It doesn’t take much to get Ben Gilbert enthused.
Mention backpacking, and he’ll tell you about being an Eagle Scout and his hiking trips through Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
Ask him about hobbies and he’ll get into his past involvement in theater and swing choir, and how the hip-hop dance skills he learned came in handy at weddings.
But what gets Gilbert most excited is when the talk turns to innovation, problem solving, startups and new business ideas.
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His eyes get brighter. His words come even faster. He springs to his feet — clad, more often than not, in Vibram toe shoes — as though his excitement simply can’t be contained.
Which makes Gilbert a natural for his current role leading The Garage, Microsoft’s 5-year-old incubator for employees’ passion projects.
The Garage, and Gilbert’s approach to running it, is one way a more “collaborative” Microsoft is playing out as the company transitions from software giant into a devices-and-services company. Trying to foster a more collaborative company culture, as well as one that’s more agile and innovative, lies at the heart of a company reorganization that former CEO Steve Ballmer began last July and that new CEO Satya Nadella is continuing.
The Garage is both a physical space — actually, two physical spaces — on Microsoft’s campus and a community that spans several countries and many interests.
From its beginnings as a lab for Microsoft Office folks to experiment with innovative ideas, The Garage has become a companywide employee effort, where engineers, designers, hardware tinkerers and others from many different teams gather to work on their own or with others on pet projects, some of which could potentially benefit the company.
The newest Garage facility is an airy space in Building 27 in Redmond, accessible via a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass wall. The inside houses computers, laser cutters, 3-D printers, computer-controlled embroidery machines, soldering irons, breadboards and other staples for coders, tinkerers and designers.
Over the years, about 3,300 Microsoft employees have participated in Garage events and created some 10,000 projects — everything from robotic arms to a motion-sensor-controlled LED wall to a data-visualization video where all the bugs from a team’s past year of releases were represented as aliens being shot down by laser cannon, a la “Space Invaders.”
Some of the projects have led to inclusion in Microsoft products or releases.
Mouse Without Borders, a free, downloadable program that allows users to control up to four computers from a single mouse and keyboard; Bing Ads Keyword Distribution Graph, which helps advertisers visualize the impact of certain keywords; and Forgotten Attachment Detector, an attachment reminder that works with Outlook.
Powered by passion
Garage has been one of many efforts Microsoft has undertaken over the years to try to spur innovation — something the company has been accused of not doing nearly enough of, allowing Apple, Google and other flashier companies to rush ahead.
And it can be hard for individual employees in a company as enormous as Microsoft to make their voices heard, even if they do have innovative ideas.
What makes Garage different, and has allowed it to survive when other company-mandated innovation efforts have not, is that it’s employee-driven, its advocates say.
“When someone has an idea, that person is extremely passionate about it,” Gilbert said. “That leads to them working through the hard times and not giving up. The whole principle behind The Garage is you can’t propose an idea and have someone else work on it. Because you’re going to care more about it than others.”
Its mission would also seem to align well with newly appointed CEO Nadella’s emphasis on innovation and collaboration.
The 24-year-old Gilbert, who took over about a year ago as program manager for The Garage, is a friendly, gregarious computer-science major and entrepreneur from Ohio.
He is part evangelist (spreading the word of The Garage’s mission and methods); part entrepreneur (selling his colleagues and higher-ups on its values and merits); part matchmaker (finding out what people and teams are working on and bringing together those with complementary skills or working on similar projects); and part programming guru.
He oversees a spate of Garage programs, such as the popular “Stay Late and …” nights, which include “Stay Late and Code,” “Stay Late and Draw” and “Stay Late and Build,” where employees write code, sketch, paint, design or tinker with hardware after work.
Since taking over, Gilbert has increased the number of hackathons — in which people get together to collaborate on programming focused around a certain theme or project — from three a year to once a week.
Four times a year, The Garage hosts science fairs where the fruits of the Garagers’ labors are shown.
Though Microsoft, unlike, say, Google, doesn’t allot a certain percentage of time for its employees to work on their side projects, it does allow teams to schedule hack events at The Garage that can take place during their workweek. Teams set aside a certain number of days — the Yammer team takes five days each quarter, for example — when employees can work on things they think would make any current or potential Microsoft products better.
For the “Stay Late” series or other events that aren’t scheduled by work teams, employees work on projects on their own time. (Anything that emerges from The Garage, though, is still Microsoft’s intellectual property.)
Gilbert also keeps in touch with about a dozen geographical chapters, from Beijing to Hyderabad, India, to Tallinn, Estonia; and about a dozen interest-group chapters, ranging from Bing and Skype teams to maker groups (those who make their own things — typically hardware — fueled by a do-it-yourself ethos).
“I love working with great people who trust each other, where everyone has a different skill set and adds a piece to the puzzle,” he said.
“It’s a thrill”
Gilbert’s passion for working with others to solve problems developed early.
In high school, he created a website where people could collaborate on sharing questions and answers from previous tests that would likely be asked again during finals. It wasn’t against school rules, strictly speaking.
But “my mom guilted me into taking it down before anything bad could happen,” Gilbert said.
At Ohio State University, where Gilbert earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering, he and his roommate created SeizeTheDay, a to-do-list iPhone app.
“Seeing code execute is exciting to me,” Gilbert said. “It’s a thrill when … it wasn’t a thing, then it was a thing and you made it work. It’s like you brought something real into this world.”
Gilbert, who went on to write more apps (which, he says, provides enough income for beer money), came to Microsoft in 2011 to work first on Office Web Apps (now Office Online), then on the user experience team for OneNote on iPhone and iPad.
Gilbert remembers feeling excited seeing people work together during one of his first times at The Garage. “Coding alone in your basement gets lonely,” he said. He became a regular at Garage events.
By then, The Garage had outgrown its origins in the Office Labs and had rejected several formats that hadn’t worked, such as Speed Dating, where people tried to find matches for skills needed on their projects, and events where people would pitch their ideas and others would offer suggestions.
“We found people came with ideas they were excited about and wanted feedback, but they didn’t want to be told to do it differently at the time or to put off their ideas to work on others’,” said Chris Pratley, director of program management at Office, and a founder of The Garage.
The easiest thing, he found, was to just create events where people could work on their own projects.
“No one was used to this sort of thing back then,” Pratley said.
Big ideas, low risk
More typical of Microsoft efforts to jump-start employee innovation were big-money, top-down efforts such as an “American Idol”-type competition where ideas were solicited companywide, voted upon and eventually winnowed down by a panel of high-powered judges.
“The problem with these funneling things is if you have a thousand submissions, 999 of them go nowhere,” Pratley said. “So that didn’t achieve the goal of exciting, innovative activity.”
Quinn Hawkins, The Garage’s first community manager, who now works at Redfin, says that what’s excited him over time is watching people run with their own ideas.
Most people at Microsoft are part of very structured environments, working within hierarchies and road maps.
“What Microsoft needs more and more is that ability to figure out how to try out new things and explore new concepts they haven’t tried out before,” Hawkins said. “I think Garage is a great avenue for that. It lets people in a low-risk environment try out new ideas.”
Jeff Ramos, Gilbert’s boss at Microsoft, said the goal for both himself and Gilbert is to eventually work themselves out of their jobs because innovation will have become so widespread at the company.
“That’s how we see Garage evolving,” Ramos said. “Figuring out how to gracefully disappear while allowing this innovation fabric to be part of the DNA of the company.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @janettu.