REDMOND, Wash. — With 43,000 employees spread across 500 green acres, Microsoft is less a company than a small city. So meet its gregarious new Hong Kong-born, Canadian-raised and American-schooled mayor, Albert Shum.
For decades, Microsoft's various divisions seemed more like fiefdoms. But Shum's diplomatic role as its recently promoted design chief is to unite the tribes and forge a culture of customer-centric collaboration.
"You know how Manhattan has its distinct boroughs but all together they feel like New York City — that's what we're aiming for," says Shum, 46, who sat down with USA TODAY for his first major interview since assuming the post six months ago.
Shum made his mark internally by designing the Windows Phone's tiles, and his team's current coups include tweaking the user interface of the new SurfacePro 3 tablet and bringing a human-like feel to the company's hip, new, Siri-like voice-command assistant, Cortana.
"Microsoft has always had amazing technology, but we want help make sense of a product's experience," he says, boyish in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers by Nike, where Shum worked for 11 years before joining Microsoft in 2007. "The question is, how do you use design to engage customers?"
This sounds like a page from Apple's playbook, whose meticulously crafted tech toys are inextricably linked to its design guru, Jony Ive. But Shum, officially Microsoft's director of user interaction, says he's not "here to issue edicts, more just a set of principles people can rally around."
Any way you look at it, these are energized days at the tech behemoth, whose market cap of $338 billion trails only Google ($377 billion) and Apple ($545 billion). Microsoft hopes to grab a larger share of the smartphone market in emerging markets with Nokia-built products featuring Cortana. The SurfacePro 3 tablet hasn't wowed all critics, but it represents a bold push into what may be consumers' next hardware platform of choice. And the Web is buzzing with rumors of a coming smart watch.
Most of all, change has a candid advocate at the top. Newly appointed CEO Satya Nadella recently showed off his company's forward-thinking chops by demoing a live-translation Skype call during the Code tech conference in Southern California. He told attendees he's challenging Microsoft to build "the next new thing."
DESIGN + CODE = SUCCESS?
Perhaps even more impactful here on campus, Nadella's calm leadership style is in contrast to his explosive predecessor, Steve Ballmer, now looking to put his stamp on the Los Angeles Clippers. Nadella has been repeating a "One Microsoft" mantra aimed at reducing turf battles that smothered innovation.
"Shum getting promoted is a strong signal from the very top that design will now be getting equal prominence with coding, which says something in a company with such a strong left-brain engineering culture," says Suresh Kotha, professor of management at the University of Washington.
Kotha says the seeds of this shift were planted during the rise of Xbox a decade ago, "when they brought design internally and liked the result. Now we're leaving a PC culture and entering an era where consumers are central to the device, and creating those products requires giving designers more freedom."
Microsoft's sprawl in this Seattle suburb exudes a laid-back collegiate feel with its soccer fields and coffee shops. But such scale is a potent enemy of collaboration. Shum himself has some 500 designers and content creators reporting to him directly. Gathering regularly with thousands more employees is impossible.
That sounding board proved invaluable during the birth of the digital personal assistant Cortana, says program manager Marcus Ash.
"As engineers, sometimes it's hard to put a story about what you're building, but Albert helped us form an opinion about the nature of personality for this human-like helper," says Ash.
TRANSLATING DESIGN TO PRODUCTS
Shum's principal designer, Kat Holmes, spearheaded an effort to videotape 15 assistants for top business execs and A-list actors, gleaning human behavior insights that were funneled to Ash's team.
"We learned that these people's jobs often were about being able to anticipate their bosses' needs and getting to know them so well that they made their lives simpler," Holmes says. "The role of design is to translate that into our product."
Holmes says that interplay between the company's cultural observers and engineers would have been difficult "in the old silo days of Microsoft." She adds that helping matters is Shum's gregarious and unaffected personality. He knows many people by name and sits in an open-plan workspace with colleagues.
"He leads from the back of the room rather than the front," she says.
Surface creative director Ralf Groene says working with Shum's team led directly to features such as the tablet turning on with one click of its companion stylus. "Our conversations aren't about design in a classic sense, they're more about enabling great workflow in our products," he says.
Shum is energized by his mandate. "We're in a position to affect the culture, which is very reminiscent of my time at Nike," he says. "The bedrock of this company may be tech, but there's a rebirth going on. Just look at me and Satya — we don't look like Bill or Steve."
The designer throws his head back and laughs.
"When you're a first-generation American like me, you don't take anything for granted and work for everything you get," says Shum, whose parents started as a taxi driver and waitress and went on to own a restaurant, which allowed them to send their son to Stanford University.
"Microsoft has given me a big opportunity to make an impact, and I plan to take full advantage," he says, grinning. "Design at its best can create personal devices that give people superhuman powers. If we can be known for that, it'd be really cool."
WHO: Albert Shum, 46
WHAT: Microsoft's new design chief
BACKGROUND: Born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, schooled at Stanford University; worked at Nike's Innovation Lab before joining Microsoft in 2007
PASSIONS: Food ("It's an experience for the senses that we have every day") and cycling ("Bikes are functional beauty at its best")
ON A MISSION TO UNIFY: "In the old days at Microsoft, design happened by serendipity, maybe you knew someone who worked in a different department who had ideas. Now design ideas can be shared across the company."
WHY MICROSOFT MATTERS: "We put the personal computer on everyone's desk, so that idea of personal is what we want to stand for. We want to humanize technology."
HIS VISION FOR TECH: "I'm optimistic technology ultimately will simplify things and let us enjoy life more."