Bay Area Growth Conference goes digital, doubles numbers, and expands message

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The 2021 Microsoft Bay Area Growth Conference was all about embracing adversity, adapting to the new normal, and building on our cultural tenets of growth mindset, diversity and inclusion, and One Microsoft. This seems only appropriate since it was the first fully virtual installment of the annual event focused on career growth and employee development.

Anticipation for this year’s event was building given that in 2020 the marquee event’s sudden cancellation due to the COVID-19 lockdown. “There was a scramble last year,” recalls Max Shkud, learning lead for the Bay Area who helps oversee the event. “The closure happened only a week before theconference. So, everything covered in this year’s conference was infused with the notion that a post-pandemic world is going to be very different.”

Featuring five keynote sessions, 15 wellbeing sessions, 50 career jams and 16 team fair booths, the four-day event (held March 23-26) saw nearly 1700 participants — roughly 63 percent of the Bay Area team’s population base. That more than doubled attendance from the 2019 Growth Conference, and in yielding ten hours of on-demand content, its messages will continue to reverberate for some time.

“This conference always brings lots of opportunities to learn, grow, discover things, and meet people. To regenerate our commitment around the work we do,” explains Shkud. “It’s like a gemstone; it’s a pivotal event for us every year.”

Can’t-miss keynotes

The Growth Conference was kicked off by a keynote entitled “The Future of MR,” from devices and technology CVP Ruben Caballero. Other days were anchored around “How Microsoft is Transforming Healthcare” with Global Chief Medical Officer and VP of healthcare Dr. David Rhew, as well as a “Growing Your Career” keynote delivered by CVP of global talent acquisition Lauren Gardner. The Conference concluded with an external keynote from Dr. Knatokie Ford, founder and CEO of Fly Sci Enterprise.

two headshots next to eachother of a man and woman
Microsoft executives, Lauren Gardner, corporate vice president, Global Talent Acquisition and Rubén Caballero, corporate vice president, Devices and Technology were among the featured keynote speakers at Growth Conference. Lauren spoke on career growth, while Rubén talked about the future of mixed reality.

“Dr. Ford spoke about how we can muster the courage and resilience to face this time of transition with calm, courage and equanimity,” Shkud recalls. “Ruben Caballero’s keynote was an amazing combination of the vision of Mixed Reality we have at Microsoft and the future we’re looking at, and he spoke with so much humility and courage. David Rhew spoke about how Microsoft is revolutionizing healthcare in a post-pandemic world. Lauren Gardner’s keynote about growing your career at Microsoft was also special. She has been with Microsoft for 32 years, so she spoke about her career journey and how people should be thinking about their own development in a post-pandemic, hybrid work environment.”

Finding a new path forward

Shkud, who has been shaping the design of people development programs, learning strategy, and organizational change initiatives for the Bay Area since 2018, says this year’s Growth Conference was structured around four themes:

  • Reflecting on and celebrating our contribution – “As a company, we’ve made great leaps forward in the past year, accelerating our digital transformation strategies to come out of the pandemic stronger and more resilient. Reflecting on and celebrating all that great work was really important to us,” says Shkud. “Microsoft is a large company, and it’s hard sometimes to step back and look at how your work matters. So, a lot of our keynotes with the vice presidents were about regenerating pride and meaning in the contributions we make and the work we do.” 
  • Career development – “The Growth Conference is an opportunity to bring all the teams together, have them learn about each other, what they work on, what their openings are and what their focus is. This allows employees to perhaps explore a career in a different part of Microsoft,” he explains. “The Team Fair was a really important aspect this year; we had sixteen teams in the area attend that are actively growing. They presented their work and talked about the challenges they face and the people they’re looking for. We also offered workshops and career coaching, which is so important for employees.”
  • Wellbeing – “We had a wellness track parallel to the main track this year, highlighting everything from yoga and meditation to mental and financial wellness,” Max says of special sessions curated just for the conference, focused on helping employees nurture mind and body. “People have spent the past year with their families, working from home, so there have been many more distractions — on the one hand it gives them flexibility, on the other it makes it harder to focus and keep their sanity. We’re very aware of that.”
  • Community building – “In addition to those working from home, we hired a great number of folks during the pandemic who have still never met their colleagues,” Shkud says of these unusual times. “So, every opportunity we had to connect people and bring them together, we did. We tried to do breakouts as often as possible, so people could meet each other and discuss things in a more casual setting. Every keynote, for example, had a networking session afterwards for half an hour, so that people who attended the keynote could go into this session and exchange what they had learned and share insights. Community was a really big aspect.”

One Microsoft

With the final workshop wrapped and coaching sessions concluded, the smoke has cleared, and Max Shkud is quite pleased with how the first-ever all virtual Growth Conference played out. 

“A high of 375 people attended Ruben Caballero’s keynote, and roughly 1700 people participated at some point during the four days, significantly more than the 750 we’d typically have if we were in person,” he explains, adding that the keynotes will have a tail effect long beyond the conference itself. “The on-demand content we’ve generated is really amazing; it’s professionally recorded and presented and will be an asset to everyone.”

On the heels of its success, Shkud has already begun contemplating a hybrid 2022 Growth Conference, one that will incorporate learnings from this year’s event with the expectation that employees could be allowed to gather once again. 

“This was a great learning experience, but I certainly look forward to the time when we can do it in person again,” he says. “There’s nothing like seeing people in the same space, smiling and laughing, chit-chatting and connecting. Just like everyone else, I’ve missed our people, and this conference reminded me how important it will be to reconnect and come together again as one Microsoft.”

Interested in shaping and growing your own career at Microsoft? Learn more about open opportunities in the Bay Area here: