Just about every big U.S. company is a Microsoft customer.

As the Seattle technology company's general manager for the north-central part of the country, Chance Garrity works with the IT shops of the biggest companies in the Upper Midwest. The region includes Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. Garrity also oversees the Microsoft Technology Center in Edina, a demonstration center where customers can come up with new ideas for their business.

As Microsoft moves forward with new CEO Satya Nadella and a renewed emphasis on business-to-business operations, Garrity answered a few questions by telephone.

Q: Could you describe your job?

A: I've got about 143 people that report to me; they live in and cover seven different states. We look after roughly the top 160 enterprise customers in that geography. The job is to really obsess about each one of our customers and how we can help them solve their most difficult challenges and how do we help them capitalize on new opportunities. Obviously, technology is often the tool that we see as a way to make that happen.

Q: Can you give us a sense of what types of companies these are?

A: Everybody from 3M, Cargill, General Mills, Polaris, Supervalu, Target, U.S. Bank, United­Health Group, Xcel — the big companies. Almost half of our customers are in Minnesota. In Iowa, I've got Principal, Rockwell Collins. I also have St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha. In Wichita, Kansas, I've got Spirit AeroSystems down there. Our district is unique in the U.S. in that we cover a pretty big geography.

Q: You're talking about all different kinds of technology, right?

A: We're focused on a couple different areas. Collaboration in general. How do we help customers collaborate more effectively, both with each other, with their partners, with their customers, and doing that any time, any device, any place? The second thing would be how do we help customers make better data-driven decisions? There's lots and lots and lots of data. How do you take and unlock the power of that data? If you look historically, a lot of times business intelligence solutions were in the realm of specialized people with very expensive tools. We're striving to commoditize that entire business. Mobility and security are also areas of focus.

Q: A lot of people, when they hear about Microsoft, think of Microsoft Office. What is the shorthand for this other stuff you're focused on?

A: It's about reinventing productivity for every person, every organization, in a cloud-first, mobile-first world. In the past we were kind of pigeonholed as the Word/Excel company. But we've got this really diverse set of products and solutions, from Office 365, our database business is huge, our unified communications business with Skype and Link. Xbox is a big business. So are our server and security businesses.

Q: What is the Microsoft Technology Center? What does it do?

A: We're kind of singular in the industry in that we've made these very big investments in technology centers. They're designed to be a collaborative environment where we bring in customers and nonprofits and give them access to innovative technology. The secret sauce is the world-class expertise we have. They're trained and educated in how to facilitate these sessions and envision a solution. The next job is to take that envisioning and say, then how do we design a solution, what would that look like? The Microsoft people know what the company can do. The customer brings in people with knowledge of their business and systems and the problems they have to solve. When you pair those two groups up, that's when a lot of the magic happens. They can connect dots very quickly. The time to market is just so much faster.

Q: How do you and your experts at the MTC handle difficult or skeptical IT professionals?

A: I think the customer usually comes with the right mind-set. What we often see happen, though, you'll have customers meeting each other for the first time. Some of our big customers, there are different divisions involved and they've never worked together before. If you're speaking to a group of eight or 10 people and you can sense there are a couple who have not bought in or they're disengaged, our architects are very good at drawing that out, saying, "I sense, Bob, that you're uncomfortable, or Cynthia, that you may have some questions." It just helps, having that architect really opens communication and brings the fences down.

Q: You guys like to talk about shifting the IT budget from keeping the lights on to solving business problems. Can you explain that?

A: In the past the bulk of an IT budget would go to maintenance, just keeping the core business applications up and running. You invest a lot in these very heavy systems and you spend a lot on maintenance. In a world where new business opportunities come up all the time, you've got to respond either to competitive challenges or new opportunities. If your budget's locked up keeping the current, fragile applications running, you can't respond very quickly. Our cloud capacity is one solution to that. When you look at cloud services, because of our innovative data centers and the scale of them, we can deliver computing at a much lower cost than an in-house data center. We now deliver more than 200 cloud services through our data centers.

Q: What is your sense of how the economy is doing?

A: IT was hit really hard when we had the economic downturn. The good news for Microsoft is we're kind of a commodity company. We don't really compete in high-end, boutique solutions. When times are tough, people tend to spend more with Microsoft.