Microsoft UK CEO Michael Van der Bel talks about his career in technology, admiration of Dyson and the power of artificial intelligence
Michael Van der Bel is Microsoft’s UK CEO and has been with the company for nearly two decades. As the head of the company’s British business and sees big things in the future for cloud, artificial intelligence and the use of technology in education. Here, he shares his experience of the IT industry and Microsoft’s vision for the future.
I lead the operations for Microsoft here in the UK, a role I have been in for three and a half years. My job sees me connecting with all our UK customers and government, supporting the issues that matter most to the British public and making sure Microsoft is a healthy and happy workplace for all employees. The UK market is a diverse, vibrant and competitive market that is rapidly moving to the Cloud as an enabler for both business and people transformation.
I am what they call a Microsoft veteran having worked at the company for 18 years, previously VP of public sector for Microsoft International, COO in the Greater China Region and GM of the Netherlands. The China experience challenged and developed me the most and it is where I learnt my most valuable leadership principles. My biggest learning was ‘anything is possible, everything is difficult’ and it was important not to try and fix everything at the same time, applying a more sequential approach to this. This applies outside China too.
I believe in trust-based leadership and, in order to build that trust with your teams, you need to empower them to transform and connect in different ways. I like to create an environment which makes it possible for people to speak up, take risks and do things differently. I want to ensure people drive personal meaning and satisfaction at work. I have a strong belief that transformation starts with the individual and there is a need to be self-critical- are you really changing things or are you simply talking about change?
What has been your favourite project so far?
In my time as Microsoft UK CEO, I am most proud of our work in education. In September 2014, Computing became a part of the curriculum in the UK for all pupils from the age of five and Microsoft played a big part in making that happen.
We campaigned tirelessly along with other organisations for this change because if our children don’t understand computational thinking, then they won’t compete in the global workforce. Through Minecraft, our partnership with Code.org, and our support for the BBC micro:bit, we are making sure young people learn the digital skills that will secure their futures.
What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
It was the early dawning of the transformation we are currently in. I was working on everything with an e in front of the word: e-commerce, e-government, e-trading. Using information and communication technologies, particularly the internet, to connect people and improve public services.
What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
We are living in a world of profound change and transformation. Ten years ago a weekly shop meant two car journeys, a trolley fight with small children and a lengthy queue. Today, three clicks, a ring on the doorbell and 15 minutes to pack the fridge. Tomorrow, the fridge will do it for you. Or on even further forward – think about 3D printed parts on the International Space Station versus putting them on a rocket, or how quantum computing is set to revolutionise the amount of raw computing power we can apply to a problem.
For me the real-world deployment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is exciting; advances in machine learning will likely have significant influence on people and society, and the effects will span the legal, ethical and economic realms. Soon, we could see examples of retailers changing their shelf stock based on how their customers are feeling, and restaurants changing their menus in real time based on reactions to particular dishes.
One of Microsoft’s biggest research bets is AI and machine learning, which is used in a significant number of Microsoft products and services, improving Bing, Skype, Windows, Azure, and many more of our products and services. Specifically, deep learning (a machine learning technique using deep neural networks) has reignited some of the grand challenges in artificial intelligence, allowing us to help computers hear, see, speak and even understand.
Who’s your tech hero?
I look to pioneers who apply technology to drive greater benefit for society. Alexander Fleming, who discovered Penicillin, is an early example of this. A medical student who applied technological thinking to a problem to help save the lives of millions around the world. It’s interesting to see the current debate around antibiotic resistance and how technology may play a part in its evolution. And, if I may be permitted, the work Bill and Melinda Gates are doing with their foundation in combatting virulent diseases such as Malaria is both inspiring and heroic.
Who’s your tech villain?
Whilst the internet and modern technology provides society with a huge number of opportunities there are unfortunately those who abuse these innovations to harm children, steal property and damage lives. They’re the real villains.
What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
I love technology that drives human connections both in business and in our personal lives. Skype for Business and WhatsApp are great examples of this. My kids live abroad so we have a family WhatsApp group to connect us, we take it for granted but the technology behind these apps is truly amazing. In a world of mobile working and more collaboration, Skype for business is a mission critical app for many customers. As we begin to see a blurring between work and home life, how great that a business trip abroad will mean you can still be present at home for a family meal.
Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
I admire companies that have disrupted and transformed their industries and have a growth mindset and a mission culture. They’ve stayed close to their core values and never compromised, from the CEO down to each individual. Dyson is a great example of this, a company that has transformed the humble vacuum cleaner to a sought-after design classic.
What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
Each day our world creates new technology. New devices, new apps, new services. Which means new ways to do things, new ways to connect, new things to learn. And while each holds the promise of helping us get more done, with less effort, too often they simply become one more thing competing for our time and attention. Too often, these solutions become part of the problem. That’s why at Microsoft, we want to reinvent productivity.
We don’t see productivity as a software category. It’s the engine of human progress. And it needs to be rebuilt for a world where devices outnumber people and create more data than they consume. That’s where we’re headed: infinite devices and infinite data colliding with our finite time and finite attention. I think this is one of the greatest challenges an IT department, as strategic advisors to their business, has to face when it comes to helping to drive the company and its people forward.
To Cloud or not to Cloud?
Ultimately, businesses that do not put the customer first will fail. Transformation through cloud is imperative for businesses in order to understand their customers better through engagement and insights, maximise profitability and do more with less, drive better engagement with employees and create new ways of doing business.
We want to help businesses in UK to achieve more and fundamentally this will happen through the cloud. My message to CIOs who are strategic advisors to their businesses, is that we can help you harness the power of the cloud and, in doing so, find new growth.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I had a great childhood- busy being a child playing with my Lego and wanting to have fun everyday!
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