Sunday 22 July 2018

Dubliner in love with the dark ages helps usher in a new era for Microsoft

A love of languages ended up making Cabinteely's Emma Williams one of Microsoft's most important executives and a senior female figure in the US tech industry. Adrian Weckler spoke to her in the tech giant's Seattle headquarters

Emma Williams was a late convert to the world of computing
Emma Williams was a late convert to the world of computing
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It was the study of Old Norse and Anglo Saxon English that gave Emma Williams a propensity for learning open source code. Twenty years on, Williams is directing some of Microsoft's most important products, having left her mark on Bing, artificial intelligence and one of its newest initiatives, Microsoft Teams.

"I never planned to be in the tech industry," says Williams. "I wanted to study Anglo-Saxon English and Old Norse in Trinity, I was obsessed with Tolkien and the 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit'. I wanted to be a professor, just like Tolkien."

But fate had different ideas. While studying as a postgraduate research fellow in the university, her younger brother asked her for a favour.

"He was a computer nut, whereas I knew nothing about tech whatsoever," she says. "But he asked me to get access to the Unix network in Trinity. He was an undergrad and I was a lecturer, so he asked me if he could use my staff account. I didn't even know what Unix was. I told him that he couldn't use anything until he showed me what it was. I thought he was hacking into a bank or something. But he showed me and I became completely obsessed."

Satya Nadella of Microsoft
Satya Nadella of Microsoft

Williams speaks 13 languages, "half of which are dead". These include Latin, Anglo-Saxon English, Old Norse, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Irish, English, Afrikaans, French, Medieval French "and some Portuguese".

When she encountered the strange strings of letters and numbers on glowing green and amber terminals, the determined linguist in her took over.

"I just adored languages and that was part of the reason I got so interested in Unix," she says. "Because to me the Unix operating system script was just another language. I was fascinated by it. So I ended up teaching undergrads Unix on the side because I was spending all my evenings in the lab learning it. That's when I decided to shift careers."

There was an economic imperative too, admits Williams. "I realised that Anglo-Saxon English and Old Norse wouldn't pay for my shoe collection." (Later, she says: "it's a pretty big collection".)

Williams went to work localising software for the Scandinavian market before moving to Silicon Valley where she ended up as a director of engineering for BMS Software.

From there, she moved back to Ireland to the e-learning company Intuition Software, becoming its chief product officer. After a few years, Microsoft came calling. But instead of working through the Irish office for a while, Williams went straight to Seattle.

Over the past 15 years, she went on to work on services such as Xbox and Bing, before being made a corporate vice-president earlier this year. Her new responsibility is the Office Products Group, including services such as Microsoft Office and Microsoft Teams.

It's not a bad time to be working at Microsoft. This year, it surpassed Google's market capitalisation for the first time in a long while. The company has made some big decisions in the last two years, including the call to abandon its phone hardware business just a short time after having invested some €7bn in it through the acquisition of Nokia's phone division. It has also redoubled its interest in cloud computing, betting big on servers and data services.

"My experience of being an employee here in the last few years is that there has been a massive cultural shift," says Williams. "Kudos to Satya [Nadella, Microsoft chief executive]. He's done a phenomenal job in motivating a global workforce and really thinking deeply about culture. He has also been very willing to pivot and understand where the industry is going."

Having flirted with the idea of becoming an all-singing tech firm with a big consumer focus, Microsoft appears to have redefined itself again as a workers' company that happens to also have a strong gaming brand.

"We've got to pivot as a company and to really think about going where the customers are, instead of asking the customers to come to us," says Williams.

"You hear Satya talking about the mission all the time and we've really internalised it. We've always wanted to be able to empower everyone. That originally began with a 'PC on every desktop'." The further Williams rises in the company, the more she will attract attention for being a high-performing female tech executive. This is still relatively rare in the industry, with a small minority of senior executive jobs ending up with female title-holders.

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Satya Nadella of Microsoft

It is even rarer to have senior female tech executives who are involved in technical, engineering or design roles. The majority of women who make it into the top echelons of corporate life seem to do so in financial, marketing, HR or operations roles. Noted high-achieving executives such as Tyrone's Sarah Friar, who is chief financial officer at Jack Dorsey's billion-dollar payments firm Square, have acknowledged this trend and the gender-based barriers at the very top.

Despite this, Williams believes that the climate for executive equality is improving.

"It's definitely getting better," she says. "There's no question in my mind that the tech industry is transforming. It's younger people coming into the workforce who have grown up collaborating and being socially connected to each other in very egalitarian ways. They're expecting the workforce to behave the same way. So the workforce has to change in order to do that."

Williams compares herself to industrial machinery when it comes to workplace equality.

"I think of myself as a snow-plough,"she says. "There's six feet of snow in front. I plough through it and as I move forward with my career, together with other women in the same position, we're creating a path for the women coming behind us and their careers.

"It still may be slippy from time to time, but they're not having to deal with six feet of snow. Other senior women in industry have the same sense of obligation and commitment to make sure that for the younger workforce coming behind us, it is egalitarian."

"If you were to ask me what I wanted to leave behind when I've left the tech industry, it's to have left a legacy where I have grown women in the tech sector. I spend a lot of time mentoring women.

"One message I'd have if you're a woman out there and you don't have a computer science degree, is not to feel that this limits your ability to move into the tech sector. It's great that we're pushing hard on Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths[ and that we're pushing hard for young kids to learn technology. We should continue to do that hard. But if you come up through a communications degree or a marketing degree at university, you have an opportunity to move into the tech sector just as easily as if you came up through computer science."

Williams says that she loves living in Seattle, with its spectacular physical location and booming economy. But rapid economic expansion brings with it structural challenges in US West Coast cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Homelessness is one of these issues, caused in part by soaring property and rental costs, a by-product of the tech boom.

How does Williams feel about living in a country where such a massive divide in fortunes exists?

"I would hope that we would see an improvement in that experience over time," she says. "One of the things that I like about working at Microsoft is that Bill [Gates] has such a strong philanthropy bent.

"He gives a huge amount of money through both his foundation and Microsoft directly. I think we gave $32m last year from the employees alone. And Microsoft matches every dollar that an employee gives to charity. A lot of that money goes to the United Way, a local charity here in this area that focuses on local community needs including homelessness."

* Disclosure: Aer Lingus provided flights to Seattle during the period that this (separate) interview was conducted. The new air route is Ireland's first direct flight to Seattle, flying from Dublin four times weekly, all-year round, with over 2,000 round-trip seats available each week. This includes pre-clearance of US Customs and Immigration at Dublin Airport, the only European capital city to offer this facility.

Fares to Seattle start from €219 each-way including taxes and charges when booked as a return trip at aerlingus.com. Seattle is one of North America's biggest tech hubs and is home to multiple tech giants including Microsoft and Amazon, both of which have significant operations in Ireland.

Further information on the region can be found at Seattle-Washingtonstate.co.uk. Aer Lingus has also announced a partnership with Alaska Airlines where Aer Lingus travellers can connect onwards, via Seattle, to a wide range of destinations up and down the US West Coast, including Alaska and Hawaii.

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