Q&A With Mark Drapeau: Microsoft Intrepreneur

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Meet Mark Drapeau, Director of Innovative Engagement at the Microsoft Office of Civic Innovation in Washington, D.C., a position created just for him. Drapeau talked with WashingtonExec about his outreach methods for Microsoft, thoughts on social media, as well as how he views his unique job.

WashingtonExec: Can you talk a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up, what did you study in school, and how did you ultimately come to be at Microsoft?

Mark Drapeau: I grew up and went to college in the northeast. I was always interested in solving problems and that led me to a love of science. I majored in biology, and concentrated my studies and undergrad research on animal behavior. Specifically, I was interested in how animals signal to each other, and how they receive and interpret signals.

During grad school and postdoctoral studies I lived in southern California and Manhattan, respectively, and there I continued my lab investigations into animal behavior from different viewpoints: genetics, neuroscience, genomics.

I took a fellowship to work with the Department of Defense on science policy research, and I stayed there for three years working on a variety of topics. Initially I worked on a number of topics related to biology, including ecological modeling of counterinsurgency, the relevance of biotechnology to the military, and preparing for a possible influenza pandemic.

In early 2008, I became very interested in online behavior and specifically the effects of the Web 2.0 ecosystem on national security.

Through my work on social software, I made a lot of contacts in the technology space, and that eventually led to my joining Microsoft in Jan 2010 as their “Director of Innovative Social Engagement” for public sector.

WashingtonExec: How would you describe what you do at Microsoft? Where do you see it fitting in, niche-wise, with the company as a whole?

Mark Drapeau: My role at Microsoft is partly to innovate some of our verticals like citizenship, marketing, and product evangelism to be more creative about building relationships with stakeholders online and offline. That involves working with those teams on various projects and initiatives ranging from different kinds of sponsorships and partnerships to brainstorming about novel campaigns.

I also support various sales teams as they engage customers I might be familiar with (like, say, the Department of Defense), to provide thought leadership, or to help provide them with new contacts at agencies they may not have been familiar with.

Finally, for hard-to-reach audiences who are important to build relationships with but that may “fall through the cracks” of our traditional outreach areas, I spend time creating new ways to build relationships. This usually happens in a few steps over a long period of time.

Generally, I start by simply attending events and meeting relevant people. Then I determine if we might do something simple, like sponsor an event novel for us but which speaks to that audience. Then I might do a larger experiment – SectorPublic.com (public sector thought leadership) and Geek 2 Chic (a fashion show in late 2010 with Bloomingdales) are examples of those.

Finally, I determine if we should stand up something more permanent to add value to a niche and continue to build relationships with stakeholders and increase our brand equity in the public and civic sectors. I think you’ll see more and more of this from me during 2011-12.

WashingtonExec: What are your thoughts on social media apps like Twitter, LinkedIn, etc? What roles do you see them fulfilling, and how have you used them in your own “strategic engagement”?
How would you suggest others use them?

Mark Drapeau: There’s a lot of new media out there, from old-school platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to newer platforms like Path, Quora, and Instagram. What does it all mean? There is no one answer, no magic bullet for users, in the public sector or anywhere else.

The only thing I care about is solving problems. I tend to ask a series of questions to determine what kinds of new technology – if any – are applicable to a given situation. In order: What is your mission? Who is your audience? What is your message/narrative? What technology can help you tell this narrative to that audience to achieve that mission?

I like to follow what the State Department is doing in this space. For one project in Africa they employed text messaging because that helped them reach their specific audience for a specific mission. For another, they held an elaborate film competition about democracy using YouTube. And still, much of the time, their work is relatively low-tech. None of these is any “better” than the other.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Part of truly knowing about social software is knowing when *not* to apply it to solving a problem. Not everything needs a “Twitter strategy.”

WashingtonExec: Do you see working as part of a large, well-known group like Microsoft as different from marketing something like a small start-up? What different skills or approaches are needed?

Mark Drapeau: It’s absolutely different. I hate to label things, but I’m somewhat of an “intrepreneur” at Microsoft.

Most people only see what I do publicly – speaking engagements, hosting events, lunch meetings, etc., but there is an entirely different side, which is what I do internally. This involves a lot of reading about what the company or the division is doing or planning, having conference calls with colleagues, and basically understanding what our priorities and problems are.

It also involves a lot of maneuvering. Within a large organization, a good deal of time is spent winning people over to your point of view, particularly if that point of view is an innovative one. At a startup that might involve a 10 minute conversation or a one-day brainstorming session. At a larger organization it might involve 10 days of emails or a month or two of weekly meetings. There are pluses and minuses to such a system.

Being part of a larger organization also involves a different way of assessing risk, and understanding a myriad of viewpoints. Again, there are pluses and minuses to this.

When something truly public and game-changing comes from a large organization, it’s likely that 70% of the work was done on the back-end trying to make it happen, and 30% on actually executing the thing!

One interesting thing about all of this is that while creative agencies like advertising firms do execute innovative campaigns for large organizations, it’s often (1) almost entirely outsourced, and (2) executed within a limited timeframe. What I’m trying to do is largely in-house, and executed with a longer timeframe in mind. Meaning, I’d like to build new engagements that have lasting effects within specific communities that come from the heart of the company.

 

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