The seventh Microsoft Garage just opened its doors at the New England Research & Development Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts (or “NERD”). Hundreds of students, educators, and tech pros flocked to the three-day event introducing local Microsoft teams, innovative projects they are working on—and the Garage equipment and spaces that the Boston area community can use to connect with Microsoft and each other.
Occupying seven floors of One Memorial Drive since 2007, Microsoft has long been a part of the Kendall Square community in Cambridge. Overlooking the Charles River, and with expansive views of the Boston skyline, NERD offers a picturesque location for Microsoft’s 400 employees at the site.
The Garage at NERD was the culmination of years of hard work. Planning for a multi-phase, multi-year renovation project had begun in 2014, led by Dena Quinn, Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities senior portfolio manager.
According to Quinn, the idea of having a Garage didn’t come until after design and construction plans were nearly complete. The Garage had only two locations in 2014 and had just begun the evolution from a grassroots movement to a major player in the cultural transformation at Microsoft.
A commitment to expand Garage programs worldwide happened when T. K. “Ranga” Rengarajan, Corporate Vice President of Engineering@Microsoft, sponsored the expansion of Garages at all Microsoft Global Development Centers (GDCs). This launched a multi-year effort and strong partnership with RE&F to build Garage facilities in Canada, Israel, China, India, Silicon Valley, and now, NERD.
“Dena did an amazing job with all the changes thrown our way,” says Linda Thackeray, who moved from her role leading The Garage’s annual global Hackathon to become director of The Garage at NERD.
Quinn returns the compliment: “We couldn’t have done it without Linda as our boots on the ground. When she first started, we joked ‘Don’t worry, Linda—we’ll keep you busy.’ But from that point on, it was go-go-go for her and for all of us.”
A Space for Innovation and Collaboration
The renovations to four floors of the building were completed in July 2017 and December 2017. And then, the grand finale: The Garage officially launched on April 26, 2018.
“One of the central tenets of The Garage is learning by doing,” says Jeff Ramos, partner director of The Garage. “So it’s our obligation to learn from past builds and make every successive Garage better. The Garage at NERD reflects all the best practices we learned from previous Garages. And we’ll have three new Garage spaces in the next couple of years that will build off NERD.”
The Garage at NERD is built to optimize the connection between Microsoft and the broader community. With nearly 15,000 square feet of space, the new Garage provides:
- plenty of room to congregate, with a large Hub space on the 1st floor for Garage events, presentations, and workshops that inspire experimentation and collaboration.
- a makerspace, where local students and tech professionals can also book time, includes 3D printers, soldering equipment, a metal stamper, and other tools for hands-on exploration to spur creativity and learn new skills. The advanced makerspace includes laser cutters, a flatbed printer, a vinyl printer cutter, and other machines not readily available to help people take their creative ideas to a new level.
- a Reality Room where visitors can don headsets and take a deep dive into augmented, virtual, and mixed reality, and experiment with cool Microsoft technologies like HoloLens and Windows Mixed Reality.
- space for the Garage internship program for university students, newly expanded and with an open floor plan and a location next to the makerspace.
Special touches that make this Garage unique include a coffee bar (fondly called Clippy’s Coffee Bar, a tribute to the fabled virtual paper clip), and an outdoor space with a deck for employees and locals to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the Charles River and Kendall Square.
Much of the art on the walls was created by local artists using tools from the makerspace, notes Thackeray. And, “I want to give a shout out to Boston Industrial Consulting, who designed and built both makerspaces—from the furniture, to the equipment, to electricity and data. They were super in supporting us,” she says.
Investing in Cultural Change
According to Ramos, The Garage is a manifestation of Microsoft’s evolution as a company. “The Garage has become synonymous with Microsoft’s cultural reinvention,” he says. “We’re a company of hackers, of doers, of makers, with a passion for experimenting. The Garage is an embodiment of that.”
Like the rest of the company, the idea of The Garage itself has evolved. “The Garage and the annual Hackathon have really changed our ethos so the whole company has embraced the value of experimentation and hacking,” Ramos says.
“When we first started, the Hackathon was just for hackers. Now non-hackers are coming together as teams on projects unrelated to their day jobs. And people are hacking not just at the main Hackathon event, but every day of the year.”
