How the Windows Insider Program is making a positive change in Africa - and at Microsoft

"Windows Insiders aren't just a bunch of nerds!" Standing at the front of what looks a lot like a classroom, before a group of 21 slightly nervous-looking people, along with many of her Redmond colleagues, Microsoft's Dona Sarkar breaks the ice with her typically warm humor.

"A few months from now, you'll look back and remember this day," she says, "when 21 strangers came together and left as friends."

Many have travelled to this room - at the offices of Growth Africa in Nairobi, Kenya - from various parts of the country, while others have come from Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, along with those who have voyaged from the United States. But the journey that ultimately brought everyone together in this moment - at the start of the company's Windows #Insiders4Good East Africa Fellowship Boot Camp - really began six years earlier.

In 2011, Microsoft hosted its first Africa Business Forum at its global headquarters in Redmond, Washington. The company said that the event would "bring together Microsoft employees/executives, business leaders in Africa as well as entrepreneurs from various organizations focused on Africa" - but there was no escaping the fact that its venue was almost as far away from Africa as it was possible to be.

Nonetheless, the event was considered a success, and was repeated in the years that followed. But it eventually became clear, based in no small part on feedback from attendees, that if Microsoft truly wanted to learn about Africa, it had to go to Africa, and engage in a very different way. In 2013, it introduced the 4Afrika initiative - a broad strategy that included the launch of internet connectivity through TV white spaces, the development of a low-cost Huawei Windows Phone for Africa, and efforts to help bring hundreds of thousands of small businesses online. As part of the 4Afrika program, Microsoft also brought hundreds of its employees to its African business customers, to share their knowledge and expertise in a range of disciplines.

But some felt that Microsoft needed to go even further. In 2015, some at Microsoft began to consider a new approach to the company's efforts in Africa. In Redmond, Dunni Abiodun and Temi Moju-Igbene were among the first to seriously brainstorm what else the company could do to better connect with people across the continent. Working in their spare time, around their day jobs, they gathered their ideas, building on the foundations of the Africa Business Forum, with the aim of embracing more openness, diversity, and inclusivity.

"We realized that what we were discussing was a whole new level from the Africa Business Forum," Dunni told me last week. "The biggest difference was how it compared with other big Microsoft events. Build, Ignite, etc, are all about Microsoft trying to tell our story - but NexTech was about Microsoft trying to learn from Africa."

"It's like what Satya says," he added. "We're going from being a 'know it all' company, to a 'learn it all' company." Dunni said that Microsoft was "very supportive" of staff wanting to put together a new kind of event, and gave them the resources they need to organize it.

Microsoft hosted its first NexTech Africa conference in Nairobi, Kenya, earlier this year. Dropping the corporate focus of the Africa Business Forum, Microsoft described NexTech as a "meeting of the minds designed to engage, empower and inspire" people from all African countries. The most persistent theme of the event - at least among the many Microsoft executives, engineers and other staff who attended - was the need to "listen and learn", rather than preach the company's gospel to African customers.

Significantly, that "listen and learn" mantra has become increasingly influential across Microsoft's other products and activities - not just in Africa, but around the world, including back home in Redmond.

In late 2016, Microsoft launched another initiative in Africa, on a much smaller scale, but with the potential to have a far greater impact on the continent, and on the company itself. It introduced the first #Insiders4Good Fellowship program in Nigeria, supporting local entrepreneurs who have bold and imaginative ideas for businesses that address immediate and pressing issues that they have identified in their communities.

The Nigeria Fellowship was an offshoot of the Windows Insider Program, as Microsoft explored new ways to connect its growing network of over ten million Insiders - its global community of users who test new versions of Windows 10 - as a force for positive change and greater productivity. As Dona and her colleagues often point out, "Windows Insiders are the millions who represent the billions" - and Microsoft wants those millions to help "create a better world for everyone."

That's a lofty goal, but Microsoft's journey in that direction started on a much more modest scale. Thousands of applicants, with a staggering variety of ideas to help their communities, were eventually narrowed down to just 25 people who were selected for the Nigeria Fellowship.

When Dona and her colleague, Windows Insider Program Architect Jeremiah Marble - among many others - arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, they admit that they were stepping into the unknown. "We had a very good idea of what we wanted to do," Dona explained, "but we were piecing it together as we went."

The purpose of the Fellowship program was to help each of the 25 entrepreneurs to hone their ideas - to clearly define the problem they wished to solve, and to identify the customers that they wanted to target - and then support them in bringing their ideas to life. Many of the Fellows had little or no business or technical experience, so Microsoft's support extended not just to assisting them in refining their concepts, but also to providing the tools and knowledge they needed to help them develop their ideas into sustainable businesses.

