Dirty Work in The Garage

I hate to admit it, but I still have my best ideas in the shower. I’m constantly misplacing my keys, and this morning during my second rinse & repeat, I came up with a brilliant solution involving Windows Phone, Microsoft Lync and RFID tags. Now, all I need to do is get it built.

That’s the real problem of course. Ideas are a easy; it’s the execution that takes real skills.

I now know of a place to take my ideas though. “The Garage” here at Microsoft. I had a chat with Quinn Hawkins a few months back – that’s when I found out about this place and Quinn. He’s a Program Manager in Office Labs and The Garage is a Microsoft-wide initiative to try and tackle this very problem.

“It’s about doing versus talking,” says Quinn, and they’ve learned some pretty interesting things in the 18 months since it was established.

When I first heard about The Garage, it conjured up many images in my head: roll-up door, power tools, oil-stained concrete floor, bits and pieces laying about. They have some of that – they’ve literally built a Garage inside of Building 4 here on our main campus, complete with roll-up door, a concrete floor and toolboxes. But as I learned, The Garage is more a community than a physical space.  The Garage is where ideas at Microsoft can go when they’re a bit messy, a bit not-quite-figured-out and in need of a few people to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Any employee of Microsoft can bring an idea to The Garage. There they will find a community of over 2,300 people, each eager to look at, comment on and sometimes even contribute to making it a reality.

“The key thing,” says Quinn, “is that it takes nothing to get an idea into The Garage for consideration.” He repeats himself for emphasis.
“Nothing. No business plan, no pitch deck, no executive review. Passionate about creating something new? You’re in.”

When he first told me this, I was pretty skeptical. After all, it flies in the face of much of the common thinking on how companies should invest in new ideas. But Quinn and the rest of The Garage team have a unique take on that.

“Look, Microsoft has tried a lot of different things to support new product or feature ideas from employees. But one of the things we discovered is that if you set the bar too high early on, you can crush some good ideas before they have a chance. We incubate employees’ hunches and we rely on them valuing of their own time to filter out which ideas are really worth pursuing”

What people struggle with, he explained to me, is not the idea, but how to put it into action. The Garage, therefore, focuses on giving people the tools they need to go from idea-in-the-shower to shipping a prototype.

“At the beginning, it’s about simple stuff: connecting with other people who can look at your idea, give you some feedback and refine it. That’s usually really hard to do. We heard all the time that employees had ideas, but were scared to take something they considered ‘half-baked’ to management. Here we can link them up with others who can finish the baking with them.” Quinn rolled his eyes at his own analogy there – “Sorry, that was kind of lame, wasn’t it?”

“But you get the idea. The Garage is this very low-friction grassroots community you can come to with your idea, knowing folks here are actually really excited about seeing new stuff and helping out if they can. Once in, members have the freedom to guide their own projects, too. It’s very empowering.”

“The amazing thing about Microsoft is we have experts in every field and The Garage enables folks to connect around shared interests. An engineer from our IT department might link up with a scientist from MS Research and a Designer from Office. What we’ve seen is that connecting expertise this way, amazing things get built really quickly.”

The Garage does more than provide a sanctuary for new ideas to incubate, though. Quinn and his team have put together a collection of useful tools that folks have said they need to put an idea into action. Employees get access to hardware, source control, instrumentation for testing, and even hosting for server- or cloud-based apps.

“No charge?” I ask.
“Yeah, definitely. Other than your time, it’s all free. We want to encourage this stuff to happen without having to jump over any barriers.”

The ultimate goal for a project in The Garage is to get built and be shown internally, maybe even released outside as a concept test or beta.

“We help with that, too,” says Quinn, “and this is my favorite part. Every six months or so, we run a Science Fair that attracts hundreds of people from around the company. It’s where teams from The Garage can show off their stuff.”When I asked what he meant by “Science Fair,” he laughed at my Britishness.

 “You know, a Science Fair.” eyebrows curling up for emphasis. “Poster boards, judges, lab coats, volcanoes, prizes. The whole thing.”


“Seriously. It’s a law or something. You need a volcano to be legit.” He smiles, and just when I think he’s kidding, turns and points at a photo on the bulletin board behind his desk.


These Fairs have become a major attraction, too.

“We regularly get executives out to these things, senior VPs and the like. So, it’s a great way to get visibility for your project and, ultimately, yourself. These execs are busy, so being able to see a bunch of cool ideas in a concentrated space is awesome for them, too.”

I must admit that this is sounding like a great concept. When I asked if The Garage has actually worked to help any ideas see the light of day, Quinn dives into story-telling mode.

Oh, definitely. OfficeTalk is a good example of something that started as a project in The Garage, became a funded incubation, and now is being considered by the product teams. It was originally an idea that two Program Managers had, but neither of them were coders. That didn’t matter, though. They were super-excited about the idea so they fleshed out the design a bit and ended up getting a few friends to spend a couple weekends building it. As word spread,  they got more help and pretty soon the project had 8-10 people contributing to it.”

“All just by getting folks in The Garage involved?” I ask.

“Yep. Cool, huh? From that original idea, OfficeTalk is now used by hundreds thousands of folks around the company every day.”

“Wow. Any other examples?” I inquire.

“Of course. But I can’t tell you,” he smiles coyly. “There are other project we can’t talk about because they’ll be major features in upcoming products. We only started The Garage a little while ago, so a lot of the projects have only moved into product plans in the past year, but, yeah, product teams are really excited about what we’re doing.”

By the end, I was sold, and had completely bought into Quinn’s mantra of “doing versus talking.” Making ideas happen is hard, and I think the guys in Building 4 might be onto something here.

Time to write a spec for my lost keys app!