#14 - Founding Microsoft Office 365 & Digital Transformation - Richard Koh
“Organizations should never set up a central digital transformation office. It should be owned by everybody in the organization. It’s not a CIO’s job. It’s the CEO’s job."
Richard Koh is the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Singapore who played a major part in the Office 365 founding team. In this episode, I had an inspiring discussion with him around his journey founding the Office 365, the challenges he faced, and on how to approach digital transformation adoption. Our conversation started with some interesting observations on how organizations in Singapore are adapting to the COVID-19 impact, followed by the unique organizational structure Microsoft has in regional aspects and the regional CTO scope in decision making and shaping of Microsoft’s product and culture.
Richard also shares how the Office 365 team was structured to instil an independent yet collaborative environment, his viewpoints about technical product management and the importance of cloud technologies. Busting the myths of digital transformation, he provided some advice about how organizations should approach it. Last, Richard also shared about his external contributions to the community, including SGTech and some wisdom on continuous learning with a growth mindset.
Listen out for:
- Impact of COVID - [00:05:59]
- Richard’s career journey - [00:07:56]
- Microsoft’s unique regional CTO structure & scope - [00:10:09]
- The region macro trends - [00:13:43]
- Founding Office 365 - [00:15:58]
- The art of Product Management - [00:24:09]
- Building Office 365 - [00:26:26]
- Importance of cloud - [00:30:06]
- Digital transformation adoption - [00:35:02]
- Community contributions and other interests - [00:40:34]
- Responsibility Tech - [00:45:01]
- Richard’s 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:46:45]
Richard Koh’s Bio
Richard Koh is the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Singapore. In this role, he is responsible for engaging with key executive leaders across government, industry and academia; bringing in the macro technology landscape; and helping customers leverage technology innovations for their digital transformation. His focus areas include guiding technology policies, standards, legal and regulatory matters, as well as security, privacy and compliance decisions. Richard was part of the founding product team for Microsoft’s flagship productivity cloud services suite – Office 365.
Always passionate about the promises that the Internet and cloud computing can bring, and with a keen eye on business strategies, product development and marketing, Richard’s professional experience spans the Asia and North America regions, as well as multiple functional areas including research & development, IT, product management, marketing, business development and sales operations.
Richard currently serves on the board of directors of Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs’ Home Team Science & Technology Agency (HTX), Sentosa Development Corporation’s Digital Transformation Advisory Panel, chairman of SGTech’s AI & HPC Chapter, as well as an advisory member of Singapore ITE’s (Institute of Technical Education) Electronics and Info-Comm Technology Academic Advisory Committee.
- Full bio – https://news.microsoft.com/en-sg/richard-koh/
- Twitter – https://twitter.com/richardkoh
- LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/richardkoh/
Mentions & Links:
- 📚 The Innovator’s Dilemma – https://amzn.to/35er5v4
- 📚 Loonshots – https://amzn.to/3vo2MWi
- Mosaic – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosaic_(web_browser)
- Marc Andreessen – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Andreessen
- Hewlett Packard – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hewlett-Packard
- Singtel – https://www.singtel.com/
- SGTech – https://www.sgtech.org.sg/
- PDPC (Personal Data Protection Commission) – https://www.pdpc.gov.sg/
- MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) – https://www.mas.gov.sg/
- Artificial Intelligence and High-Performance Computing Chapter – https://www.sgtech.org.sg/Web/Chapters/AI_High-Performance_Computing_Chapter/SGTECH/Web/Chapters/AI_HPC_Chapter.aspx
- Office 365 – https://www.microsoft.com/en-my/microsoft-365
- Azure – https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/
- Dynamics 365 – https://dynamics.microsoft.com/en-us/
- Intelligent Cloud – https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/overview/future-of-cloud/
- Responsible AI – https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/ai/responsible-ai
- Industry 4.0 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Industrial_Revolution
- Moore’s Law – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law
- Technical Product Management – https://blog.hubspot.com/service/technical-product-manager
- Growth mindset vs Fixed mindset – https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/
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COVID Pandemic impact on organizations in Singapore
We literally saw 2 years worth of digital transformation efforts in 2 months.
Asia Pacific is a region that is mobile first.
Intelligent technology as well as cloud technologies are all very good opportunities for different countries to leapfrog from where they are today into the future. Because they may not have that much legacy baggage or systems to deal with. They can straight away go into the next latest and greatest technologies, and bring the benefits of those technologies to their organizations or citizens.
