help ship products, brainstorming new ideas, features, and scenarios and talking to and meeting with education partners.
  • Chris Yu is the Group Program Manager responsible for Docs.com and Office Lens. He owns his vision, product conception, and strategy behind the products. A typical day involves getting feedback on new product concepts with customers and partners, coordinating product development plans, and working with a customer-obsessed team of program managers, design professionals, and engineers inventing compelling solutions.

Fly on the wall

I posed the following six questions to these three gentlemen to get an inside view of Microsoft's culture. Here's what they had to say.

(Chris Pratley)

Jason L Ward, Windows Central: What is culturally different at Microsoft now than it was two years ago?

Chris Pratley: For me, there are three things:

  • The willingness for teams across the company to work together is far greater. There is an assumption of shared purpose and trust that wasn't there before, and far less cynicism.
  • The support at all levels for trying things that might not work is tremendous. Such a focus on quick experimentation vs. polishing a first iteration to 'perfection', favoring action vs discussion, willingness to seek data vs. opinion.
  • The focus on customers and customer needs and delight over things such as dates or technical roadmaps is very refreshing.

Support at all levels for trying things that might not work is tremendous.

Mike Tholfsen: Three big areas of culture focus I have noticed are "Customer Obsession," "One Microsoft" and the "Growth Mindset."

Chris Yu: While teams have always known that working together effectively leads to the best result, I'd say that the different teams are more empathetic toward each other, and we realize that to deliver the best customer experiences it really takes having our people come together to solve problems.

(Mike Tholfsen)

Jason: How does that change affect you in your position?

Chris Pratley: The changes concretely affect me as I am able to do things with other teams simply by asking them to work with us. Sounds simple, but it wasn't always. I also see greater enthusiasm and support for the new and untried, whereas in the past there was more a focus on the already successful.

I've been able to experiment and try new things regularly.

Mike Tholfsen: In my position, "Customer Obsession", "One Microsoft" and the "Growth Mindset" have all had impact. I work on the OneNote team in the education space. In the past 1.5 years, I've had the chance to work very closely with teachers, schools and students and develop new products and services to solve challenges in the education space. I've worked on very small teams and been given the ability to ship software very rapidly and iterate quickly based on customer feedback. I believe the customer focus has been a key aspect of the success we've been seeing with OneNote in the education space. In terms of growth mindset, I've been able to experiment and try new things regularly, and given the leeway and encouragement from management to always be learning and iterating.

Chris Yu: It's really wonderful as it helps new products like Office Lens and Docs.com get support from around the company.

(Chris Yu)

Jason: How does that change affect how you interact with other employees and teams?

Chris Pratley: Beyond partnering, relationships now start with trust vs. suspicion, and lots of discussions end (quickly, healthily) with "let's try it" rather than an endless discussion over who is predicting correctly.

Relationships now start with trust vs suspicion.

Mike Tholfsen: The cultural changes have had a very positive impact with employees and teams. Teams are encouraged to try new things, gather feedback quickly, work with customers, and not being afraid of failing. The emphasis is shifting from "knowing" to "learning" – and one way we learn is through trying new things…even if we fail in the attempt, we learn from it.

Chris Yu: It doesn't really change the approach I take. In any quickly moving organization, it's important to be incredibly respectful of other's time and goals. It just means that good outcomes happen more often.

Jason: How does that change affect how you view and appeal to consumers?

Chris Pratley: My teams are fully dedicated to improving depth of usage (engagement), returning user rates, and total active users. This means we are de facto highly attuned to what customers' value (in particular, the actual users of the products), and we are incented to engage deeply with them to understand why they don't come back, or what would make them, even more, enthusiastic. In the past, the emphasis was more on hitting dates with quality, which is execution excellence. Worthy, but not as good as focusing on customers.

Mike Tholfsen: In the case of OneNote in the education space, I believe our customers have noticed the close customer connection our team has had, as well as the rapid release of new capabilities aimed at teachers and schools, often based on direct customer feedback and interactions we've had. A great example is this tweet that a teacher put out:

Laura Stanner @stannerl Thank you, @OneNoteEDU @Microsoft_EDU friends for the @Skype visit! Always a joy! @KeystoneAEA @mtholfsen #dbqtc

One of our engineers had reached out directly to this customer to help solve an issue she was seeing. The teacher was quite happy with the interaction and tweeted out the screenshot of their Skype call and her thanks.

Microsoft would be nothing without its customers and partners.

Chris Yu: Again, I don't think it's changed how I work with customers. Microsoft would be nothing without its customers and partners and at the end of the day, it's about whether we're giving them more value than they're giving us.

Jason: How does that change affect how you see rivals?

