Last week, thousands of people gathered virtually to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of women in technology. In honor of GHC 20, we are spotlighting software industry veteran Sue Bohn, who attended the celebration. “It was very inspiring to see the depth of women in computing today and hear about their experiences,” Sue told me. “Grace Hopper once said that ‘a ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for.’ Seeing women today stepping out of the ‘safety zone’ to innovate and add to the profession and to the industry is really, really inspiring to me.” Sue exemplifies the spirit of trailblazers like Admiral Hopper. She has fundamentally changed how our engineering teams interact with customers to make our products best in class. She inspires me every day, and I hope her story inspires you as well.
“People have this idea that our job is to create technology,” says Sue Bohn, director of the Customer and Partner Success Team (CXP) in Microsoft’s identity division. “It’s not. Our job is to give people solutions to problems. And we need to solve them the right way. What we think is easy as technologists isn’t always so easy for the average person. We need to understand that customers aren’t like us.”
Although many customer-facing teams live in product support or marketing organizations, Sue’s program managers—who dedicate themselves to solving real problems for real customers—sit within the core engineering group. “We cut the distance between customers, partners, and our engineering team,” she explains. In an era of continuous development, there’s no way to operate at cloud speed without this high-bandwidth connection.
Continuous, collaborative engineering is decidedly different from waterfall development, which dominated before cloud times. “When the world used to be flat,” Sue muses, customers would evaluate, buy, deploy, and then operate software. “If there was a break-fix, they’d talk to support. Then they’d fall off the end of the earth, and we’d start all over three years later.”
For each new product cycle, customers would sign up for a Technology Access Program to give early feedback on new features. They committed to go live with their deployment in time to participate in a big, splashy product launch. Requests for new features would enter a queue for consideration in subsequent product releases. “Then,” says Sue, “we’d find customers to look at the next thing and never close the loop with the ones who gave us feedback months or years before.”
Today, the world is round. “We’re dropping new functionality into our service every day,” Sue reports. “And so are customers.” Given this accelerated pace of change, engineers now meet with customers and partners multiple times a week to collect feedback on the latest specs. “We really are co-engineering to build what customers want, as opposed to that big bang theory every three years.”
While building what customers want may seem like an obvious approach, it’s a muscle that has taken engineering culture time to strengthen. “Remember, we started as a languages company,” Sue says. “It was really easy then because the customer was us. A developer could say, ‘Self, do I like this feature? Yes,’ and keep on building. But unlike developers writing software for developers, we’re not like the end users creating orders in an ERP system or the doctor logging in to send a prescription. We no longer know who the customers are and what their needs are the way we did when we were writing for ourselves. That’s why my team exists. We have to make sure that we’re not doing what we want the customer to do, but what the customer needs to do.”
Putting customers before code
For Sue, joining the identity CXP team six years ago felt like coming home. Her work as a group program manager responsible for application compatibility in Windows had devolved, to her immense frustration, into a soulless quest to optimize bits. “This didn’t feel right to me,” she recalls. “I felt my real job was to understand which apps customers were using, how scary it was for them to upgrade their operating system, and to help them through that so they wouldn’t lose something in the process.”
Thinking she had perhaps reached the end of the road after more than twenty years at Microsoft, Sue decided to take one last look at internal opportunities before heading out the door. She still remembers the day the following job description recaptured her imagination and her allegiance. It began,
Are you looking for a product engineering role where you get to directly interact with customers and impact them every day? Are you interested in helping design the model for how Microsoft successfully works with customers to drive service usage in a cloud first world? Are you interested in an entrepreneurial opportunity leading a brand-new team that is being built as you are reading this? If you love big goals and a daring challenge, here is your opportunity to be a critical contributor to one of the company’s fastest growing businesses.
When Sue reached out to learn more about the role, she discovered that the hiring manager, a long-time colleague, had actually designed it with her in mind. When writing the job description, he had asked himself, “What would Sue do?”
Sue raves, “It was just so refreshing to see that we were going to have an engineering team that was really building an understanding of the customer.”
