Lift London’s Lee Schuneman on leading a creative studio
With its mix of designers, artists, engineers, filmmakers and coders, Microsoft’s Lift London studio helps develop the future of how people will interact with the brand’s services and devices. Studio Head Lee Schuneman is one of CR’s Creative Leaders 50. He talks to CR about finding and nurturing talent, his role as a leader and why playing loud house music first thing in the morning contributes to the studio’s success
One of Microsoft Lift London’s monthly Social events
CR: Can you explain what Lift London does?
LS: Lift London’s role is to help define what Windows can do for the next generation. A key part of that is exploring all the different avenues that entails, whether that’s new applications, platform services or hardware. So because we have such a broad remit, we require a broad range of talents. We’re not a research team – our role is to take what seems like science fiction and turn it into fact. We have to make a real product that has KPIs, business goals and all those things. So we are at that really interesting intersection of art and science.
From the talent perspective it’s a broad range from software engineers to all forms of art roles – 3D artists, animators, print designers, UX specialists, UI specialists, graphic designers and, because we explore things with hardware, we need mechatronics, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, people that can make stuff. And because we have to be commercially minded, we also need people who understand production, programme managers, business operations people, marketing, PR, community management. So we span a broad range.
Pic by David McHugh, Lee Schuneman at one of Microsoft Lift London’s monthly Social events
CR: Lift opened in 2012 – why did Microsoft choose to set it up in London?
LS: We are a big believer in what London has to offer as, in my opinion, the global city. There are so many different nationalities, skills, backgrounds and types here – that’s really key for us. Access to talent here is the best in the world.
CR: How do you organise these multiskilled teams?
LS: It varies a little bit. At the start of a project we will have an ambition of what we want to achieve and we do spend a lot of time – it can be six or 18 months – exploring the different ways we could achieve it. So we break up into smaller groups and we might explore, say, this particular UX method, or another team might explore a different route. Then out of that will come a more prescriptive production model. I’m not saying we will design everything upfront and then make it – once we are in the production flow, the key is creating space within that flow to iterate. We iterate right up until the last minute, so with every product we make, every couple of weeks we get to a certain point and then do more iteration, which has its own challenges as you have to communicate the journey you are on. Making these things is as much about communicating as it is doing the work itself. The tough part is balancing the two.
Lift includes not only designers and coders but also engineers and mechatronics experts.
CR: Do people compete to work on specific projects?
LS: I’ve been in businesses that have done that and it can work but not today. We have a team b of people with a collective goal, if we achieve it as a collective we get better results in the longer term. Competition can be a short-term motivator to get you over a hump but it if you want a business to have long term collective success you can’t apply competition.
CR: Has the culture of continuous iteration been difficult for some designers to adapt to?
LS: Some people embrace it and some do struggle a little bit. Part of my role is to drive the mantra that the only constant is change and so it’s on us to help the design team with that. What’s key for us is to get things in early and dirty and get people using the product, but if you’re very used to thinking through the solution and presenting what you think is the design, it is a tough learning process. For us it is important to get lots of feedback. We are building things for tens of millions of people so for us to think that we are 100% right without getting lots of inputs along the way would be folly.
Trying out the Hololens
CR: Can you talk us through your process?
LS: We operate an agile software development process that requires lots of communication. We have a Scrum meeting every morning at 9.30. Beyond that it’s about finding the right balance of giving people enough information without overwhelming them. We try to give people things they can own – here’s the ambition we are trying to achieve, let’s see if you can raise it above that.
CR: How do you go about recruiting the right people?
LS: The brand that we built around the studio has been important – telling our story through social media and the things we do here like our quarterly events where we bring in great speakers. Inspiring our own team is the number one goal [for those] but they have also proven a good honeypot to bring in other likeminded people who could be interested in working here.
Hiring is about building a relationship with someone and figuring out how you can bring them into your business. We also have a world class recruitment team that goes out and finds good talent, and we have good relationships with universities like the RCA.
Inside Lift London, Pic by David McHugh
CR: There has been a lot of talk about the value of a university education versus self-learning, particularly when it comes to tech: what kind of education do people need to be the right fit for you?
LS: I don’t think there is a right or a wrong route. We find great talent from anywhere. It’s irrelevant to me if someone has a degree, it’s more that they have a level of ability and then [a question of] how they can apply themselves and make an impact here.It’s on individuals to own their career and their ambitions. How you build your ability is up to you – you can work in startups, teach yourself work at home or do a degree at university. They are all equally valid.
It’s on individuals to own their career and their ambitions. How you build your ability is up to you – you can work in startups, teach yourself work at home or do a degree at university.
When I think of the types of people we have here – and this is a big generalisation – there are people who are comfortable with a blank piece of paper, they can look at it and instantly start to get something down. Then there are people who are more comfortable with fuzziness, with something half-formed which they can go on and mould. And then there are other people who need black and white, to be told what to do. Our business thrives on needing all three of those types of people.
They all come from different backgrounds, they have different approaches, but as a business we need them all. We need people who can go and do pure creation, but we also need people who can’t do that but are really good at taking someone else’s idea and turning it into something new. Equally, if you don’t have people who can follow instructions, you don’t get anything done.
It’s on us not to limit ourselves as to the route in – we need some risk-takers but also people who are great at getting stuff done.
Trying out the Hololens
CR: How do you create a specific culture at Lift?
LS: Every studio has to shape its own culture and approach: Microsoft is very supportive of that. It’s a big company but it doesn’t say ‘do it this way’. Ultimately, we want people to show up and do the best work they can. My role is to help you be the best you can but it’s on you to achieve that. It’s about treating people like adults really.
People here are challenged a lot – that’s the best way to learn. You have a hard task, now go and navigate your own way. As a company we offer lots of internal training and we also do a lot of communication training.
We operate an internal model whereby we communicate our own story through video within our own organisation. So every week we produce these five- minute magazine shows that we send off to the other side of the world so they can understand what is going on here. We do it on video because you get to meet the people who are doing the work and see the energy they bring to it. So we have had to get everybody good at standing up in front of a camera and communicating. Everybody learns to communicate consistently and tell the same story, to have more confidence – which helps the business.
CR: You are shortly to move into a new space: how will you use it to foster creativity?
LS: The hub of our current building is a very open area which is generally full of noise. I’ve found that applying noise works better than not. When you come in in the morning there’s always loud house music playing. To some people that might sound awful but it does add energy to a building. Even a space with only two or three people in feels very different with music injected into it. So we use music a lot to set mood and tone throughout the day.
In the new space the central hub will be a working environment. A lot of us are losing our desks completely – including me. The idea is that the central hub is where most of the noise is and, as you go to the edges, it gets quieter. So there’s collaboration at the core, specialisms like video production at the outside. And we have a very flexible working policy, so that people come in when they need to. The office is where you meet people, when it comes to actual work, you can do it at home, at a coffee shop, wherever.
Lee Schuneman is one of CR’s Creative Leaders 50 which, in partnership with Workfront, celebrates creatives who are leading businesses and organisations.