Published on 6 May, 2007. By John Reynolds
It’s a sunny Monday morning and dozens of cranes and several apartment developments battle with the Dublin Mountains to dominate the skyline in Sandyford Industrial Estate, the home of Microsoft Ireland.
Microsoft has over 1,100 employees in Ireland and a further 700 contractors work with its partners. It pays over €300m in taxes every year and accounts for almost a third of the US software giant’s sales – €9.5bn last year out of a total of €32.5bn – and has swelled the coffers at Seattle headquarters by €5bn over the past two years.
The firm’s operations here include an all-Ireland sales, marketing and services group (SMSG); a European Operations Centre – housed in the company’s old manufacturing facility – handling supplies and logistics across over 70 countries in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA); a European Product Development Centre where online content, software and Xbox games are translated into 20-30 languages and a European Development Centre (EDC) where research and development staff work on Windows Vista, digital and IP TV and other innovations.
I’ve arrived unfashionably early, so I wait on one of several leather sofas. Two executives with laptop cases are waiting as well while casually dressed workers breeze purposefully past large blue, yellow, green and orange Microsoft banners that hang from one of the reception’s walls. A display cabinet boasts the Irish Independent’s Best Place to Work award along with various other Waterford Crystal awards and a trophy or two. Laptop computers and Xboxes are at each side of the this area, and just beyond the main desk a lift makes an electronic kind of whirring noise at it zooms up and down.
Overlooked by a number of floors, Microsoft’s Starbucks café sits in the centre of this impressively designed open and well-lit building. There are several counters serving food to cater for every taste. I run through a quick brief on the day’s schedule with head of PR Tom Murphy who has the schedule on his personal digital assistant, which also doubles as a mobile phone.
I’m whisked up to the eighth floor in the lift and then through an open plan area into an unassuming tidy office where I meet Microsoft Ireland’s general manager, Joe Macri. A laptop sits on a circular table in front of a small pile of papers and a desktop PC on his desk. “What makes Ireland unique is we have all four areas of operations and development here. Twenty per cent of our workforce are foreign nationals, so we see Ireland as a talent hub for Europe,” he says.
Macri worked in sales, marketing and technology before leaving his native Australia to join Natwest in London in 1991. He worked with Microsoft on a financial services project and after completing an MBA, he joined its UK arm before joining its Irish operations in 1999, initially as a marketing manager, then head of operations and eventually managing director.
He was a regular visitor before settling here as his wife is Irish and he’s proud to contribute to Ireland’s success. “Microsoft and others in the IT sector such as Dell and Intel now account for around 20 per cent of Ireland’s GDP and we’re crucial to its success story. But we have a community impact as well as an economic one, partnering with organisations such as Enable Ireland where we use technology to empower people with disabilities and in education, where we’re providing software to schools that need it most,” he says.
The company is one of five technology partners with the Irish Management Institute, who are building a National Productivity Centre to drive improvements in technology, management and innovation in both the private and public sectors. Macri also advises the Health Service Executive and chaired the Small Business Forum, whose report helped shape ideas such as the Business Expansion scheme in Minister for Finance Brian Cowen’s 2007 budget.
“There’s a strong relationship between Microsoft and the small business sector. Over 1,000 partners in the Irish market including contractors and people who work with our supply chain partners are in the small business sector,” he adds.
Fully briefed on the company’s part in Ireland’s success, I head back down to the Starbucks café for a chat with HR manager Anna Pringle. She joined the company in 2004 after spending ten years working in the US. “This is my first real job in Ireland,” she jokes, adding that she had her own HR consultancy before joining Microsoft.
Online mentoring is an important part of everyone’s job here, she says. “We have a system that matches you with someone else in the company, either in Ireland or overseas. I’ve mentored people in the US, UK and India and Ireland has one of the highest mentoring rates in the company and it’s been a learning experience for me as well as the people I’ve mentored,” she says.
She has also helped 5,000 long-term unemployed people get back into education or employment through a Fast Track into Technology programme. It was so successful that other countries such as Italy and Finland have copied it. The company also ran a Business In the Community scheme, which was oversubscribed with employees volunteering to mentor secondary school pupils. Last year they had an ISPCC ‘Tache for Cash’ competition. “I was going to shave my healthy head of hair, but my family weren’t too keen on it,” she laughs. This is evidently a caring corporation; no doubt led and emboldened by CEO Bill Gate’s world-renowned philanthropy.
