In the heart of Microsoft Fargo, tucked away behind a two-way mirror evocative of an interrogation room or spy novel, Crystal Gilson wants to make Phyllis happy.
The Microsoft user researcher watches rapt as her subject takes the company’s latest piece of accounting software for a test drive, scrutinizing every mouse click, timing every data entry and documenting every stumbling block.
Phyllis, it so happens, does not exist. Whoever is on the other side of the glass is instead a proxy for a hypothetical but prototypical user – in this case, an accounting manager. It’s one of dozens of customer profiles developed by researchers like Gilson – “fake people based on real people,” she calls them – to guide designers and developers in creating navigable, user-friendly products.
Before those products hit the market, Gilson brings in testers, who are compensated in swag like software and video games rather than cash, to iron out the kinks.
“It can be an eye-opening experience,” she said. “If somebody takes 10 minutes to enter an address, we know we have a problem.”
At times, the people who built the products in question assemble to watch their work put to the test, rooting vigorously for the user to click a window or select a feature.
The user experience studio is far from the dominant presence in Fargo. That distinction still belongs to the core accounting and business software that launched the company to prominence – today branded as Microsoft Dynamics, a division housing close to 400 employees. But Gilson’s tiny team is one of a handful of new and diverse operations that have blossomed on campus since the Great Plains years.
Perhaps the most prominent addition has been a shared services center that now handles all of Microsoft’s US payroll, processing $9 billion in annual wages for a head-spinning 55,000 domestic employees.
Patrick Mineer, who heads that team, said Fargo emerged as the nerve center for those operations – based in Redmond before moving here in 2004 – because it’s a model of efficiency. Streamlined processes and low employee costs make Fargo a relative bargain.
“The cost of living here in Fargo in cheaper than it is on the West Coast,” he said. “It’s a way to offshore without necessarily going as far as India or China.”
To keep costs here competitive, part of Mineer’s staff is dedicated solely to ferreting out new efficiencies in the division’s practices.
Over the past five years, the Fargo campus also has seen the rapid growth of its premier services team – high-level support personnel nicknamed “smoke jumpers” for their knack for charging in to put out metaphorical fires.
That team has grown from a single employee in 2006 to around 40 today. They’re the ones who end up on an airplane when a tech support crisis can’t be resolved remotely – for instance, an online retailer that finds its system swamped because of a spike in volume.
Eric Newell, a premier field engineering manager, says the focus of his work has shifted over time from responding to emergencies to evaluating customers’ systems and figuring out how to prevent downtime before it happens.
“We take a look at the performance of all the infrastructure that’s in play,” he said. “It really gets to be an art.” And when disaster does strike, team members “get a little bit of a high from being able to come in and be the hero, at least from a technical side.”
If the field engineers are the heroes, meanwhile, the Distinguished Engineers are the rock stars. There are two of them on campus here – not bad, given just 38 employees across the entire company hold the distinction. It’s an elite group recognized for lasting technical contributions and innovation.
Both of Fargo’s are homegrown. Steve Anonsen started as a Great Plains programmer, contributing to “every one of the large business applications that the company has right now.” These days, he leads a team working on Microsoft’s Visual Studio – a programming tool used to build many of the company’s other products.
Tim Brookins, another longtime Great Plains veteran, made a name for himself by figuring out how to modify the company’s accounting product without changing the source code. Now, he works on refining the Windows Phone.
“You’re watching the Super Bowl and a commercial comes on for Windows Phone, I think, ‘Hey, that’s my phone,’” Brookins said.
In the realm of technology, he said, being a Distinguished Engineer is “almost like you were knighted.”
Until Bill Gates stepped away from Microsoft, he was the one doing the knighting – not even Steve Ballmer had the power to named Distinguished Engineers. That put Brookins and Anonsen in close contact with the Microsoft co-founder on several occasions.
At times, they wound up on the business end of Gates’ feisty management style. He and Ballmer “had an uncanny ability to take this stack of paper, rifle through it, and find the two or three areas that we least wanted to talk about and make us talk about it,” Anonsen said.
At others, they got a look at the softer, philanthropic side of one of the world’s wealthiest men.
“We’re at one of these meetings,” Anonsen said, “and Bono walks out and says, ‘I want to talk about what Bill and I are doing with AIDS in Africa.’”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502