How Microsoft’s Developer Division changed its workspace, and transformed how it works

DSC06506

S. “Soma” Somasegar, vice president of Microsoft’s Developer Division, showing the open layout in a team room on a recent tour of the division’s Redmond building.

The employees in Microsoft’s Developer Division spend their days creating a virtual environment for software development — making Visual Studio and related technologies used to develop apps and services across the cloud, device and desktop.

focusSo it was with a great amount of thought that the leaders of “DevDiv,” as it’s known, completely upended the division’s own physical work environment, remaking a three-story building in the middle of Microsoft’s Redmond campus to create a workspace more aligned with the principles of agile software development.

Inside the remodeled Building 18, the company’s traditional private offices are nowhere to be found. They’ve been replaced by open team rooms, conference rooms, informal common areas and smaller “focus rooms” for intensive coding and private discussions. Desks are on rollers to make it easy to quickly change the layout of a room. Employees say they’re involved in fewer email threads and more face-to-face interaction.

“That has broken down barriers beyond belief,” said S. “Soma” Somasegar, the longtime Microsoft executive who is the vice president in charge of the Developer Division.

In addition to the “focus rooms” and conference rooms, the division has made a point of creating open “public” spaces throughout the building and adjacent to many team rooms where employees can have informal conversations.

DSC06450

The division is critical to the company’s future, as Microsoft tries to build a strong ecosystem of third-party apps for Windows, Windows Azure, Windows Phone and Windows tablets.

And the change wasn’t without risk. The company faces stiff competition for talent from Google, Facebook, Amazon and thousands of technology startups, and a change this radical had the potential, at least, to alienate some longtime DevDiv employees. Individual offices were the norm in the Developer Division’s previous headquarters building.

Walking around Building 18 with Somasegar one recent weekday morning, we spotted plenty of employees wearing earbuds and headphones — the traditional office worker’s refuge when an “open and collaborative” environment collides with the need for sustained concentration.

DSC06612

Somasegar acknowledged that it took some time just to figure out how loudly to talk in the open environment. He has experienced this first-hand, with his own desk in one of the team rooms. (He still has a meeting room to use for private and one-on-one meetings.)

“It took longer than we thought, but I think people are finding the right balance,” he said. “You don’t want to stifle conversation. At the same time you want to be respectful of what is happening around you.”

DSC06524Eight months after cutting the ribbon on the remodeled building, leaders of the Developer Division say they believe they’ve found that balance. Employees who were skeptical about the new arrangement are warming up to it. Citing anecdotal evidence, Somasegar says he believes the change has even helped the division retain employees who might have otherwise gone to other divisions or companies.

The change was necessary, he says, in a world where software is updated constantly and collaboratively, not by coders with their heads down behind closed doors for years at a time.

It’s the latest effort by Microsoft’s leaders to rethink the company’s work environment. Walking around Microsoft’s original buildings in Redmond, for example, often felt like being stuck in a rabbit warren, or maybe a rat race. Fifteen minutes later, you still hadn’t found the office you were looking for.

DSC06684But starting with the Microsoft Research building and extending to the current Windows and Xbox headquarters, the company has followed a model of creating more open and flexible work environments, with large central atriums and natural light.

Building 18 is different in part because it was a retrofit, not new construction from the ground up. It also takes the concept of an open environment even further, with not even a cubicle wall separating workers in many cases.

Somasegar says his one lament is that they had to work with the existing building’s structural walls, rather than tearing everything out and starting from scratch.

And no, it’s not a coincidence that Visual Studio Team Foundation Server has a feature called “team room,” where members of a software development team can have a conversation. Somasegar explained that the company’s initial experimentation with alternative workspaces in the physical world helped to inspire the approach to the feature in the virtual world.

“It’s the same concept here,” he said.

DSC06442

  • chuck

    Did anyone ask the developers if they would be more productive? It’s been proven that open floor plans cut productivity, except in rah rah environments, like marketing. Again, out of touch higher-ups looking to cut costs.

    • justd80010

      Again, someone comments without actually reading the piece.

      • OceansOfEuropa

        I read the piece and they didn’t explicity say anything about productivity. Figures… DevDiv is dying as the open source community is so active and vibrant, and DevDiv just tosses crap over the wall 3 years late and way overengineered. They need to take a sledgehammer to their mentaility and culture, not just drywall.

