Q&A: Norm Judah, Microsoft
This article originally appeared in Outsource Magazine Issue #27 Spring 2012
Two decades into his career with Microsoft, Norm Judah has risen to the dizzy heights of CTO Worldwide Services. Looking for insight into the challenges and ambitions of a tech industry CTO (not to mention the secrets of success)? Read on…
Outsource: Norm, thanks for taking the time to join Outsource today. Can we start with a bit of background about yourself and your path to your current role? And can you give us a bit of insight into your day-to-day responsibilities in the position of CTO Worldwide Services?
Norm Judah: Thanks for the opportunity. My path is somewhat non-linear. I graduated in electrical engineering in South Africa, working on what was then the start of the era of microprocessors. I worked on a Motorola 6800. I then moved to Toronto for grad school in control systems. Though all those years, I only had one course in computer science, which was Fortran for Engineers. I joined Imperial Oil in Toronto for 12 years working in real-time control systems. In 1990 I was the lead architect on a project for distribution management, and we decided to use an OS/2 LAN based system geo-distributed across 25 locations, all communication back to a central mainframe (Cobol/CICS/DB2). We were in fact one of the few beta test sites for OS/2. In conversation with Microsoft at that time, it was clear (to me) that the future for both consumer and enterprise was with them, so I joined the start-up of Microsoft Consulting Services, at that time only 20 people.
In Microsoft, I have had several roles, both customer-facing and internal planning. I worked in MS-IT, managed product teams, but also worked extensively in enterprise product planning. About seven years ago, I decided to move back to the field to reinforce the connection from the field and customers back to the product teams. And that is where I am today.
I have two stakeholder audiences – the product teams and the field – and my role is about making them both better. My role is focussed on three key pillars: technical strategy, technical quality and technical people. I spend about 50 per cent of my time travelling globally talking to customers and also internally. We have done some very nice work on growing technical people. There is a presentation that I have done externally a few times. [See http://bit.ly/GHbhKF]
O: What is the remit of Worldwide Services generally and how does it sit organisationally within Microsoft Corporation?
NJ: The mission of Microsoft Services is to lead and serve our customers and partners as they realise their full potential through software and services. Services is composed of three business areas: enterprise strategy, consulting and support. Support includes enterprise and consumer support. We also carry a mandate for partner enablement. Below that is another mission that I drive which is reinforcing the connection between the product groups and the reality of solution that customers are building and deploying – essentially making the products better.
Services is part of SMSG (the sales, marketing and service group) the largest group in Microsoft, with Kathleen Hogan as the leader. She reports to Kevin Turner, the Microsoft COO. I report to Kathleen.
O: The office of CTO is a crucial one for any organisation – but especially so, no doubt, at a company which has done so much to redefine what technology means to us today. Do you see your own role differing substantially from other CTO positions in organisations, perhaps in different sectors?
NJ: At the highest level, I think we all have similar pillars of the work we do (doing the right things, ensuring that they are done well and growing and developing technical leaders). I don’t see this being any different no matter what sector you sit in, or being a customer or a vendor or a consultant. There is another significant dimension to the role which is being the voice of technology and technical people at the management table.
O: It’s hard to think of a more dynamic sector than the one occupied by Microsoft but the last few years have been particularly exciting from a tech industry point of view, with the emergence of new technologies and delivery models. Alongside this, of course, we’ve also been going through some pretty difficult times economically… What do you see as having been your biggest challenges during this time and how did you go about overcoming them?
NJ: Firstly, you have to acknowledge that the technology industry and IT are subject to continual change. It is the inherent nature of the industry and what we do. There will always be discontinuities, some big, some small. Most recently, there have been two major discontinuities: the transformation from software to services and the introduction (maybe reintroduction) of natural user interfaces.
The constant theme for Microsoft is to invest for the long term and stay focussed. We are starting to see the fruits on the recent work with Windows Azure, Office365, Windows Phone and Windows 8 (client and server).
The challenges of the transformation from software to services has meant the re-vectoring of our engineering and support teams from installed product to cloud-provisioned service. Even though the engineering disciplines are the same, the deliverable is different, the half-life is different. One thing that we have discovered is that one key to success is for the engineering teams to own and run the running services.
