Microsoft’s Cindy Alvarez — A Startup Veteran Paving Her Own Way

Photo by Scott Eklund/ Red Box Pictures

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month. Cindy Alvarez is a local leader on Microsoft Silicon Valley’s campus who’s empowered by technology. We hope this story uplifts you and inspires you to #MakeWhatsNext.

“Explore what you’re interested in and define what you’re good at. Use these reflections to guide your career.”

That’s how Cindy Alvarez, former Director of User Experience at Yammer, mapped her own career and made a home for herself at Microsoft. Alvarez, a startup veteran with a can-do attitude who questions the status quo, has made a name for herself as an evangelist for experimentation among her peers.

“I met some folks in design and design research who said, ‘We like your energy and the way you are pushing back against the way things have always been done. Keep doing that. Don’t let people say you can’t do things,’” Alvarez said.

She took that advice to heart.

Alvarez joined Microsoft through the acquisition of Yammer, an enterprise social network, nearly five years ago. Since then, she’s nailed down customer development and held true to the things she cares about — a fast-paced development model, combining qualitative research with quantitative data, and preserving a culture of dissent.

She’s even written a book, Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy, about what she calls lean (pragmatic, approachable, fast) customer development to help others, from startup to large enterprise, validate product and company ideas through user experience. She speaks at tech events, like San Francisco’s Lean Startup Conference, and mentors companies to use data to be “as smart as possible, as fast as possible.”

Using data in a smart way, she stressed, involves tying it back to users themselves. As the lead for user experience research at Yammer, she knows the value in listening and talking to customers. It’s the least revolutionary — but most important — thing her team does. While data is, of course, crucial, numbers can’t tell you why a product you thought was going to work wonderfully didn’t work at all.

“Technology can make us better, but we have to be better at observing humans,” she said. “What we have to do is look for the not so obvious. What are people doing? What do they struggle with? What makes them happy?”

Her aptitude for customer insight recently opened a door to a new role — one she created — within Microsoft’s Cloud & Enterprise group. With her knack for driving connections with people, she’ll tackle issues such as figuring out a way to win the hearts and minds of millennial developers.

“Driving connections between both the people we work with and the people we work for, our customers — that’s what I live for,” she said.

Photo by Scott Eklund/ Red Box Pictures

She’s a long way from her startup job at Yammer — where she admits she was hesitant to join a large corporation like Microsoft after acquisition.

“In the startup world, we have a general perception that big companies have too much process and not enough room for individuals to question and try new things,” she said. “At Yammer, we took pride in speaking up. If an executive said something and you thought it was a terrible idea, you were encouraged to politely ask why, to constructively complain.”

Cindy’s view of Microsoft has continued to evolve. Working at a larger tech company has helped her acquire bigger, badder tools in her customer-obsessed tool belt. And she’s found a way to use her startup attitude to drive success by creating her own role.

“I used to see Microsoft as this monolithic being. But of course it’s not — it’s like hundreds of little countries, with different styles and ways of doing things. It’s big, but actively putting out my tendrils makes it feel small and manageable,” she said.

“We are trying to change a big organization, and people say it can’t be done,” she said. “But I see evidence of it all the time… someone or some team is doing things a little bit differently.”

Reporting by Candace Whitney-Morris, MSW Staff