        • justd80010

          The piece talks about the prevalence of headphones in the building, initial resistance to the plan, the risks taken and the outcomes.
          You didn’t even need to put up your MS hater creds. I could see them in your initial post.

          • OceansOfEuropa

            I’m not the original poster. No need to put up your trolling creds.

        • Out For Justice

          Good point. Must be why Microsoft (M$) wants $13,000 for Visual Studio…

          I use Visual Studio for my day job. More and more I’m finding that the free versions of Eclipse and XCode are just as good or in some cases better then Visual Studio. For instance XCode has had the ability to ‘go to definition or implementation’ for C/C++ functions for forever and Eclipse is focused and simple and has some great refactoring capabilities that you need Resharper for in Visual Studio (extra cost).

          In my mind, M$ is becoming more and more irrelevant to developers as time goes by. The proliferation of the mobile platform and excellent server tools like Node.js just underscore this sentiment. The head of SQL server use to say that if you loose the hearts of developers, then your company goes down the tube (M$ got rid of him, of course…).

          • Steve Murch

            Huh? I use Visual Studio daily, and it costs nothing close to $13,000. Tell you what — I’ll sell you a license for $12,000; as many as you’d like.

            I also use Eclipse, XCode and IntelliJ occasionally. Still vastly prefer Visual Studio, though IntelliJ is a close 2nd.

          • Out For Justice

            Here’s a link where a copy of Visual Studio is $13,299. You should work on your honesty…

            http://www.visualstudio.com/products/visual-studio-ultimate-with-MSDN-vs

          • Steve Murch

            Nice try. That’s the Ultimate edition (the most expensive, with tons of optional features, including full access to MSDN, which lets you freely download lots of other software.)

            You can get Visual Studio Express for $0, and Visual Studio Professional — the one I use, and more than adequate for most needs — for just $299.

            http://tinyurl.com/yephonest

          • Out For Justice

            Try what? (Mr. M$ employee) There is a version of Visual Studio that is > $13,000. Correct?!?! The free editions of Visual Studio are a loss leader (and sucks…) Professional is okay, but you cannot extend the development environment with it and Premium costs around $6,000 (last I checked). Not to mention that M$ uses Visual Basic as an extension mechanism for Visual Studio (barf!). Another question you can address while your at it, why so many versions of Visual Studio and why isn’t Resharper functionality built in?

            Contrast Visual Studio with Eclipse, which is free and extremely extensible and allows you to go to definition of a class or function for almost any language (including C/C++).

            Also, look at how well put together XCode is for creating applications for an iOS device. XCode is free ($0).

            The point is that Microsoft under achieves at making development tools and is using the development community as a profit center (M$ excels at marketing, not so much at development). Contrast that with Apple (and Google), which is doing a better job at adding value to the development community. Simply look at how quickly and completely LLVM implemented the C++ 11 standard. Microsoft does well in their own minds because they are using the wrong measurement.

            This is me, telling you. Nice try fanboy! Now try stepping outside your confined world and opening your mind!

          • Steve Murch

            You were clearly, and very incorrectly, implying that you can -only- get Visual Studio for $13,000. The product you cite is far more than Visual Studio, and is far more than the version most developers need. (Nice try suggesting that, or implying that others are lying when they’re not.)

            I’m not a current MSFT employee — but I’ve certainly been one in the past! Resharper is one of the many commercial plugins available for Visual Studio, but there are many refactoring and navigation features built right into Visual Studio that also help.

            FWIW, I have very much compared and contrasted it with Eclipse and XCode, which I’ve used frequently. I vastly prefer Visual Studio, but Eclipse and XCode also have their strengths.

            XCode is only useful when you pay $99+/year to Apple btw.

          • Out For Justice

            Note that for $99/year Apple also gives the purchasing developer a developer certificate for signing applications (security) and publishing iOS applications to Apple’s mobile application store. Apple’s story here is quite a value and is well thought out. Contrast that with Microsoft’s story which is not a congruent story and has developers hunting down their own developer certificates (at an additional cost of $178+/year). See links for proof (proof being something that may or may not help your reputation in the future).

            Link for acquiring the developer certificate is crap!
            http://support.microsoft.com/kb/931125

            Here’s a link after searching longer then necessary to find something that would work to sign applications to place on the Windows Phone store… …no real help from Microsoft
            http://www.digicert.com/ppc/signing-certificates.htm?gclid=CI36qaSznb0CFcRefgodbLYAkQ

          • Out For Justice

            Nice try, for you. Here’s a link showing the professional version of Visual Studio actually retails for $1,199. Is your price deceptive? I’ll let the reader decide that, since they can just click on Microsoft’s link to verify…

            http://www.visualstudio.com/products/visual-studio-professional-with-msdn-vs

          • Steve Murch

            Good to see you’ve completely backed off your implication that Visual Studio runs $13,000+.

