Business Today

Innovation factory

The company has slipped 4 ranks because new entrants have stolen a march on it.

Saumya Bhattacharya        Print Edition: February 7, 2010

When Microsoft India Chairman and Corporate Vice President Ravi Venkatesan met Bill Gates six-and-a-half years ago, just before he joined the company, the Chairman and Founder passionately told him how Microsoft was about changing the world. "That was not an arrogant statement; it was his belief that in every field of human activity, progress is happening with the help of technology," Venkatesan recalls.

That's what attracted him and it's why people still want to come to Microsoft. Take for example Srinivasa V. Thirumalai Anandanpillai aka Thiru, 37, Principal Group Program Manager at Emerging Markets Labs (EMLabs), Microsoft India Development Center, Hyderabad. Over the past year, Thiru has been involved in two products — Microsoft Phone Data Manager and Microsoft Indic Language Input Tool.

Before his stint at EMLabs, Thiru was with Microsoft's search team (Bing) in Redmond as a product planner. After his fiveand-a-half year stint at the company (at Microsoft headquarters and in India), Thiru says: "I wanted to be part of the team that impacts a large number of people. Nothing can beat the excitement of working on a product that has the capability to impact millions."

Technology companies are coveted employers for people across industries and functions, thanks to the opportunity they offer. Says Joylyn Largo-Afonso, Client Partner, IT/BPO for Korn/Ferry International India: "This band of employees wants to contribute to an organisation that has a scalable global location and where India is a strategic country." Microsoft makes the grade on both counts.

"The company is about one thing— innovation," says Venkatesan. He recalls a comment of Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, that the biggest competitor for Microsoft is its oldest product. "Innovation is central to the existence of the company and people are central to innovation," he says. The company has 90,000 employees worldwide; and more than 5,000 in India. The manpower in India is a mix of R&D and services and the median age of employees is 31. "Youth doesn't know what can't be done," Venkatesan had told BT last year, when it was ranked as the #1 company to work for the second year running.

What makes a technology company the chosen one for people from other sectors? "We look for talent. Full stop. We don't stick with one sector or not only to high technology," says Joji Gill, Senior HR Director— Microsoft India.

This has a lot to do with the fact that Microsoft is increasingly focussing on retail consumer segment, in addition to the big corporate customers. For that it needs to hire talent beyond technology. A case in point is Hemant Sachdev who came from Bharti Airtel's core team to head Microsoft's consumer and online operations in 2008.

"In future, this will intensify. We are not looking for skill sets, but we are looking at what the potential candidate's fundamental DNA is and how we can scale him. The question we ask: 'Is he a Microsoft hire,'" says Gill. And what DNA is Gill looking for? People who have initiative and can work without too much of direction. And, yes, somebody hierarchical will not survive in Microsoft.

While attrition was least of any organisation's worries in 2009, retaining the right talent is one of the big challenges for the company. The biggest challenge is the half-life of knowledge. "Wherever you are, computer science becomes obsolete in five years. So learning is important," says Venkatesan. To make it happen, the company allows crosspollination— somebody who is working in services and may want to try his hand at product development is allowed to do so.

Last year, Microsoft India saw its first ever set of layoffs that were not driven by performance. While Venkatesan says it impacted less than one per cent of employees, he also admits that it wasn't easy. The biggest thing for Gill was—whoever was impacted should be treated with respect and dignity. The company hired an outplacement agency to find right opportunities for its employees. Gill says now the company is hiring some people it had let go last year.

Letting go of employees, though, is not a no-no at Microsoft. "While, some new talent comes through incremental headcount each year, there's also new talent that comes in form of replacing low performers," says Gill. Creating destruction has to be a part of any innovation factory.

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