When it comes to getting off to a fast start at Microsoft, there is a small group of new employees who have a unique set of challenges to overcome.
To help them, Microsoft is turning to an equally unique source—a bot.
Microsoft is committed to improving the onboarding experience of new employees who join the company through acquisitions. Even with the best intentions, onboarding can be frustrating and time consuming both for new employees (who have a lot of questions) and for a small team in Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO) tasked with answering all those new employee questions.
“Like anyone, employees who join Microsoft when we acquire their companies need help getting started when they get here,” says Ahmad Al Aqqad, principal program manager on CSEO’s Shared Services Engineering Venture team at Microsoft. “But it goes beyond that—since the cultures at their companies are often quite different than our culture, they often have more questions than regular new employees.”
A desire to answer those questions is what a lead a team of people from across CSEO to get together to build a bot, and a friendly one at that. “We wanted to build a bot that could participate in a productive conversation in a natural way with minimal complexity,” Al Aqqad says.
Al Aqqad partnered with Darren Lacey and Daisey Wang from CSEO’s Share Services Engineering Data Science team to build out the machine learning that would drive the bot and to train it on the company’s dataset. He then began working with Corbin Byers, an engineer on the CSEO’s Shared Services Engineering Team, to build the bot and integrate it with Microsoft Azure.
The principles the team used were simple, but important—the bot needed to do the following six things:
- Answer common integration support questions during the pivotal transition period that comes after the new employees finished onboarding
- Use the daily interactions it has with new employees to continuously update the machine learning model
- Successfully hand-off complex or one-off questions to people who can help
- Meet Microsoft accessibility standards
- Use Microsoft Teams for communication
- Show measurable progress at providing complete and helpful answers
The main goal was always to get help answering common questions that get asked all the time.
“We found that, if we used a bot to respond to many of the common questions, we could give them the answers they were looking for right away, and we could give our own team valuable time back,” Byers says.
And the team has plenty to do.
New employees that join Microsoft via an acquisition have to be familiarized with different technologies and services in order to get work done. Having been uprooted from the technological devices and norms from their previous companies, they often come with a lot of questions and need for integration support.
“A common scenario when Microsoft acquires a company is that they operated through Mac computers,” Byers says. “That can be extremely frustrating for employees transitioning to Windows systems.”
To diffuse the stress for everyone involved, the team built the Venture Integration Bot, which is currently in final stages of design and is expected to be made broadly available to employees who join Microsoft through acquisition once testing phase is complete.
This digital agent is prompted to provide assistance by simply typing a question out and selecting send, with the same comfortable feel as texting.
“As the number and size of businesses we acquire increase, it’s harder and harder to have one-to-one interactions to help these new employees onboard successfully,” Byers says. “Our bot is designed to use machine learning to answer the questions new employees have with increasingly accurate integration support over time.”
The bot uses a custom machine learning model designed by Lacey, Wang, and other CSEO data scientists that distinguishes between similarly worded questions and provides accurate answers, resulting in the bot continuously improving itself.
To jumpstart building the bot, the team turned to two publicly available Microsoft technologies: The Microsoft Bot Framework and Language Understanding Intelligence Service (LUIS). The bot framework is an easy-to-use platform for building bots quickly and in a consistent manner. LUIS allows employees to converse with the bot using natural language. Employees access the bot via Microsoft Teams.
“Our data scientists used unique code to map not just words, but sentences and phrases,” Byers says.
Another unique part of how the bot works is how it progresses through the different states of conversation.
“If you think about a typical human conversation,” Byers explains, “it goes through different states, like the welcome state—’hello, how are you?’ The bot mimics this naturally occurring flow of conversation.”
You can give the bot a greeting, or simply type in a question. After the bot retrieves an answer for you, the user is asked if their question was answered. If more help is necessary, the bot will offer to connect the user to a live agent.
“What isn’t seen by the end user is that the bot uses a dual listening state at this stage,” Byers says. “We wanted the bot to be able to contact our integration team and communicate with both the integration manager and the acquired employee.”
This was tricky to implement.
It’s a two part challenge; the new employee needs to feel supported and the bot needs to get used. One concern was making sure employees didn’t bypass the bot. “This would undo the point of creating a bot,” Byers says.