If you sit down to rank the most recognizable top executives in leading technology companies, Microsoft President Brad Smith probably won't even make your long list of candidates. But while not a household name, Smith still plays as important a role as his boss, CEO Satya Nadella, as an emissary to the world outside of Redmond.
An education lawyer and 26-year veteran of Microsoft, Smith is fully responsible for the company's relationship with clients, competitors, governments and NGOs. Its purpose, in other words, is Microsoft's place in society. And this means that it goes far beyond the bad work of selling software and services to cover everything from fair elections to immigration policy to AI risks ̵
Now Smith has turned. his thinking on such matters in a book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Danger of the Digital Era which he wrote with Microsoft's Director of Communications and Foreign Affairs, Carol Brown. Putting his thoughts on paper, he follows a long tradition of Microsoft. In the 1990s, co-founder Bill Gates compiled a list of bestsellers twice, with a largely optimistic Way Forward and Business @ Speed of Thought . And two years ago, Nadella published her own volume, partly related to his efforts to restart Microsoft and partly to where technology could lead us next.
In 2019, a book about the present and future impact of technology on humanity that was ruthless. he would feel upbeat about the reality. But Smith's experience at Microsoft allowed him to scrutinize the major problems and possible solutions, a task he felt he liked.
"There are people who are tech savvy, but they may not have penetrated the world of politics or politics," Smith told me in a recent interview. "There are people who are trapped in the world of politics and politics, but they may not be trapped in technology. And most people are not really arranged in either one or the other. But these problems affect them. And they are more and more important to them. "
Bring on the Fedes
Tools and Weapons is full of elements that Smith and Brown had previously explored in Microsoft on the issues of a surprisingly thought-out corporate blog consisting not only of the positions of the hobs that you would assume any giant technology company owns. And the blog appears in the book discussing an incident involving Microsoft's immigration and customs administration (ICE) contract with the US Department of Homeland Security. Although the deal involved simple technology such as cloud-based e-mail migration and calendars, Microsoft's marketing materials undoubtedly invoke the ICE capability of face recognition provided by Microsoft.
With ICE separating the children of migrants from their families across the border, there was disruption to Microsoft's business with the agency, with some employees urging the company to cancel the contract. That didn't happen. The controversy, however, prompted the company to ponder how to prevent the use of facial recognition for harmful purposes. Smith eventually wrote a Microsoft on the Issues publication calling on governments to regulate technology rather than rely on suppliers like Microsoft to make the call for what was appropriate. He has since reaffirmed this position.
With this blogging this position, Microsoft has at least a little bit ahead of the dispute about recognizing the person who has only grown since then. "I don't think there is a problem with technology policy that is evolving as quickly and quickly as facial recognition over the last 12 months," Smith says. "Because when we blogged last July saying it was an area that would need government legislation and regulation, most people in the tech sector asked us why we're talking about it at all. The problem was not on people's radar screen. And even if it was, they didn't really see it as a problem that governments or others would have to deal with. "
There is no legislation, Microsoft needs to assess the ethics of government adoption of its technology. For example, Smith disclosed that he refused to provide face recognition for use by California police, in part because of concern that current algorithms are too inaccurate when trying to identify non-white men.
But Microsoft has chosen to evaluate any use of its technology with precision and refuse to position itself as the ubiquitous anti-Trump power that some of its employees would no doubt like to be. Therefore, the company simultaneously stated that it was "terrified" of ICE's child partitions and continued to provide cloud-based migration services to the agency. Smith also said that Microsoft welcomes any opportunity to work with the Trump administration on cybersecurity measures.
According to every government entity, according to Smith, the company's philosophy is that "we will partner where we can and stay away where we need to. ,, And it would be a mistake to refuse to partner on an issue like cybersecurity because we disagree on an issue like immigration. "This is not a Trump-specific position: He points out that Microsoft has sued the Obama administration four times for a government-related policy on customer data requests.
The Nadella Factor
Smith joined Microsoft in 1993, a year after Nadella and spent 13 years as the company's chief advisor before becoming president. But almost all the events he discusses in Tools and Weapons date back to the period since Nadella became CEO in 2014, with the exception of Edward Snowden's 2013 leak of NSA classified material, an act, which Smith calls a "political earthquake." This made the book a chronicle of the Nadella era, in which Microsoft became the most valuable company in the world, while casting some of its traditional sharp elbows.
Nadella's emotional awareness helped Microsoft find its way into difficult times, says Smith: "Leading a technology company at the end of this decade is completely different in cultural terms from what it was like to run a technology company when this decade began , People's expectations, especially those of a new generation of employees, are very different. And that requires new approaches and different leadership styles. He adds that Nadella is "almost uniquely broad-minded and then deeply principled in his own leadership style. "
Which is not to say that Microsoft believes that leadership is always about employee happiness. In 2018, after employees protested against a Google contract in which the company providing AI services to the US military, that company decided to let the agreement expire instead of renewing it. Tools and Weapons mentions that among numerous references to other giants and how they tackle some of the same issues as Microsoft. But the book also explains why Microsoft, facing its own uprising to negotiate defense, chose not to reverse the course.
Although Microsoft executives were not persuaded by the divergent employees, Smith stresses that they still play a constructive role in the company's thinking. "It's actually harder to ask the right questions than to have the right answers," he says. "So if a group of employees has answers that you think may be wrong, do not go beyond the possibility that they are still asking the right questions."
Looking Back and Forward
For a book that sometimes feels current affairs – Smith says he and co-author Brown had to be transferred to get the latest details regarding shootings at a Christchurch mosque in New Zealand in their latest project – Tools and Weapons unexpected long view. In an industry that sometimes has trouble remembering lessons from five or ten years ago, co-authors sometimes go back centuries in the search for context for contemporary problems, figure-checking figures such as Olga Kistler-Rizzo, Louis Mamer, Zelmer Pet et al. Theodore Vale and John Wilkes – all of whom you can bing if their names don't ring on the bell.
Smith says that he and co-author Brown love the story. They share this passion with Nadella, who often turns to works of the past to help him outline Microsoft's future. Once, when Smith and Nadella discussed the role of AI in weapons, Smith hinted at the lessons of the Civil War. He says Nadella excelled him by referring to Cicero. And then, after giving further consideration to the matter, Nadella shot Smith an email that took the conversation further to Ancient India.
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this dialogue was not just two different historians. "I think that captures part of the current way that we at least try to think of this at Microsoft and the way we try to play our roles, which is really broad-based," he says.
Although Tools and Weapons is a personal project of Smith and Brown, not an official manifest of Microsoft, Smith's role in shaping Microsoft's philosophies is so central that there is not much daylight, if any one between his acceptance and that of the company he helps lead. And really, when I asked him if he was personally optimistic that the technology industry would solve the biggest problems that currently solve it, he started talking about himself, and ultimately spoke on behalf of Microsoft.
"I usually come to the conclusion it doesn't matter if you are an optimist or a pessimist," he told me. "Because your optimism or pessimism will not change what is happening in itself. The important thing is whether you are determined and persistent. We are both of those things. Microsoft may no longer be the fearsome thug that many believe will return when the tech business revolves around Windows, but still pursues its goals with patience and patience – and will need an abundance of each to continue to tackle the challenges Smith and Brown explore in their book.