Updated: Sep 22, 2020
A July 31st, 2020 "Beyond Words" discussion between Ahmad Corner and Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Jeff Sandquist.
On Friday, July 31st, 2020, I interviewed Jeff Sandquist, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft, for the first 'Beyond Words' event.
Beyond Words is a discussion series designed to - leveraging public statements on racial injustice made by companies - hold companies accountable and illuminate actionable steps being made to transform bias and diversity in the workplace.
Jeff’s team includes people from Microsoft’s full corpus of technical online content (Azure.com, docs.microsoft.com, and Microsoft.com/Learn), a full-stack engineering team that builds and operates the infrastructure Microsoft’s online content, an international team that localizes Microsoft’s products and content in 64 languages, and a developer advocacy team.
Transcript excerpts from the conversation
Microsoft put together a global skills initiative, which aims to bring more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by the end of 2020. The initiative acknowledges that women and people of color, disproportionately, experienced unemployment exacerbated by COVID-19.
I think it's fair to say that this initiative intends to bridge racial and gender employment gaps. The question is: How is Microsoft measuring the success of this initiative and how are you tracking towards your 2020 goal?
JEFF SANDQUIST: So first of all, thank you for having me. Microsoft as a company, like many other companies, I'd like to say, we're not your grandparents Microsoft - [within] the products and services that we are or when we're at our best, the culture that we have, as a company, is about inclusive nature and really about how we empower all.
If you want to build software for the world, it takes people from the world. Our work as a team is ensuring that [there’s] representation, and that is equitable, and that we get people in for those opportunities. And as we go to connect with the community, when we're on stage, and we're presenting at these events, we make sure that we are [presenting] the industry that we want.
The values work in us, as a company and how we transform, will be the constant attention to make sure that we create a great place for people to work. Well, in order for people to have those opportunities, especially now with COVID 19, [the priority] is skilling, and how we make it so that skilling is inclusive by nature.
Quite a while ago - about two years ago - we started really rebuilding out a skilling platform for Microsoft (Microsoft Learn). This is one of my products. So like, you hit this question, thank God, because it's like, my team builds this!
Now, I'll tell you about me personally; I'm a white male [with] all the advantages in the world. I barely got through high school and I barely got through college. But the one thing that I learned how to do was learn. If we can empower [others] and get the tooling in front of anybody, regardless of what your background is, if you can learn you'll get there.
So Microsoft Learn is about enabling and getting through certification roles. If you want to be an Azure developer, ops, admin, machine learning, you can do all of that [on Microsoft Learn] for free to prep for that certification. The Skillings initiative means that, for many of these courses, after you complete all of these modules for a particular area, guess what, we're going to give you the training for free. It's going to be self-guided, and self-paced. And Microsoft Learn (www.microsoft.com/learn) is how you start there.
Let's be clear with the Microsoft Cloud, it's not the .NET Windows cloud. It's Linux, it's Python, it's PHP. It is all of those things. You can write and type... you unlock achievements. It’s fun! If you spend your time learning there, then you're certified. Whether you graduate from a coding school, or Stanford or MIT [or not], you can show the industry that you're ready for a job.
For me, [the certification] is an element of proof that says Microsoft says that [you’re now] ready to do this job. So that's part of this, but this is a system, right? A system of learning. We all know a company called LinkedIn - the largest inventory of jobs that are out there - and Microsoft Learn connects to that. So when you get that certification, what if the next step we said, “Hey, here are eight jobs or 800 jobs that you're now qualified for?”
This is so important, because our responsibility is to help people get jobs.
So, long intro answer. I promise I'll get through the next ones [more quickly] but you hit a spot that I care about!
One of the things that you touched on, that's wildly important, is the access to resources that people of color, so often lack.
What are you doing to make sure that communities of color know that this certification is available, and available for free?
For companies like Microsoft, and people like yourself, what kind of weight does a certification from a [Microsoft Learn] carry, versus a degree from a university?
JEFF SANDQUIST: I grew up as a developer, self taught, and I may have been very dismissive of certifications at a different point in time. You could say, “oh, Jeff, now [certifications are] part of your team, so you care about them?” I actually care about certifications right now because I actually know how we go about building these things and how we as a company did a complete reset across our certifications in the way that we build them.
There's a certain thing called a ‘job-task-analysis’. And so what we did with our certifications for these modern roles is, we actually went: “look, what does it mean to do ops and admin in the world of cloud? What are the responsibilities and talents and skills [in those modern jobs and roles] that we need to be able to test for, or ensure that people have?”
We develop training around that through many different modalities, and then try and make sure that people have access to it everywhere.
I don't organize my team around our products, I organize them around communities. And [so that’s], why I'm here today… is to share and learn and listen, and we're going to really go and try and connect out. [This] needs to democratize.
The best way to describe [whether] certification matters, is if we hire people that are certified.
