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Idealog takes a nosy inside Microsoft’s Seattle HQ, including its ‘Area 51’ building

New Zealand has large, awesome corporates, but none that are on quite the same scale as the likes of Microsoft. At the end of the fiscal year in June 2016, Microsoft made a whopping revenue of US$22.6 billion, up from $22.18 billion in 2015. The company’s goal is to reach $20 billion in cloud revenue alone by 2018.

In comparison, New Zealand biggest profit-earning company in 2016, Fonterra, made $834 million. We just don’t do it big like they do in ‘Murica.

Microsoft is one of the big kahunas of tech companies, competing for consumer recognition and adoration against the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Because of its sheer size, a tour inside its Seattle, Washington headquarters dubbed the Redmond Campus was no doubt going to be fascinating.  

It also turned out to be mindboggling. The campus is more like a mini-town than a company headquarters. It’s a sprawling mass that’s estimated to cover over eight million square feet, with more than 120 buildings on site.


While at my work, you can walk to one end of the building to the other without breaking a sweat, at Microsoft, shuttles are used to ship people around from building to building.

If you tried to navigate the headquarters yourself, you’d run the risk of falling into a vortex and end up living out your days in a beta version of Windows 95. (No, seriously – Microsoft is doing some futuristic stuff at its HQ – I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d opened a wormhole.)

First up on our tour, we headed to Building 99 and were introduced to the chief scientist for Microsoft Research, Rico Malvar.

He explains that one of Microsoft’s original mission statements was to have a research team that would help the company be at the forefront of fast-moving technology.

This has continued to the present day, as he says the 1000-strong research team continues to “push the limits” of technology.

Interestingly, Microsoft is all about the ‘fail fast’ mantra. Malvar said how successful the research team’s projects are isn’t a metric for success. The majority of the products the team comes up with fail, he says – not even 10 percent get to market.

However, he says the research-backed products that do make it are “amazing”: Aka, the Hololens, Cortana and Xbox Kinetic.

The ‘Area 51’ of Microsoft

Then comes the exciting part: we’re escorted to the much-discussed Building 87. It’s been dubbed ‘the Area 51’ of Microsoft, as it’s where all its top-secret, exciting prototypes are designed and tested before hitting the market. Will it live up to the hype?

(Spoiler: You can take a virtual tour of the building here.)

Photography, video and note-taking aren’t allowed in this part of the tour, although that doesn’t stop a lot of the journalists I’m with from slyly pocketing their phones for the trip.

Building 87 looking ominous

What we do see inside the building is a lot of cool stuff: An experimental area for different materials that can be used for Microsoft’s products, such as the Alcantara fabric that was used to make its latest Surface Pro.

There’s also the Human Factors Lab, where there’s lighting boxes that can simulate several different types of light, including direct sunlight. There’s also a photo booth of sorts with hundreds of SLR canons mounted at every possible angle so it can capture and put together a 3D model of a person in an hour.

This is where the team has perfected the tech behind the Xbox’s motion-led kinetic technology, as well as where they’re working to solve pesky problems like when direct sunlight shines on a device and you can’t see the screen.

But the highlight of the entire building is the anechoic chamber located in the Audio Lab, which holds the Guiness World record for the quietest place in the world.

The room is designed to maintain complete, echo-free silence, with no real walls or surfaces as such. Instead, springy sound-absorbent wedges line every orifice of the room, including the floor.

There’s even an ‘air gap’ between the chamber and the rest of the building to keep outside noise out. If a jumbo jet took off right outside the room, you’d only hear the faintest of noises.

Sound is able to reach a crazy-quiet -20.6 decibels – almost quiet enough to hear the sound of atoms moving past each other, at -23 decibels (although the human ear wouldn’t be able to pick up on this). A normal conversation is usually about 60 decibels.

The point of such an innovation is questionable – do you really need to hear things to that sort of accuracy? Is just a cool thing for the sake of having a cool thing, because that’s what all the tech companies do?

Regardless, I was sold the moment I walked in. When the door’s shut, you feel like you’ve been sucked into a space vacuum. Everyone’s voices sounded odd, as they’re clipped without the usual echoes.

We were asked to stand completely still and try observe what we could hear. Apart from the odd rustle of someone moving close to me, I heard a few stomach gurgles and even faintly, the blood pulsing past my ears, which is a very creepy sensation.

Perks of the job

Another highlight of the tour was seeing just how hard a company like Microsoft works to attract and attain its staff, through its cafes across campus.

Over 20 cafes are scattered across the campus, offering a variety of made-from-scratch, ready-to-order food choices. There’s also various cashier-less snack stores that are based on trust (and security cameras).

Before a café’s food offering is built, the company polls those who work nearby on their nationality and food preferences, and organises the variety of food accordingly.

Microsoft grows the greens used in meals on site via hydroponic growers 

A company out of Amsterdam also uses data technology to predict how many of Microsoft’s 53,000 to 60,000 employees on site will come into work that day, taking into account weather, traffic and likeliness of injuries and illness. According to our guide, it has a 96 percent accuracy rate.

The last department we got to have a peek at was Microsoft’s Garage.

This department is the fun, experimental corner of Microsoft, where its employees can work on projects that are completely irrelevant to the job they do at the company.

It’s an asset to the company, as it encourages innovation from all of their staff, as well as expanding of skillsets. The hardware workshop has lots of fun bits and bobs to tinker with, and it’s not just high-tech either: There’s sewing kits, paint and the like.

A photo of Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, gazes out ominously from a shelf with a note: “What would Satya make? Satya is watching you make”.

In a company with over 50,000 employees, it’s unlikely that Nadella has his eyes on every individual person. But it’s clear that Microsoft wants to assure its workers that they’re not just a cog in the machine – their experience at work matters.

And if Microsoft can manage to value its staff in such a way, I’m sure there’s a lesson there for all the New Zealand businesses that operate on a slightly less massive scale: You can do it, too.

Elly Strang travelled to Seattle, Washington courtesy of Microsoft.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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