Recently, we spoke to senior director of engineering Chirag Shah, who expressed great pride in the achievements of his Surface Device Software/Firmware team. Describing them as a small, stealthy assemblage as the “product ninjas,” he touted their skills as hyper-efficient experts who know where to hammer, overcoming sticky issues of security, manufacturing, and scale when a product encounters a roadblock.
Recent triumphs for the team include their work on the Surface Pro X and its accompanying dock, intuitive Surface Earbuds, and the revolutionary Surface Duo. We followed up with Shah to get the behind-the-scenes stories of adversity, experience, and actualization that pushed these products across the finish line and into the hands of users worldwide. He was eager to introduce us to several of these high-flying, stealthy ninjas.
Sure, these seven highly trained warriors wield keyboards and mobile devices, but nevertheless, they have made essential contributions to Microsoft’s most recent device innovations.
Pushing the boundaries of Surface ProX with Dinesh Sridhara and Jaimin Bhise
Dinesh Sridhara worked to deliver all-day battery life for the Surface ProX
Doesn’t it always seem like your battery dies at the worst possible time? Whether it’s a cross-country flight, just before a big meeting, or a long day away from a plug, it can be hard to keep enough charge for when it’s needed most.
“One of the biggest things we wanted to achieve was an all-day battery life,” remembers Sridhara, who came to Microsoft two years ago after some time at Qualcomm. “We wanted to take advantage of the ARM processor’s lower power footprint, giving users the experience of not having to charge the device while going through their entire day being productive. What that meant from a software and system-level perspective, however, was a challenge.”
That wouldn’t be the only ambitious goal the team would set for itself. Early on, while reviewing user feedback on previous models, they became determined to identify and eliminate problematic issues of interplay between the touch-friendly screen, keyboard, and stylus pen.
“The device had very good touch compatibility, but since it came with the attached keyboard and pen input, we had to consider cases where users would be employing all three,” explains Bhise, who came to Microsoft with the intent of helping engineer the next generation of Surface products. “What happens when the keyboard is still attached, and people are using pen and touch at the same time? These were the kinds of cases we had to consider solutions to, so we could have better performance and stability.”
Together, Bhise and Sridhara worked closely to overcome these challenges and make the added processing power work for their needs. “We had to invest in a lot of optimizations across different software stacks, both at the software layer as well as the firmware and hardware layer as well,” says Bhise. “At the end of the day, we achieved a significant improvement in standby usage for the device, which made us very happy.”
Tuning up Surface Audio with Subha Komath and Dan Hoynoski
We’ve all been there: you’re ready for a run and discover your earbuds have no power. You’re looking for a certain song to get you through the last leg of your workout, and the touch control isn’t working. Or your phone rings and your earbuds drop an important call.
With such issues in mind, another recent, significant breakthrough has been in Surface Earbuds, which have impressed with user-friendly, technology-harnessing design and intuitive controls. Such development has been a central focus in the lives of Komath and Hoynoski, two software/firmware engineers in the Bay Area who both joined the company in 2019.
“We have several sensors on the earbuds,” says Hoynoski. “I’ve focused quite a lot of effort there, working closely with our sensor team too; they provide machine learning solutions for detection, while I am providing the foundational firmware to support them in their efforts.”
A couple of months ago, there was an update issue with the charging case as well as the mechanism for updating the firmware on the touch controller. Relying on shared areas of expertise, Komath and Hoynoski collaborated to come up with a solution.
“We were trying various things. Ultimately, the solution was a matter of looking at the problem from a different point of view,” says Komath. “We have an app, which sent this update as firmware, so the whole time we were de-bugging assuming the problem was on our firmware. Then we realized the app was not doing what it was supposed to do because it thought it was talking to the charging case, and that device was different. This led to the realization when you’re de-bugging, you have to attack the problem from different angles.”
Hoynoski, similarly, solved his problem through a mixture of experience, experimentation, and open-mindedness. “I was determined to tackle the cumbersome update method for the purposes of speeding up the development cycle efficiency. I wanted to get it to where, in 30 seconds, they could update the touch controller without skipping a beat,” he remembers. “Ultimately, we did, and I was able to use that blueprint to help others on the team improve their development.”
