Ridley students and employees spent the past year connecting largely via Microsoft Teams, so we just had to sit down with longtime MS expert, Jeff Bell ’88 to talk tech. Now, the alumnus shares his take on the future of work—and how Microsoft kept us clicking during a global pandemic.
Jeff takes our call from his home office in Seattle, Washington. “Well, it wasn’t a home office until a year ago,” he explains practically, looking out at the Olympic Mountains, “it was our guest bedroom. But that’s the way the world has changed.” Like many of us, Jeff, too, has been working from home during the pandemic.
Back in 1991, the numbers minded Ridleian took on a summer internship at Microsoft. At the time, Jeff was working on an adaptation kit for companies to put MS-DOS 5.0 in their handheld devices (which he nods to as an essentially early ancestor of the iPhone). His officemates were busy working on Windows 3.1 and employees one door over were tackling applications. Jeff returned to Princeton University that fall to finish up his senior year, then moved out to Seattle as a fulltime Microsoft employee.
“There were always people who worked remotely—we just tended to ignore them. Now we’ve all been that remote person for the past year-and-a-half, there’s that much more awareness of how to make it work for everyone.”
He’s worked there ever since, challenging the ‘Bay Area stereotype’ that people in tech tend to hop from company to company. Over the years, Jeff’s been able to move within the organization and dive deep into a variety of projects that speak to his skills and interests, including type and typography; digital rights management; digital payments and wallets; tools for early e-commerce; and eBooks and ePub standards. And if, like us, you love the ‘Save as PDF’ functionality in Office Suite, you can thank Jeff—he led the small team that worked with Adobe to add it as a built-in feature.
Today, Microsoft employs more than 175,000 people worldwide, and Jeff is an expert on Microsoft 365 subscriptions. The quick pace of technology means they’re always rolling out new features and waiting for customers to renew can be a real drag—for creators and consumers alike. But with people now automating everything from music to razors to poultry, a simple subscription ensures users will always get their mouse on the most current iteration.
“Think of Netflix as an example,” Jeff explains. “If I were to buy a hard disk or a chip with all the shows on it, but it doesn’t update itself with anything, how exciting is that? People producing a new show would have to wait for viewers to upgrade their Netflix or buy a new TV.”
“In the software world, we’ve long had this challenge—we’d build all these great new features we really like, but our customers were still using this thing from five years ago that they’d buy new only when they’d buy a new PC. We want to get the updates to everyone faster, and if we can help make that easy, we can give everyone a better experience and a better product.”
“There are a whole lot of paths to being successful. There are smart people everywhere and it takes a lot of people—and a lot of types of people across the board—to deliver products in tech.”
Since March 2020, discussions of secure, collaborative products and ‘work-from-home ergonomics’ have taken on new life as employees perch at kitchen counters, occupy dining room chairs and hunch over coffee tables.
Though we may have had to keep an eye on our steps, many of us were undeniably lucky to be able to work remotely during a time when the world, in large measure, shut down. Technologies like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Meet kept us connecting, celebrating, and producing.
MS Teams saw a huge uptick in users over the pandemic, and was one of the fastest growing apps, adding a whopping 95 million users in 2020. More than 500,000 organizations worldwide now use it as their default messaging platform, including over 183,000 educational institutions.
Though he may be working from home these days, for Jeff, connecting virtually is old hat. “At some level, that’s how my old world was. I spent two years where my manager and immediate team actually sat in Dublin, Ireland,” he recalls. “And Microsoft is a decent-sized campus. When I’m working with the commerce team or the payments team and they’re a 10-to-20-minute shuttle ride or walk away, you meet with them on Teams. So much of my work was done on Teams and via email already.”
Microsoft has been thinking about the future of hybrid work for years. One of the projects Jeff worked on, now nearly a decade ago, was meeting technology and hybrid meetings, with the team considering such things as collaborative notetaking. “We didn’t end up solving the problem at the time, but we made a little headway,” he muses, “and the world moved on. But there’s certainly an interest in watching how things played out once everyone had to go virtual.”