Chris Pratley: While it is good to be aware of what competitors are doing, focusing on competitors is largely a distraction, and if you don't keep customers at the front it is easy to get caught up in following your competition which is a losing strategy. Speaking for myself I have always been more focused on customers than competition, but I think these changes make it much easier for everyone to do that because superiors are asking about customers and not competition as much. It also frees us to do more true innovation, which comes from deep customer empathy and technical acumen, not from keeping up with the other guys.

If we build the best products that solve the customer's problems we'll be fine.

Mike Tholfsen: The focus is more on the customers and solving the customer's problems and less about what the competition is doing. There is also a sense that Microsoft doesn't have to be focusing on everything all the time. We have a set of key strategies that are part of our vision, and there are areas where it's OK the competition is focusing on something, and we're not.

Chris Yu: I spend most of my time focused on my customers and team. If we build the best products that solve the customer's problems, we'll be fine. And in such a tightly connected industry like ours, there's a lot of cross-pollination of talent, so the rivalries I'd say are more for our collective entertainment than anything else.

Jason: How does that change affect Microsoft's position in the industry?

Chris Pratley: I think you see it already – products that make a difference, that are exciting. Bold moves in pricing and distribution. Brand new groundbreaking things. We've always done good engineering, but if you do it for technology's sake, or business' sake, you are not doing it for customers' sake, and they can tell. There is a certain energy in products that really focus on customers. We had it when I started in the 90s – we were trying hard to establish ourselves as #1 in many categories by appealing to customers to outflank stronger entrenched competitors (Lotus, WordPerfect, IBM, etc.). It worked, but then our focus started to drift away from end users to business users, to IT, and (outside of places like XBOX) we started to build products for people who were buying for others, not using themselves, and looking to eke out a little more money here and there by optimizing for licensing or sales. Dates and roadmaps and technology and feature checklists and incremental revenue took over. Now we're back to catering to the actual people who use our stuff, the goal is "customer love" and it is quite refreshing.

We're back to catering to the actual people who use our stuff, the goal is "customer love" and it is quite refreshing.

Mike Tholfsen: I think our willingness to develop and encourage software on multiple platforms, as well as our increased commitment to open standards, has helped positively affect our position in the industry.

Chris Yu: I think it's for the best…collaborating and building great things together with other teams, partners, customers and others in the industry is reward in its own right and all the great companies in the industry recognize that.

Analysis

In Nadella's first interview after becoming CEO (see video above) he refers to Microsoft as a "do more" company and shares his love of learning. The insightful responses from our interviewees confirm our perception that the combined results of Ballmer's shift toward "One Microsoft" and Nadella's attributes toward learning, doing and trying new things have transformed Microsoft's culture.

Three themes emerged consistently throughout our dialogues: unity, customer obsession and an atmosphere that nurtures learning and trying new things are core to Microsoft's new culture.

Regarding unity, Chris Yu conveyed an indispensable link between collaboration and customer satisfaction. Chris Pratley addressed "customer obsession" by stressing Microsoft's return to making products directly for users with a focus on "customer love" of those products rather than "building products for people who were buying for others".

With Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group under Panos Panay's leadership, first-party hardware can now be designed from conception to production to work seamlessly with the software that powers it to deliver the best user experience. This long-term, Apple-esque, view of optimal software and hardware synergy is also reflected in the controversial direction of newer silicon chips requiring Windows 10 for optimal performance and continued support.

Finally, as an echo to Chris Capossela's statement, "the fear is gone", Mike Tholfsen stressed Microsoft's new culture which nurtures learning and fearlessly trying new things.

The new Microsoft is a company undergoing a metamorphosis. It's a firm just emerging from a chrysalis, wings expanding, broadcasting it's potential and intent to fly. Employees seem to be embracing their new reality. The industry seems excited about what they see emerging from Redmond. Bold innovation and a fearless push into new category's have not gone without their hiccups, but one thing is clear: Microsoft is not the company it was just a few years ago, consuming itself with internal division while allowing opportunities to be devoured by fear. The company has entered a new season where they're galvanizing employees, partners, and consumers with hopeful ambition. It seems that the sky's the limit.

Nadella expressed{.nofollow} the company's new position like this:

Culture change means we will do things differently. Often people think that means everyone other than them. In reality, it means all of us taking a new approach and working together to make Microsoft better....we must have courage in the face of opportunity.

Big thanks to Chris Pratley, Mike Tholfsen and Chris Yu for their valuable "inside Microsoft" perspectives!

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

73 Comments
  • Once again I thank you all for reading! I'm sure that you've picked up a few jewels, as I did, from our interviewees that gave you a fuller picture of what's happening on the inside of the company that we love t watch. So what particular nugget(s) of information from Chris Pratley, Chris Yu and/or Michael Tholfsen stood out to you? What is your take on Microsoft? Has your perception of the company changed at all (for the better/or for the worse)? What's on your mind? LET'S TALK!
  • In Brazil becomes worst. No new products (lumias x50, surface, band), older products are overpriced, no acessories for lumias, the customer care is lazy...
  • It is all due to economic crisis in Brazil
  • Sure.
  • Honestly, they should focus more on mobile hardware and software... They should hire some great engineers from old Nokia coz Nokia was more innovative than their Microsoft Mobile division.. It is all because of Nokia that windows phone still have 1.7% Market share left..
  • Microsoft Mobile was just the name given to the old Nokia team. They are still using the old Nokia team for the Lumia line. We wont see any real Microsoft innovation until the Surface Phone (or whatever they call it) is announced. 
  • You're right, "Nokia was" it's the keyword! They're phone designs are bland and the same; the best Pune they made was the 925 and it was under powered just like the Lumia 650 that is a leftover product from their roadmap, not a Microsoft's phone despite. The Panos or surface phone will be the first true Microsoft built phone, just like the surface series devices are true Microsoft products.
  • Or so the story goes. :) There is only one MS.
  • I'm tired of hearing this nonesence! "The Surface phone is MS's true first phone". If what you say is right and accurate, what the hell was the more than one year break with no Flagships for? Fact is the l950 and l950xl are phone where MS underpoerformed, yes I have one so I can say that. You have lag all over the OS, just trying to toggle a switch in the alarms app takes like 2 second on my l950xl at times. Is that the kinda of experience they want us to have. And yes Nokia did a much better job than MS which is sad considering MS is the OS vendor. If your OS partner did a better Job than you then something is wrong. Ah and the double tap to wake was implemented y Nokia no Problem but MS is having trouble with it. Every dam time an OS refresh taking out features and replacing them with mediocre ones. And don't tell me to move on or move to another OS cos thats one of the dumbest comments I read on most forums. People only complain about something when they care about it not when they don't care about it. Fact is MS isn't doing enough for mobile.
  • L925 used the highest end SoC supported by WP at the time. L650 is 100% MM, as were pretty much everything released last year (just because they might have been started during the Nokia-era, does not mean MM didn't or couldn't make changes).
  • I've been with a CRAZY company for more than 15 years. I use that adjective simply because it addresses the culture of the company, rather than the product. And the 15 years is the evidence that I am happy to go to work here every single day\night. (We are open 24\7) My point is, I choose to view the information in this article as evidence that working at Microsoft is a bit CRAZIER than it has been in the past. And that is a good thing! I also witnessed the pain and difficulties associated with a major shift in culture. It's not as easy to accomplish as simply declaring it to be desired. The old culture has deep roots and security for those who have those roots is threatened. Microsoft is still on the steep uphill side of this endevour, in my opinion. But from the outside, as a consumer, both personal and corporate, I see many signs of momentum. And with enough momentum, it becomes less likely they'll retreat. Pretty gutsy stuff for such a large enterprise. I like that about them.  
  • Maybe you should get an interview with Satya and o pose some of our complaints directly to him. See my post with complaints below as this feed back thing is starting to look like a joke to me as our issues are falling on deaf ears at Microsoft! I thought Microsoft had people trolling this site and reading posts? Apparently not, they're just getting paid for nothing.
  • Somehow I am convinced that your complaints are not falling on deaf ears. (It might feel that way to you) However, it is probably true that Microsoft does not employ a personal programmer just for keeping up with what you are pointing out. I kinda wish they did though.
  • @OMG55 Or it could be that most of your assertions are just incorrect. MS has a wide range of customers types, but certainly does include retail consumers. Apps are not for MS to code. And your childlike view of the impact or direction of Ballmer versus Satya is laughable. @Snakebitten. I like your post however :) MS had a sick company culture based on stack ranking and favourites, and leadership "silos". It was ill, and I amazed they have made as much progress they have in such a short space of time. They felt too "management" heavy, and heavy handed. Feels like they've given product production control back to the engineers, which sees much healthier to me.    
