Jan 8, 2020

How A Chance Encounter Led To A Starbucks Partnership

By Dave Mendlen

Imagine if tech conferences got the periodic upgrades that the products they showcased do, getting better and more productive each year. Imagine if the worth of your attendance to an annual event became more unquestionable with each yearly edition, simply by virtue of the collective expertise of those in attendance and the acquaintances you inevitably make.    

Can you picture it? Rubbing elbows with industry visionaries at the event registration table; spending the lunch hour making small talk with the Fortune 500 innovation executives seated next to you; in line awaiting your coffee, suddenly stuck in an engrossing conversation about a new solution that will hugely impact your industry.

If the sort of scenario I’m describing sounds too fortuitous for any of the conferences you know, I’ll share a story from Innovation Outreach, a forum for which I’m always determined to be in attendance. My own anecdote starts – you guessed it – in a line waiting for coffee, with just the sort of coincidental conversation that keeps me coming back to Innovation Outreach (IO) conferences.

A ‘grande idea’ to go

It all started while I was waiting in line at the Starbucks kiosk with my Microsoft colleague Dan Massey, at the bi-annual IO conference in Washington DC. We were conversing offhand about the project our team was working on – an exciting natural language processing (NLP) AI platform that might help streamline customer experience through voice recognition functionality. 

Suddenly, a voice from behind us chimed in, “We could really use that.”

We turned around to find Ryan Bruels, Director of Emerging Technology for Starbucks. Ryan’s team had long prioritized interactions between customers and baristas, or “partners,” as the most critical part of the entire business operation. Overhearing our conversation, Ryan had heard something that really piqued his interest. 

It so happened that Starbucks was in the midst of an initiative to add drive-thru lanes to 80% of its locations. The renovations had introduced new pain points for the baristas, and Ryan’s team had set about to address the issue, following a Starbucks philosophy that a better work experience translates into a better customer experience. They had been toying with the idea of a voice-activated point-of-sale system to facilitate transactions for the multitasking baristas in charge of taking and relaying customers’ orders.

Ryan was anxious to hear about the solution we’d been developing, and to share with us the needs his team was aiming to fulfill. The conversation carried over into dinner, and the three of us uncovered more and more synergies in the projects we were undertaking.

As has frequently been the case for the eclectic and esteemed attendee list at Innovation Outreach conferences, the stars – and project goals – were aligned. By the event’s close, Ryan, Dan, and I had agreed to move forward on creating a prototype concept for Starbucks.

And thus “Project Ramsay” was born. Microsoft's Commercial Software Engineering (CSE) teamed up with the Starbucks Emerging Technology team to create a hands-free and stress-free AI prototype that could interpret orders. 

What Innovation Outreach means to me

In today’s world, where every business is a software business, and where every facet of industry is reimagined through the newest technologies, it has never been more important to bring together creative, committed, and curious people. If you bring them together in an environment conducive to collaboration, the possibilities are enormous.

At Innovation Outreach, time and again we’ve found a setting uniquely ripe for sharing ideas, for building meaningful ties and embarking on new collaborations. Through its bi-annual conferences and its monthly communications – during its workshops, roundtables, and even queues for coffee – Innovation Outreach exemplifies the potential of an international and cross-industry approach to spurring innovation. 

So, come, have a coffee, attend a breakout session. Even butt in on a conversation. Sparks will fly. Ideas will be set alight.

By Dave Mendlen

Dave Mendlen is a General Manager at Microsoft.