And in many ways, Jeff’s been in on the experiment, as his own family learned to operate remotely this past year—which included everything from the logistics of virtual orchestra to scrambling to find a Nintendo Switch to play Animal Crossing. Jeff lives in Seattle with his son, Andrew, who’s going into Grade 12, and daughter, Elizabeth, who will be entering Grade 10. His wife, Anna, a lawyer by training and a former JAG officer, is a romance writer. Though there was certainly some trial and error in the day-to-day, the pace slowed for everyone; a smaller stride meant more frequent video calls with Jeff’s Ottawa-based parents, his extended family in Alberta, and his sister, alumna Jensa Morris ’90, who’s now a doctor based in Connecticut.
He’s also continued to keep active in his downtime, golfing throughout Seattle’s long season and still serious about running—he’s run 20 marathons to date, a passion which goes back to his days as a harrier at Ridley.
Jeff came to the Lower School over Christmas in Grade 7, having started French immersion earlier that year and wanting a different kind of education. A conversation with family connection Reverend Hunt soon led the young whiz to Ridley—and, once there, Jeff never looked back. He spent the next seven years as a day student. In Lower School, he played cricket, soccer, squash, tennis, and hockey. When he transitioned to Upper School, now a student of Merritt South, he focused on playing hockey and competing both as a harrier and on the tennis courts. He was a Cadet sergeant, a House Prefect, and received both the TR Merritt Matriculation Gold Medal and the Governor General’s Medal.
Jeff’s impressive skills in mathematics were known widely, so it was of little surprise that he sought a future career in engineering. “There are lots of domains in which you can solve problems, but I was strong in maths and sciences,” he remembers. “Engineering just felt like a place where there are always fun problems to solve and good tools for doing it.”
It was simply a question of where. Jeff was in Grade 12 and applying to Ontario programmes when his teacher, Brian Martin approached him and asked if he’d considered any American schools. He hadn’t, thinking those kinds of plans were years in the making. But it was a late decision which paid off; Jeff got in his applications just under the deadline and was accepted to the engineering programme at Princeton University.
“It used to be fashionable to talk about how everyone should be fluent in coding—and the expectation of numeracy and comfort in data modelling might sound equally dated in 20 years. But right now, it feels like the easiest people to work with are the ones who can have a conversation about the data.”
What comes across as he talks about his work, however, is that it’s clearly about more than math alone (though he certainly spends his time deep in the numbers): Jeff is essentially a storyteller, contextualizing the data and using it as a tool to gain insight into what consumers are doing (or aren’t), how the business is working (or isn’t), and what’s going to be good for both. What impact are we having? Are we touching people at scale? How can we build the right thing?
“That fluency is almost more valuable than code,” he agrees, “It used to be fashionable to talk about how everyone should be fluent in coding—and the expectation of numeracy and comfort in data modelling might sound equally dated in 20 years. But right now, it feels like the easiest people to work with are the ones who can have a conversation about the data.”
And after the past year-and-a-half, the data has a lot to say. Today, Microsoft’s signature problem-solving efforts continue as a workforce contemplates its return to the office. How do workers use the chat function? How do things function when half the meeting’s attendees are remote? Is the chat channel more visible to those who are remote—and is it then ignored by those in the room? As we all inch closer to a new working model, mock-up solutions are popping up across the Microsoft campus. Their teams have been busy learning from what we’ve been doing these past months—and envisioning what a hybrid future might look like.
“I think we’ll get to a place where we have more of a recognition of those who are remote,” Jeff predicts. “There were always people who worked remotely—we just tended to ignore them. Now that we’ve allbeen that remote person for the past year-and-a-half, there’s that much more awareness of how to make it work for everyone.”
“I have a lot of appreciation for the data scientists; the best ones are artists who understand the numbers and do a great job of storytelling and making sense of the world, making sense of the work we do.”
And, notably, these changes bring with them important conversations about diversity, accessibility, and opportunities to broaden the hiring pool. “While Redmond and Seattle are lovely places, we don’t need to move the whole world here,” Jeff points out practically, citing his organization’s recent hires who will be staying put. “There are smart people everywhere and tons of opportunity. In tech, it takes a lot of people—and a lot of types of people—to deliver products.”
Speaking with Jeff, you can’t help but be excited by what’s to come, knowing these technologies will only expand our reach across both office and globe. And though we’ve each had to pivot over the course of this pandemic, to park our cars and watch our work clothes hang in our closets like question marks—we are the lucky ones. There’s plenty of promise in the ‘new normal,’ status unknown, even as it’s still coming into focus.
This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from the Fall 2021 issue.