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Exclusive interview: Sayed Hashish, general manager of Microsoft Gulf

Exclusive interview: Sayed Hashish, general manager of Microsoft Gulf

With two data centres due to launch in the UAE this year, we find out how Microsoft Gulf seeks to empower customers and communities across the GCC

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Just as technology has evolved, so have the industry’s leading players. Whether by choice or necessity, tech giants are largely unrecognisable from the companies they started out as – adapting to, or driving change on the back of major technological leaps.

A clear example is Microsoft over the past five years. When Satya Nadella was named CEO in February 2014, he moved the company away from its proprietary, on-premise software, towards a mobile-first, cloud-first model.

In the space of four years, the company’s share price tripled– up to 105.95 cents per share – and by March  this year they had soared to 116.77 (at the time of publication).

Earlier this year it reported Q2 2019 revenue of $32.5bn, and net income of $8.4bn. This is up from $28.9bn and $7.5bn respectively in Q2 2018.

The decision to focus on the cloud has clearly been a good one from a financial perspective; but the example of regional branch, Microsoft Gulf, proves that there is much more than money in the reckoning.

The man leading the way in the region is Sayed Hashish – a Microsoft man since 1998, and general manager for the Gulf since May 2017.

Under his stewardship, Microsoft’s presence in the region has been much more than a commercial one, with an overarching aim of empowering communities.

“We’ve been in the Gulf region for more than 20 years and we’re proud of our journey so far, and how we’ve contributed to the growth of the region,” says Hashish when we meet at Microsoft Gulf’s headquarters in Dubai Internet City.

“Our mission is really to empower every organisation and individual on the planet. This is the global mission. So we think it’s a great privilege to be in this region, trying to drive this mission.

“We take pride in seeing our countries develop and prosper and grow. You look at photos that were taken 10 or 20 years ago of some of the cities we operate in, and you can see how much they have changed – for the better for the citizens and businesses. It fills us with pride, knowing that as Microsoft we have been part of this journey.”

Hashish explains that much of this pride is rooted in the company’s wide-ranging partnerships. Not only because they help to advance the technology available to customers, but also because “they create an ecosystem around the Microsoft presence”.

He says: “From a technology perspective, we create platforms, and other companies build solutions on it. That creates a local software economy. It creates IP, it creates skills, it creates wealth around you.

“We now have close to 2,000 partners in the Gulf region, which is really amazing.

“I remember some of the companies we started working with, and it was two or three people coming with an idea. Now I see those companies grown to be 700 or 800 people, working in multiple countries. All the credit goes to them, but also you know that you’ve been part of that journey; you’ve helped enable them, you’ve helped them become competitive, to become more successful.”

Microsoft Gulf's Sayed Hashish speaks with HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,
Microsoft Gulf’s Sayed Hashish speaks with HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai

Common ground

From start-ups and SMEs to multinationals and governments, Microsoft has played a leading role in enhancing and advancing organisations across the region.

And while there exist inevitable differences in development, challenges and growth between each country, Hashish explains there is an underlying commonality that Microsoft has tapped into for their, and their partners’ benefit.

“There is a shared common goal,” he says. “All countries want to offer a better life for their citizens, better services, better government efficiencies, better job creation. Here we try, for example, to drive programmes that help education across the region; to help countries upskill their students and labour forces.

“There are different starting points. For example, a country like the UAE, where education is one of the top 10 in the world, allows you to do more than in some of the places where you need to focus more on accessibility. So we adapt our execution plans, but making sure we address what’s core and common all the time.

“Similarly in business. Each country differentiates what their core strength is, and we help with that. So, how do you drive great tourism? Or how do you drive great agriculture? Or manufacturing, or oil and gas industries?”

In most cases, Microsoft’s participation centres around digital transformation and how new technologies can help your business, project or ambition evolve, become more efficient, and blossom.

And while Microsoft faces stiff competition from its rivals, its weighty reputation and global presence continues to put it foremost in many customers’ reckoning when looking for advice and assistance.

For Hashish, however, this reputation counts for little if the company can’t prove its worth beyond its technological expertise.

