Business Today

Microsoft India: Staying on top

Its open and invigorating work environment keeps Microsoft India at the top. But the company has some HR challenges to meet.

Rahul Sachitanand | Print Edition: January 25, 2009

In the last decade that Nagendar Vendula has been with Microsoft, the 41-yearold Master’s in Computer Engineering has transitioned through a variety of roles, ranging from product engineering and management, to managing the software giant’s 300-person inhouse IT team. Vendula has moved from Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Virginia, to the Microsoft India Development Centre in Hyderabad, and gone from core engineering of the BizTalk products to managing the disparate IT needs of Microsoft’s partners and customers. “Microsoft helped me make the move from the US to India,” says Vendula. “They not only shipped my personal effects, but also gave me a car and found a premium school for my kids.”

MS DOeS.. it again: Best employer for second consecutive year
MS DOeS.. it again
In the race to keep the best talent in the industry, Microsoft India has decided to focus on providing its 5,464 employees across sales and marketing, BPO, software development and research, the opportunity to work across a variety of roles. The company is also keen to break the mould and appoint young managers to positions of responsibility. “We hire people for their passion, not for a specific role,” says Ravi Venkatesan, Chairman, Microsoft India. Around 41 per cent of Microsoft India’s managers are below the age of 35 years and Venkatesan is confident of his young charges delivering the goods.

“Young talent brings with it high energy and they do not know what can’t be done. We’re taking a bet on young people and hiring for the absence of bad habits,” says Venkatesan. He should know, having been at the other end of the spectrum. As one of the youngest Managing Directors at the Tata Group, Venkatesan also had to manage an experienced team in his previous roles. “A company with a median age of 50 is not agile… they are all experts in their own fields, but can’t react to changes in the environment,” he adds. “Making mistakes is part of the process, but we also stress mentoring and leadership development.”

Part of the challenge for Microsoft India’s senior management is to squeeze time from business commitments for their employees. Says Venkatesan: “From July last year to December this year, I spent 50 per cent of my time on people, talent and leadership initiatives.” In the last couple of weeks, he has visited practically all of his employees across Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and the NCR region to try and keep them abreast of the latest developments within and outside the company.

“Mentoring is a key part of all senior managers’ responsibilities…we added 3,000 people in the last couple of years and most of these young executives have never experienced and worked in a downturn,” he adds.

Joji Gill Director, Human Resources, Microsoft India
Joji Gill
The downturn brings its own unique set of challenges for Microsoft India. From keeping pace with hectic hiring schedules and keeping the lid on attrition, it now finds itself looking at a completely different set of challenges.

“When you’ve heard a friend has been fired or a company is closing down, you’re bound to be anxious,” says Venkatesan. “A year ago our biggest concern was hiring and keeping talent. Today, the issues are continuing to keep people stretched and challenged.”

Microsoft India has six business units in India, covering everything from core research in Bangalore (which involves hiring and keeping computer science PhDs) to customer service from Bangalore, manned by graduates.

Microsoft has been rated the best employer because it has been able to provide its employees a clear career path, often cutting across business units and countries. As Joji Sekhon Gill, Microsoft India’s Director for Human Resources, puts it: “Microsoft India is the second-largest population in one country outside the US… we need to build our (people) inventory for future growth.” This means

Microsoft India makes the work environment more open and invigorating for its employees, with some employees such as Vendula given the opportunity to work across business units and geographies. “We have a formalised mentoring programme in place to help each employee mould his/her career,” says Gill.

According to Microsoft India executives, the challenge for the company is to make it an interesting place to work in, beyond their specified job routine. Venkatesan points to a technology database the company built during the Mumbai terror attacks and the initiative in conjunction with TeamLease, a temporary staffing firm, to create a larger pool of employable talent for India Inc. “We pay our people pretty well and in return we expect a lot from them,” he contends. “People are allowed and encouraged to speak their mind and most people believe they will be heard.” This open communication extends all the way across the food chain, with Microsoft recently running a poll to think of measures to cut costs in a downturn and boost its customers’ and partners’ productivity. “We got ideas ranging from new solutions to the most basic initiatives of opting for cheaper taxis for all levels of management,” says Venkatesan.

Curiously, despite topping the survey, there are some fundamental issues that Microsoft India needs to address. According to the study, the company has overshot its manpower targets, indicating scope for more robust manpower planning systems. Its percentage of offers on campus is relatively low, remuneration is not the best in the industry and the company has made little progress on the gender diversity front. Despite Gill’s claims that Microsoft has made a four percentage point gain on this front, its ratio continues to be at 8:1, the same as last year.

  • Number of people laid off in 2008-09 (as on Dec. 31, '08).....0

  • Number of people hired in 2008-09 (as on Dec. 31, '08).....550

  • Head count in Dec. 2008 vis-à-vis Dec. 2007.......5,464-4,737

  • Head count post-March 2009.......Higher than current

  • Innovative HR practice employee...Volunteering & giving campaign

Source: Mercer, Company

Current and former Microsoft employees also criticise the firm for its poor work-life balance. “We’ve made some significant improvements in gender diversity, but we have a long way to go,” admits Gill. “We conducted an all-women engineering test this year that attracted over 4,000 candidates.”

However, Microsoft India is also trying to improve its position in areas where it is well placed. “We want to customise our benefits for each employee rather than have a plain vanilla approach to the issue,” says Gill. “We want to provide health care, tuition reimbursements and childcare facilities on individual needs.” At the same time, she says Microsoft India is looking to increase the pool of talent inhouse and reduce the number of external hires, especially at the management level. “We want to decrease the number of leaders we hire from outside and build leadership internally,” says Gill.

The company is also tweaking some more problematic areas: installing control switches that turn off lights at 6 p.m. to ensure people don’t stay late at work and providing broadband and other connectivity at home to select employees to address the nagging concerns around work-life balance.

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