Microsoft’s cloud platform becomes an MBA sandbox

The MBA field study group assigned to Microsoft Cloud poses with their certificates.By the time Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer came to the University of Washington in March 2010 to tell the world that he was betting the company on cloud computing, four Foster School of Business MBA candidates already had their heads in the company’s cloud.

Second-year MBA students James Berres, Chris Coffman, Winnie Lin and Scott Macy consulted with Microsoft during winter quarter through Foster’s Field Study Program. The program matches companies that have a complex business problem with Foster MBAs, who form a team and attack the problem to gain experience.

In November 2009, Microsoft proposed several cloud computing projects through the Field Study Program. In a competitive bidding and intense screening process, Foster MBAs won the right to delve into the newest wave of computing with Microsoft.

Cloud computing defined

Cloud computing can be thought of as “utility computing.” Like a utility company providing electricity, Microsoft will sell companies access to its computing and storage infrastructure comprised of massive data centers located across the globe. Companies will only pay for the computing power they use.

In October 2009, Microsoft unveiled its technology to run the cloud: Windows Azure platform. External developers and others have already started using the operating system.

“We are in that switchover mode where companies might not necessarily have to have their own data centers or pay someone to host their data center,” said Coffman (MBA 2010). “They can just grab the storage and the computing power they need as they need it.”

Why Microsoft needed Foster MBAs

In the software giant’s effort to once more revolutionize computing, Microsoft worked for years and spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing its new operating system and building data centers to support it. Consequently, Microsoft’s internal teams held expert, in-depth knowledge about its new technology.

One thing those teams couldn’t do? Shed their identity.

“Microsoft had a very good understanding of cloud computing. They knew what their technology was. They knew how their internal groups felt about the technology, the risks, the rewards, the benefits, all of that,” said Berres (MBA 2010). “What they didn’t have a good feel for was, what do other large enterprise companies feel about it?”

Basically, Berres explained, when Microsoft asks a company’s chief information officer (CIO) and other IT leaders what they think about the cloud, the answers might reflect that group’s desire to play ball with Microsoft, the biggest “kid” on the block.

“So,” he said, “they brought us in to get that outside perspective.”

The Foster MBA team established a matrix for what questions they would ask and how they would categorize answers, built a list of target companies from their own contacts and through Foster School professors, staff and alumni, then set out to interview leaders of those companies. To help insure objectivity, the team guaranteed anonymity.

From strategy to real-world results

Microsoft’s Mike Olsson, principal solution manager, Product Group Strategic Initiatives, said the students uncovered a surprising attitude.

“Where we might have predicted that cost and security would be the issues that would be top of mind for a CIO, the things people asked about most at first revolved around agility and integration. So there was a little bit of an adjustment for us in the way we looked at customer attitudes in the enterprise IT environment.”

The Foster team also confirmed for the Microsoft team many of the attitudes they expected to see about moving to the cloud.

Another benefit, said Olsson, “is that discussing interesting technical subjects with smart people is a really good thing to do, particularly when they have a new or slightly different viewpoint than we might have internally.”

Jeff Finan, general manager of Microsoft’s Product Group Strategic Initiatives, echoed Olsson’s assessment of the Foster MBAs and added that “in terms of wanting a repeat performance with the University of Washington Foster School, I’m very much in favor of that. The students were just outstanding.”

Being part of the next big technology trend

Students on the MBA team said they knew going in that the field study would give them the opportunity to discuss the next big thing in computing with world leaders. But when Ballmer came to the UW Seattle campus, it really hit them just how pivotal the project was.

“The fact that, just about a week before we gave our final presentation, Ballmer gave his big presentation about the cloud, that Microsoft was ‘all in,’ ” Coffman said, “That told us that, Hey! We are really working on important stuff here.”

Berres added that not only did the field study open doors at Microsoft and sharpen their own understanding of business consulting, but it also put them in front of tech leaders in the biggest and best companies in the country.

“It gave us a reason to go to executives at Fortune 500 companies who otherwise we wouldn’t have a reason to talk to,” Berres said. “So, it not only gave us all of this information, it also gave us contacts we wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Gordon Neumiller, director of the Field Study Program, has organized hundreds of consulting opportunities for second-year MBAs and similar projects for first-years. Nearly 10 years ago he helped the program mature from a student club to a more formal and significant part of the Foster MBA experience.

While the success of Foster MBAs in cloud computing didn’t surprise him, the timeliness and quality of the work made it stand out. With Steve Ballmer saying Microsoft was ‘all in,’ Neumiller said, the project was as leading edge as it gets.

“At the end of the final presentation,” he added, “it was like this big group hug. Everyone was so happy. I said, ‘I don’t know what they are doing at other business schools, but it cannot be any better than this.’ “

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