Tag Archives: IT

New hire or new bot? – Microsoft Life

It was your average “nice to meet you moment” between two employees.

Torey Allen met Rani Sobeck over email early last spring. Rani was a new hire on the team who worked remotely, and Allen figured she’d meet her in real life eventually.

But when a few weeks passed and she never saw Rani come into the Redmond office, she got curious. What did she look like? Where was she working from?

That’s when Allen decided to sniff around.

“I looked her up online and saw all of these Halo references,” said Allen, who works as an associate producer for Microsoft’s game lab and birthplace of the game Halo, 343 Industries. Allen verified that the name Rani Sobeck is part of Halo lore, a character whose brain was used as the basis for artificial intelligence (AI). Then Allen was suspicious: “This person is either really in love with Halo and changed her name legally, or there’s something weird going on here.”

To find out, Allen asked Dan Price, Rani’s manger. That’s when Price let her in on his little secret: Rani Sobeck was an AI bot. He’d created Rani to help the team see and solve problems faster.

Price’s team had been seeing too much repetition in their daily tasks and he wanted to free them up to work on more interesting, complex problems. But could he build his solution and then keep it secret from the team long enough to test and perfect its functionality?

Price’s fascination with AI wasn’t new, but it came to a head a few weeks prior to his conversation with Allen. Price had just finished binge-watching the last season of “Person of Interest.” One of the characters on the television show, an AI bot named the Machine, possessed critical information that could save people’s lives, if she could be given the freedom to do so. Price was fascinated with the natural interaction between AI and humans.

In the show, the Machine easily and naturally integrates into everyday human life.

“If you think about classic ‘Star Trek’ where they are always saying ‘computer, locate this person or do this thing,’ that’s a very disconnected experience,” said Price.

In this instance, the Machine is an all-knowing, all-seeing super computer that is a natural part of people’s daily lives. He felt inspired and intrigued . . . could he create something like the Machine? A software engineer who had experience with AI courses during his Master’s degree education, Price knew he had enough background to at least tinker with it.

These theoretical thoughts were bouncing around in Price’s head at the same time that he and his colleague Tom Hill were contending with some less-than-theoretical problems at work.

Price’s IT team supports the more than 1,500 machines that Microsoft employee game creators, use; Hill’s team supports the software that is running on those machines. Their biggest task is to build and maintain tools that help people who create games do their jobs.

But recently, Price and Hill had become increasingly fed up with their lack of tools to manage support tickets.

“We get all of these tickets that come to our desktop queue from all of these users,” said Price.

But many of the tickets are duplicates, repetitive, or easy one-off fixes that no has time to log. Trouble tickets are not just a work tool for assigning jobs—they are essential for product improvement because they track issues, revealing patterns that could indicate the need for a more systemic response. But without a consistent record, there’s no way to track recurring issues or measure performance against any kind of metrics. And when someone fixes something ad hoc and leaves no data trail, bigger problems arise—problems that can threaten the business.

Hill likened the support ticket inefficiencies to getting “100 little cuts throughout the day.”

The team would be moving along through the queue of issues, resolving problems quickly, but then be too busy to close tickets for minor issues. Plus, there was no auto-sort or assigning the level of urgency or to the right team. They would all just land in the same place, creating a homogenous pool of tickets where anyone on the team would have to grab and guess.

“It became a task we couldn’t really name or quantify. Those tasks, when they stand on their own, don’t seem that big,” Hill said. “But if you look at the quantity of them—we just decided we don’t want to be cut this way anymore.”

Price asked himself if he could simply figure out what type of issue they were having at a high level and then make sure a ticket got opened with the right team and the right priority. It wasn’t a hard task, just a tedious one.

He wished he’d had his own machine like on the television show. He decided to try his hand at combining his love of AI with his passion for tools that make work more efficient; the marriage produced his first bot: Rani Sobeck.

Price knew he’d have to keep it simple to start. So he focused on making an AI that could open and close support tickets and maybe learn to do more later. He also wanted to push himself; could he give it a personality? Could he make the interaction feel natural and human-like?

“I wanted my team to feel like the AI bot was part of the team, like the interaction would be the same as talking to Jane who sits next to you,” he said.

He’d have to perform his own Turing test to launch the bot—and tell no one. It would be the only way to see how well the bot would mesh with humans.