“Our belief is that we do our best work when we have diverse teams. We create better projects and get better results when we pull in great ideas and great minds from everywhere,” says Ramos. It’s the “democracy of innovation” principle, and Ramos is serious about it. “Regardless of who you are—your age, profession, background—everyone can have an innovative idea and do amazing things.”
Better Together—Being Part of the Local Community
Another way The Garage has evolved: by inviting collaboration from the ecosystem of which it is a part. “When we originally built The Garage,” Ramos says, “it was all about Microsoft employees. Over time, we’ve come to realize that we’re better together, and we’ve embraced customers, partners, students, and others in the ecosystem with similar interests. We want them to be part of The Garage, as well.”
This openness is manifested in the physical structures of the newest Garages. At NERD, for example, the original thinking was to have The Garage be on an upper, internal-facing employee floor. But RE&F looked at all the space opportunities, and proposed having it on the 1st floor, facing outward.
“We wanted it to be like a front porch to the NERD building, with an emotional tie as well as an aesthetic connection,” says Quinn. “It creates a really warm and welcoming atmosphere for employees and the community.” The front porch concept extends upstairs to the renovated employee floors as well, where each team room of 8–14 employees has a “front porch” area outside for collaboration.
In addition, The Garage at NERD is one of the few Garages where visitors can explore many areas without a Microsoft badge. They can walk inside the lobby to amazing views of the Charles River, take in the scene with a visit to the coffee bar or outside patio, or use the conference room, makerspace, and Reality Room with a simple appointment.
“People are curious about how Microsoft is reinventing our culture and finding our mojo again. Having a Garage here lets them learn our story and make and create with us,” Ramos says.
An Ecosystem Rich in Talent and Technology
Kendall Square has undergone remarkable growth and transformation during the 11 years Microsoft has been there. The area is now overflowing with technology and life sciences companies, as well as students from MIT and other nearby universities. NERD sits in the heart of the MIT campus, but there are 54 other colleges and universities in close proximity—everything from world-renowned schools like Harvard to community colleges and trade schools.
NERD has always had a close relationship with local universities, says Thackeray, noting that NERD has hired 142 Garage internship students in the last four years. The Garage internship program attracts entrepreneurial-minded students who work together in a fast-track style to create innovative projects. Check out Ink to Code, a project created by Garage interns.
This wealth of talent and resources is a key reason that NERD was established in Kendall Square. As Linda Thackeray says, “Cambridge and Kendall Square has it all: smart people with good ideas that are willing to work hard on them. This is an amazingly rich, vibrant ecosystem. It makes sense to have a Garage here to take advantage of that.”
Cultivating a Maker Mindset
Marty Culpepper, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, heads up Project Manus, a regional Boston-Cambridge innovation ecosystem that leverages academic and other makerspaces. A maker himself, Culpepper sees the Garage—with its proximity to MIT, and its shared culture of curiosity, innovation, and making—as a fertile ground for new ideas with impact.
“Programs and activities that promote a maker mindset are crucial for community innovation,” he says. “Having a space like The Garage in Cambridge will allow the community to use technology in ways they’ve never dreamed.”
With the new Garage plus hacking workshops and other activities, Thackeray expects that only to continue—and grow.
“I’m excited to develop programming that will draw the ecosystem further into this space,” she says. “There is so much potential here, and so much goodness that can come out of engaging with this ecosystem of universities and tech partners. We can create opportunities for employees to learn and grow, but also attract and retain the best new talent. The possibilities are endless in what the site and Microsoft can achieve here.”
A Win-Win Collaboration
Ramos is enthusiastic about the opening of the new Garage at NERD. “This is our 7th Garage,” he says, “and along the way, RE&F has been a key partner to us, from the first Garage in Redmond in 2013 to today in Cambridge. We’re able to connect to the local community more than ever because of that collaboration with RE&F and the amazing spaces they’re building.”
Ranga calls the Garage at NERD “a win-win collaboration between the Cambridge community and Microsoft. It represents the new Microsoft to this ecosystem,” he says.
Thackeray concurs: “We don’t think of this as ‘our’ Garage,” she says. “It’s a Garage for the community, and it will only be as successful as the community makes it. We want it to be a platform for our employees to find additional meaning and dimension in their work. But we also want it to be a resource for the community—where thought leaders both inside and outside Microsoft can come, collaborate, and see what’s possible.”
Story by Christine Nickerson
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