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Five Years to the Top: Microsoft’s Software Boss Julia Liuson

Five years ago, something big happened in in the sleepy suburb of Redmond, Washington. Microsoft began reinventing themselves in all kinds of unique ways, leading to their most dramatic jump in valuation since the dot-com bubble.

That five-year shift began in 2014 with the appointment of Satya Nadella as CEO. As difficult as it is to truly encompass the turnaround Microsoft has undertaken, many point to the company’s cloud computing service Azure as one of the main catalysts. The platform has risen prominently in the last half-decade to become a leader in the cloud hosting to become a viable alternative to the dominant Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Others will point to a major internal culture shift as the major successful turning point–another a strategy implemented following the appointment of Nadella. Culture, in this case, is not the term typically espoused by the technology community, but rather a shift explainable only through the leaders who inspired and manufactured the change in the first place.

Julia Liuson is a big deal at Microsoft. Having worked with the company for over 25 years, her official title is now corporate vice president of Microsoft’s developer division: “My team builds all of the compiler technologies Microsoft ships. C++, C#, F#, Visual Basic, TypeScript, then we also build all the Runtimes, like .NET Framework and .NET Core. Also Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code, and many others.”

Liuson stops for a moment to take a breath.

“I also run a set of developer targeting services in Azure, like Azure DevTest Labs, Azure Container Registry and others,” she finishes. “That’s my portfolio.”

To be in charge of one of the worlds largest software company’s biggest software portfolio is quite a task. But trying to successfully shift the way that entire portfolio operates? That is essentially unheard of. Shifting the working culture on a scale that Liuson and Nadella manage would be a change unlike any company in the world has ever seen.

“Five years ago, if you were in tech back then and you thought about Microsoft—and Visual Studio in particular—you would say ‘Well Visual Studio is Windows only. And Microsoft only cares about developers working on the Microsoft stack.’ And that would have been the right perception back then,” says Liuson.

“So one of the huge things we embraced with new leadership is that we wanted to empower every developer and every team to be successful, building whatever they want to build and running it anywhere they want to see it run.”

Make the Microsoft experience completely open source, so the company can meet the most talented developers where they work. This is the culture shift Nadella and Liuson bet on for Microsoft’s future—a great bet, considering Microsoft was the most valuable company in the world less than five months ago. Amazon now holds the title, but the two (plus Apple) continually push each other aside for the top spot.

But that kind of world-leading shift doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it takes more than five years.

What happened in the last five years that has driven this change?

Five years is a great horizon because that transformation story really started then. A lot of it, I would give a lot of credit to our CEO, Satya Nadella. Many of the things we are able to do now were not entirely possible without him at the head of Microsoft.

I’m really at the heart of worldwide software developers. They are my customer, and my job is to make them successful. But this job has actually changed. In that mission transformation, it really meant we cannot be Windows only. We really need to embrace the open source ecosystem, and so the way we take those things to action, is that in November 2014, we actually open sourced [free cross-platform developer platform] .NET. That is a major shift from a strategy perspective. It’s a completely different approach.

The quotes I kept reading were like “Hell must have frozen over, Microsoft has done XYZ.” I have read that quote so many times since then. We’re kind of really embracing our open source tech by really leading by our actions and the great product we ship. I think we have been quite successful in shifting the perception developers have about Microsoft, so I use that as one of my biggest accomplishments.

The second one is about embracing users. We are shipping more frequently, and shipping much better product. From a usage perspective, in the early days, we had between 1.5 million and 2 million monthly active users. Today we’re almost 14 million. Eight million from Visual Studio and six million from Visual Code. That kind of growth is another thing I’m very proud of.

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Why did Microsoft embrace this open source directive? What’s in it for you, then and now?

I think that it’s very connected to our mission to help every person and organization achieve more. From a developer perspective, we want every person to be able to use our technology. And then open source in the developer ecosystem is the norm. If anything, we embraced open source too late.

At this point, if you look across the landscape, every programming language is open source or standards-based. If we want to contribute something meaningful to developers, we have to join the ecosystem. That’s what’s in it for us. We want the stuff we build to be used and loved.

The products Liuson’s team is building are used and loved. Liuson points to some recent switches large companies have undertaken, such as Facebook moving several key projects from within the Javascript Node ecosystem to Microsoft’s TypeScript programming language.

Measured by the number of employees contributing to projects on GutHub, Microsoft is actually the world’s biggest contributor to open source (Microsoft acquired GitHub in 2018). A large percentage of developers around the world live in Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code every day.

