Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Microsoft Canada Development Centre (MCDC) : By Laurie Rowell

The Microsoft Canada Development Centre captures the energy and camaraderie of tech startups. Its workforce captures the diversity of the world.

While honeymooning in the Scottish Highlands, Gabhan Berry got an e-mail inviting him to work for Microsoft Canada. "In six weeks we sold our house and cars, quit our jobs, and relocated ourselves to Vancouver," said Berry.

Such is the speed at which the Microsoft Canada Development Centre (MCDC) is staffing up. Open since September 10, the site – located in Richmond, just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia – was set up as an alternative location for those challenged by U.S. immigration policy. U.S. law allows only 65,000 highly skilled immigrants to enter the country on H1B visas each year, a number which has frustrated talent-hungry technology companies.

The MCDC, just two and a half hours by car from Seattle, allows employees from other countries to live in Canada and work closely with teams in Redmond and the rest of North America.

One of 90 employees at the MCDC, Berry comes to Microsoft after founding a startup. Likewise, Par Singh, director of MCDC, is also a veteran of a startup. "I didn't see this as that much different," said Singh of the new facility.

Gathered from around the World Would-be employees from overseas can easily wind up in limbo waiting for their immigration status to be resolved. One such worker is Elizabeth Samuel, SDET with Office Live, who was caught in a holding pattern in Washington, D.C. as her funds dwindled. She had to decide: "Should I return home to Trinidad and Tobago?" Encouraged by supportive friends, she decided to hang on and hope something would change to allow her to work for Microsoft.

"May to August of the same year, it doesn't seem that long," she said. "Not even four months. But the uncertainty, that's what was hard to handle.

"Once the Vancouver option became a reality for me at the end of July, the team was able to complete the entire process in a month," Samuel said. "I was in Canada by the beginning of September."

As staffing evolves, the MCDC is putting together an international community. "I have a map … on my wall at the MCDC," Singh said. "I ask people to put pins where their birthplace is."

So far, 21 different countries are represented. "They sit by one another, and the conversations and the incubation of ideas that come out of that … I think it's going to set a new standard for Microsoft," Singh said.

That diversity adds to the richness of the experience, according to George El Khoury, SDET in the Windows Metadata & Internet Services team. Born in Lebanon, he earned a master's degree from the University of Florida and epitomizes the variety of personal backgrounds among MCDC employees.

"We have a true sense of friendship and camaraderie down here," he said. "Everybody knows everybody's teams, specs, and bugs."

World-Class City for World-Class Employees. A city that tops several best places to live lists, Vancouver offers world class amenities.

"We will be able to offer top talent from everywhere choices about where they work, and, in some cases, [it's] going to mean that Redmond is not the primary or feasible choice," said Collene Burns, the project manager for the MCDC.

For those already in North America wishing to work in Vancouver, Singh suggests they convince their business groups to send them. "We will dedicate a percentage of our space capacity to permanent projects," he added.

Leads from other Microsoft installations, including Redmond, with five to seven years project-management and development experience, probably have the best shot. Space is limited, and competition is tight.

"We want high quality. We have the opportunity to make the decisions on getting the choice projects, and the choice candidates that come there. They are the ones most sought-after by Microsoft," said Singh.

But working at the MCDC would be worth the effort, Singh asserted. "There is so much energy out of these guys. I am having much fun working with such a diverse group. I can't believe they pay me to work here."