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Coronavirus (COVID-19) has accelerated digital transformation faster than anyone could have predicted. So, what does that mean for the tech industry? 

In October 2020, in the midst of the global pandemic, Cindy Rose became one of the most prominent leaders in the tech industry, taking up the reins as President of Microsoft Western Europe. We sat down with Cindy, a member of Imperial College Business School’s Advisory Board, to discuss life at Microsoft, what the tech revolution means for current and future business leaders, and the company’s ambitious sustainability projects. 

What skills and qualities do you think business school graduates need to succeed in today's business world?

Digital skills are a priority. COVID-19 has intensified the pace at which sectors are incorporating digital transformation into their strategies, and according to our [Microsoft's] research, the tech sector alone is likely to create 150 million new jobs globally over the next five years. 

Beyond that, successful business leaders need to be able to generate positive energy, especially during tough times when people are suffering. And they should embrace the growth mindset, which is based on this idea that in a fast-changing world, we must embrace lifelong learning. At Microsoft we talk about becoming a “learn-it-all" rather than a “know-it-all", and we look for and celebrate people who are curious and collaborative. 

How does Microsoft work with business schools?

One way we work with business schools is by developing learning content that we use for our enterprise customers. For example, we have co-created the Microsoft AI Business School, which provides a curriculum specifically tailored to business leaders. 

We also recently announced a new programme, Microsoft Learn for Educators, which offers higher education institutions access to our learning content, teaching materials and technical certification exams. 
Of course, we also look to the business school community as a source of talent. We’ve hired many Imperial College Business School graduates over the years, and we see this as a fantastic way to build the talent pipeline of the future.

What role should business schools play in the ongoing development of executives throughout their careers?

It’s important for business schools to stay closely connected with their graduates throughout their careers. The business environment is constantly evolving, and that connection is important in ensuring the curriculum stays relevant. On top of that, the power of the alumni network can’t be understated.

I also think there’s an excellent opportunity for schools like Imperial to provide post-graduate learning. There’s a huge amount of reskilling and upskilling that’s happening right now, with senior executives realising they need to know the fundamentals of cloud computing, robotic process automation, and AI and machine learning. 

What can tech firms and business schools do to encourage more women into the sector?

I think diversity and inclusion must be core to your mission – it can’t feel like an afterthought or a box-ticking exercise. There is no silver bullet or easy path. There are dozens of small things you need to do every day to have a more diverse and inclusive culture. 

We have a network of employee resource groups that are very important to us, including Women at Microsoft, which has over 18,000 members. I think women who are successful in their careers should participate in advancing the cause. I spend a lot of time personally mentoring young women and girls. I think they need role models, and to feel this is a career choice that’s relevant, a place where they belong and can have impact. 

How has the pandemic impacted your priorities for Microsoft over the coming months?

People have always been my priority, and this has been the most challenging time to be a people leader. We’ve all needed to double down on human connection. 

My second priority is my customers, who are accelerating their plans to digitally transform. We’re thinking about this experience in three phases: respond, recover, reimagine. 

“Respond” was about the massive shift to home working, “recover” is where we’re at now, helping businesses consider how they will come out of the pandemic. Finally, “reimagine” is helping businesses think about how they will put their data to work in the future. 

Can you tell us a bit about Microsoft’s pledge to be carbon negative by 2030?

By 2030, we will be carbon negative and by 2050 we have committed to removing all the carbon we’ve emitted into the atmosphere since our company was founded in 1975. As part of this, we’ve invested $1 billion in our Climate Innovation Fund to accelerate the development of carbon reduction and removal technologies. 

Do you feel tech companies have a responsibility to foster digital literacy? 

We know that technology will be at the heart of driving post-COVID economic growth and recovery. We’ve seen over the last few months that existing inequalities have been amplified.

The significant increase in the pace of technology adoption means there is a need for a massive reskilling and upskilling of the global workforce. Microsoft has launched a global skilling initiative aimed at bringing skills to around 25 million job seekers around the world who are unemployed as a result of COVID-19.

There is a growing sense of public distrust in the tech industry – what can sector leaders do to counter this?

I think it’s critical for all of us in the industry to build public trust in technology and the people who make it. Otherwise, society won’t reap the enormous benefits that technology brings us. 

As organisations increasingly start to embrace AI, there’s a whole new set of sticky issues, from simple things like how to derive value from customer data in a way that preserves data privacy, to more complex issues around facial recognition. Our view on privacy has always been very clear: we view it as a fundamental human right. 

What do you enjoy most about your role, and why?

I have the best job, at the best company, in the world. I feel privileged to work for a company that has a clear mission to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. 

It’s a really magical moment to be in technology because every industry is becoming a digital industry. The work we do, especially during the early stages of the pandemic, can be lifesaving, and I find that inspiring. 

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About Evie Burrows-Taylor

Evie is Web Content Editor for the Institutional Marketing & Communications team. She is responsible for developing the School's faculty and research communications, working to amplify the School's intellectual leadership to a wide variety of international audiences. She also works on IB Knowledge and the School's news and events coverage.