Jonah Sterling, general manager of Design at Microsoft, talked to The Times of Israel about his recent visit to Microsoft Israel, its corporate culture, new hires, and latest local initiatives including establishing a regional cloud datacenter that will use the Azure infrastructure, with an estimated investment of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Leading a team of over 400 international professionals, Sterling implements design-led innovations across sixty Microsoft products – from Power apps and Dynamics 365 apps all the way over into Azure. Sterling has an interesting mix of professional experience that includes designing kids meals’ toys, video game UI, and sequential comic book art. He led design efforts for many startups and was the group creative director at Razorfish before moving into the world of Microsoft. His professional eclecticism is reflected significantly in the breadth and success of his team leadership.
Microsoft’s decision to set up a data center in Israel is game-changing. How has your experience with the company’s Israeli team been?
Every time I visit Israel, it feels fantastic to see the local energy and the excitement as well as the new faces at Microsoft Israel. I remember when I first took over the design team for Power BI, our business intelligence and data visualization product, I didn’t know that part of the team was in Israel. I soon planned a visit and found three designers in one small room with their hair on fire. They reminded me of back when I was at a simpler time in my career, where it was just me and a product.
Together with local leadership, we worked out a new process, a new way of engaging with our Israeli product managers and developers. Over the course of the last few years, I was able to grow the Power BI team exponentially, both in size and expertise. Today they support other Microsoft products, among them Azure, and I have no doubt about their ability to live up to our expectations now that we’re bringing Azure cloud server farm to the country.
How does it help Microsoft to have different teams in different countries?
We get very different perspectives and make a greater impact when we have teams in different locations. In Israel, for example, you have military-turned-business leaders who have given Israel its reputation as a cybersecurity hub. From digital forensics to optical recognition lenses, these people created technologies not just for profit, but out of trying to get a better solution for their people.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the value these efforts bring as well as the talents cultivated by the strong high-tech sector. I must say in Israel, there’s this go-getter, self-starter, doer business culture which again may have to do with people’s military experiences. People are focused and assertive, which is true of our Israeli designers as well. I find it truly unique and helpful. Their exactitude and their ability to use data, to use math, to be able to make decisions quickly all stand out.
Around 95% of the Fortune 500 are on Azure. What’s your role in relation to Azure?
The way I see it, I provide Design-as-a-Service, driving consistency to make delightful experiences across a whole product landscape. Azure, historically, is not one product; it’s about close to 200 products rolled up into one. It’s a huge surface area to cover from a consistency perspective. To succeed, we leverage customer feedback, telemetry, and apply a highly iterative design and user research process. We use this data to simplify the Azure experience by reducing complexity, creating clarity, and helping customers focus on their most critical tasks.
I believe, our most recent update to our homepage embodies the result of this approach. The new design automatically adapts to each customer, delivering a curated experience for each unique user resulting in a more consistent and straightforward experience, a reduced learning curve, with greater visual appeal. This strategic update makes the big idea of ‘Cloud’ something that all humans can appreciate and use.
But my role doesn’t end there. Outside of Azure, I work to align our icon story across all of Microsoft. And I take what I consider to be quality and exceptional experiences, and make sure that they happen for our users as well as our employees.
Tell us about the corporate culture at Microsoft. What is the one thing that Microsoft is doing different from other tech companies?
Our CEO Satya Nadella started the corporate culture change right about the same time I joined the company. The timing couldn’t have been better. He started radical new initiatives to bring people together, to celebrate the work that we do, and to create spaces that would facilitate collaboration among our different teams.
I’d say this culture shift started within Azure. When I came in, I noticed how the way we worked together was not efficient. I tracked down the people who worked on the buildings for Microsoft and used some of my experience from creating workspaces in the past to be able to influence and design nine different buildings across campus.
So, we created a strategic plan and studied different floor plans. We had to find the right balance, the perfect fusion between funk and function – meaning, just because something is part of a corporate environment, it doesn’t mean it has to be boring. We looked at the different ways we could enable a team’s personality to come to life around them. From doodling space on large whiteboards to community shelves that would be filled with things the employees wanted or brought in, to wheeled desks that could go into a battle formation, we mixed default setups with as much fluidity and flexibility as possible.