As Dona and Jeremiah openly acknowledge, the Nigeria Fellowship program was a humbling experience for them, as they scrambled not just to teach and share their knowledge with the Fellows, but also to learn from them. The Nigeria Fellows "helped us realize that we have no idea how technology is used in many parts of the world," Dona said last week. They quickly understood too that some of their plans for the program didn't work as well as others; but they were also able to refine some of their ideas by working closely with the Fellows in Lagos, and learning about the kind of assistance they really needed, and how best to provide it.

Those lessons would prove invaluable when they launched the East Africa Fellowship at NexTech in February.

As with the Nigeria Fellowship, Microsoft faced difficult choices in selecting only a handful of successful applicants for the East Africa Fellowship. Last week, Dona and Jeremiah - along with many others from Microsoft, including Thomas Trombley, Raji Rajagopalan, and Bambo Sofola, along with Temi and Dunni, and others - arrived in Nairobi to meet the new intake of Fellows from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The purpose of their visit to Kenya was to guide the Fellows through their Boot Camp, an intensive week-long course to help them refine their ideas, and take the first steps towards building their businesses.

As the 21 East Africa Fellows sat in the classroom at Growth Africa's Nairobi offices last Monday - evidently unsure of what to expect - Dona told them that the week ahead would be a voyage of discovery for everyone in the room. "Not only do we want to help you," she said, "we want to learn from you and share your stories to help others."

Perhaps anticipating a hint of cynicism in the room over Microsoft's motives, Dona explained: "We're not here to push Microsoft products onto you... We're here to listen and learn about you and your customers, to help you make [your] idea happen." She added: "Technology is not the hero of the story - it's just what helps you to make things happen. You guys are the heroes."

Perhaps the most significant of Dona's statements at the start of the Boot Camp focused on the importance of collaboration as part of the experience. "You are all going to go through the same issues," she said as she outlined what the Fellows should expect over the days that followed. "You must learn together, and from each other."

Notably, she added that Microsoft "can't build products without help from our communities, and neither can you" - a clear reference to the wider Windows Insider Program that draws on feedback from its own global community to help develop Windows 10, which is now used by over 500 million people worldwide. Dona and Jeremiah reinforced this notion by asking the East Africa Fellows to give their own (anonymous!) daily feedback about the Boot Camp, to help them to provide the support and assistance that the Fellows actually needed, rather than sticking to a rigid curriculum that might not have been as helpful as they'd hoped.

And just as the Nigeria Fellowship helped Microsoft to develop and improve its approach with the East Africa Fellowship, Dona also noted that the Windows Insider team's experiences in Nigeria had had a wider impact on the company's development practices. Both Dona and Jeremiah speak fondly about their experience in Lagos, including one evening when rolling blackouts across the city finally caught up with them. "We had no idea what to do, and we just froze," Dona said. "But we looked around, and all the Fellows just carried on working on their laptops, and were getting on with it, and doing the thing." It wasn't until the Microsoft team had experienced issues like blackouts and weak internet connectivity that they understood the circumstances under which users try to communicate and remain productive.

"We're fundamentally changing the way we develop Windows after spending a few months in Nigeria," she told the East Africa Fellows. Among those changes, Microsoft has introduced a 'patchy' 2G network on its Redmond campus, to simulate the conditions under which users in 'occasionally connected' markets have to use their devices. Microsoft believes that developing its products under these conditions will help it to better serve customers in markets where such circumstances are commonplace.

The need to listen to community feedback - whether building a product designed specifically for the needs of African users, or developing a global product like Windows 10 - is becoming second nature for Microsoft, which has launched Insider Programs, or similar beta programs, for many of its products over the last 24 months or so. That's a point that Jeremiah made when I interviewed him in Nairobi last week:

As Jeremiah pointed out in the video, Microsoft is now exploring ways to 'package' the Fellowship as a set of resources for Windows Insiders around the world. These will include videos, blogs, and other guides to enable people to 'help themselves' in working on their personal and professional projects, and Microsoft intends to expand and refine those resources based on feedback from its Insider community.

As part of those plans, Microsoft is developing new tools to connect Windows Insiders with each other, helping them to connect with other people around the world, who can help them with a software development project, or even a startup business. There's no firm date for when those tools will be made available, but they are expected sometime in 2017.

Microsoft is continuing to build on its efforts to fulfill its mission statement: "To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more." Initiatives like its African Fellowship programs are extremely small, but even these modest projects are having an influence on the wider company, helping Microsoft to work towards accomplishing that mission on a much wider scale.

Whether the company ultimately succeeds in that broader mission remains to be seen - but from seeing those strangers walk into a room at the beginning of the week, and witnessing the collaboration, bonds and friendships that quickly formed as they came together to build something greater than themselves, Microsoft certainly seems to be on the right path.

Big ideas: Find out about Microsoft's East Africa Fellows, and learn about their business ideas in their own words here.

Disclosure: Microsoft paid for dinner for the author of this article on three evenings, as well as the taxi ride to and from Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta Airport, but all other costs - including flights and hotels - were covered by the author himself.

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