Creative ideas and garages go hand-in-hand in the tech world. So much so, that for tech giants such as Google and Microsoft and many more, the garage becomes an ideal location to pool in ideas to fuel innovative thoughts. ‘The Garage’, therefore, is a hallowed space in the tech world. At Microsoft, some of the interesting ideas that were developed into viable products in The Garage include Mouse Without Borders which allows you to control up to four computers from a single mouse and keyboard; Eye Control technology that enables people to use their eyes to copy their own inked signature and have a robot write their signature; an app for iOS and Android that helps adventurers discover and search for interesting places with high quality travel blogs and beautiful images, and many more.
What began in 2009 as an offshoot of Office Labs has mushroomed into a global programme inspiring Microsoft employees, interns and the entire industry to reconsider how cultural reinvention and innovation can indeed happen. Starting from a passionate community of a few hundred people in 2013, The Garage has grown to thousands of active employees. The Garage has also helped more than 75 teams across the company get experimental projects out to customers for feedback.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Jeff Ramos, partner director, Microsoft Garage during his recent visit to Hyderabad. Ramos was in India to inaugurate The Garage at its Hyderabad campus. As leader of The Garage, Ramos is responsible for driving Microsoft’s hack culture and engineering experimentation.
What makes an ideal garage location? It should have a large concentration of employees—a critical mass with a high level of diversity that is ripe for innovative thinking. It should have substantial interest and participation in activities of The Garage and the desire to build strong connections to local tech and higher education communities. These were criteria that led to an initial focus on Microsoft Global Development Centers (GDCs). As Ramos explains, “While many sites are participating in The Garage activities, we decided to bring dedicated facilities and staff to support the innovation that is already happening at the GDCs.”
The Garage is a resource for Microsoft employees, encouraging problem-solving in new and innovative ways and ultimately empowering people to achieve more. “The Garage is a platform for Microsoft employees that supports and encourages a culture of experimentation, working together across organisations and technology to explore ideas and build prototypes, adding value to existing products. Equipped with state-of-the-art and modern facilities, the 8000 sq ft Garage India, has been built to support teams from across the company for their various projects. It has three dedicated lab sections—a hub for hackathons and workshops, a Makerspace and an advanced Makerspace with electronic workbench, 3D printers, laser cutter, PCB milling machine for creating prototypes; a Reality Room dedicated to working in the space of Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality applications and dedicated space and equipment for doing work on Deep Learning,” said Ramos.
In fact, it is a smart business strategy to grow innovative products and services under the Microsoft umbrella without any extra cost. However, employees are granted patents for their idea or product that they develop but the end beneficiary is the company since the products are integrated within Microsoft’s own ecosystems of products. The Garage is thus a platform for the employees to explore ideas and passion besides their regular work.
“The Garage enables employees to bring to life innovative ideas and solutions. The Garage programme in India will be a connector to bring together people across roles, skills, and experience to lend their passion to create solutions unique to this market,” said Anil Bhansali, corporate vice president, cloud & enterprise, managing director, Microsoft India (R&D).
“Microsoft believes in enabling its employees to utilise their knowledge, capabilities and innovative acumen to build solutions for the rapidly changing technology landscape. The Microsoft Garage serves as a hub to engage our workforce, with facilities and programs optimised for hacking, ideation, and collaboration. Microsoft Garage’s engagement with the innovation ecosystems in our GDC locations, helps create the right kind of partnerships to accelerate experimentation and innovation in the local context,” said Ramos.
Reena Dayal Yadav, director, Microsoft Garage, India, points out: “Many companies, including Microsoft, started off in somebody’s garage. The word ‘Garage’ today is a symbol of innovation. Since we represent the grassroot /bottom-up innovation in Microsoft, we are The Garage.”
So, is Microsoft marketing any of its Garage products? “In general, hackathon ideas which get immediate sponsorship move fast and then take some time to scale until they are a product on their own and Kaizala is a good example. Some ideas may get picked up and incubated after some time . Each idea has its own cycle within the experimental outlet/ship process. While the innovation is scaling up, it may have multiple releases through The Garage. Microsoft Kaizala and SMS Organizer are two of the prominent products from Microsoft Garage India,” said Yadav.
Microsoft Kaizala is a mobile app and service designed for large group communications and work management. Kaizala makes it easy to connect and coordinate work with your entire value chain, including field employees, vendors, partners, and customers wherever they are, while SMS Organizer makes easier for users to manage their SMS. The team did this by creating an app that cleans the SMS Inbox by classifying and interpreting SMS to help users focus on the SMS important to them.