It Will be India First in India, America First in America...
One of the big bets you have made to reshape Microsoft is the cloud. What was the rationale? There are three major parts to what we have been up to in the past three years. Quite frankly, it starts with being very clear about the sense of purpose, your identity and why you exist as a company, and being able to answer that very crisply. Microsoft was created first when Bill (Gates) and Paul (Allen) built the BASIC interpreter for the Altair. Obviously a lot has happened since then in terms of technology. But, the core sense of purpose and the identity that is there in our genesis is very relevant. It is about putting technology in other people’s hands so that they can go on to create more technology. That’s how I think about platforms and tools and anything we do. We think about people, and institutions that people build to outlast them. We think about this on a global scale.
My story wouldn’t have been possible if it was not for Microsoft technology reaching me while growing up in India. We think about that going forward.
But the last piece is perhaps the most important. It’s not about our technology at the end of the day. It is what you do with our technology — be it a student writing a term paper, or a small business becoming more productive, a large business becoming more competitive, a public sector organisation becoming more efficient. That’s what we want to celebrate. To be that, is at the core.
Change doesn’t start by just making a technology bet. It starts being very clear when your sense of purpose drives you.
In today’s world, you got to have a first-class view being a tech company on what is the technology paradigm that you are going to innovate in. And that’s what I describe as cloud-first mobile-first.
It is not the mobility of one device, it’s the mobility of the human experience that spans across all your devices. Even today, when we were looking at all the startups, you can increasingly see it. Take the internet of things, the fact that there is going to be data coming from all the computing is becoming ubiquitous. Now, the cloud is what is going to enable that mobility.
That’s what we felt building out the cloud infrastructure for what are the emerging trends of distributed computing. And also, the realities of running a worldwide cloud infrastructure. We are in more regions than anybody else. We run with more compliance and data residency than anybody else.
We will also always have the hybrid cloud because of the Azure stack. This means that there is no lock-in. Customers care about it, governments care about it. So, that’s the bet and investment that we have made to be able to really bring the next generation of, what I think, is the platform that is going to fuel economic growth.
What is your overall reading of the India Stack and India’s digital programmes? It is very very exciting, I must say. India Stack’s vision of having a presence less-cashless-paperless vision — which is fundamentally about bringing down transaction costs in the economy so that every citizen, small business and large business can all benefit. This is a grand vision. We are very focussed on making Office 365, Dynamics 365, Windows 10 or Azure help India Stack leverage all of our technology.
Would you say that India is significantly ahead of other emerging markets in this segment? Different countries have done different things. I would say, in terms of having a very comprehensive vision of a stack — that’s pretty unique. Of course, you have to bring it to fruition, upscale. That said, even what has been achieved, the sheer number of identities and the transaction volumes I’m seeing is tremendous. India over the past 8-9 years, over two governments — that’s another great sign of maturity for India to persist with the programme across party boundaries, across elections and to keep on building.
With the advent of AI, one of the interesting developments is the talk about a Universal Basic Income. Given that India needs jobs, what is likely to be the effect of AI on jobs? Instead of just pigeonholing or thinking about just AI, if I look at it in a worldwide basis, there is tremendous economic growth. India is a shining example of growth. But, the world, which used to grow at 4% is now growing at 2%. So, we need new technology breakthroughs in order to have the type of growth we had in the 20th century. If anything, we need more technology and AI is definitely going to be instrumental.
The question is, as surplus gets created how is it going to be equitably distributed? I look back to the Industrial Revolution, the last time when there was a bit of inequity around return on labour and return on capital and that was when the labour movement was formed. That was when what was understood as social security was created. I think we will have to look forward to the new mechanism.
I know that in India there is a talk of ‘what is a Universal Basic Income’? But more than the social systems, the skilling... One of the other things that economists would call the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ has always been dis- proved. It’s not that there is only fixed amount of labour needed. There will always be different type of labour that is needed.
Maybe it is in fact, hard displacement from manufacturing to services. Then you have to train people for these new jobs. Continuous learning and skilling, not just high-end, but even mid skills, vocational training with machines and AI becomes important.
Overplaying, as if we already have artificial general intelligence is a bit of a red-herring. It’s better for us to deal with today’s issue. I look at who is AI helping in India? The government of Andhra Pradesh uses AI to detect high school dropouts so that they can take these scarce resources of the state and apply it in smarter ways. Now, the same is going to Jharkhand and Punjab.
I think, there is the good that comes with it, but also very mindful of the displacement of having both the policy framework and the skilling framework that goes with it, is very important.
Are you saying that history says that all new technologies create more jobs than they destroy? Just that we don’t know what’s the nature of these jobs? Yes, that is one. And also history proves that if there is that great grand future that has at least not happened so far where there are no jobs, then there is no need to create things like basic income because surplus will still be there. Then, the question is how are people using it? The other thing I look at is in a country like India, where there is going to be a service led economy, there are going to be many jobs. There are many things AI will never be able to do such as show empathy.
When there is a lot of artificial intelligence, real intelligence will be scarce, real empathy will be scarce, real common sense will be scarce. We can have new jobs that are actually predicated on those attributes.
