Imagine you had a space at your work where you could go during your free time to design and construct personal projects, all with company resources. If you work for Microsoft on its Redmond campus, that is actually a reality.
Over the last couple of years, Microsoft has been on a campaign to change the company’s internal way of thinking, and with that came a change in how the company operates – publicly as well as internally.
Realising that employees with free time wanted a space with equipment to work on physical side projects and build prototypes, it created The Garage in Building 27 South in 2009.
Inside the facility, members of the maker community have access to 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, soldering irons, Arduino boards, Raspberry Pis, Galileo boards and a host of electronic equipment.
“The Garage story is really the story about how Microsoft is changing – and changing for the better – and The Garage has been a small contribution to this change. Large companies sometimes require structure but what is interesting and what we learned is that engineering and tech folks want the opportunity to explore their own creativity,” explained Jeff Ramos, the senior director of The Garage.
Microsoft’s maker space initially started as an after-hours program for whomever wanted to participate and work with other engineers from different divisions, but it has evolved into becoming more focused on sponsored projects.
The large room in the centre of the facility can be set up in a configuration that allows up to 16 teams to work on their projects at once. This is done through the use of sliding walls that provide teams with a bit of privacy.
As the old adage goes, the only limit you have is your own imagination – which includes the use of Apple products.
Ramos chuckled when he explained that in the days of then-CEO Steve Ballmer, an Apple product wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the campus, “but now (under Satya Nadella) we’ve opened up to realise there are other popular platforms out there that people use.”
The Garage can be divided into two sections: one that focuses on software development, and another that focuses on hardware projects.
Among some of the apps and programs that have been developed, was an app that measured the air quality in China and an application that allows users to receiver mail as instant messages – much in the same way Facebook’s Instant Messenger operates.
“The Garage is really about evolving the way we work. It’s about reinventing culture, supporting small scale projects, moving ideas forward, and changing perceptions inside and outside Microsoft,” said Ramos.
Ask anyone involved with The Garage and they will immediately tell you that Nadella is a huge supporter of the initiative.
He is a firm believer that if Microsoft wants to stay competitive in all of their markets, it must evolve the nature of how it works. After being shown an introductory video about The Garage from Nadella, it is clear that he cares and truly understands how this fits into the environment of the company.
“Start with an idea you have passion for, build a solution and build relationships, collect data, and then take what you’ve learned back to your groups and have a broader impact across the company,” Nadella said in the video.
The Garage naturally serves a two-fold purpose: while it gives employees the chance to work on side-projects, it will also hopefully spark new ideas that the company can turn into commercial success.
The facility is also open to the public, but you can’t just walk in the door. You would need to have an official Microsoft escort, you have to submit a formal request to make use of the facility, and most importantly, you have to clarify IP ownership.
Since all equipment and supplies are paid for by Microsoft, it is a small price to pay if you have free reign to everything in The Garage.
From the tour of the facility, it is clear that Microsoft actively wants to foster a maker community, not only on its own campus, but across the world. While it is headquartered in Redmond, there are actually 35 chapters scattered across the world.