Dan Hoynoski tuning up the audio on Surface
Securing the Surface Dock with Astha Keshan and Slavik Bryskin
Sometimes, the impetus behind a project is little more than a question: wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that? Or a life experience that informs another question: how can we make sure that issue goes away completely? Such questions take people like Keshan and Bryksin on an unexpected ride, and by the end, the result might be something the world has never seen before.
“At the beginning, we’ll be moved to a project completely new to Microsoft; nobody knows what to do with it,” explains Keshan, a software engineer who joined the company in early 2019. “Then we’ll take that project concept, strip it down, and make a plan that eventually will result in something we can put out there for our customers.”
Astha Keshan understands that a concept is just that until there is a plan to reach it
Bryksin very vividly remembers when they first went to work on building a dock for the Surface. “There was a big gap, almost five months, from when we were assigned to when we would get our first hardware to prototype on,” he recalls. “So, we ended up taking a detachable Surface keyboard, ripping the microcontroller out of it, soldering USB cables to it, and began prototyping with that.”
“Since we didn’t have our own hardware for the dock, we basically cannibalized hardware,” Keshan adds. “We got all the relevant pieces and put them together to create a makeshift dock so we could start validating some presumptions and design and get a head start on the project.”
It was through this process that an idea struck: What if, rather than the computer validating the dock, the validation process worked the other way around? “The idea came from considering the requirements of the build; the idea is, who can you trust?” explained Bryksin. “If you cannot trust the host where you plug the dock in, then it has to be the dock itself.”
The effort paid off; the Surface Dock now transforms any Surface into a desktop PC, providing not only power and connectivity but also unprecedented security. By restricting Surface Dock 2 to authorized persons signed into a corporate host device, another layer of data protection was made available. This has since proven invaluable for customers in highly secure environments with a desire for dock functionality but requiring compliance with stricter security protocols. In open, shared spaces (increasingly becoming the new normal as offices navigate the ongoing pandemic), customers appreciate the security-friendly option of locking external ports and functionality on the dock based on host device compliance.
Slavik Bryksin’s experience with Surface Dock security has taught him safety first in all areas of his work are critical
Designing dual displays for Surface Duo with Shankar Parasaram
Mobile devices have transformed our lives; the smaller they get, however, the harder it becomes to get actual work done. If you’re trying to move data back and forth between two applications or read an email while you update a spreadsheet, clicking back and forth can be cumbersome and increases the likelihood of mistakes. The answer is one device, two screens.
As the product lead for the first version of the Surface Duo, Parasaram was instrumental in the development and creation of groundbreaking, dual-screen device. He brought a lot of Android background to Microsoft, and in some ways, his lengthy experience provided peace of mind to those on the team; on a personal level, he was eager to take this existing knowledge and dedicate it to a new device.
“It was crucial to navigate issues by isolating engineering priorities so they could focus on immediate deliverables, then managing the new requirements coming in to provide a front end so other teams could get the information they needed in a timely manner,” explains Parasaram. “I had to work very closely with multiple teams, including non-software teams like the development team and the mechanical engineering team.”
A team effort
Such breakthroughs ultimately feed off one another — and the shared experience of the team brings a sense of communal triumph.
“One of the things most interesting about working at Microsoft is the engineering challenges we face,” says Sridhara. “If you’re interested in solving critical problems that have a direct impact on the end customer, that impact here is huge. If you’re driven by that, and you have solid foundation skills for embedded programming and operational systems, this is the right fit.”
“It is a little strange describing myself as a ninja,” notes Hoyonski. “But I’ve come to truly admire the people around me. The people I work with every day are wells of knowledge. They have so much to give to an underlying product with their expertise. We all work very quickly and together — because the next thing is always right around the corner.”
If you’re interested in joining a team of product ninjas focused on delivering devices of the future, opportunities can be found here: https://aka.ms/MicrosoftBayAreaCareers.