Do you see a case for labour mobility, especially with increasing protectionism? In tech, there is a lot of worry about mobility to the US… The way I look at it, as an MNC our first and foremost job is to operate everywhere in the world and make sure that we contribute to that market in a fundamental way. When I think about India, we do not measure success based on our top and bottom line.
None of that top or bottom line is going to be stable if we are not creating employment. Our own direct employment is one measure. What is the employment in the partner ecosystem, around Microsoft.
There is no reason we come in as rent seekers. We have to create opportunity. There are over 10,000 partners, the health of those partners, how are they creating employment, what is their business model evolution. How are we helping be it in education or in health, or in public sector, small and large business? That’s at the core. The overall labour mobility in the world is going to be defined by every country’s immigration policy, every country’s trade deal or protectionism. Every country rightfully so, should think about their own national interest first.
It’s going to be India first in India, UK first in UK, America first in America. Our job is to operate in all of these countries with these principles of local opportunity creation.
America is a unique society, where someone like you or Sundar Pichai, purely on merit can go on to head iconic American companies. Do you see that changing? As I said, there are two core principles that I keep in mind when we think of our own operations. One is, as I referenced, MNC operating in every country and being a responsible operator where you measure yourself by the local opportunity you create.
The second thing is to truly imbibe the American values — after all we are an American-based multinational — and the American values have always been about inclusion and diversity. It’s a land of immigrants. And I am a product of both.
The first principle at play was American technology reaching me in India which made it possible for me to dream the dream. And then the enlightened American policy is what led me to live the dream. I think those are the things that we will always advocate for.
Your point about ‘will things change or not change?’ I think, American institutions and America as a country has always stood for its enduring values and will always stand. There may be some policy changes. It’s right for any government to look at their national security interests, their immigration policies in that context. At the end of the day, the American dream and the American enlightened immigration policy especially for high-skilled workers is something that I’m optimistic about. Do you have any advice for Unicorns in India now that some are in a bit of trouble? Ultimately, creation of anything new is persistence. It’s being able to stick with it and not swing with the moves. As always, things get over hyped and you go negative too quickly. You can’t be hijacked by either of the two moods. You got to be focussed on the business and customer value.
Even the way Binny (Bansal) talked about, alternately is about taking something like fashion. How can they innovate in fashion to meet the needs of the Indian consumer? That’s what is going to define success or failure.
Having a real technology agenda, investing in the right areas, getting the maximum leverage, being smart about the partnerships you form, that’s what I would look at. The entrepreneurial chaps in India — the ambition, the quality of their managerial capability, their technical prowess are world class.
Competition only makes you stronger. When was the last time Indian companies were able to compete with global multinational on equal terms? That itself is a breakthrough.
Some of them have taken to advocating Chinese-style policies. The owners of Flipkart and Ola have openly advocated their policy stand. What is your view? For India, it is for the Indian government to opine on an India-first strategy. ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ are great examples of things that are the state policies of this country. So, whether it is the local entrepreneur or the foreign capital that is coming in, both will be in service of those particular set of policies.
In our case, we have invested significantly in data centres that are helping Indian entrepreneurs and public sector organisations. There is goodness in that. Any country where foreign capital is only coming in to extract rent, any policy that allows that, is probably not a good policy. There needs to be that level of industrial policy that people who govern India and other places are definitely thinking through. N NARASIMHA MURTHY & AGENCIES You are turning author with your book ‘Hit Refresh’. What’s it about? Most times, business books at least are written after one’s tenure. I thought may be as I’m in the job, how can I essentially write about what I would say ‘my meditations’ on both my story and how are we at Microsoft approaching our own renewal. And what the world is going through as a sitting CEO of an MNC in an exciting time of technological change, geopolitical change, and cultural change at Microsoft. That’s sort of what I’m writing about.
Little did I realise that it’s one thing to say you are going to write it, and then you got to write it. I’m on the throes of it. So, let me finish and then talk more about it. Who do you lean on for advice? One of the things I’ve been lucky is to have a wide circle of people who I can go to for advice, who have been great mentors. Obviously, if it’s somebody like Bill (Gates) with whom I’ve have worked very closely for a very long time and there are very few people of that quality who can think about any issue across technology or non-technology and have a long-term view on it.
But I’ve also learnt from other CEOs. Jeffrey Immelt is an example. What does it mean for an MNC to operate responsibly everywhere in the world. Jeffrey Immelt has spoken very eloquently about that. And people like Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, who thinks deeply about technology trends but also the social impact of technology trends.
It’s fascinating to talk and learn from people like Nandan Nilekani, who has thought deeply having worked both in the private and the public sector, on what does it mean to build platforms for the government. This has got lot to do with the success of India Stack. It’s a privilege to learn from a wide variety of people.
How is the LinkedIn acquisition working out? Very, very good. We closed it in December and I am looking forward to going and visiting our LinkedIn team in Bangalore. We are very excited about the overall growth in that business. One of the things that I think about in any acquisition — be it Minecraft or LinkedIn — what can Microsoft uniquely bring to the property. In this case, the integration with Outlook/Office 365 or Dynamics 365 were fairly obvious for any professional.
Microsoft sees one billion plus professionals everyday, and this is the social network for professionals in connecting the two. We are excited about the innovations ahead and what LinkedIn and LinkedIn Learning can mean in skills development.