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Large companies need to build on small ideas: Microsoft's Jeff Ramos

In a Q&A, the partner-director of the global tech firm talks of Microsoft's Garage initiative in helping its workforce think beyond daily job routines

Dasararth Reddy 


For Garage partner director Jeff Ramos, innovation is a capability one has to have even in doing small things that may eventually serve a larger purpose. Through the Garage initiative, is trying to build muscle and capability in small ideas besides encouraging its workforce to think beyond daily job routines, he says.

Ramos tells B Dasararth Reddy that Microsoft's first Garage in India at Hyderabad campus was set out to produce wonderful things as it helps the employees to give shape to their innovative ideas using state-of-the-art equipment and tools made available to them. Excerpts of the interview:

What is the one big area of interest in technology innovation you find among engineers today, in the aftermath of emergence of bots and (AI) in 2016?

It is still very much AI. I think AI has gone from being an abstract concept to something that is quite tangible for people and it's the democratisation of AI that is happening now. Just a couple of years ago, it took a very specialised engineer to build and make things in AI. Today a high school computer science student can work with it.

But within AI we are seeing more focused exploration around emotional intelligence. People are keen to understand emotional intelligence involving their voice fluctuations, facial expressions, body language etc. People are also using things that are omnipresent, such as radio spectrum, for ambient detection or ambient intelligence. So AI is very prevalent and getting more focused. The other emerging area everybody is excited about is Quantum Computing.

As we talk about innovation, has AI reached a stage where the machine itself can find out the potential need gaps, un-met or unexpressed needs of consumers to compete with product development?

I don't think that day has come yet. But if you think about it this way.. what would prevent a search platform for looking at searches that were unsuccessfully rendered? Somebody somewhere could presume that there is a demand for a product that doesn't exist. As the listening systems of retailers and search are becoming more and more sophisticated, I expect the day will come.

What differentiates the product innovation that happens in-house and the one that is supposed to happen in a Garage ecosystem at Microsoft? Is the company looking for complementarities between the two?

There are complementarities and there are intersections and there are parallel but different paths. Microsoft is a company that is very, very good at doing big things. We created Windows and Office. We created Azure. These are large technology platforms and we make them for the world. Here we are building some new muscle and new capability in small ideas. If your company doesn't have the ability to take a small idea and nurture it into something interesting and promising like Kaizala (Microsoft's mobile productivity App, developed in India), then you are left with mergers and acquisitions for your growth. You are doing no internal organic growth.

How would the same set of people make these two sides work for the company?

While we want to build this capability for the company we also want our employees to think beyond their day job. My job may be working on a particular technology or a particular area for a particular customer, but my brain is not limited to thinking about this technology and that customer. So we want to give our employees a platform to share their innovative ideas. Taking an idea and doing due diligence, getting in customer feedback, getting the opinion of other people to come help you with this idea... that is what we are trying to do with Garage, because we believe in the power of this. Because we have seen it in many instances.

The quality of ideas is getting better and better.We started our hackathons to drive a culture of experimentation and innovation with energy like an entrepreneur. Now four years later, yes, we still want this cultural change, but we also want business value.

The West still leads innovation in areas that we talked about before though India has also contributed to these innovations from the human resource point of view. So what do you think is lacking here?

I don't think the West has a monopoly on innovation. There is plenty of innovation happening all around the world and there is plenty of innovation happening here in India. I wouldn't describe it as what is missing. I would describe it as where we need to go compared to where we have been. What I see as a humble American who has limited experience working with India is, that it's a mindset... it's a permission.

If we set the expectations for our employees like 'Hey, come to work, do your job, leave and come back, do that again'... this is not enough. If we change the mindset to say that you can dream of anything you would like, we not only give you permission, you also have our blessing and encouragement.

But that's not always been the case. I think that that culture has been more pervasive in places like the US for a bit longer, but India, I think, is also very receptive to this idea. We have seen it already in the Garage. I think we have a much more empowered workforce here than a typical workforce, as has a different type of culture where we are a Western company with roots here in Hyderabad. But I think that once this idea takes root that you have our permission and support and encouragement, you will see even more wonderful things being made here.

Now that routine, low-level jobs are facing a threat from AI, will this situation help trigger a cultural change or will it bring change in the mindsets of Indians engaged in those and other jobs so that they try to bring more to the table?

I wouldn't describe it as something only for India. I think, the pressure to do more and reinvent yourself and acquire new skills and to be continually working up the value chain is a global challenge. That's what we feel in the US, as much as you do here.

First Published: Tue, March 27 2018. 16:50 IST