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For those that develop hardware and software using Microsoft platforms, the Microsoft Build conference is a must-attend event. This year Microsoft is showcasing its massively successful pivot to the Azure cloud and its reformulation of the company from one that was product-focused to one that is far more user-focused again.
This bucks two troubling trends. Trend one is to try to fund products through advertising, which, in my opinion, has corrupted the critical customer/vendor relationship. The other bad trend is to populate company boards with hedge fund managers who tend to be overly focused on quarterly results and to sacrifice the future of the company in exchange for a short-term stock spike.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in contrast, is playing the long game, doubling down on user focus. His goals appear focused on creating a better future and not overly focused on spiking Microsoft valuation.
This is the first event in a long time where I felt like the company cared more about conveying a message than it did about filling time. Normally, I could write papers on the mistakes that are made at these things and how the audience is mostly doing email during major sessions.
That isn’t happening at Build. The speakers are engaging, entertaining and interesting. The audience mostly listening. (There are always some who can’t escape email, but the majority appear to be watching the talks). I used to be part of a group that taught best practices at events like this. If I still were, I’d use this event as an example of what to do — even though I used to use Microsoft as an example of the worst practices. That alone is a huge change. I don’t impress easily, and I’m very impressed.
Microsoft’s Three Pillars
When CEOs highlight pillars, they are focusing not only customers in these areas were the firm is expending most of its resources but its employees as well. It is a statement of goals and a highlight for what the CEO thinks is most important. As a result, it provides a unique look into the future of the company and into the CEO’s mind. If you just listen, you can decide if the CEO, and his or her people, really care about your or just your wallet.
It can also tell you whether the CEO even has a clue. Those that just spout buzzwords in strings are likely clueless about the products they sell, and we have way too many hired-gun CEOs that are clueless. Fortunately, Nadella isn’t one of them.
I’ve often argued that CEOs should be subject matter experts because only then can they formulate a successful vision and make sure their people execute against it. Microsoft’s new pillars are as follows:
- Privacy: Nadella, and therefore Microsoft, believes privacy is a fundamental human right. Microsoft has set of core principles to ensure that users have control of and can manage their personal information. Microsoft is a believer in and backer of GDPR, and it promises to be compliant with it by the time this month ends. Microsoft has aggressively moved to protect user privacy from both hackers and governments. The fact this is listed first shows how important privacy is to Nadella and Microsoft.
- Cybersecurity: Nadella believes that we need to act with collective responsibility across the tech sector to help keep the world safe. Microsoft has aggressively fought governments' attempt to access user information. It has worked to help secure the US democratic process and has aggressively worked in concert with other firms to assure users are protected from attack. This is in sharp contrast to early Microsoft, which seemed to think security was anyone’s responsibility but its own. It goes back to the old IBM belief that the vendor owns the security of its products. This is the way it should have always been.=
- Ethical AI: This is to fight the concerns stated by Bill Gates and others that AIs are becoming increasingly dangerous. We need to ask not only what computers can do but what they should do. Microsoft has formed an ethics board in the company to assure that the firm is on the right side of history. Nadella believes we need a good AI so the choices we make are in concert with a positive future for the human race. We need tools that can de-bias the information going in to creating AIs so that they aren’t flawed by how they are trained. Microsoft has invested in massive libraries surrounding verticals to ensure accurate information.
After the alleged Russian manipulation of Facebook to change election results, a lot of us have become increasingly concerned that future AIs may be programed with fake news, resulting in heavily biased, borderline insane, future AIs. IBM is also focused like a laser on assuring our AI future and, like Microsoft, believes that AIs should be used to help humans and not replace them.
A New Microsoft
I’m struck by several things at this year’s Microsoft Build conference. One is that this is a very different Microsoft. For instance, a common comment at past Microsoft events is that they have too many people on stage that have titles but suck at speaking. That is not the case this year. The speakers are inspired, well-rehearsed, funny and incredibly entertaining. The result is that the audience is engaged. They are cheering and clapping at the right times, and I think I’m having some kind of out-of-body experience. This is the way it always should have been.
In addition, the three pillars are user focused not product focused. Another thing that should have never changed — they are about keeping your information tied to you and safe, about protecting you from external influence and attack, and about assuring that future AIs won’t become an existential threat. I’m a huge fan of not creating a Terminator future.
I do find it a tad sad that this focus by Microsoft is more the exception than the rule. I hope other firms will follow this example and put their focus where it should be, back on keeping users happy, protected, and the ultimate beneficiaries of what the company provides. Too many firms have lost track of this, as has been highlighted in the book Technically Wrong. Microsoft was Technically Right, and that differentiation, above all else, speaks very well to this era's Microsoft.
If you are here with me at Build let me know if you agree. If you aren’t, you should be. This is just a tad over amazing.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.