“You have to make it count,” he explains. “You have to make sure that in the end, what you’re doing is something that is done for a clear purpose, driving clear impact in the societies that you are part of the fabric.

“This is what will help us gain and maintain the trust of the communities that we’re in. And in return this will always help us to grow and stay ahead.

“Seeing the transformation that Microsoft has gone through in the past four years, it has been remarkable: In trying to get the level of clarity in what that company is out there to achieve, clarity on the mission statement, and reorganising the whole company around how we help our customers.

“Our success will always come through the success of our customers, and that success starts with a culture. The culture that we have at Microsoft is a growth mindset: understanding the markets around you, and the variables around that; listening to our customers and knowing how to work better together; not being afraid to experiment, learn and fail.

“This is what helps you stay ahead. You won’t get everything right all the time, but the important thing is that you have this culture and you course-correct. Take the insights, take the learning, and course-correct.”

Advancing tech

Microsoft works across three cloud platforms – Azure, Office 365, and Dynamics – with more than one billion customers signed up worldwide already.

Each platform allows for the building, testing, deployment and management of applications and services through data centres, and in the Gulf, Hashish says there are three areas of cloud-related focus that he and his team are working on to enhance their customers’ experience and Microsoft’s own growth.

“The first is to continue focusing on skills-building,” he says. “We try to be an active catalyst in developing the right skills around new technology. At the current pace there will be a shortage of skills on new technologies.

“We try to focus on education of new technologies, the use of technologies in business, and availability of Arabic content.

“We are privileged to be part of an initiative launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called Madrasa [the world’s largest free Arabic e-learning platform], and another example is the One Million Arab Coders. We also work tightly with the Ministries of Education across the region to understand the education journey of the children, and how we can make that more effective.

“Similarly, teachers. There was a study by Deloitte, that says 75 per cent of teachers believe that in 10 years books will disappear. All education will be done through digital content. So the role of teachers is changing – how do you make sure they are also transforming?”

The second pillar, explains Hashish, is market enablement – an area where Microsoft is making strategic investment across the Middle East.

Perhaps the biggest step yet has been the announcement of two hyper-scale data centres in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – both scheduled to open this year. The centres will deliver Microsoft’s three cloud services, empowering organisations, governments and businesses to achieve more through digital transformation and use of data.

But for Hashish, it’s not just the core services that make the data centres such important additions to the region.

“When you take these steps, you’re not just building a data center: you’re bringing the whole ecosystem,” he explains.

“With the data centre you also make sure that you’re bringing programmes that will support entrepreneurs, programmes that will support start-ups, programmes that will support developers. It’s a whole ecosystem that gets built all around it. And that, we believe, will enable the market to really accelerate their digital transformation journey.

“We believe that these data centres will help us empower one million SMEs across the Gulf region. We always try to think in scale – it’s not just about creating small lighthouses, but also the ability to scale them so that we impact countries’ GDPs in a big way.”

The third and final pillar Hashish identifies is innovation. “When we talk today about technologies like AI or IT or machine learning, how do we differentiate here?” he adds.

“We are very adamant as Microsoft Gulf to make sure that there is the right level of focus on driving innovation out of the region, so that we are producers of technology, not just consumers.

“So those three pillars – market enablement, skills-building and education, and innovation – are how we want to ensure the next 20 years will be even better than the past 20 years.”

Microsoft had a big presence at GITEX Technology Week last year
Microsoft had a big presence at GITEX Technology Week last year

How data is changing the game

This desire to do “even better” can manifest in various ways, from job creation, to energy efficiency, to enhancing quality of life.

Hashish points to a study by IDC that said by the year 2022, cloud services and the Microsoft ecosystem will have created another 125,000 jobs in the region – on top of the 200,000 jobs created to date.

He also explains that the company has run pilots that show it can achieve 15 per cent energy efficiency in buildings through AI, potentially equating to a 6 per cent reduction on energy worldwide when you take into consideration the fact 40 per cent of all global energy is spent on buildings.

In healthcare, new technologies will reduce waiting times, bed shortages, and the need to visit a clinic, among numerous improvements, while drones and AI will be able to continually assess the quality of roads, bridges and pipelines to ensure civil works are carried out in the fastest, least disruptive way possible.

