The Cambridge office building that houses Microsoft Corp.’s New England Research and Development Center has two garages. The one downstairs is for cars. The one upstairs is for people and machines — and ideas.
The NERD Center is the latest Microsoft facility to feature a Garage — a freeform work space where Microsoft employees, interns, schools, and community groups can find the tools and training they need to launch products and learn skills. Microsoft operates seven such Garages worldwide.
Linda Thackeray, who manages the Cambridge Garage, is a 20-year Microsoft veteran who has spent much of her career at the company’s headquarters, providing support for her colleagues in the software-writing end of the business. Now, at the Garage, she’s helping to perform a personality transplant at Microsoft, a once-stodgy behemoth that’s learning some new dance steps under chief executive Satya Nadella.
“It’s a much more inclusive culture now,” Thackeray says. “It is a culture of helping others be cool, not just us.”
The first thing you see on the inside is the outside. The NERD Center occupies seven of 16 floors at 1 Memorial Drive, and the vast exterior windows of the Garage look out onto the skyline of Boston, the newly restored Longfellow Bridge, and the Charles River.
“That was opportunistic that we just happened to be on the first floor and we were going to be in that corner,” Thackeray says. “I knew that whatever we did we were going to have a great view anyway.”
Perhaps the chief beneficiaries of the view are those who meet in the Hub, a sort of community center where colleagues and visitors can hold impromptu meetings, attend formal training seminars, or just sip fresh-brewed cappuccino from the coffee bar a few steps away.
“This is where we do primarily the learning piece,” Thackeray says. “We’ve done soldering classes out here. We’ve done AI classes out here.”
But the Hub feels nothing like a classroom. There’s limitless daylight from outside, and the room is bounded by transparent walls of tempered glass and extra-wide doors, an idea proposed by Thackeray to enhance a feeling of openness. At the Hub, “it all kinds of flows naturally through,” she says. “Both the light and the people.”
Those widened doors lead to the “makerspace,” the room where Garage guests turn ideas into objects. They’ve got plenty of tools to work with — soldering irons for making electronic devices, laser cutters for carving wood and plastic, 3-D printers for creating complex plastic shapes, and a giant poster printer for cranking out large banners.
But Thackeray’s favorite gadget might be the lowest-tech item in the place. It’s a button-maker — a hand-operated press that turns printed photos or drawings into custom-made lapel buttons, of the sort often handed out by political candidates. It’s an almost primitive device, but Thackeray says it gets more use than any other machine in the place.
“It’s, like, nonthreatening,” she says. “’You know what? I may not be able to laser-cut something yet, but I can make a button.’”
The button machine acts as a gateway drug, tempting guests to try the more challenging machines nearby. “Ideally, we’ll have a progression of learning,” Thackeray says. “Maybe the next time you come in, you’ll solder a blinky light onto a circuit board.”
There are no windows in the Garage’s virtual reality room, but you can still see for miles with a VR headset wrapped around your eyes. “This is our fun room,” Thackeray says.
Microsoft people come here to relax and try on the company’s HoloLens augmented reality headset or its Windows Mixed Reality devices. The competition’s VR devices are also here, including Facebook’s Oculus system.
It’s not all fun and games, though. Some NERD engineers drop by to test new software they’re developing for the HoloLens, while others come to master the system’s complexities before going on a sales call. Still, the place has the feel of a high-priced playpen, complete with massive gaming PCs designed to make the virtual seem as real as possible.
A Microsoft sign occupies a place of honor on an outdoor balcony, but it’s facing the wrong way — not outward over the streets of Cambridge, but inward toward the Garage.
The newish looking sign, steel-encased and designed to light up, was once attached to the exterior of a company building — Thackeray has no idea which one. It was taken down during a remodeling project and destined for scrap. When a companywide e-mail asked if anybody wanted it, Thackeray didn’t hesitate.
“I’m very proud of that sign,” she says. “They were getting ready to throw it away, and I’m like, ‘Please, give it to me!’”
She’s not the only one who loves the sign. With the Boston skyline in the background, it makes a fine spot for Microsoft interns to shoot a selfie or two.
Interns arrive in bunches — more than 40 this summer — and work in a large open-plan space designed to maximize social interaction. Like techies everywhere, they prefer to scribble down their ideas on whiteboards. Thackeray had learned from experience at other Garages that there are never enough whiteboards. So her design team came up with a simple, elegant solution — writeable walls that line the intern spaces. The students jot down everything: snippets of computer code, sketches of people and objects, random observations about life, the universe, and everything.
The walls may be even more popular than the Microsoft sign. “They got used like crazy” by summer interns, Thackeray says. But she’s not in any hurry to wipe them clean. Not until she’s had a chance to photograph them all, and perhaps turn them into a yearbook to commemorate a summer in the Garage.