Rani would interact with team members solely through email. So Dan built the initial framework with custom tools like PowerShell. Then, to help train Rani, he reviewed hundreds of emails sent to the support email to see if he could find a pattern. He created buckets: operating system issues, software issues, hardware issues, etc. It turned out that almost all of the issues that ended up coming to the team fit nicely into one of about 15 buckets.

He then created an initial set of keywords, like tags, for each of those areas and fed them to the Rani bot. But before he set her off to interact with coworkers, he trained Rani to forward the support request to him with Rani’s recommended suggestion for what she thought the issue was and assign a priority to the case. Every time Rani succeeded or failed at ticket sorting, she used that data to learn quickly. With each ticket, Rani was becoming more sophisticated and accurate.

The last step before deploying Rani was to write logic that would allow her to ask questions if she was unsure what to do with an issue that didn’t fit neatly into the 15 categories.

Then Rani’s deployment day arrived quietly. Price put her to work, but didn’t tell anyone. Over the next few months, Rani grew better and better at her job – learning from the tickets coming into the system.

Tom Hill, Conny Stauder, James Wilkinson, Torey Allen, Dan Price, Darren Little, Dustin Ward, and Aubra Moore

Tom Hill, Conny Stauder, James Wilkinson, Torey Allen, Dan Price, Darren Little, Dustin Ward, and Aubra Moore make up some of the team who uses Rani, an AI, for their trouble ticket system at 343 Industries. Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures.

After a few months, Price sent out a team email to welcome people who recently started in IT. When he introduced Rani, he made no mention of her secret bot-dentity. That’s when Allen, the team member who really wanted to meet Rani, started noticing replies to her email requests for IT help being answered by Rani.

Allen and other people on the team, including Tina Summerford, came to Price, saying how much they appreciated Rani, how “on it” she was, and how quickly she responded to requests. Surely Rani was working overtime, thought Summerford. She repeatedly praised Rani to Price and wanted to meet her.

That’s when Price decided to reveal Rani’s true nature. “I mean, at some point I actually felt bad,” he said.

Ironically, Price’s initial worry was that Rani wouldn’t be that helpful to the team. She had reactions that at first he hadn’t anticipated. For instance, “a user would send a ticket and I’d say, ‘Hey Rani, would you please go open a ticket for this’ and while I am doing that, someone else from my team is also asking her to do the same thing, for the same issue.”

Rani would do as told and create a ticket—twice. Price has since fixed that, and now she has learned not to repeat tasks. In fact, she responds with “No, Dan. You already asked me to do that one. I come to serve.”

“Oh yeah, she’s pretty sarcastic,” said Price, laughing. The other day, in a request to close a ticket, she responded to Dan, “Dan! You met your dreams and aspirations. Now take a bow – congratulations. Changed as requested.” She’s also capable of recognizing gratitude and teasing and even uses nicknames for the team (she calls Hill “mate” all the time, slang in Hill’s home country of the United Kingdom, which he thinks is pretty hilarious).

“It’s fun, but she’s also getting smarter,” Price said.

Having Rani for the past year has completely changed Price’s daily workflow and provided insight into some consistent problems the team had never been able to identify before.

Now, he asks himself (and encourages his team to do the same) if a task is something he should be teaching Rani. If there is something he does over and over again every day, he subjects that task to a little calculation: add the daily time spent on that task (say, 30 minutes), then add up the hours it would take to teach the task to Rani (say, four hours). Four hours one time versus two and a half hours per week—the result is often conclusive: just teach Rani.

As for Price, he’s experiencing the high that comes from a passion and his work coming together. And his coworker Hill asked for his own AI bot after a few months, named Gary. In fact, there are seven AI bots now deployed on the team.

Hill said that the efficiencies they’ve gained have changed the culture on his team; there’s a lot less stress because people don’t have to spend tedious hours on mundane tasks or have to work at inconvenient times. For example, Gary now monitors the night shift.

For Price, the whole experiment has proven the value of using a bot to augment what people already do and free them up for more complex, sophisticated tasks.

“My staffing budget hasn’t changed; we’ve just allocated funds differently,” said Price.

“We haven’t replaced people by gaining efficiencies. We channel those efficiencies into humans doing other, more productive things.”