  • I'm one of their customers; I'm an information technology manager with 350+ computers, laptops, surface pro 3's and 4's, remote apps server, windows 2012 servers, as well as hyper-v environment, and all users are issued windows phones. My assertions are based around experience. I know Microsoft doesn't write all apps, but their core apps are on all platforms and their own apps are better on iOS and Android than on their own platform which i support 100%! What I do know is that there has been a convergence of business customers and consumers; we are one. That is why the iPhone and iPad have grown in popularity in the workplace; because the people who were once considered consumers want the same quality devices and apps they use at home available at work. The hybrid devices Microsoft started introducing two years ago were supposed to further unite business/consumers together with a single device that not only met their business needs, but personal as well, while saving them the expense of a laptop and tablet a in favor of a hybrid. Microsoft presented hybrids as the tablet that can replace your laptop and by doing so, it is their responsibility to forge partnerships/relationships with developers to get apps to their customer base just like they're doing with oracle and salesforce. Since they collect royalties from many OEM's for Android patents, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibly for them to use some of those funds to get apps on their mobile platform. I'm aware of the tools they're creating to port apps, but it's taking too long and many of their customer base are beginning to jump ship.
  • Fully agree with your statement.  Simple item, Outlook on iOS.  You can create a folder in your email account from your phone or Surface tablet or laptop using the built-in client.  However, you can do this in iOS.  You can't do a calender search on the native Outlook app but you can on iOS.  This simple cut from their own apps shows that somehow they are doisconnected.  No this is not to mention that apps are non-existant, especially banking apps which today is critical.  Everywhere you go you see the logo's for app avalibility for Apple and Andriod hell even Blackberry but never Windows.  They need to either get this fixed or get out of the sector for phones.
  • @Joseph Avena, the outlook app on ios is pretty much Acompli which Microsoft bought, tweaked and rebranded. The one one WM10 is pretty much worked up from the ground when compared to the built-in client of WP 8.x.
  • Didn't you run this last year..? It was good but seemed familiar =[
  • If they are really listening to their customers, they must know that the customers desperately want Windows phones to do well. It is just not good enough for MS to say that we are a niche payer and hence a 2-3% market share is fine. It is not. Even if it is not the largest OS by shipments, windows must have a share in double digits at least. In order to do that MS needs a couple of things to be done right away: Reduce the pricing to entice new users purely on the basis of cost. Those who never used windows phones, will never appreciate it. Secondly, in order to provide top of the line specs at reasonably low prices, it must tie up with low cost manufacturers, particularly in China and India. These are the fastest gorwing mobile markets and already have a huge size on their own. If MS can provide its own phones are much cheaper rates or if OEM partners are providing top of the line specs and mid-range pricing, windows phones will see a surge in shipments.  That is what would bring the developers and thereby apps to windows 10 store and set the ball rolling for MS. It cannot simply 'hope' to have the developer support and again 'hope' to have a bigger share once the first hope materializes.
  • "Reduce the pricing to entice new users..."   HUH?  That's what the entire last two years were about.  Where ya been?  That's been the strategy throughout this decline in marketshare. And it certainly hasn't brought in any developers.  It was a poor concept, and has been a complete and total failure.
  • Congratulations, Jason! What a nice and well done interview, man! I liked it a lot! Cheers!!
  • For a brief moment I thought it said Chris Pratt, but no...
  • Lol! Guardians of galaxy 2 is coming soon friend.
  • I think the perception has definitely changed, but I'm still waiting for the implementation to catch up to that. I love my SP4, but there's no question it's had issues out of the gate. Multiple months later, Windows 10 still feels unpolished and Windows 10 mobile is iterating incredibly slowly. The new MS has me excited about the company, but even if software as a service means the software is always being iterated upon, at some point it needs to feel like something other than a beta.
  • I feel like some of the things they said actually reflected what you're talking about...about just trying things, seeing where the failures are and just trying to get the data to make things better for the customer, by not being afraid to mess up. I mean, I honestly believe that's the only reason we see so many more issues than before. Not due to a lack of care or quality but that increasingly rapid movement to get things out and seeing what works vs. what doesn't then going from there. Maybe it's not 100% but I actually kinda dig it. Sometimes you gotta break it down if you wanna get to where you're going...to deconstruct your old models and build new impressions. They made their business their art? =p
  • Great article Jason! Bring on more of these articles so that the ever ranting commentators here shut up for good.
  • Thanks for the support Pallav. Hopefully what I write adds to mix of knowledge everyone is bringing to the table and helps to add some perspective. Really appreciate your support!:-)
  • Loved the article...quite a lot of interesting details and perspectives...i have been reading a book on Bill Gates and Microsoft called Hard Drive...and i am quite surprised by how focused and intense they were back in the 80s and 90s. They were very much driven, focused , seemed to have all the right ingredients culturally and a kick ass CEO to run it all.
    Its like its all happening all over now...just like how Satya Nadella talked about going back to their roots. Making that happen in such a huge company is really difficult but they're doing it... It's a pleasure to watch Microsoft find their way back to the kick ass company they were before! :)
  • So the direction of MS is keep making subpar phones, charge more than the competition for similiar speced phones and delay release of a stable Mobile OneCore. Good luck with that MS.   How is your phone division listening to the customer?  Even the 950/xl is overpriced and doesn't beat the iphone.