            I see you’re now down to less than 1/10th of your initial claim, much more in the ballpark. Looks like I won’t be able to sell you copies at $12,000 apiece, however. Shame.

          • Out For Justice

            No shame. No backing off. There is a version of Visual Studio that costs > $13,000. My initial claim is right on. Your claim of Pro for $299 is totally off and deceptive. You pointing out $99/year for Apple developers (which is quite a value proposition) is deceptive and doesn’t mention what a mess Microsoft is making of their mobile platform/story (extra costs on top of development tools ($178+), poor documentation, etc).

            My main point still stands. There are other companies which do a much better job of providing tools for a much more reasonable price (free in many cases) and they have a much more congruent strategy when it comes to going from concept to delivered product (not to mention profit for developers). Microsoft continues to practice deception and lack of transparency in order to extract as much money out of the developer community as possible. Which underscores my attitude toward your fanboy story, it mirrors Microsoft’s deception.

            This is why I do not want to see Microsoft in the mobile business, since I believe they will just make an expensive mess of it. The iOS and Android platforms are more then adequate and cover both ends of the spectrum (value and premium). Same goes for desktop, server and gaming. No Microsoft is a good thing.

          • BigmanPigMan

            Who was the head of SQL Server that was recently removed?

          • Out For Justice

            Don’t remember his name, but it wasn’t recently. Keeping external developers engaged and streamlining deployments was recognized as an issue with DevDiv a very long time ago…

          • hhandoko

            What you’re describing is the Visual Studio Ultimate with MSDN bundle (the most expensive, which gets you unlimited access to past and present Microsoft software products). Visual Studio Express can be downloaded for free.

            I’m also not sure how you come to the conclusion that Eclipse is focused, my experience was far from it, it feels like it tries to do too many things. IntelliJ IDEA has a far better streamlined development experience.

          • Out For Justice

            I’m basing my recent experience with the Android ADT version of Eclipse. The newer version is well focused for Android development and is well supported by the community. I haven’t used IntelliJ, but I have used WebStorm and ReSharper and I would agree that Jetbrains does a great job with their products (pricing as well). So it wouldn’t surprise me that IntelliJ is a great product.

          • Steve Murch

            hhandoko, completely agree, both with respect to Eclipse, IntelliJ IDEA and Visual Studio.

          • KeyboardG

            Or just pay ~$3000, pass a test to approve your software and become a silver partner. You get 10 full subscriptions to MSDN with full installs of TFS and Visual Studio. If you are paying sticker $13,000, you’re doing it wrong.

    • RichiCoder

      That’s because a lot of the time companies create these open floor patterns, but don’t give developers adequate spaces to focus or gain any privacy. Also they’ll put marketers and managers right up against developers which just creates chaos for the whole environment.

      Not to mention if it makes developers a little slower, you get big benefits from developers actually communicating, collaborating, and spreading experience and ideas. Microsoft is often criticized for living in their own shell, and it’s little things like this that’s important to breaking that down.

      • Been There

        Let’s sum this up – open floorspaces are great for lowering your productivity to the lowest possible point as an average. You will also lower all good devs to average, as even headphones can be distracting to productivity. Great devs will be elsewhere. I haven’t met a single one that can work in crammed “open” floorspaces like the ones shown, or won’t for long. Conversely, individual offices won’t guarantee success either, but for devs of a certain skill level and above, they will be orders of magnitude more productive than any open floorplan.

  • BC

    A video of the space can be found here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNB0pt6i-D0&feature=youtu.be

  • MSFT Insider

    Going
    to open plan workspaces (i.e., no walls, no doors) is one of the most
    profoundly stupid things Microsoft has done to its employees. It’s great to have spaces designed for
    collaboration and easy interaction among team members. But having private workspaces where people
    can concentrate free of distractions and interruptions are essential to
    productivity. A smart, truly innovative
    design combines these two concepts.
    Instead, Microsoft is just blindly copying what other companies have
    done. (Not the first time!) The new CEO, Satya, is pushing this model
    without understanding the damage it’s doing to productivity and morale. Middle managers who know how unpopular this
    change is with the rank-and-file are too cowed or spineless to speak out. Notice in the story how after eight months,
    the best they can say is that “employees are warming up to it” and there’s
    “anecdotal evidence” that it is helping.