Google, did a very fascinating thing about two weeks ago… Traditionally, I couldn't get hired at Google. I don't qualify. I don't have a fancy university degree. The Google certifications for Cloud are now good enough for employment at Google.
So, Microsoft will have to do a similar thing.
Next, we need to seek to understand, when we’re interviewing candidates, about those backgrounds. Some of the strongest teams that I have are made up of people with [a variety of] experience: students, millennials, people of all backgrounds and non-traditional backgrounds.
And that’s how you create [an environment for a] team to really thrive.
How can we create better non-traditional pathways for Black and Brown individuals to be valued engineers & professionals in tech when resources deficits, tech mentorship, and education systemic inequity to lesser barriers such as broadband connectivity lead to black and brown students not having the same opportunity to access roles in FAANG?
First of all, we’ve got to get to kids early, right? The next generation is amazing. They don't have a bunch of the baggage that I have and they want to work together, across communities, and they expect it.
Let's get to kids early.
Microsoft has Blacks at Microsoft, it's called BAM. We just celebrated the 30th birthday of BAM recently. And while we should be proud of a lot of the work that [BAM] has done for the community, we’re just getting started.
[BAM] did this annual minority students day [which] really brings kids to campus and shows them people, engineers that look like them. People can understand that and see archetypes and role models.
We often talk about mentorship - that's one thing. But then there's sponsorship. Sponsorship is the people that are helping behind a door that you don't know. We have mentors that are helping you in and out, but who's advocating for you and making sure that we are training and teaching leaders?
We don't do this for PR. We don't do this because we're told. It's about building great software; it makes business sense. We should do this for all of these reasons; the world should be for inclusion, but this makes business sense [too].
I've been building software that is localized across 65 different languages and I need to grow a business. The only way I do it is, if I have people from around the world in that process, so that we are training machine learning models away and developing algorithms that aren’t biased.
The most effective teams, period, are diverse. So we need to get you here. We’ve got to open up those doors.
To help us see how we can individually shift our behaviors and bring change, what are actions you've taken in the past month at the individual team and company level? What actions have you seen others take that you've learned from?
At the company level, Satya [had a] great message that was sent out, and I think that, that [message] was really about increasing employee representation. What are we doing for diversity of suppliers? How are we [managing] data to help citizens for things like criminal justice reform? And I think those actions signal how we [present ourselves] externally as a company. Those are the things rooted in the culture work that I've talked about here.
How do we ensure that we don't just enforce by words? Sometimes you enforce by policy or code.
On an individual level, one of the things I wanted to do [in response to recent news around racial injustice] very [early] was really make sure that I was communicating [internally] as a leader. I have a following on Twitter, but the thing I wanted to first do was, [identify] how I clearly, without any compromise, explained that [racial injustice] is completely unacceptable.
Our suppliers help the broader community outside of tech, as well. As a company, we have to act as leaders because other companies see us doing certain things; maybe they're a partner and [our decisions] help affect them a certain way and they go “Wait, I can do this too because Microsoft supported me”.
We saw that with COVID. We were one of the first companies to make sure our employees were sent home. We had to get that right.
We also had to make sure that we didn't lay off and furlough all the vendors that are doing essential jobs to keep us alive.
And so the next thing is, how do we get out of people's way? How do we help people learn? And then how do we try and balance out the opportunity? I grew up and have had different opportunities because people have opened the doors for me, and that's what I've got to work to go do.
I'm not going to get everything right, and our company [won’t] and when we don't, shame on us, but even more so, shame on us if we don't learn.
So, thank you for having me here for this because that's what I'm here doing.
What steps is Microsoft taking to ensure that it follows through on its commitments outlined by Satya Nadella? Does Microsoft have a committee or have you instilled some way to review your progress and where you want to be as a company in regards to racial justice?
We work with organizations; we're trying to increase awareness and really make sure that people know that these racial injustices are shown through data; working with law enforcement [by] improving, changing, removing policies.
We work with different governments, and there are ways that we can come through and change certain partnerships that we have with law enforcement.
We have to get out in our communities, right.
This is an interesting time, where people would say, “Wait, we're meeting virtually, we're connecting, do we need to be getting into communities?” We need community now more so than we've ever ever had. Right? It's a lonely world out there right now. And we're, you know, operating different ways. How do we come together as a community to help?
We’ve got to bring it into our work, we have to bring it into our actions. We have to know the responsibility that, when I'm putting on an event for 10,000 people, [the audience] should see somebody [from their community] kicking ass and doing such a great job right on stage, not because, you know, that opportunity was given to them because of [their color], but because they're amazing.
Beyond Words is a 1000 Cuts event series, broadcasted in front of a live audience, designed to push company driven commitments around discrimination and injustice beyond words. If your company is interested in supporting our anti-discrimination movement, please shoot us a message and we'll get things moving.