Building A Product from the ground up for Microsoft Requires Grit

Brett Cooksey

Senior Director of Technology at C.H. Robinson



Alpha customer, Microsoft, wanted a visibility tool across their entire supply chain. This is something that C.H. Robinson was perfectly poised to work on. They had already been working with Microsoft from a management services perspective, not a visibility one. Microsoft had purchased a Digital Startup Solution with hopes of solving their visibility problem, but C.H. Robinson owned all the data and expertise.

The challenge this caused was one where the startup may have had world-class engineering skill, but their business acumen, context, and IP was lacking. There was a good chance; this would not be enough to handle the needs of Microsoft.

They had to deal with the challenges of creating something for the first time for a company like Microsoft, which is no small feat.

Actions taken

Brett put together a small team of two UX specialists, and they spent a week onsite with the Microsoft teams observing everything they could. This allowed them to try and understand the visibility potential. A crisis occurred for Microsoft, which allowed Brett and his team to see Microsoft from a unique perspective.

"That week allowed them to create some mocks, get Microsoft to sign off on it, and go back to C.H. Robinson ready to sell to their management team. They needed the resources to build out the solution to Microsoft's problem. Microsoft was incredibly gracious and pleasant to work with. They let C.H. Robinson keep the IP, all they asked is that they focus on their strengths."

Through a lot of cross-functional work, they had created an MVP in three months. The MVP was a sign that they were on to something, so they dug in deep and with a team of six, they had an operating product in about six months.

They recognized the value of their product do they continued to scale the team and the product to handle the demand it created.

The team has now grown to 22 individuals, and they have included a dedicated commercial team. With this, they are about to launch it a second time with Microsoft as a partner and other global participants.

Lessons learned

Being onsite allowed Brett and his team to see how Microsoft operated. The crisis that arose allowed them to experience the Microsoft worker's persona in its natural habitat. There are these innate things they may be doing that are not understood, or even accessible by everyone. This meant Brett and his time has to find ways to capture that IP, systematize it, and then scale it.

It was very challenging to create an MVP while dealing with the cross-functional nature of a Saas product. They had to explain to the stakeholders why things were taking more time than was hoped. They had to ensure that the infrastructure team was doing what they needed to, especially since this project was the first of its nature. Brett speaks to the importance of getting the MVP down first. You have to start with the scooter before you build the Cadillac. Once you have the MVP, scale away.

A project like the one they took on requires appropriate scaling given the nature of the product. Having an operating product that processes 5 million messages a minute requires some real in-depth attention to detail. Now that their customers expand past Microsoft having the right team working on it is significantly more critical.

Brett puts a lot of emphasis on expectation management. Being hyperaware of what to expect; both from yourself, and the people around you is essential. How you communicate, what you commit to, what is possible, and what your arena of influence is.

"In a lot of ways, you are always selling. You may not be selling strictly from a monetary point of view, but you are indeed selling expectations, capabilities, and aspirations. You will be selling to the infrastructure team, the development team, and the customer because they need to believe that you are capable of what you say you are. When you are selling something that has not been created yet, all you have to sell is an expectation."

It is a massive amount of work to build something from the ground up, especially after you set the expectation that you know how to make it. Brett says he wouldn't wish it on his own worst enemy. However, despite this, he fully recognizes that this hard work and dedication is what builds success. You don't get anywhere without blood, sweat, and tears. There is no short cut.

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Brett Cooksey

Senior Director of Technology at C.H. Robinson

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementTechnical ExpertiseTechnical SkillsProgramming

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