Decoding the language of Microsoft: What 'growth hacking' means to Redmond

Decoding the language of Microsoft: What 'growth hacking' means to Redmond

Summary: The language Microsoft uses internally is changing; and that means the way it works is changing too.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft, like so many others, is a company with its own language. That shouldn't be surprising, as more people work at Microsoft than live on the island where I was born.

With nearly 100,000 people in the company, it's going to develop its own way of talking — starting with the obvious Redmond dialect; starting sentences with "So" and being "super-excited" about everything.

But the real language of Microsoft is the language of the business, the short cuts that describe a common ground of processes and procedures. Talk regularly to the folk from Redmond and you'll quickly build a lexicon of terms that serve as a useful primer to the way things work. So it's super-interesting to see new terms enter the Microsoft jargon-file, terms that are intriguingly non-Microsoft. In fact, they're phrases out of the venture capital world of Silicon Valley.

One phrase that's going around is "growth hacking". Often seen as just a Silicon Valley way of talking about marketing, it's actually a technique for analysing products and marketing that's very close to the existing Microsoft data driven way of working.

Instead of leaving marketing to marketers, growth hacking gives fast-moving product teams the opportunity to come up with a combined strategy that mixes product design with marketing; making hypotheses about feature uptake and marketing messages, and then testing them in the real world; quickly pulling back if they don't work. Measurement is key, and if you can't measure something, you can't manage it, so you can't try it out.

Hypothesis-driven development isn't new; it's the way things work at Amazon and Expedia. But it's interesting to see just how deeply the philosophy is being embedded at Microsoft — and how quickly. Microsoft's product managers, the ubiquitous PMs, have always been tasked with being the voice of the user inside the company, so it's not surprising seeing them taking more ownership of how their products and features are developed.

Techniques like this wouldn't have worked in the old Microsoft. Three year product lifecycles don't work with approaches that require tuning products and marketing on short time scales. Expedia's two or three week sprints make more sense when a product team has to present and test a hypothesis, with just a few days to see if their predictions match with reality. So the new Microsoft, with its two week product cycles on its cloud and consumer services is much more likely to see the benefits of growth hacking.

You can see how that's shaping up in the two week cycle that's being used to accelerate development of the Xbox Music app. It's letting Microsoft try new features and, perhaps more importantly, new ways of exposing existing features to users. In just a couple of sprints an app that I pretty much ignored has become one I'm starting to use, and I suspect, if things continue in the direction they are and at this pace, one that could soon replace my current selection of music apps and tools.

That's how growth hacking works, trying to meet a user need and tuning an app or a service so it grows the way you expect, and the way you want. You need to be able to suggest possible changes and the effects you expect them to have, and to be able to measure usage at a very granular level. If, for example, you expect a UI change to affect the way people use a playlist, you need to be able to measure not just the effects of the change, but also need to be able to compare it with how users worked with playlists before the change (while being taking into account other changes in the app from other feature teams).

Could the recent decoupling of Kinect and Xbox One be one of Microsoft's earliest public experiment with growth-hacking? After all, the company had been committed to shipping a bundled Kinect with every device, and selling standalone Xbox Ones seemed an unlikely turn around. But if you look at it as a growth hack, attempting to sell more devices by making the price closer to that of Sony's PS4, the move makes more sense. The hypothesis could well be that bundled Kinect makes the Xbox seem more expensive, so by removing it the Xbox team will be able to see if there's a corresponding uptick in sales. If the numbers don't show much change, then expect to see the bundled package back on the shelves.

Microsoft's changes are deeper and more fundamental than you might think. While the One Microsoft message is at the heart of the company's reorganisation, its new structure and a devolution of power to the product teams is intended to make the company behave much more like a series of co-operating start-ups. Agility and responsiveness aren't words you'd have associated with Microsoft; but it looks like we're going to have to start using them.

Further reading

Topics: Microsoft, Emerging Tech

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • Not that interesting

    There are many companies in tech, with at least one of them far larger than Microsoft. They all have an internal lexicon, and a culture of their own.

    But the biggest lesson I've learned from that is "have a lexicon of your own." As a business, it is critical you build up your own understanding of yourself, using your own familiar language for it.

    There's little point or sense in aping anyone else's. Let's leave that to the chimps.
    • Which tech company is larger than Microsoft?

      Just wondering...
  • Internal Jargon

    All groups have an internal jargon that insiders/locals understand. What is comical sometimes is the use of jargon to describe something. "Growth hacking" seems to describe a form user/product testing to understand what users want and like.
  • Was hoping this would be an exciting read

    Wasted seriously, wasted.
  • Great article

    "Agility and responsiveness aren't words you'd have associated with Microsoft; but it looks like we're going to have to start using them."

    People that are emotionally invested in anti-Microsoft sentiment are going to have difficulty making the transition!

    Microsoft is changing dramatically. It is not the same company it was even 5 years ago. People whose minds are set based on opinions formed years ago are not going to be able to interpret Microsoft correctly.
    Rob Hudson
    • I think that unlikely

      agility isn't a novel trait with Microsoft. They perfected the art of being a fast follower decades ago. Even its critics don't tend to find Microsoft's ability to reinvent itself every few years a terribly surprising thing.
      • So, which company is leading, and which is following?

        Just wondering...
  • Growth hacking or lean startup?

    Great article. I find it interesting to see how larger companies are trying to become more agile. This article seems to be conflating "growth hacking" and "lean startup" a bit. But the two are definitely cousins anyway. Both are about rapid iteration to validate hypotheses and achieve a result. I particularly like this quote "Measurement is key, and if you can't measure something, you can't manage it, so you can't try it out."
  • mantra and dogma are often self-defeating

    take this : "Measurement is key, and if you can't measure something, you can't manage it, so you can't try it out.".

    This is diametrically opposite to Steve Jobs method of product development which proved successful.
    Microsoft has always used focus groups for approval ratings to guide marketing, Steve Jobs didn't.

    When you have something new and distruptive you can't measure it.
    The key is having the inventiveness to come up with something new and disruptive. This innovation is usually found in small startups with young people in them - for obvious reasons in both cases.

    Some of the most successful things around now have not been born in big corporations, and definitely not at the command and mastery of the strategists:

    Linux - at the core of Android.
    www / http.

    The ARM was originally the product of one person at Acorn in England. Acorn was never a really big company.
    The X86 was a skunworks product at Intel.
    CP/M forerunner of DOS was a skunkworks product at Intel.

    Seems to me Google encourages and productises Skunkworks products. This is directly in opposition to the "measure" and formal way of doing things.

    However, if you're building a plane, best to use the formal method.