Microsoft UK head: We've grown up

Microsoft UK is more than just another satellite sales operation says the company’s new general manager

The last few weeks have been pretty rough for Microsoft. After being knocked around by the European Commission and fined around €497.2m for abusing its position, the Redmond giant announced a record legal settlement with Sun Microsystems last week worth $2bn.

If that wasn't enough, it has also emerged that the company's chairman Bill Gates may have lost his esteemed 'richest man in the world' title to the founder of Ikea.

To get a handle on these issues and the challenges of representing Microsoft's interests in this country, ZDNet UK's news editor Michael Parsons spoke to the company's new UK general manager, Alistair Baker.

What did you think of Microsoft's settlement with Sun?
Sun and Microsoft compete aggressively, but when you get into the area where the business premise isn't right for the customer, then nobody wins. We welcome the settlement because it will help customers. Around the EU decision, we're clearly disappointed that we couldn't do the settlement.

The settlement with Sun looks as though Microsoft is growing up and moving closer to the accepted norms of corporate behaviour. Is that fair?
That's true of the whole IT market in today's environment. I look back on to the nineties, go back to the dot-com-dot-gone boom, the corporate aggression, the whole ethos -- and it has changed. There's a new focus on corporate responsibility and ethics, the consumer is far more aware, partly because of the Internet, and has a greater understanding a broad set of issues. Microsoft has had to be involved in those changes; we took a very key decision a few years ago about becoming a responsible leader. I think it will make the company a lot stronger.

What role does the UK business play in relation to its US parent?
The US market is huge but corporate functions as a global business. Traditionally the UK we have very deep relationships with corporate. For the interview process in this job I saw Steve Ballmer and Kevin Johnson, and my mentor is a senior VP. The thing that comes across is that we are very fortunate because of the language issue. The UK operation is noted for our ability to innovate. A lot of people in the US came up through the UK business.

What are the top-of-mind issues for you in your new job?
We need to deal with some strategic imperatives to do with the customer experience. We have 3.8 million customers. How do you have a relationship model that scales? You can't employ half of Scotland to do telephone support so we are looking at Web-based support, telephone support. We are looking at segmentation, as there's no point in sending customers something that is not relevant to them. We are also looking at a new partner programme.

Microsoft in the UK is primarily about sales and marketing: what impact can you have on the product development teams back in the US?
We do original work at the Cambridge Research Facility, which has some very smart people, but that reports into Redmond. We're very keen on this idea of having a closed loop back from the field to the product groups. On several issues, such as child safety, and dealing with spam, we've been very active. We also have a lot of expertise in small and medium-sized businesses. Microsoft has done a lot of work around our small business strategy; it's unique compared to any one else in the IT industry, because of our own heritage.
Microsoft UK does consistently well in terms of employee satisfaction. How do you do that?
It's partly about recruiting. We really believe in employing great people with great drive and motivation, so we look very carefully at how we interview and hire. Then we look at creating an environment, where our best people can do their best work, there are very strong cultural aspects. It comes down to a strong philosophy around empowerment. You expect people to do a great job in terms of delivery, but they can take risks, they can solve problems. We will sit in a room where you have very frank and open discussions and it's not your job title that's important, it's the contribution you're making.

We can do a lot around employee benefits and we have a very relaxed culture, people don't have to wear a suit everyday, we have informal meeting areas, an independently run crèche, flexible working hours. We offer permanent employees broadband and wireless at home, and we're wireless through the Reading campus.

What's the one thing you regret Microsoft having done over the last eight years since you've been with the company?
The Department of Justice trial was the thing that hurt most. When we look back, we learned a lot of lessons from the DoJ trial.