The man tasked with caring for the welfare of all employees across the EMEA region is John Fitzgerald, EMEA head of health and safety. “The real world is very different to working here,” he jokes as we talk in his cosy office. He came to Microsoft from the paper and packaging sector, where he worked for Smurfit and International paper.
His job will take him to Spain, Romania, Egypt and Turkey this year and it’s a very different to the factory environment where he used to work in. Now he advises people on all aspects of health and safety including how to sit at their desks correctly and avoid backache forty years down the line. “We’ve got rest rooms, prayer rooms, pregnancy rooms, Xboxes and a gym. We’re currently looking at a basketball court. It’s a very enjoyable, safe working environment,” he enthuses.
Colm Cassidy, Kieran Dunne, Bill O’Brien, Aoife Martin and Donna Gilson from the SMSG join me for lunch. I listen enviously as they describe charity fundraising initiatives, forthcoming trips to Seattle and how the company helps pay for your broadband if you need to work from home.
Energy levels replenished, education manager Steven Duggan takes me through Microsoft’s work in the Irish education sector. Part of a small team, all of whom have education backgrounds, he taught English for 12 years in Sutton Park College in north Dublin. “I first became involved with the company while working as an educational advisor on Encarta (Microsoft’s Encyclopaedia package),” he says.
Duggan’s work mostly involves talking to teachers in schools of all sizes all over Ireland about the educational benefits of IT. “Technical drawing used to involve working with a T-square, pencil and paper. Now that’s been replaced by PCs with Computer Aided Design software,” he says.
By June there will be 5,000 new PCs in schools, while the company has chosen Dunshaughlin Community College as one of 12 Global Innovative Schools. At NUI Maynooth, a team of students won the national Irish final of the company’s Imagine cup with their sign language education and online chat tool.
Education is changing and it’s a challenge for teachers to keep the attention of students who are used to iPods, computers, mobile phones and games consoles, he says. “When I was a teacher, I was the sage on the stage; it was directed learning. Now students learn through discovery and they’re the guides by the side. Technology can help create exciting and stimulating lessons.”
From the reception I take a shuttle minibus down the road to the EDC for a meeting with several employees who are central to the company’s research and innovation. Program Manager for Windows Live Mobile in Europe, Ben Childers has a background in architecture but has worked in IT for the past 12 years. “There’s great trust within the teams here and our families are very well looked after. Christmas parties, for example, include presents for our children,” he enthuses. He recently had to look after his two young daughters while his wife travelled to the US. “Looking after them and collecting them from school wasn’t a problem because I could work from home,” he adds.
Corkman Roger Bateman, a development manager for MSN International studied commerce before working in IT. Microsoft treated his three young children were treated to a family day out at Funderland earlier in the year, which they loved. A research trip took him to four Asian countries last year. “You wouldn’t normally visit people in their homes when you’re abroad, but this trip involved observing how people use Hotmail and other software. The company’s global outlook combines the best resources with people that you won’t find anywhere else,” he says.
E-Home group software development engineer Toby Steele joined the company after spells with Sony, the BBC and as a guitarist. “My colleagues have worked in various aspects of the broadcast industry. We’re working on cutting-edge software for a company that has software at its core, which means we can go deeper doing what we love doing,” he says.
Reeves Little, Program Manager for Windows Live Europe studied psychology and worked for Apple and an IT startup before moving to Ireland last year from his native California. “I’ve worked on so many things here including Apple Mac software, Entourage, Hotmail and Ad Centre products. In California, there’s a long-hours culture, but work-life balance is so much better here. Everyone is passionate and invigorated about working here,” he adds.
Reflecting on how these guys seem to have found their dream jobs, I head to my last meeting of the day, where a small team of people from across the company address the findings of a recent poll of staff concerns. Discussions seem to centre on improving a staff newsletter and concerns about transport and construction work nearby. It’s more evidence, if any were needed, for Microsoft being voted one of Ireland’s best places to work this year.