Q&A: Microsoft’s Brad Smith on job training initiative, philanthropy and Facebook

Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking at the 2019 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire / Dan DeLong)

Microsoft is on an extraordinary philanthropic marathon, announcing a new plan Tuesday to train 25 million people around the globe in the skills of the future.

The announcement came one week after Microsoft unveiled a sweeping racial justice initiative and just a few months after pledging to become “carbon negative” by 2030 and remove the total sum of carbon that the company has emitted since launching by 2050. Microsoft unveiled that initiative in January, one year after the company vowed to spend $500 million on the housing and homelessness crisis in its home region.

Previously: Microsoft unveils sweeping job training initiative to teach digital skills to 25M impacted by pandemic

Microsoft’s bold philanthropic bets — combined with the wisdom of experience that comes with being a technology pioneer — has helped the company set itself aside from its tech industry peers, which are mired in controversy.

But could Microsoft’s appetite to take on big societal challenges become a distraction from its core mission?

We posed that question and more to Microsoft President Brad Smith on Tuesday in a wide-ranging conversation about the job training initiative, philanthropy, and some of the issues plaguing the technology industry. Read the edited Q&A below.

GeekWire: Will Microsoft directly hire people who complete the training programs?

Brad Smith: I hope we’ll have the opportunity to hire some of these 25 million people that we’re hoping to help. One of the inspirations for this effort is that we’re at a moment in time where short- and long-term trends are really coming together. The long-term trend is obviously the increasing digitization of the economy and the growth in jobs that have more digital content. The short-term trend is the urgent need to help people develop the skills to get a new job, especially people who’ve lost their job as a result of this pandemic. There are lots of talented people, not just in the United States, but around the world so as we engage in hiring, I would guess and hope and expect the some of the people will find a way to Microsoft. We’ll be beneficiaries of all this.

GW: Microsoft says this initiative will train 25 million workers. How did you come up with that number and how will you execute on it?

Smith: We basically started by pulling data from the LinkedIn Economic Graph, we identified the kinds of jobs that are in demand and the kinds of skills that are needed. We looked at their distribution around the world. We looked at where we thought we could reach different populations around the world and built an estimate from the bottom up. We thought about the number of people who could access the learning content. We did estimates on the number of people who would likely be interested in taking exams on this kind of low-cost, subsidized basis, and we did estimates based on the number of people that the different non-profit groups could reach. Based on all of that we concluded that 25 million is an ambitious but realistic target on a global basis.

GW: What impact do you hope this will have on other employers?

Smith: Fundamentally, this points to a hugely important challenge for every employer in the world. As jobs become more digitally focused employers need to hire people that have more digital skills but that’s really just the start. Employers need to invest in more employee training. That’s one of the real clarion calls of our announcement today. It’s why we highlighted data that shows that employer investments in employee training around the world declined in the first decade of this century and then stagnated in the second. We need to turn that around in the third. Part of this involves more commitments by employers to invest in employee training. Part of this will help people get back to work because employers can help onboard people more quickly if they have more accessible training when new employees start.

But there’s two other ingredients that we think are absolutely critical. One is better technology to enable employers to provide more effective training at a lower cost. That’s where our new app that fits into Microsoft teams comes into play. That’s why we highlighted that in June even though we’ll be coming back this fall to make the next steps around that available. It’s also why government has such an important role to play. We think that governments do many valuable things today at the state level and in the United States. For example, that includes workforce boards. But we think that in the United States, for example, there is a huge opportunity for better government incentives. For example, as Congress considers another stimulus package, or later this year, we hope it will consider providing tax credits to businesses, at least small businesses, to make it easier for them to invest in more training. When you put it all together it takes a commitment by employers, it takes better technology, it takes better and more support from government. That’s what we need in order to turn around two decades of this moving in the wrong direction.

GW: Microsoft has announced some pretty aggressive philanthropic initiatives: affordable housing, going carbon negative, widespread racial justice efforts. Why the big push now and is there a risk that it could distract from Microsoft’s core mission?

Smith: I actually think that these kinds of broader societal efforts contribute to, and even reinforce, our core mission as a company. We’re crystal clear in defining our mission. It’s to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. So when you think about it in that sense, what speaks more directly to empowering people than equipping them with new skills? When I think about affordable housing, it’s really hard to empower people to achieve more in their lives if they don’t have a place where they can afford to live, if they can’t live in a home that is in reasonable proximity of the community where they want to go to work and want to be part of the community. None of us has much opportunity to do more with our lives if we can’t do what it takes to save the planet.

All of these things actually knit together and the other thing that it connects to is the part of our mission that connects to organizations. In many ways, one of the points that Satya Nadella has made repeatedly is you can’t succeed as an individual if the organizations that you’re part of are not healthy well. That means healthier businesses, it means healthier nonprofits, it means healthier governments, and it means institutions that are focused on all of these issues. l think the recent focus on racial injustice is not only long overdue but it actually shines a light, as well, on how these things come together. Data for example has a powerful role in leading to police and prosecutorial reform. Data has a powerful role to play in helping us appreciate the disparate impact that is afflicting the African American and Black community in the United States in terms of denying them the same kind of educational opportunities and employment opportunities as say white people. All of these things fit together. We don’t see it as either-or. We see these broader issues as part and parcel of the core of what we do.

GW: Do you think that that’s how your investors see it too?

Smith: Increasingly in the investor community, there is not just an appreciation of but a focus on so-called environmental initiatives, good governance, and broader societal responsibilities that companies have. I do think we are in an era where there is a broader appreciation of the role of business and higher expectations for business and this comes, in many ways, from investors. It comes even more directly from employees. Certainly, the younger generations of employees want to go to work for businesses that not only are doing well for themselves but doing good for others. People are looking for that sense of purpose, in not just their individual work, but the company where they work. I think all of these things connect with, frankly, what it takes to be successful in the broadest sense of the wold.

GW: Could investors also see it as a risk mitigation strategy? Because Microsoft has been able to avoid some of the antitrust and other issues and controversies that are dogging its competitors in many cases.

Smith: Perhaps, but I personally tend to be a little more skeptical of that. I think that people are very good and rightly so in compartmentalizing different issues. If a company does a good job at addressing something like affordable housing or climate change, people definitely appreciate that but I don’t think it means that government officials can or should look the other way when they’re thinking about other issues. And obviously those other issues in the world today include a wide range of regulatory issues. They include privacy and cybersecurity issues. They include antitrust issues. So I would be skeptical of any company that thinks it can have an effective strategy of avoiding one problem by doing more to address a different problem.

GW: On the antitrust front, you recently commented on Apple’s App Store policy. What are your thoughts about Facebook and the issues it’s having around moderation of inappropriate content or hate speech?

Smith: We spoke out after a lot of thought about concerns regarding Apple’s App Store. From my perspective, really across the technology sector, all of us need to keep addressing a broader set of issues around content, around disinformation, around misinformation. Facebook has to address these issues because there are 2 billion people that use its platform. We welcome the opportunity to talk to Facebook about these issues and we find that Facebook is interested and willing to talk when we raise these issues.

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