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work

Life after the uniform – Microsoft Life

It was one of those moments when life seems to both speed up and slow down almost to a standstill. Solaire Sanderson, suited up in heavy gear, braced herself inside the specialized mine-resistant vehicle where she was training with her fellow US Marines. The vehicles are built to withstand improvised explosive devices and save military lives. But sometimes, when struck, they roll over. The Marine Corps requires extensive training on how to escape if a vehicle flips in an explosion.

Sanderson and her teammates were in the middle of this training when suddenly, Sanderson was tossed across the cab as her vehicle spun two and a half times—over, up, over, up, over—and landed upside down. Disoriented Marines hung from their seats. Quickly, they reached around to unclip seatbelts, help each other down, and grab their packs.

Sanderson exited the vehicle and took her position around the perimeter to complete the training, holding her rifle steady, not noticing the blood running down her face or realizing that the trajectory of her life had just begun to shift.

She soon learned that the impact had caused a concussion and a broken nose and had crushed multiple bones in both of her feet. After two surgeries and a year of rehabilitation, Sanderson realized that because of her injuries she wasn’t going to be able to maintain the rigorous lifestyle that the Marine Corps requires. She was devastated.

“I loved the Marines, and I wasn’t ready to get out,” Sanderson said. She’d planned a military career, so after five years in, she felt apprehensive about being without her fellow Marines.

“We trained together, ate together, slept in a pile like a litter of puppies, trying to get even five minutes of sleep between flights to and from deployments or amid missions, ” she said. “They had been my right-hand people for so long that I was sure I’d forget how to operate without them.”

Sanderson had to figure out what her next step in life would be, without them.

But Marines never get stuck for long. She immediately began to scan the perimeter of her life for other options.

[embedded content]

Solaire Sanderson, who was a Sergeant in the US Marine Corps and is now a security analyst, learned tech skills in Microsoft Software and Systems Academy, which connects veterans to civilian jobs.

Sanderson is in good company. Nearly 200,000 service members leave active military duty for civilian life every year. Many of them don’t have college degrees and worry that will keep them from building new careers.

“It doesn’t matter if you serve five years or 40 years, transition is tough,” said US Marine Corps Major General Chris Cortez (Ret.), vice president of Military Affairs at Microsoft. “All of a sudden you’ve got to start all over again.”

While the unemployment rate for veterans has been on the decline, some groups of veterans, such as men aged 25 to 34, face higher unemployment rates than their civilian counterparts. Finding a job is a top concern.

Many veterans have found their footing in the civilian work world. But some really struggle, not only with lack of training for another career and little experience looking for work in a competitive environment, but also with overwhelming feelings of isolation, anxiety, pressure, and unfamiliarity.

“In the military, you walk into a room and you look at people in uniform, and you know exactly who they are, and they know exactly who you are,” Cortez said. “But in the industry, it’s much different. There is no uniform.”

In some cases, civilian jobs don’t offer the camaraderie or sense of purpose that drives many veterans. Corporate culture can feel disorienting, where passion isn’t a prerequisite and duty doesn’t drive work hours. And while many veterans yearn to find a new sense of belonging, some say it’s easy to be misunderstood in the civilian work world: coworkers might have no idea what they’ve experienced or keep their distance because of stereotypes around post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The hardest challenge for me is just trying to figure out people’s idea of what military people do, of what we are like,” explained Sanderson. “Some are so curious and supportive, but others are really intimidated by it. They think you might bark at them.”

Several years ago, a group of employees at Microsoft who had gone through the military-to-civilian adjustment themselves wondered: What if there was a way to transform a perceived weakness or lack of experience into a new set of talents? How could veterans maximize their strengths—grit, systems savvy, strong decision making, and steadfastness—and build needed skills on top of that? How could they connect with organizations who needed them and communities where they could feel like they belonged?

The answer came into focus: inspired and motivated by stories like Sanderson’s, Microsoft started a unique training program called Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA) in 2013, an effort which soon led to a the broader Military Affairs program to support veterans across the company.

From its inception, MSSA had the mission not only to inspire veterans to transform their lives, but also to help address a key challenge facing the technology world: the vast skills gap between the hundreds of thousands of needed computing jobs and the far fewer trained professionals entering the workforce.

After her life-changing injury, Sanderson was ready to start over, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. A few months prior to her scheduled departure from the military, she heard about MSSA from a friend on base who was enrolled at the time.