  • TeaPartyCitizen

    The guys behind the terminals are using Linux.

    • madhead

      which ones

  • jwellbelove

    I’ve never had a problem with open plan offices. I’ve worked in them as a software engineer for 30 years. They can actually be quite quiet places.

    • KillAllStupids

      Personal success don’t override the fact that open plan CAN be and WILL be “noise prone”. WTF devs should risk and sit in this cowhouse?

      • Pedro

        I’ve been a software developer for 25 years. I prefer open plan office spaces and in my experience they can be more productive. Sure there’s a low hub-bub of information sharing going on that may take time for some people to get used to. But most of the resistance to open plan tends to come from either self-important prima-donnas who are never as good as they think they are, or anti-social types with poor people skills. (Some of these problem people fall into both categories.)

      • jwellbelove

        Then I must have been unbelievably lucky in my last four jobs! I find I’m rarely disturbed by co-workers and I think I can safely say the we actually prefer the ability to interact whenever we need to without having to get up and walk out of our ‘box/room/three walls’.
        If people really need to have a long talk then they retire to the meeting room so they don’t disturb anyone. Generally the office is pretty much silent!

        I wonder how many people here have actually tried ‘open plan’ as opposed to just assuming it must be an awful experience.

        “If any idiot will disturb me with calls, smell of coffee, asking some sh*t, I’ll kill him!”

        You’re not really much of a ‘people person’ are you! ;-)

        • spongy

          Set up a studio with both offices, and open space, and offer the developers their own choice. It won’t be long before all of the open space is converted into offices.

          • jwellbelove

            Is that from experience of such a situation or just a guess?

    • Marcus

      Same here. Open plan developer for ~20 years. You tune noise out wherever you are. The key is avoiding interruptions, but allowing me to set DND on whatever internal system the company uses helps avoid that.

  • KillAllStupids

    OMG! Sh*tiest place I ever seen! “open plan”?? Don’t laugh my floppy drive!! It’s cheapest and worst you could do for productivity!

    EVERY programmer should have HIS OWN SPACE – box, room, three walls, whatever, because PC is a PERSONAL computer where we work. Alone. If any idiot will disturb me with calls, smell of coffee, asking some sh*t, I’ll kill him!

    Read Joel Spolsky – he already wrote everything what MS stupids SHOULD KNOW.

  • jwellbelove

    I wonder what size companies the ‘anti-open-plan’ people are working at?
    I’ve never worked for, or been interviewed at, any large corperation. They have all been fairly small companies with small teams (our office has 11 people). At none of them have I come across the box/room/three walls scenario. All have look pretty similar to the Microsft setup. Maybe there’s a different office culture in small companies or even in this part of the world?

  • Scott Seely

    Speaking as someone who moved to an open office plan at Microsoft (bldg. 44), I have to admit that I had my own misgivings but I’ve given it a chance. The work area is incredibly quiet– we have rooms nearby with whiteboards for conversations. Collaboration has measurably increased. Feature crews have fewer 1:1 discussions and more ad hoc crew discussions. This allows us to decide things faster, build features easier (I learn a lot from ad hoc discussions about how new feature X works and how it integrates with feature Y). I thought I’d hate the change, but Microsoft thought this out really well and took care of the normal productivity killers in an open plan. Kudos to the planners for taking the best of open offices and handling the issues by planning with meeting areas (with doors) for the potential problem areas.
    I won’t take back an office with a door.

    • http://www.linkedin.com/in/merydith Will Merydith

      I felt the same way when I moved to bldg. 44, but I love it here! Whiteboards everywhere, desks on wheels with electrical height adjustment, tons of focus rooms, tons of small phone rooms. It’s pretty quiet too – I think because people will go grab a focus room when they need to discuss something.

  • Chill Out

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Microsoft, ever since I first booted an IBM PC with DOS. I think C# is a fantastic language, even the free versions of Visual Studio are pretty good and there is really no serious alternative to Excel.

    But when I look at these pictures I’m reminded of the words of Steve Jobs: ‘they [Microsoft] just have really bad taste..’

    No windows to the outside world, silly checkered carpet, a failed industrial looking ceiling for the ‘relaxation area’ coupled with harsh lighting, everything is just off, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot.

    Makes you wonder…