There is a Chinese proverb that says “when the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” At its heart is the idea that change is natural and inevitable, and being creative with how we manage change can bring about tremendous innovation. The world of technology is a changing world and we are seeing it evolve before our eyes, year after year. Who are the people creating the windmills to harness these technological changes? What kinds of abilities do they have that set them apart from the people building walls?
If you talk to Jonathan Foster, Principal Content Experience Manager at Microsoft, creativity and openness are keys to innovation. Jonathan did not have “typical” educational or early career experiences one might expect for someone to land a job at Microsoft. He started as a writer and wrote screenplays in a world very far removed from tech. With some early successes in this area, political and economic changes after the September 11, 2001 attacks had him considering other options. Eventually, there was a role at Microsoft where he could apply his skills, creating video content for the Office software team. He was surprised when he was selected as a candidate because he didn’t have a tech background. He was not confident that he was a good fit because he wasn’t sure that the role aligned with his creative values. All that changed when he realized that this was an opportunity for him to develop his story-telling skills and this new role allowed him to reach people he never would have and impact their day-to-day lives. For Jonathan, this was his windmill moment.
It was during this time that Jonathan got involved with global content, moving from Office to Xbox to expand his own awareness of the global audience and the best ways to communicate with them. After a few years in this role, the winds of change blew again with the development of AI for a consumer market, the creation of Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant. Jonathan moved into a team that was developing Cortana’s voice for a global audience. This new area would impact even more people, bringing Cortana into homes and businesses worldwide. The decisions his team made about tone and style in English as well as all the other supported languages transformed the way people interact with technology.
Jonathan recognized one of the biggest challenges in localization is how the viewpoint of American culture gets spread throughout the world through the content we produce and distribute globally. When we bring technology into the most intimate spaces of people’s homes, for him it's essential to preserve the language and culture as best we can.
At first, the Cortana localization team did what many do, translated content from the English source into the target language. The challenge was clear: global markets would not be happy with the voice and could not feel connected to Cortana’s “personality”. How did Jonathan approach this challenge? He applied his creative background and helped to develop a global team of writers to craft the tone and personality of Cortana on a global level, to create Cortana in such a way that the personality would feel very unique to the user, emulating local communication styles and customs through language and areas of interest. The Cortana team also had local voice actors be the “voice” in their 13 global markets. It was a great success and Cortana is now widely used on devices around the world in local languages. While the work on Cortana continues, Jonathan has moved his attention and work to even more personalized assistants and AI.
What’s new and next for Jonathan? He is working on a Microsoft offering to chatbot developers and designers. “Personality Chat”, available through Microsoft’s Bot Framework, provides the option of 5 personalities to effectively align a company’s bot personality with their brand. They include a “graceful fail” capability with variation where appropriate, and they are fully customizable as well. He’s also exploring conversational experiences within Microsoft products that would not need Cortana or chatbot agency. Throughout all this, he’s steeped in the conversation around ethical design for human-like interaction. Along his career path, his tech skills have caught up and are running alongside the creativity. The windmill has now become a wind-farm and it’s generating innovative ideas regularly.