Words by Ellie Doughty

Hugh Milward, former Senior Director and current General Manager for Corporate, External and Legal Affairs at Microsoft UK sat down with me this past week for an exclusive Badger interview.

We discussed the effect the pandemic had on Microsoft and the tech industry, as well as navigating the challenges of remote working and education.

Hi Hugh, thank you for joining me today! I’d like to start by asking about the initial changes Microsoft took at the beginning of the pandemic. While most companies have continuity plans to prepare for disruption, it’s fair to say they might not be equipped to deal with global pandemics, nation-wide closures, quarantines and travel restrictions.

Can you talk us through the initial shift Microsoft made when the pandemic hit? Were you prepared?

Hi Ellie, no problem! Yes, of course. It’s interesting because the work we did in preparation for Brexit was surprisingly helpful in terms of crisis planning around COVID. We had standing arrangements for bringing together parts of the business around crisis and continuity, like our continuity team already established with representatives from different parts of the business.
Effectively we had a modus operandi, so we had principles for the way in which we would handle it already well established and well used. As we shifted towards COVID, it was actually very easy, very straightforward. It just ensured we had different people from HR, operations, finance, communications, all of the different aspects being managed coherently.

How have you as a company encountered the digital crime such as scamming and fraud attempts that have been a byproduct of everyone spending so much time online?

Microsoft is one of the world’s largest cybersecurity companies. So in terms of how we protect our own people, there is permanently – irrespective of COVID – a huge focus on physical security, information security, cybersecurity, device security. There’s at least annual training for all staff on various aspects of security. Our own infrastructure that we use is also pretty hardened to these sorts of issues.

And then we do things like train people on phishing scams, finance scams and so forth. We not only train them but we run fake scams, so people get used to what they’re seeing. When we find people aren’t responding in a particular way, it’s a training opportunity for us to go back and help them to understand what they’re looking for. We’ve also got very strong guidance around things like having a listening device, say an Alexa, near our employees while they’re doing what you might call ‘secure work’ from home.

In terms of guidance for our customers, it’s interesting, what we’re finding is there’s a massive increase in nation state cyber threat taking place at the moment. We’ve got attacks from threat actors based in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran who are kind of seeking to penetrate our customers.
Where those customers have made the progressive move into cloud computing, for example, we’ve got good visibility of what that threat looks like. So we can step in and help the customer to resolve it.

Where those customers are still working out of the cloud, with localised software, where they have their own systems which they may use to connect with their headquarters, we have no visibility and the threat is significantly greater.
The other threat you’ve got is the human threat which we see, like child exploitation which we see going up. Particularly where you’ve got the safety of schools not being there for vulnerable kids, social services pressed in different ways, abusers and survivors in closer proximity for much longer periods of time. So those are the threats we also see.

Do you think we as a society will spend more time working from home and connecting online ‘after’ the pandemic, and take some of our COVID life habits with us?

I think that the case for flexible working has now been made. Board rooms and management teams across the country now recognise that when you’re working remotely, it’s not a duvet day. It can actually be incredibly productive. The way in which we run anonymised workplace analytics on our own systems, we can see that people working from home are actually more productive than people who are commuting to the office. So you’ve kind of got an environment where there is a cultural shift towards an acceptance of working differently.

One of the things we’ve found and conducted a good amount of research on is the competition for talented staff is stronger than ever. In this rebuild after COVID, the best employees will be able to essentially make demands of their employer. It’s really clear that people like the flexibility to work as and where they want, when they want. And so companies that are going to be most successful are those companies who understand what their staff want and respond to that. Increasingly what that means is that you optimize the place of work for the kind of work that needs to be done.

I think that’s going to be an interesting management challenge for business, but the results are going to be very interesting in terms of Britain’s productivity. Ultimately giving your workforce that kind of flexibility is a signal of trust, and managing by outcome over input or activity.

How do you think the great reliance on good technology this past year has been in terms of hitting different groups in society? Is it an equaliser or a catalyst for exclusion, especially when thinking of those who are completely without access?

I think both. You can look at it from a national or international perspective. What we’ve seen is around two years (and more) of digital transformation in just two months at the beginning of this pandemic. We certainly had big customers who were planning on their move to the cloud, and dipping their toe in the water with maybe a trial of 2000 users, and then the pandemic hit and they said ‘You know what? We’re gonna put all 120,000 users in the cloud’. And then they’re reaping the benefits that come from that. So there is a significant benefit for the way in which the economy operates.

You’ve got what have been the real lag guards in terms of digitisation, suddenly embracing the opportunity that digital presents. Of course then that means you have to have users with an equal level of digital transformation, we’ve seen horrendous challenges of families where the only device is a mobile phone on which kids are expected to do their school work and it’s just impossible. Equally where you’ve got two years of digitisation in only two months, then the people who are not digitising have just taken a two year step backward compared with those at the head of it. So you do have this real challenge that in certain parts of societies specific issues are holding people back from embracing the opportunity of technology.