The CXP team began as an exercise in transactional support, helping customers deploy identity services and then sending them on their merry way. Although this objective was certainly customer-focused, the team had an ulterior motive. “We wanted to learn where the product had gaps, and we wanted to make the product better,” Sue explains. “But at the beginning, we were just trying to figure out who our customers were and what they needed.”
Recommitting for the long haul
Early on, a seminal customer trip reshaped the team’s strategy. During a visit to Scotland, Sue and a colleague, both fans of a high-end audio system manufacturer, took a personal side trip to the company headquarters in Glasgow. “The company CTO was literally standing in the parking lot waiting for us to come,” she recalls. Over the next two hours, the CTO gave them a tour of the factory, bought them lunch, and explained the company’s customer philosophy. “Their view of a customer was someone they would keep satisfied for 20 years,” Sue recounts.
“Audio systems are like smartphones,” she continues. “There’s always something new, and if you’re an audiophile, there’s a ‘coolness’ of having the latest thing.” At the time of her visit, the CTO offered to upgrade the motherboards of a customer’s 16-year-old amps for the difference in price between the latest equipment and what they had originally paid—with a full five-year warranty.
“What did he just do? He made them a customer for another 20 years,” Sue marvels. “It made me reflect on why we were trying to come up with the right exit strategy for customers in our program. We had become their trusted technical advisor helping them deploy our products, and now we were trying to get rid of them to make room for more customers. I thought, ‘Why are we walking away? Why don’t we keep our customers for 20 years?’”
Sue internalized the big “aha” from this visit, that “long-term relationships do matter. Our customer relationships shouldn’t be transactional.” This shift in mindset coincided with the industry shift to subscription-based software. In the round world, Sue’s long-time personal focus on nurturing customers was no longer radical. It had become crucial to success for a business model where consumption is king.
Once a customer deploys Azure Active Directory, she explains, the next step is to encourage them to use multifactor authentication (MFA) and then conditional access, which makes MFA more user-friendly. “Then we can talk about identity protection. And it goes on this way, like a flywheel, of different ways we can help our customers get value from what they own and weren’t fully using.”
The team no longer talks about exit strategies for customers participating in the CXP program. Fully deployed customers instead “graduate,” remaining on the contact list as alumni. “But we haven’t gotten to many of those because we just keep adding new capabilities,” Sue says. “So, we have more reasons to continue nurturing those relationships, and the crowd keeps growing.”
“What we do really matters”
In Sue’s mind, long-term customer relationships are more fulfilling than any new algorithm or feature would be. “I’ve always been interested in what computers could do for people,” she says. She might have inherited this instinct from her mother, a teacher who long ago skied to her one-room North Dakota schoolhouse to start the stove before classes began. “She followed her students throughout their lives. When she was in her 70s and 80s, she would see something in the paper that someone had done and say, ‘That was my student.’”
Sue feels the same sense of pride in—and responsibility for—the customers her team supports. “Every day we get up and have to realize that what we do really, really matters,” she says. “If our services don’t run, first responders can’t sign in and doctors can’t access hospital records.” In recent months, when customers have pivoted to working from home because of COVID-19, the CXP team has been on high alert, working with engineers to ensure adequate capacity for the sharp jump in cloud-based authentications.
Facing potential work stoppages, companies mulling long-term plans to cloud-shift their operations accelerated their digital transformation in the face of COVID-19. “Customers did a bunch of work in a week that literally would’ve taken months using the standard process of rolling things out in stages,” Sue offers. “COVID took a lot of the wiggle room out. They just had to do it. There was no choice.” She believes the relationships her team has built gave customers the confidence they needed to move ahead at full speed. “They trusted the guidance we gave them,” she says. “They knew that if it didn’t work, we would stand behind it.”
Although the round world has further evolved in response to COVID-19, Sue vows that high-fidelity communications with customers will endure. “I worry that we’ll get into a place that customer obsession is optional,” she admits. “We can’t afford to do that. The world’s businesses have been growing, and now suddenly we come to a screeching halt. But that doesn’t mean we stop. We know our customers will change, and so will their needs. We don’t know exactly how yet, but we’d better be talking to them to find out.”