How Microsoft is giving its customers 'a slap in the face, but in a good way'




In the two years since Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella took the top spot, Microsoft has softened up its position towards technologies it used to want to see destroyed - most notably Linux, a free operating system that former CEO Steve Ballmer once referred to as a "cancer."


Most recently, Microsoft announced that SQL Server, its immensely lucrative database software, would be going beyond Windows and hitting Linux in 2017.

James Niesewand, CEO of small gaming company and Microsoft partner Illyriad Games, says that his company has been a direct beneficiary of the new Microsoft philosophy, and yet the SQL Server news was still a big surprise.

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"That's like a slap in the face, in a good way," Niesewand says. "[It's] a wake-up call."

At this week's Microsoft Build conference, we're going to hear a lot of the latest updates on that strategy, as the Redmond giant keeps pushing its kinder, gentler image.


"We want to move from people needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows," Nadella said in 2015.

It's an important message, at a crucial time. Thanks to the rise of any number of alternatives, Microsoft's stranglehold on the market is no longer a sure thing. The challenge is to convince a customer that might dread Microsoft that it's only here to help.

And so, to win them over, Microsoft has changed its approach: It now wants to go beyond the sales pitch and help its customers, large and small, any way it can - even if they're not using Microsoft technology.

Age of Ascent

Niesewand's company, the UK-based Illyriad Games, has made browser-based multiplayer strategy games since 2009.

Despite only having 7 people on staff, the company's flagship title "Illyriad" boasts over 300,000 players at the time of writing, a sizable number of whom are dedicated and put in at least an hour a day, Niesewand says. He describes it as a complex strategy game, not ideal for the casual player, likened to "Game of Thrones" online.


In 2014, Niesewand and Illyriad Games went out to chase a new concept: A space-based empire-building strategy game, "Age of Ascent," that would let as many as 50,000 people battle against each other, all at once.

Every vendor, competitor, and colleague tried to talk them out of it, citing the technical difficulties.

"Everybody laughed at us, pretty much - except for Microsoft," says Niesewand. He was "wary" at first, he says, but interested in seeing what they could do together.


Ilyriad Games

"Illyriad," a complex online strategy game.

Microsoft enrolled Illyriad Games into its BizSpark accelerator program for small businesses, giving it free credits for the Microsoft Azure cloud platform and increased access to the company's technical support teams.


It was the start of a "partnership" that Niesewand says was critical to the development of the game. And when it was time for Illyriad Games to actually test a proof-of-concept for those 50,000-person space battles, he says that Microsoft actually lent them the necessary servers.

Niesewand is also fond of Microsoft's decision to release the .NET programming frameworks as open source, meaning that any developer can download them and customize them to their liking.

For Illyriad Games, it means that if they spot an issue or bottleneck with .NET, they don't have to wait for Microsoft to fix it. They can just build their own fix, roll it out, and then submit it back to Microsoft for them to share with everybody else. Issues that used to take months to fix now take days.

And through it all, Niesewand says that he's been blown away by how open Microsoft has been, and how it feels much more like a real collaboration than a sales pitch.

"I honestly don't feel in any way that Microsoft is pushing me to be their customer," Niesewand says. "This is a genuine cultural shift at Microsoft."


Home Depot

On the bigger end of the spectrum, Home Depot says that it's benefited from this newer, more open Microsoft, too.

At almost every Home Depot store, there's a kiosk called the "Quote Center," where contractors and other professionals can make massive orders of material and equipment. Those kiosks alone generate almost $500 million in revenue every year, says Home Depot Senior IT Architect Joe Davis.

The Quote Center team is based in Portland, Oregon, not terribly far from Microsoft's Seattle-area empire. And so, like many companies in the area, they too use the .NET programming framework.

The issue is that Home Depot's Atlanta-based headquarters was standardizing on the Pivotal Cloud Foundry open source platform for its IT architecture - which is great for helping developers be more productive, but "stuff that .NET historically does not support at all," Davies says.

home depot quote center

Home Depot

Home Depot Quote Center


But in 2014, it was Microsoft to the rescue again with a new framework, called vNext, that kind of bridges the gap between what Quote Center was doing with .NET and the moves that the Home Depot mothership was making.

In the July of 2015, Microsoft itself came in to help Home Depot finish its vNext transition and integrate with the mothership's non-Microsoft technology platform.

"That's really huge for working with our partners in Atlanta," Davis says.

And in terms of the partnership, Davis says that Microsoft pushed the Quote Center team to release some of their own code as open source, too. If nothing else, it helps attract new blood, intrigued by the problems that his team is working on.

"The quality of candidates, and the number of candidates" go up when you release open source, Davis says.


Stakes are high

From the other side of the table, Microsoft is trying to reassess how they work with customers .

"It's about how we work and how we engage," says Microsoft Director of Program Management Jay Schmelzer, who led the team that helped Home Depot with its .NET and vNext transition.

Schmelzer says that he sees "shock and surprise, a little bit" when he reaches out to offer the company's help.

For instance, he reached out to a Microsoft customer to offer to grab a cup of coffee and talk about what they've been working on while they're both at the Build conference this week. He says that the customer was "surprised" that Microsoft would show any kind of interest in his problems without an obvious sales angle.

Satya Nadella Linux


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella


But for Schmelzer, it's pretty simple: He sees his team as the front lines between Microsoft and its customers. If they're using Microsoft services, great. If they're not using Microsoft products, he wants to understand why - maybe Microsoft's engineers could learn a thing or two from the approach they took instead.

Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Corporate VP Takeshi Numoto says that this is all part of a "profound business strategy." By creating "deep engagements" with customers, while simultaneously bolstering the tools it offers for developers to work how they want, it's going to make Microsoft Azure way more attractive. With the Azure cloud a huge priority for the company, it makes plenty of sense.

Still, while Schmelzer says that he thinks this new Microsoft is a better company for all of this openness, there's still a way to go before the company's public image is completely changed for the better. At Build this week, Microsoft is going to beat the drum of open source as hard as it can. And maybe people will hear.

"As much as I try to get the word out, people still haven't heard it," Schmelzer says.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Ballmer recently softened his stance on Linux.


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