But in business terms, perhaps the biggest opportunities are being created for SMEs.

“The reason I’m very optimistic about the future of SMEs in the new world we’re seeing is that what the cloud today has availed is an opportunity they have never had before,” says Hashish.

“On one front is their ability to use technology and compute. When we talk about AI or analytics, or drones, or IoT, previously when an SME tried to develop this technology there was a barrier of entry. You had to have a data centre that allowed you to do high performance computing. You had to have huge investments.

“We’ve been part of government and private sector initiatives trying to lower those barriers, but that was before the cloud. Now with the cloud, you have the power of compute that’s honestly endless, and we are seeing a lot of our young entrepreneurs and SMEs capitalising on or leveraging that opportunity that was not there before.”

The second part of the equation for SMEs, says Hashish, is their newfound ability to market their offerings on a global platform.

“You’re no longer confined to your physical market and your physical presence,” he says.

“If you’re an SME sitting in the UAE or Kuwait or Bahrain, today through the cloud you can market your solution across the world. If you want to have your solution marketed in 100 countries, that’s available today through the cloud reach we have.”

And for the GM, a major key to optimising these opportunities will be the way organisations apply their data. “I think the use of data will be a big differentiator,” he says.

“There has always been data, but we were always dependent on the data we had as businesses or individuals. What has happened with the internet and the cloud is the amount of data that’s coming has grown 100-fold.

“That on its own wouldn’t create an opportunity because what would you do with this data? But the opportunity created by the cloud – the ability to consume and compute this data – has also increased.

“The availability of data has grown a lot, from all of the data on the internet and our digital footprint today as consumers and businesses. Combined with the availability of technologies to help you consume this data and gather relevant insights, this creates a big, big differentiator for those organisations that have the right focus on how to make use of this data and this insight.”

Looking to the future

As we discuss what the coming months, Hashish explains that much of Microsoft Gulf’s attention will be focused on the launch of the data centres.

Similarly, SMEs and events feature heavily in the company’s forward plans. “With small and medium enterprises, we’re continuing to look at their impact on the economy and how the data centres will empower them – ensuring they can leverage the opportunity ahead of them.

“And we’re bringing some major events to the region too. The Ignite event will take place at the end of March, helping mainly on the technical side – for the developers, the IT professionals – ensure we have a knowledge transfer from our teams to theirs.

“We’re also very busy with hackfests and hackathons across different commercial and public sector entities to help them understand their journey and how they can leverage and benefit from this digital transformation opportunity.”

Another important part of Microsoft’s future growth will its partnership strategy, which Hashish aims to bolster yet further the regional business community.

“We believe that through true partnership you create local software economies, you create local wealth, you create local jobs,” he says.

“This is the business model that the company was built on. Our partners help us scale, and our partners help us enrich our technology. We want to empower every organisation and individual on the planet to achieve more, but we’re grounded enough to understand that this is not just because of what we alone do: It’s also about what our partners will do – how they take this technology and build on it.

Increasingly, and perhaps surprisingly, these partnerships will be made with competitors in the tech field – something Hashish did not foresee a decade ago.

“If you’d have asked me maybe 10 years ago I would have said it’s very hard to work with competitors. But today we are working with our competitors, and we’re working with them on multiple things.

“We work with them when it comes to how we address industry standards, how we’re making sure all companies in the end think of the benefit for our customers, and making sure there’s there right level of standards in areas such as security, where we need to share and compare notes.

“Also, our technology is quite open. Today a lot of what we host on Azure is from companies that were before seen as competitors – Oracle, SAP and others.

“The other day I was having a meeting with Red Hat, followed by a meeting with Apple. It’s all about joint business opportunities that we are addressing together. The company is very open now to those unconventional partnerships, as long as there is a benefit to our customer.”

And here we find the essence of Microsoft Gulf. For Hashish, there is no success if the company is not working for the benefit of customers, partners, and the wider population. If that means forging new paths with competitors, so be it.

“The main thing is purpose,” he concludes. “We want to make sure we’re growing by driving the right impact and building the right legacy – all with the purpose of helping our communities, our customers and societies.”

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