In 2000 Microsoft acquired the Great Plains software company in Fargo, North Dakota. At the time, many of the 1,200 employees felt their days were numbered, and that eventually Microsoft would take the software, move development to Redmond, and close down the Great Plains office. Since then, the folks in Fargo have shown Microsoft that not all great things have to be done in Redmond. I was on the Fargo campus last week, and learned there are plans to more than double the size of the campus in the next five years. Why is that? Because the folks in Fargo have proven to be world class in a number of key areas such as account transaction processing, accounting software development, and help desk & software support.
One of the most surprising facts I learned was that Microsoft recently closed down a Microsoft Office telephone center in India and relocated it to the Fargo campus, because of expectations of higher level of quality and lower overall costs. I also learned that a small Visual Studio development team was relocated to the Fargo campus from Redmond. And this is just the beginning. So what is their secret?
- Lower cost of living. Brand new starter homes are on the market in Fargo in the low to mid $100,000s instead of the low to mid $300,000s in the Seattle area.
- Employee longevity. The average Microsoft employee in Fargo has been with the company for over 6 years, as opposed to 3 years in Seattle. They also tend to stay in the same or similar roles for much longer, which means they actually have time to develop deep skills and expertise
The big challenge facing the Fargo campus is finding staffing. Over 70% of the employees at that office grew up and went to school within 200 miles of the campus. They are there because they love the area and they have family there. Fargo/Morehead boasts three universities and a technical college, so there is definitely a college-town feel. On the other hand, it is difficult to find people willing to relocate from cities to a semi-rural suburban community of 150,000 residents, with the nearest large city (Minniapolis/St. Paul) over 2 hours away. The solution? Microsoft is ramping up efforts to recruit more heavily from schools in the north/central states where a larger percentage of students are used to smaller communities, will be within a week-end drive away from family/friends, and that are used to cold winters (but hey: once the mercury falls below -15 it all feels the same anyway) such as Iowa, Indiana, South Dakota, etc.
What kind of people are they hiring? The biggest need is for technical people who know software development; so people with computer science backgrounds or who have some programming experience. Also new college graduates with internship experience or who have done some really cool things as a hobby. They also need a smaller number of people who can deal with people in help desk/customer support roles (entry level). These jobs tend to be feeders into other jobs such as design, technical writing, etc..
So what are the benefits? Very competitive salarys, benefits, stock ownership plans & matching contribution 401K plans. Low cost housing. No commuter traffic in the mornings (the average commute is 20 minutes). Great working conditions (part of Microsoft’s art collections are displayed in building corridors). Lots of career options within the company. Safe community. Easy access to outdoor recreation: lakes, rivers, hunting, fishing. Disadvantages? You’ll have to drive a ways if you like opera or alpine skiing. You’ll probably want a car with heated seats in the winter. Your friends will wonder what has gotten into you when you tell them you are relocating to Fargo. And who knows? You might end up convincing them to join you.