O: In terms of the aforementioned new technologies: which do you see as being the most important/most disruptive technological innovations coming into play now, and why?
NJ: The transition to cloud-based architectures – private, hybrid and public. IaaS to PaaS to SaaS. The cloud will not only transform technology, but organisation and culture. One of the great lessons of the cloud is the focus on the value and focus from extreme standardisation – of the hardware, software and solutions – which simplifies the automation of operations, development and support.
O: Another trend of particular relevance to both Outsource and any organisation selling to businesses is the increasing disaggregation of the traditional business model, with outsourcing and other structural innovations changing the shape of organisations worldwide. How – if at all – is this changing the way your organisation does business and the responsibilities which you have as CTO?
NJ: There will always be value for a business that has great customer relationships, local contacts, local language etc. But services are not “shipping products”, they are an organic running system. There will continue to be huge value in topics like governance, compliance, information models etc. There will also continue to be transitional stages for many years as customers of different maturities move through levels of cloud adoption. But there are massive cloud data centres being built by Microsoft and a few others where the economies of scale will be difficult for many smaller companies to address. But “cloud” is also about repeatability and predictability, achieved through automation. We learned about this through offering self-service portals, which in many cases have to protect the users from themselves. This automation layer does not require massive cloud data centres and many outsourcers today have differentiated IP in this area.
O: Where do you see your growth coming geographically over the next couple of years – have you had to change your strategy as a result of, for example, the Arab Spring and ongoing eurozone crisis?
NJ: We continue to see high year-over-year growth in Asia, India, China, Latin America, and we are investing accordingly, with product localisation and local delivery. For example, Windows 8 will be delivered in 109 languages. And even this week, we shipped Windows Phone in China. We also continue to see great innovation in the shadows of the economic downturn, everywhere. We see our services continuing to build a presence in all these geographies.
O: One challenge constantly brought up by senior players across the outsourcing space is the ongoing scramble for talent. Do you feel like you’re in a war for talent and, if so, how are you going about making sure you emerge victorious?
NJ: Talent acquisition continues to be a core competency, but the talent pool needs to grow, for the good of all of us. We continue to grow technical talent internally with significant programmes that I run specifically targeted at growing technical leaders. We also have a specific focus on growing diverse candidates in the talent pool, starting with our DigiGirls program for girls in high school drawing them into the sciences to row the pipeline from the start of the funnel. That also means working with university students. I personally also meet often with university students as I travel the world, most recently at the Sorbonne in Paris and Skolkovo Open University in Moscow.
O: Tied in with the previous question: there is a belief among many commentators that the west in particular is suffering from a skills shortage. Does this match up with your experience and do you feel that the political regimes in the west are doing enough to address this?
NJ: We see great candidates from around the world and hiring the best is what we are focussing on, no matter where they are. It is a global pool and diversity in all dimensions makes for better companies and better products. We do see the pools in the west decreasing relative to some other countries and have been vocal about the need to produce more graduates in mathematics, science, medicine and engineering.
O: What are your ambitions for the next couple of years?
NJ: To be a participant in the transformation to the cloud for customers and products, and in the formulation and definition of the next transformation, through constructive disruption; to continue to grow great technical leaders, globally; and to be a great partner and parent as my daughters transition in their lives.
O: Finally, what are your secrets for CTO success?
NJ: I’ll go back to the three pillars of strategy, quality and people: are we doing the right things? Are we doing them well? Do we have the right people to do it? Some key behaviours though are about: staying current and hands-on (yes I am running Windows8 on my own mission-critical laptop, and yes I did the installation myself. How else are you going to learn?); listening, to everyone, synthesising and pattern matching; formulating and being visible with an opinion; having the courage to drive.
A quick note on architecture which I drive as well – and I think this is one of the most important tasks of a CTO: driving great architectures that are durable. Many of the systems in use today have had a very short half-life. Durability and sustainability are some of the next frontiers of system architecture.
Architecture is part art, part science and the balance between them; architecture is about simplicity. Architecture is a language used to describe a system and a tool to help make decisions and trade offs. It is the wisdom of experience predicting uncertainty. Architecture is visual simplicity as a reflection of a complex problem.