Also, Microsoft’s cloud platform Azure sports some of the largest brands in the world as customers: Samsung, eBay, Boeing, Dell, and even Apple, who host their iCloud jointly with AWS. Even though Microsoft is a newcomer to the open source world, its products are universally adopted and enjoyed.

Microsoft embraced open source at a late stage, but you aren’t behind. How have you caught up in under 5 years?

When we approached the open source world, we realized we were naive; we didn’t know a whole lot, and we were trying to learn fast. Fortunately, there were a lot of open source projects for us to go look at and learn from. Then we looked at different models, we looked at the challengers, then we start practicing and doing development. Then we look at the things we do well internally and then how we can become more customer obsessed.

At Microsoft, we see a lot of large teams and companies. They’re doing open source as copy source. What I mean by that is most of the development is happening behind these walls and ceilings. When these companies are done with a major release, then the source gets copied out to the open source repository and the company will then welcome any bug fixes. But the discussion of the open source roadmap didn’t really happen in the open.

The model we landed on is called develop in the open. If you look at a lot of our code, we can do a release, then we list what we’re planning to work on for the next release, and people give us feedback. We have changed major project plans based on that feedback. Our roadmap is entirely done out there in the open. We have an open design process.

From a cultural perspective, we embrace that customer obsession. That is a bit of a new thing. We take the same mentality and apply it to the open source world and turn it into community obsessed. We don’t want people to submit issues and never hear back from us.

What role has the open source shift played in Microsoft’s greater transformation?

I think that Microsoft’s overall shift started with cultural change. Satya talked about it a lot, and then he really talked about how Microsoft is embracing and really veering away from being Windows only. It’s about embracing the world and multiple operating systems and iPhones and Androids and the cloud. That’s the transformation journey we have been on.

You see that reflected in the acquisitions we made. We bought Minecraft—that was Satya’s first acquisition. We bought LinkedIn. Those are communities. You can see what we have done in the developer space as a part of the overall transformation journey. It has a lot of common seams. It’s an emphasis on customer obsession and community. GitHub is also a community.

Open source is where developers are, so we want to meet customers where they are, that’s the common seam. It’s about not asking them to change or come meet us because we have a capability. That seam also comes through in what we do with developers. That’s also why we bought [cross-platform software company] Xamarin, because we want to make sure developers have a great way to build for both iOS and Android.

From the enterprise perspective companies can easily turn their web developers into mobile developers because they have a common toolset, common processes, and they don’t have to hire specialized teams, which is incredibly hard to do. Those enterprise values come through, so it’s a win for us and most importantly a win for our customers.

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Open source is a mentality and directive while Azure is a business platform. How do you make these worlds collide?

Five years ago when we first started our open source journey with Azure, one of the biggest challenges we had is this strong notion that Microsoft = Windows. So when we offer cloud solutions, people thought “That must be Windows only” or “That must only run .NET code.” I would say, no! Please!

Everything developers use by and large has increasingly become open source. We still talk about the notion of an open source developer, but every developer is using open source in some way shape or form. So that notion will blend even more. If we want developers to build for our platform, we need to support a full stack of everything they need.

We embrace the top languages and they work great on Azure. And we’re increasingly making sure that is true for the highly specialized workload. This is one of the places we take a slightly different approach to supporting open source ecosystems than some of the other cloud vendors.

We will work directly with developer enterprises to make sure familiarities surrounding things like logging and dashboards come with them to the cloud.

Our idea is we want to help these companies be successful on Azure. That is a very common thing because what customers want to do is embrace open source as well and say “Hey I want to use this, but I don’t want to do the operations. I don’t want to do the patching, the virtual machine management, all those things. I want that to be a managed service.” That is an increasingly common request we hear. What we want to do is help these companies easily build these managed services, which is a different approach than some cloud vendors to just fork the source code and deliver on their own.

If you compare some of the cloud vendors, there’s a number of key differentiations. We’re in the enablement business. We’re not into taking over vertical after vertical. Compared to some other vendors, we don’t make you—the consumer—the product. We’re in the product service selling business. We don’t take people and their data as the product. Those differences really show that from a trust and security perspective we’re different.

Microsoft builds communities and Microsoft acquires communities. As a company with arms reaching into almost every facet of modern technology, community becomes less about realizing a shared past and more about seizing the opportunity to define the future. At one point, Microsoft didn’t think open source was important, and then five years ago, they switched their minds. It’s not a coincidence that stock prices have jumped 300 per cent since then.

“Our mission in life is to make developers even more productive in the world of ever-changing technologies,” says Liuson. “Pick whatever way to work you want—we just want to be successful in helping you deliver it.”

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