Part of that is the cost of a device. That cost comes down all the time, and you can get a brand new device on which you can do all of the things you need to complete homework for between £80 and £120. So the cost can be very low, it’s a question of whether people want to, or are able to prioritise that cost. When you’ve got the device then there is the broadband connection you need, which is a real challenge. High speed broadband connection is a very real and ongoing cost for families. And then there’s the skills people may need in order to use it. Quite often the skills you need to operate it are only available once you can use the device. I do think there’s a role for companies to play in this, particularly about how do you deal with the initial motivation for people to climb the mountain so to speak.

But we are thinking about this from a very first world perspective here. Think about the challenge that we had at the beginning of this lockdown shortly after Christmas, where kids were expected to learn from home and didn’t have devices. In my family we have four kids, and you really need a device for each of them. If you have a shared device for a whole family you can’t really achieve the same sort of outcomes.
But then think about huge parts of China, India and sub-saharan Africa where you might have a single device for a whole village. Asking the developed world to lean in and donate devices to extremely wealthy countries like the UK really ignores the whole of the developing world where there is just as much benefit to be had from that kind of pace of digitisation. If this is the case we need to examine our priorities and work out whether we’re going about this in the right way, rather than too much of a paroquial and narrow perspective about supporting ourselves.

In your opinion, can online learning be as good, or a good substitute, for in person teaching?

I think it depends on what level of learning. For nursery and primary, it’s very very challenging to deliver effective online learning. When you get up to tertiary education, then I think it’s much easier. I find it baffling that student’s have as little collaboration between different Universities and departments as you currently do. There is an opportunity for more of a collaborative, MOOC-type approach to learning which is tremendous. For example, there are niche subjects, with singular expert lecturers delivering a very detailed topic lecture which is shared across British universities. So academics do have the opportunity to reach a far broader audience, but it also allows the Universities to focus on the in-person side, with more focus on tutorials, seminars and smaller groups. It also gives them more time to focus on research, as opposed to this massive scale duplication where you have departments UK wide doing the same thing across the country. It would create more opportunity for things like flip classroom learning also.

I also think that post 16 there’s an opportunity to do things differently, up to 16 education is mandatory, you have to have kids in school. If you’re relying on them to be a bit more self-guided and independent in how they learn, that is going to be a tremendous challenge for people with no interest or motivation for education. The point where you get to 16 and people are choosing to continue formal education in a school environment, and despite the fact that we have formal learning up to 18, it is still an individual’s choice whether or not they do A-Levels. And that choice can be made slightly differently if there’s a different expectation of how they will be self driven in the way that they learn. The short answer to your question is there is less opportunity for effective online learning pre-16 and more post-16.

The Microsoft UK website details some interesting AI (artificial intelligence) news. One platform is using AI to power genome analysis which could help speed up development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatment. What’s your experience and opinion of AI expansion over the last year? Has it changed the game?

I think AI is developing fast, and for some people AI is living up to the promise, for others it’s not. I think we’ve got to moderate our expectations of what AI can achieve in the short term and have great ambition in the long run. AI is effectively machine learning, and the real breakthrough will be data sharing. If we can open AI to better quality data-sets, then it’ll be able to achieve many more of the things we want it to.
Can it have an impact on health outcomes? Absolutely, without a doubt. Part of that will be how we get the regulatory structures in place to allow machine learning based on datasets that are currently contained within our patients records, within the NHS, but do so in a way that actually reassures people their data won’t be exploited.

As a father to four kids under the age of seventeen, how do you find balancing remote working and homeschooling?

I don’t mind my kids coming in and out of my office during calls or meetings, but they don’t like it! They try to make sure they’re hiding from the camera and that kind of thing. You know we’re having this conversation now and I know my youngest is in the next room trying to do some maths problems. Juliet and I have both had to build time into our days to go and help her with her maths and then come back to work, allowing her to come in and out to ask us if she’s got it right. And that’s challenging, it’s really hard.

My second youngest is exactly the same, profoundly unmotivated and really doesn’t see any point in doing his study particularly because there’s so little online teaching. I think online teaching makes a huge difference, allowing the student to interact with their teachers and peers. Without that it’s incredibly hard to stay motivated. So yeah, it’s hard, it really is hard. But I feel particularly privileged to have a space I can use for work, it’s not as hard for me as for lots and lots of other people.

However this is also where technology really comes into its own. The XBox has been absolutely incredible. The kids can play games with their friends, they’ve got the headset and microphone on and they can chat away to their friends. It’s been the most incredible tool for keeping in contact with their friend groups. Above creating and consuming content on technology, interaction has to be the most fantastic part especially at the moment.

When you think about the world of technology now compared to pre-pandemic life, do you feel positive about its future? Maybe pessimistic, or perhaps both?

I think the case is now proven for much wider use and adoption of technology as a force for good, for connecting people, for getting things done and addressing some of the biggest challenges that society faces. Just imagine if this pandemic had struck five years ago, it would’ve been completely different, but imagine if it was thirty years ago! I mean it would just be impossible.

I do think technology has been the saviour of our economy, in many regards our mental health, how we communicate and I feel very proud to be working where I am and positive about the future.

Thank you for joining me today Hugh and for sharing your invaluable insights!

Picture credit: The Daily Exposition

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