Back in 2013, Microsoft had a big problem — software developers were showing little interest in talking to the company, let alone working with them.
Given that Microsoft relies on these folks to build Windows apps and buy Microsoft technology, this was a really bad sign.
And so, then-CEO Steve Ballmer, a still-ascendant Satya Nadella, and a bunch of other higher-ups in the company turned to Microsoft Technical Fellow John Shewchuk — chosen for that distinction by Bill Gates himself — to take over as the head of the company’s Developer Experience team.
The Developer Experience team is intended to be the company’s public face among the techie set, parachuting in to help customers and partners with whatever problems they have — even if it’s a problem that doesn’t involve any Microsoft technology. It’s like a Genius Bar for the real geniuses.
“We do this all free, which is kind of goofy,” says Shewchuk.
To see where the Microsoft Developer Experience team is at today, check out Shewchuk’s online show called “Decoded,” where he interviews the best and brightest programmers he can find. The first episode, featuring an interview with Jacob Thornton, the co-inventor of Bootstrap, the most popular project on code-sharing site GitHub, just debuted.
So far, Shewchuk’s Developer Experience team has helped out and collaborated on problems at places like startup accelerator Y Combinator, GE, Delta Airlines, and a plethora of tiny companies, he says. It’s an approach that’s flourished alongside Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s kinder, gentler Microsoft.
The goal is to highlight how plugged-in the company is into the trends, processes, and concerns of the modern developer, even if that comes at the cost of promoting Microsoft technologies directly. Instead, they’re goodwill ambassadors, just promoting Microsoft’s mission.
“It kind of feels like we’re on this awesome mission to go out and help,” says Shewchuk.
Disaster recovery and the drive-by
But when Shewchuk joined up, that’s not where the Developer Experience team was at. At all.
“When I came over here, it was just a disaster,” says Shewchuk.
Instead of engineers and coders, willing and ready to put Microsoft’s best foot forward, Shewchuk says the Developer Experience team were “more like salespeople.”
When the team would meet developers and partners, they wouldn’t offer help, but rather an aggressive sales pitch on Microsoft products.
“The partners would describe it as ‘the drive-by,'” says Shewchuk.
The first thing Shewchuk did was put a new requirement into place: If you work for Developer Experience, you need to know how to code, no exceptions. Some of the old guard stayed on and learned to adapt, but mostly, it’s new blood.
Once word started to get out, Shewchuk says, he could “often attract the best talent on campus.”
With the new mandate to work on customer problems on all kinds of new and novel technology platforms — with no mandate to sell any product — it’s an offer that many of Microsoft’s top engineers can’t refuse.
“Where else would you do that within Microsoft?” asks Shewchuk.
The “Death Star”
The other side of that problem is actually getting partners, developers, and customers to understand that this is a new Microsoft that truly wants to help.
“Some of these guys thought it was a trick,” Shewchuk says.
For instance, when Microsoft approached cloud computing startup Mesosphere a little while back, they were sceptical and wary — Shewchuk says they actually referred to Microsoft as “the Death Star.”
But once they actually started working together, things changed. Shewchuk says Mesosphere now considers Microsoft one of its greatest and best technology partners.
(Microsoft was rumoured to be buying Mesosphere last summer, but a deal never materialised.)
The key, once again, is that Shewchuk’s team doesn’t see its mission as promoting Microsoft technologies, but rather to help people with their technology problems. Very often, he says, those companies and startups that Microsoft help end up coming back and choosing a Microsoft database or the Microsoft Azure cloud platform of their own volition.
“Solve the hardest problems, the rest will take care of itself,” Shewchuk says.
It means Microsoft is leaving a trail of enthusiasts in its wake, too. Those that Microsoft helps then tell their friends, and word gets around.
“Those conversations are a lot easier, now,” Shewchuk says.
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