Over the last three decades, Microsoft has been working. Quietly. Not just on software, hardware and the ongoing mission of a computer in every home, but on a city inside a city. That city now has a new mayor in the form of CEO Satya Nadella, and as a result, the city is going through a revival as more buildings go up and more staff come on to work for One Microsoft, and it’s quite a site to behold. Here’s how the other half lives.
It’s called Redmond, and it’s around 25km North-East of the centre of Seattle. Inside it is the city Microsoft built for its 130,000 staff.
We were invited into Redmond this week to see what’s happening in the new Microsoft, and it’s a pretty impressive place.
The Commons: The Social Hub
The Redmond campus is divided into two sections: the East Campus and West Campus, divided by the main highway that brings employees in from Seattle and elsewhere.
At the centre of this buzzing tech metropolis is The Commons. While every building has its own cafeteria and coffee shop, The Commons is a place where stores that you’d see in the real world have set up to cater specifically to Microsoft.
The tech giant actually hand-picks local Seattle stores to come into The Commons and open a store, in a bid to support local business.
There’s everything from coffee shops, international food vendors, bars and grills in The Commons, as well as more practical outlets like an Optometrist, bank, bike shop and AT&T store.
There’s also an employee store for staff to come down and purchase branded Microsoft swag, bearing the logos of everything from Office to Bing (a section which is suspiciously full. #justsaying).
There’s also a Visitor Center that anyone off the street can walk into and sample Microsoft’s suite of products, which now includes Nokia.
The Library And The Maker Garage
The MS Library is exactly what it sounds like: a giant repository of books that any Microsoft staffer can walk into and rent for a spell. The library isn’t the biggest you’ve seen, mostly because it’s curated for Microsoft staffers based on company interests like marketing, leadership, management and programming.
The online library has a larger selection of general interest e-books for your tablet, and if you require a book, the physical library can order you in a copy of just about anything.
To encourage employees to build their knowledge, new CEO Satya Nadella has a reading list of his own that he gives to staff in the hope of building an Oprah’s Book Club-style community within Microsoft.
In a pass-protected room off the library is something infinitely more interesting, however. It’s called the Maker Garage.
The Maker Garage is meant to encourage Microsoft staffers to come down and build stuff. It has laser cutters, 3D printers, soldering equipment and every kind of tool you could want all packed into a quaint little workspace the size of a shed.
The guys and girls who run The Maker Garage for staff actually hold builder nights every week on everything from biohacking, through to 3D printing and the Internet of Things.
Studio B: Where Surface, Xbox and Accessories Are Built
Studio B is the home of Surface and Xbox development at Redmond. Other teams around the grounds also work on these products, but studio B is the design hub.
It consists of corporate offices, design team space and Model Shops for rapid prototyping of gear.
Around The Grounds
Elsewhere on the campus, you’ll find all sorts of perks and bonuses designed to keep staff happy, healthy and productive.
There are a handful of soccer fields and basketball courts around the grounds, with an equipment shop available for staffers to book out sports gear for use both on and off campus. Every team leader actually has what’s known as a “morale budget”: an allocation of money to go and do team-building activities both on and off campus every month.
You’ll also find deck chairs and umbrellas scattered around the campus which act as bookable outdoor meeting rooms.
Microsoft also has an extensively curated art collection, which includes completely in-tact panel from the Berlin Wall, gifted to Microsoft after the fall by the head of Daimler-Benz. The two companies have a strong business relationship.
As you make your way onto the East Campus, you head into what’s colloquially known as “Old Town”. These are the original two-storey buildings that Microsoft worked out of in the early days. Over the next few years, these buildings are slowly being torn down to make way for larger and more modern five-storey spaces.
To save cash on developing new land, Microsoft has also acquired several buildings in-between the East and West Campuses from an insurance company that had experienced layoffs during the global financial crisis. These buildings are now being knocked down and rebuilt for new employees and teams.
The campus isn’t without its quirks, however. If you ever go to Microsoft, make sure you don’t fall for the Building 7 gag.
When someone’s on their first week at the campus or you want to play a trick on a visitor, you’ll ask them to meet you at the cafeteria in Building Seven. The trick is that Building Seven doesn’t exist.
There are many urban myths around Redmond about what happened to Building Seven, and a theory that it still exists like a secret development lab for the future of Microsoft. The real story however is slightly less exciting.
Contractors built the first six buildings on the Microsoft Campus back in the 1990’s and simply forgot to add the seventh when they went on to build additional facilities. Seven was never included in the plans and hasn’t been to this day.
With a campus this vast, Microsoft had to provide a way to get around on four wheels. Enter the Connect fleet.
It’s a massive fleet of plug in hybrids (Ford Fusion, Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf vehicles), as well as fleet of diesel- and natural gas-powered buses.
Employees can also reserve a spot on buses to get them from downtown Seattle to Redmond every morning. Gentrification protests commonly seen in San Francisco against such employee buses are now targeting Microsoft employees in Redmond, too.
Global Cybercrime Center
Microsoft’s Cybercrime Center is a working facility that acts as the home base for researchers, lawyers, investigators and fraud experts around the world.
It employs 100 people around the world to take action against organised crime syndicates exploiting customers via Microsoft software.
It also acts on software piracy, tracking every single stolen key activation and bug report from pirated software around the world.
The Cybercrime team responds to 10 million threats a day, and sends around 2.5 million takedown requests every day.
At the center of the Cybercrime Center is a tank made of frosted glass and protected by 5-inch thick steel doors. The tank is where the Forensics Team works to gather evidence and maintain its integrity so that Microsoft’s lawyers can successfully execute a bust.
In the centre of Old Town, amongst trees and two-storey buildings for Office staffers is Lake Bill. It’s a man-made lake roughly the size of a basketball court, and it’s been at the campus since the company anchored itself in Redmond.
Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, projects shipped in two years as opposed to the Microsoft of today which ships software and hardware on a weekly basis. Finishing a project back then was a big deal, so the whole company would come out to Lake Bill and have a party. And then the bets started.
Employees used to bet their team leaders and managers that they could finish the project on time. If the employees won, the bosses would be forced to either have their head shaved or swim across Lake Bill. Both Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates have both swum the grungy-looking lake.
Across the way from Lake Bill is Building Eight where Bill Gates used to work. It’s also where he met his now wife Melinda. The story goes that they both used to work late, and he eventually plucked up the courage to go and see the girl with her lights still on one night, and they’ve been together ever since.
Luke Hopewell travelled to Seattle as a guest of Microsoft