The 18-week educational program is specifically designed to prepare military service members, before they step out into civilian life, for a career in the technology industry. To date, more than 240 companies have become hiring partners that seek out MSSA graduates.

Military members take the course on their base or at nearby community campuses; it’s their duty assignment for that period of time. Wearing civilian clothes—a subtle way to help begin the transition—they receive both classroom and hands-on training in technology products and skills. They also get help writing resumes, translating military skills to civilian and corporate audiences, and preparing for interviews by learning how to talk about themselves in the business world. Students also receive mentoring from Microsoft employees. Both veteran and nonveteran mentors walk students through the ups and downs of landing and thriving in a technology career.

Sanderson wondered if she could parlay the intelligence analysis skills she built in the Marines to the next step in her journey. Through MSSA at Camp Pendleton and her interaction with Microsoft employee mentors, she discovered that her skills could translate and that she had everything she needed to build a great career.

This is precisely the kind of connection Cortez hopes for, because veterans are such a great fit for technology companies, he said. They are trained to quickly assess, analyze, and fix a situation with the resources at hand while working with all different kinds of people. Supporting others and working as a team is second nature to them, and they thrive when working toward a bigger goal and purpose.

And they are badly needed. There are currently more than 490,000 open computing jobs nationwide, according to Code.org. Yet last year, only 42,969 computer science students graduated into the workforce.

Infographic with statistics about the MSSA program

“The IT industry overall has so many unfilled jobs,” said Cortez. And the military has hundreds of thousands of skilled workers.

“Why not bring those two together to help military men and women so they can leave and get into a new career?”

Microsoft Military Affairs invited other technology companies to hire the graduates because “we can reach more vets through partnerships,” said Cortez.

MSSA has a graduation rate of more than 90 percent, and graduates are guaranteed an interview with Microsoft or one of its hiring partners upon successful program completion.

Sanderson landed 14 interviews and seven job offers, many from some of the biggest names in technology, including Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the National Security Agency (NSA).

“We wanted to make it a level playing field with our hiring partners,” said Carol Hedly, program manager for Microsoft Military Affairs, explaining why Microsoft partners with other companies. “Our hiring partner companies receive the resumes at the same time. We have an agreement: no one makes job offers before the interview week, and we all release our offers at the same time.”

MSSA graduates have been hired at more than 240 different companies, including Dell, Expedia, Accenture, the Department of Defense, Facebook, and many more. Greater than 90 percent of successful MSSA graduates are either employed or opt to complete a college degree.

“We want the individuals to have the choice and the best offer for them,” said Hedly. “That’s just good business for everyone.”

Ultimately, Sanderson decided to move to Seattle and work at Microsoft as an analyst in cybersecurity. She connected with other MSSA alums, both from inside Microsoft and from other companies, who helped her join her new Seattle veteran family.

“I truly believe in Microsoft’s mission statement: to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Microsoft has such a far-reaching impact on the world—as a Marine, I love the feeling of being a part of something greater than myself,” she said. “It was very comforting to know that I would have a similar feeling while working at Microsoft.”

Sanderson now volunteers as an employee mentor for the MSSA program, calling into a cohort class on Camp Pendleton every week. She personally assures them that there is a good life waiting for them after active service.

“I can tell you that there are so many people that don’t come out of the military in a great place; they just don’t know what to do,” Sanderson said. “But after MSSA they feel better, and not just because of Microsoft. I don’t define success as working at Microsoft. Many people end up at other companies or decide to go back to school because they get college credits for completing the course and their interest in IT was piqued.”

Either way, Sanderson continued, people come out of the course feeling like they had a powerful opportunity to take their last few months in the military and apply them toward their next steps in life.

“When young people go off, they don’t know if they’re coming back. Sometimes when they come back, they’re changed, they’re wounded and other things,” Cortez said. “What better community [for us] to serve than the veterans who have given so much?”

Learn: See the prerequisites, start your application, or tell someone you know about MSSA.
Hire: Find out how to hire a veteran program graduate.

Wanted – Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (or good 1)

It has been a while since I last used it but I’ll dig it out and check, there wasn’t any real damage the last time I had it out. I’m afraid I don’t know about the battery since it has been a number of months since it was last used (although fully charged before it was put away), it didn’t get a lot of use over the years since I purchased it.

Yes, will include the stylus.

Edit – Will try to take some photos tomorrow evening after work