After nearly 25 years in a variety of positions at Microsoft, long-time industry exec Julie Larson-Green left the Redmond-based tech giant earlier this year. Now, she is ready to announce her next gig: In January, she will become the first chief experience officer at “customer-service experience management” company Qualtrics, a Provo, Utah-based company that competes with SurveyMonkey. (In other words, they are also a provider of online survey and data tools.)
It’s a surprising move for Larson-Green, once speculated to be next in line for the CEO spot at Microsoft—a rumor she won’t comment on. But Qualtrics has had a solid, albeit quiet, trajectory, for more than a decade. The company started in the academic space, selling its software to universities and researchers, and now caters to a growing list of Fortune 500 companies who use Qualtrics to collect and analyze customer feedback. Led by co-founder Ryan Smith, profiled in Fortune last year, it has chosen to remain in Provo and not move its headquarters to Silicon Valley. Larson-Green will be based out of Qualtrics’ Seattle office.
Fortune caught up with the former Microsoft exec to find out why she’s making the move, and what her new role will entail.
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Fortune: How did you first get connected with Qualtrics and why did you choose this as your next move?
Larson-Green: Qualtrics has been on my radar for several years now. I first heard of the company from my husband, who is a university professor and has used Qualtrics in his classroom and research. He went on a ski trip and ran into Ryan [at the Salt Lake City airport]. Ryan was wearing a bunch of Qualtrics gear, so my husband went up to him and said, “Hey, do you know this company, Qualtrics?” And Ryan said, “Yeah, it’s my company.” Ryan followed up on the conversation by sending my husband a hat and a T-shirt.
About a year later, Ryan came to Microsoft and presented to the senior leadership team. I thought that this was a really interesting take on how to get customer feedback; I’m always trying to figure out how to get the right inputs into a product. My last position at Microsoft was chief experience officer, and we wanted to break down silos between products and use data from customer to create products. So this resonated with me. I was on leave this summer [for medical reasons] and thought about what I was going to do when I go back to work. I heard that they [Qualtrics] were looking for someone for this role, and it seemed like a very good fit.
You spent nearly 25 years at Microsoft. Qualtrics is much, much smaller. Did you want to work at a smaller company or was it the role itself that attracted you?
It wasn’t so much the size, but the opportunity to be in a pioneering company. They have a great existing culture but as they grow I want to help them grow their culture. I want to go somewhere where the company is a little younger, not already set in their ways. They have a transparent and open culture. I thought it would be a really good fit, also bringing some of the skills I have developed working at a larger company.
It was rumored that you were one of the people in line to be CEO at Microsoft [back when Steve Ballmer was still heading the company, and before current CEO Satya Nadella was picked]. Was this accurate?
This was speculation. I can’t comment on that.
Do you see any parallels between much earlier days at Microsoft and where Qualtrics is today?
It’s still early for me to tell, ask me in a few months. But I definitely think Ryan is a thought leader and has a vision, and that has similarities to Microsoft.
What about your last role versus what your mandate will be at Qualtrics? The title is the same, but will your responsibilities be different?
The commonality is that it’s overseeing end to end products but some of the responsibilities are different. At Microsoft I ran the Office team and engineering and design and product. At Qualtrics I’ll be running the people and product teams. One of the things I’ve learned over the years at Microsoft is that you have to have the culture in place, and that highly engaged employees is often the best way to have the best products.