Microsoft had another blowout quarter, a massive acquisition and a noteworthy investment in Georgia, which just passed a controversial bill that restricts voting rights for minorities.
The company also announced a major initiative to help disabled people get jobs.
First Move’s Julia Chatterley spoke to Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, about the company’s news Wednesday.
Digital adoption curves aren’t slowing down but accelerating and it’s just the beginning. What are you seeing? What are clients doing at this moment?
Smith: We are seeing digital technology continue to accelerate and it is interesting when you look around the world we’re seeing this both in the countries that are obviously still suffering from the pandemic as people continue in many instances to work or shop from home. But we are also seeing digital technology accelerate in companies. And I think what that really speaks to is the decade ahead and how this is really a phenomenon for us from the cloud to productivity services to gaming to something like LinkedIn and learning that people have learned more about in the pandemic and in many ways will continue to use in their daily lives and certainly in the workplace as the pandemic eventually subsides.
You are clearly on the acquisition hunt. We saw that with the latest acquisition, Nuance. How do you make decisions and invest in this kind of environment?
Smith: Really, at Microsoft, the question for every major investment is always about the year 2030. It’s great to have the kind of quarter we did with the strong growth really across the board. But it is ultimately about the long term. That is one thing we’ve learned in our 45-year history and when we look at the long term, what we really see is ultimately the opportunity to use technology and data to spread opportunities for economic growth more broadly around the world. That really requires for us more capital investments, building more data centers around the world. These are as you know typically investments that cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more. And then, as we did with the acquisition of Nuance Communications, it is identifying the parts of the economy where AI can really bring about substantial improvement.
It all links to another huge announcement you made today. It hones in on what you call a huge, untapped talent pool in the world. It’s those that are in some way disabled. You’re making huge steps particularly over the next five years to try and narrow what you call the disability divide.
Smith: It really is important and an opportunity for all of us to just reflect a little bit more on the fact that more than a billion people around the world at some point in their life either temporarily or permanently will have some kind of disability. It might be relating to hearing or sight or other things. And when we look at the world today, you know, there is such enormous talent in this community. But only 33% of people with disabilities are currently employed. That compares with 76% of their peers. So that is really an enormous divide. And our view is that digital technology can help close this gap. It can empower people with disabilities to be more productive, and especially if we can build on that to really help bring people into the workforce, to give them the digital skills that will help them get a job, that will help employers better identify this talent and then make the workplace itself more inclusive of people with disabilities at a time when in some countries we’re looking at a perspective labor shortage, this is great talent that can help the economy continue to move forward.
Be specific about what you’re doing here.
Smith: We’re working with more universities to really make classrooms, starting in K-12 and into higher education, more accessible — easier for people with disabilities to navigate. But then a lot of it does also depend on digital tools. Imagine trying to do our jobs today without the ability to use a computer effectively for all of the things on which we rely. We are building more and more technology into our devices and our services to do that. Things that will make it easier for the blind community or the vision-impaired community generally to take advantage of technology, immersive screen readers and the like, captioning for the deaf community. But when you look at something like the home care givers, we want to train them so that when they’re in homes with people with disabilities they’re in a position to help this community learn how to use these tools. We want to provide more tools for software developers so when they’re creating their software, they’re really doing it with this philosophy of accessibility by design at the very start. So we’re focused as we always do by starting with our own products, but this is a movement. It’s a movement that has been gaining traction but it’s a movement that can spread much more rapidly over the next five years. And i think in doing so, just really change, transform if you will, the kinds of opportunities for people with disabilities.
I want to get your take on voting rights here in the United States. I know you’re making big investments in Georgia.
Smith: I think to a large degree the health of our business, even to some degree our existence as a business depends on living and working and in the US. Being headquartered in a country that needs to have a healthy democracy. I think for us that means three things: It means that voting needs to be easy. It means that elections need to be secure. It means that the electorate deserves to be well informed. And it’s always a challenge when companies have to take on these issues, but I don’t think we can look the other way. And at the same time, I think we really need to be principled and bipartisan in our approach. So that’s what we’re seeking to do.