We continue to study and improve the way we work. Back then it was open space. Today, we’re moving into a brand-new campus-wide remodel, and it’s exciting for me that the floor plans that I worked on will be used as part of Microsoft’s newest vision.
What about your senior staff? Don’t they have offices?
No. Even our corporate vice presidents sit in open spaces. When people need privacy, they use what we call Focus Rooms, which are small rooms anyone can use for up to an hour at a time. These rooms help create balance, giving people the flexibility of choice.
Are there failed culture efforts within the company? An area of concern?
Convincing people that a new floor plan might be better was certainly not easy. But what has been more difficult, and sometimes almost impossible, is changing the interrelations between the company’s engineering, product, and design groups.
Let me explain it this way. Microsoft has historically been a very frontal-lobe company. It has always been all about the intellect and being intellectually competitive. In many ways, it still is like that. We’re trying to be more mid-brain but it’s proved to be truly challenging to change our collective psychological wiring. Within the company, even today, design has to continue to sell itself and strive for relevance. We’re trying hard to impact the priorities. It’s not that people are being stubborn or that there’s resistance – it’s a matter of old habits dying hard.
I’ve been talking about this for five years now. Design does not equal user experience. The way I see it, user experience is made up of three components – first the program or product manager defines the business case, then the engineering team builds it, and then design makes it emotionally evocative. I work hard to build deeper collaboration and equality between these three teams. I present them with shock-and-awe videos and other presentations to get my point across. I also work to create a protective barrier around our designers so they can be the artists we need them to be.
So when you say design, you mean much more than aesthetics.
Yes. Design is strategy, it’s workflow, it’s understanding the user well enough to create the product or the solution or the service that they would create for themselves. It requires a surprising amount of empathy to the degree that you can role-play their job. Ideally, you’ve met with your target customers or the potential users for your product and have been able to soak up their world in a way that you can now go and create the digital artifacts for the designs that are necessary for them to be successful.
And our solutions cannot be static; they must be living, breathing. They must give users the ability to achieve their goals, but also do it in a way where it has a flavor or a personality to it that it feels uniquely human.
In the past we built software that had great usability and great functionality, but no personality. And that’s one of the areas I first focused on when I came in. I tried to give something as abstract as the cloud a more human feel. And we’re doing the same thing right now with artificial intelligence; we’re trying to make it so that it isn’t a robot talking to you, that it’s instead genuinely helpful, trying to be your partner in order to find better solutions together.
How do you achieve that with artificial intelligence?
It’s a challenge because it’s one thing to use the right set of words, and it’s another to really string together a feeling and have that be clearly communicated through any type of media, whether it’s audio, the words that you have on the screen, or a conversation that you could be having with a chatbot. But one way or another we have to create these experiences that allow people to feel that the technology is part of them, as opposed to something alien.
To me, one of the ways we make people feel like this technology is safe and beneficial to them is by giving it an approachable personality. So that it’s something that everybody wants to have, that it’s desirable and it’s not just simply about the success of the outcomes.
After all this transformation in the company, what is truly unique about Microsoft today in terms of design and the process behind it?
I would say simplicity sets us apart – simplicity of the final design. We work very hard to remove the extraneous and help keep our users focused on the task at hand.
What do you look for in a designer to hire or help you in any one of your projects?
Perhaps the most important thing I do when I’m looking to hire new talent is that I try to find the person’s inner artist. Designers have a “professional” role to play, but often times that means they leave their “art” at home, relegating it to their personal lives. During my interviews I try to uncover what drives them as an artist and I seek ways to bring that passion, talent, interest into the workplace. I try to think if I can find a business use for it.
For example, I have one person on the team from India. We relocated him to the US not only because he’s an amazing interaction designer but also because his photography caught my attention. For years, he not only worked on the products, but he also took the photos that we used on our websites. Thanks to him, we never had to rely on stock photography.
Having a team of people who are professional designers who bring their whole selves to work by sharing their unique artistic skills is what makes my team great.
Do you have any final words to share with our readers?
Today, whether it’s Azure, artificial intelligence or any other product or solution we offer, it’s about the experience users have along the way, about the stories they tell themselves while they’re using the product. We work to give them not just a well-functioning product but also a positive feeling. In many ways, it’s the same with our new corporate culture – how we interact and collaborate with one another on a daily basis on the way to developing our products has become a top priority.