Not long ago, technology customers were expected to buy new copies of the latest versions of their favorite software every two years or so. But since those disc-focused days, the world’s widespread digital transformation has accelerated software release cycles. In turn, shorter development timelines shrink the feedback window at precisely the time when feedback is more critical than ever before. How can any company, let alone one with a technology offering as broad as Microsoft’s, keep up with these quick, continuous digital development cycles?
Enter the Microsoft Elite program, created by Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO). Through Microsoft Elite, enthusiastic early adopters throughout Microsoft’s global workforce get to be the first in the world to explore new and upcoming technology.
The Elite program is an enclave of Microsoft’s most intrepid explorers. Employees volunteer to conquer the uncharted territory of Microsoft’s newest, most experimental products, acting as the first customers in the world to use, push, love, crash, and ultimately improve those innovations.
Microsoft created the Elite program to pair the company’s more digitally adventurous employees with the boundary-pushing engineers who are eager to have their creations used and abused (and, yes, sometimes even broken) to help ready them for customers. Giving early adopters access to Microsoft’s newest developments helps uncover shortcomings in early builds and, most importantly, provides valuable feedback and data to product teams as Elite members map their findings.
“It’s been built into our DNA at Microsoft almost from the beginning, using employees as our earliest adopters,” said Diana McCarty, a CSEO senior business program manager who created the Elite program about five years ago. “Timelines are shorter for feedback, yet feedback has become more critical than ever before these things are released into the wild.”
Charting new territory
Regardless of whether the development cycle lasts two months or two years, Microsoft employees are the enthusiastic first customers of the company’s own products—and dogfooding has come to play a crucial role in the ever-quickening development process.
Microsoft products are used by thousands of Microsoft employees worldwide before a public release. And in addition to generating valuable feedback, this approach projects a clear message to customers: “We’re all in.”
Prior to the Elite program, dogfooding was focused on single products, which meant each individual release received a series of emails, events, contests, and giveaways designed to solicit early adopters. Microsoft needed a way to reduce deployment costs and operationalize efficiencies by unifying an improved dogfooding program that could span all Microsoft products.
McCarty took this challenge to heart. When she heard a radio interview with a restaurant owner who increased demand by designating a certain seating area as “VIP only,” something clicked. “I realized it was the shift we needed to make,” McCarty says, “going from asking people to join all the time to providing an exclusive opportunity people wanted to be a part of because it was the place to be.”
McCarty mapped out an idea for Elite, a centralized, gamified program designed to “flip early adoption on its head.”
Adventures in community
Employees who volunteer for the Elite program are the first to try everything from productivity software to games. Using the Elite app, members score participation points by downloading, trying, and reporting on new technologies. The Elite experience is immersive and unrestricted; there’s no clear edge where the risk of testing ends and safety begins.
In its first three years, 26,500 participants joined the Microsoft Elite program worldwide. Membership isn’t Redmond-centric; it represents a wide range of cultural and geographic backgrounds. It also includes a surprising breadth of roles in the company—from vendors to executives, HR to legal, and marketing to technical sales—all from a variety of computing environments. This diversity is critical for testing, and many participants also find that early access to upcoming technology benefits them in their day-to-day jobs.
Elite members all have unique reasons for joining. The program has a thriving social community, including the most active Yammer group in the company. Elite also plays a crucial role in helping product groups meet release deadlines by gathering user feedback and influencing product direction to drive early deployments.
Stoking the competitive spirit
To attract adventurous early adopters, the program needed to be more than just a test track running in tandem with the never-ending product development cycle. Elite members aren’t after a safe, stable experience. The program is designed for curious, adventurous, and competitive people—the tech equivalent of freerunners.
At the same time, successful dogfooding doesn’t just mean getting people to try new products. The real magic comes from the feedback participants provide to product groups, often in the form of telemetry and surveys.
Understanding who your adventurous early adopters are informs how you can engage them. At Microsoft, Elite members fall into one of three categories: naturals, loyalists, and competitors.
- Naturals are driven by a zest to not only get their hands on the latest technology before anyone else, but also to provide insight that could potentially influence the release of those products into the world.
- Loyalists are customer-obsessed. They take pride in Microsoft and in their jobs, and they want to feel an emotional or intellectual connection to the work being done across the company.
- Competitors are motivated by points, badges, stickers, kudos, bragging rights, and the quest for the ultimate prize: The Most Interesting Leather Jacket in the World.
Loyalists are predisposed to provide feedback for the good of both Microsoft and its customers, but what motivates naturals and competitors to take the time to respond? Gamification. The Elite program is structured as a company-wide competition. The more products Elite members try and the more feedback they provide, the more points they earn. Higher point scores bump players up the Elite leaderboard toward the ultimate prize: a sweet leather jacket sure to make anyone look like they’re straight off the set of Top Gun.
How does Microsoft find, identify, and inspire these potential Elite adventurers? One way is through presentations to new hires, in which the speaker models the leather jacket, signaling to all who see it that the wearer is one of Microsoft’s most influential early adopters.
Self-selected and self-directed
Initially, Elite members got to test features and applications that were largely rooted in traditional Microsoft offerings like Windows and Office 365. But as the news of Elite spread, product groups from all over the company started submitting to the program—phone apps, consumer products, even gaming and entertainment experiences from Xbox.
Program managers across the company now know that if there’s a product, feature, tool, or app worth testing, they have a quick and streamlined way to reach a significant audience of potential users. They’ve learned the hard way just how important it is to get those products ready, because members aren’t shy about serving up honest and even harsh feedback—they’ll come back from a test run declaring a product rubbish, if that’s what they think.
The Elite program has grown to play a crucial role in product development at Microsoft. Some engineering teams, like Office 365, ship new features every single month, with Elite making up a critical portion of that pipeline. Faster-than-ever deployment schedules and the flurry of interest from all the company’s product teams exposes the Elite program’s main risk: member fatigue.
Keeping Elite viable means avoiding overloading members. Part of that equation is ensuring that members self-select for the program. The Elite leaderboard highlights top scoring participants, but the program itself doesn’t dictate attendance. Each individual member determines his or her own level of participation.
Another key part of avoiding member fatigue is making sure that products are ready for scrutiny. Product owners need to understand when in a product’s development lifecycle is the right time to release it to early adopters. Offerings needs to be stable enough to capture and captivate members’ attention, and just as important, the needs to be worthy of adventurers’ time.
- Self-election is essential. Not everyone is cut out for the competitive spirit of the Elite program. Adventurous early adopters face both risks and rewards.
- Smaller numbers, but more engaged feedback. Elite gives product teams a direct channel to passionate product validators—people who want to use the latest tech and be vocal about their reactions. A smaller audience results in a higher ratio of focused and thoughtful feedback.
- Not all products are created equal. Exciting products that people have never seen before are always going to garner more interest than an existing app that has three new widgets.
- Elite isn’t hitch-free. Elite helps validate a lot of potential product problems. It’s a great early listening system for what’s working and what’s not working, and helps identify what’s completely broken so developers can address those issues quickly. But Elite isn’t a replacement for other quality assurance programs.
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