How Microsoft is Learning to Prototype Without Fear


Surya Vanka  

current role



Surya has been involved with design at Microsoft in one form or another for fifteen years. Today he leads Microsoft’s UX practice as champion for design, collaboration, and experimentation.

Company Values 

Pride in craftsmanship

Do more with less

Fast and fluid

Authentically digital

Win as one

As Director of UX, Surya sees the design principles that drive the work his team does becoming the cultural principles that drive the entire organization. We sat down with Surya at a recent design management conference to talk about culture and the role it plays at Microsoft

How do you define workplace culture?

The shared behaviors and assumptions we have. In any culture, there are a lot of unsaid norms of how work gets done — some of which accelerate us, and honestly many of which constrain us. Culture is a shared sense of identity and a shared system of beliefs a group has. The cultures we swim in say something about our place in the world, why we do the work we do.

Why is culture so important for you and your team?

Culture is the reason that our work is not just transactional. When a culture functions well, your work can create your legacy; let’s call it lasting impact. Personally, the work that I am most proud of happened at places that had an alignment with my own belief system that design is a fundamentally democratic enterprise. Charles and Ray Eames said it best when they said design was creating the “Best for the Most with the Least”. That’s the sentiment that resonates with me and I feel most motivated when an organization I am part of that shares this belief. In the case of Microsoft, this alignment has been with the company’s focus on the democratization of software. It is the alignment of individual values to group’s values, that’s what sustains both people and the organization. With this alignment you are all powered forward by a shared purpose; without it you are each running on the stamina that you can muster.

Where do company values come from?

Values must come from sense of purpose – this the “Why” that drives the “What” and the “How” of your work. At Microsoft we’ve put a lot of effort into developing a design language that born from the sense of purpose of the Why, and shows in our recent products. It was created at first organically among designers, but the now the principles of our design language are becoming broader company values. Although not really a formal effort, it is exciting to watch this gain traction.

What are you experimenting with right now?

As a mammoth company, we miss the natural benefits of a lean startup – agility, flexibility and responsiveness. Microsoft is now 130,000—how does a company of that size learn to be agile and prototype without fear? How can we teach everyone to take more accountability and ownership? Satya [Microsoft CEO] said to our team “I want the whole company to stop for two days and hack.” Why? Because a new culture needs practice. We expect to be leaning on a lot of individual change agents to make it happen. So it is not about the new products we can create through the hacking in a couple of days, but the behaviors we have to learn and relearn to be relevant and successful.

Surya at #IXD14