Microsoft Repositions Organizational Structure As Priorities Shift

In what was arguably Microsoft’s biggest reorg since Satya Nadella took the reins six years ago, the company announced in March 2018 that it would split Windows operations into two engineering units. Microsoft's intent was to better align itself with its high-growth business segments and what was once the Windows & Devices Group (WDG) – responsible for Windows development, Surface, and HoloLens – became Experiences & Devices (E&D) Group and the Azure Group.

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The move was made along the Windows stack with the core of Windows migrating over with Azure and front-end UX allotted to E&D. Almost two years later, little is known about Nadella’s reimagining of the Windows world, but Jason Zander, EVP of the Azure group, shared his thoughts on the reorg in a recent interview with ZDNet.

Zander manages the core teams who work on MS's intelligent cloud and intelligent edge products and services. He oversees Azure strategy, product management, engineering and operations of Microsoft's cloud product lines, SQL Server, big data and analytics, quantum computing, and other initiatives.

In addition, Zander heads up Microsoft's Core Operating System and Intelligent Edge team (COSINE), which includes the former Windows & Devices Group, along with engineers involved with Linux, Windows Server, and Azure. "We have some sophisticated kernel developers in Linux and Windows and Azure," Zander said.

Before the reorg, the WDG team looked after the bottom half the Window’s architecture – including the kernel, core, hypervisor, and more – and the Windows client PC business. “We took the tech core of Windows and brought it to the Azure team,” Zander explained.

There has been some learning that has come with housing the Core Windows team and Azure’s engineers under one roof, Zander said. Core Windows has learned what it means to always be on call to clients spanning the globe – ensuring smooth running of Windows operations and direct responsibility for the cloud.

"Anytime you have a tech group managing over a billion PCs, there's an amazing scale in terms of building, patching, and releasing software," Zander said. He pointed out that the core Windows team has created "awesome telemetry and devices."

The Azure core team, conversely, was able to adopt Windows’ best practices and tools and implement them in managing Azure’s fleet and IoT systems. The Windows team has a hand in tailoring Window OS for use on new devices – like the Surface tablets, PCs, Xbox consoles, etc. – and the Azure team creates a lot of its own hardware design. Merging the two groups, Zander stated, has allowed for more cross-pollination between the two teams.

Something new for the Windows core team was the adoption of Azure’s development semester schedule – running from January to June and July to December – which means greater collaboration on design and implementation from the get-go. Pre-2018 reorg, the Windows team would work independently on a new Windows version and ‘ship’ it to Azure upon completion. Nowadays, Zander describes a very different build process – the “Windows core team of architects is involved in the planning and ownership of the Azure cloud” from the beginning.

“The Azure team is a systems team for Microsoft. That means we don’t have a bunch of different teams doing different operating systems,” he added.

While there are many differences, there are some processes that remain the same. Different organizations within Microsoft provide their views of what Windows core priorities should be within a specific timeframe. At various points, gaming may be in first place for what features are incorporated in a new Windows rollout, while Surface's wish list might take top spot for the next release. Some priorities always remain at the top of Microsoft's mind, however.

“Security, reliability, and performance are prioritized all across,” Zander said. “Then certain features are prioritized depending on new launches – like a new console launch.”

The difference comes in how these priorities are balanced - frequently decided within a six-month or a year-long boundary. "It's not a tyranny of organizations anymore," when it comes to timelines and feature sets.

When asked whether Windows remained important to his team in the face of how demanding and all-consuming Azure was for Microsoft, Zander was quick to answer.

“I get updates every other day with self-host builds,” Zander responded. “We love Windows and will continue to love Windows.”