On Technical Product Management
It does not mean that you will be creating two separate teams, or just having two separate teams without talking to each other. In fact, that is often where the failure happens. They should be close to each other, but yet, to some extent being managed separately. Over time, you should bring those who have been running the current products into the new businesses or organization.
Product management is a combination of science and art. There is no step-by-step process explicitly, like “here’s the 10 procedures”, nor there’s any specific book to read or follow. It depends on the product you’re creating, and land in the hands of your customers and partners.
When I think about product management, I think these are the group of people that really embodies the vision of the product itself. They are the ones that carry the vision and value propositions.
It comes with the spirit of how it better serves your customer’s needs, but surprising them with the capabilities that they may not realise at the same time.
The product manager is sometimes called the CEO of the product, and yet he or she has nobody reporting to him or her. He or she has to go around and convince engineering to do this; or the planning team to do that. But I think it’s really an art itself. The product manager has to think like an engineer, while having a heart of a designer, feel for the product itself. And I think the last skill is to have the tongue of a diplomat.
When we break it down into our products, this is something that I am really against - shipping our organization charts to our customers, which we definitely shouldn’t. We should be shipping a set of products and tools that solve some of their pain points or delights them upon using it.
On Digital Transformation
Tech intensity - This measures the rate of your technology adoption in an organization, multiplying by the technology capability of your team, and operating them in a trusted, secure paradigm. I think that is really important for organizations to embrace.
Organizations should never set up a central digital transformation office. It should be owned by everybody in the organization.
When you think about the fundamental shift in embracing technology into all aspects of an organization, it is not something that can be outsourced nor centralized in some digital transformation office.
It’s not a CIO’s job. It’s the CEO’s job. Every company and organization is becoming a technology company. And they are harnessing technology in the way they transform their products and services, as well as the way they empower their employees, optimizing their operations, or engaging with customers.
One of the key ways to think about how an organization really needs is to think about digital transformation and being able to permeate that through the organization itself. It’s not owned by a central office. It should be owned by everyone. The leaders need to lead by example and drive that from the front.
To not think about having just central offices or a central digital transformation office, rather make it a tech intensity that is adopted across the whole organization. This is because technology is not going to go away. In fact, it’s going further as we adopt technology that is getting more intelligent and anticipating our needs. So I think it’s a sign that it will continue to move forward in that direction.
On Responsibility AI
- As technology gets more and more intelligent, I think it’s more and more important that we start thinking about what technology should do apart on just what it can do. Those are important issues that we should consider - whether they have the same reliability; The privacy and security aspect - Is it inclusive? Is it fair? The transparency of the algorithms or the accountability of the running software.
On Continuous Learning and Growth Mindset
- When we encounter something that looks different from us, we can either learn more about it, and perhaps even adopt it; or at least be curious about it.
Richard’s 3 Tech Lead Wisdom
People, people, people. At the end of the day, it’s not about how well you know about the technology. If you are building an organization and nurturing it, it’s about the people who formed the organization. When you have great people, they will create great products. And that leads to profit. So people, products, and then profits, taking priority in that order.
It’s about the people that you bring in. Not just the smart people, but nurturing them to have a growth mindset at the same time. For example, embracing the changes in technology, and being curious about why certain things are evolving in such a way, and why is that a different technology? How is that going to impact us? Also being curious and learning about it.
Episode Introduction [00:00:44]
Henry Suryawirawan: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of the Tech Lead Journal with me your host Henry Suryawirawan. It’s really good to be back here again to share my conversation with another great technical leader. Thank you for tuning in and spending your time with me today listening to this episode.
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Tony Luong: [00:01:58] Hi everyone. My name is Tony and I work for ThoughtWorks Singapore as a software developer. A couple of months ago, I learned from my ex-colleague Henry that he was starting a podcast called Tech Lead Journal, in which he interviewed technical leaders from industry. And I thought that was a great initiative!
I started following Tech Lead Journal since then, and I have been listening to the episode during my free time. I really enjoy hearing a story from the guest. I think Henry has a great selection of guests so far. They are all very inspirational, and they have made great impact in their projects.
One of my most favorite episodes is the one in which Henry interviewed Li Hongyi from GovTech Singapore. I find it interesting to hear about the challenges that Hongyi faced when he came back to Singapore and joined GovTech, and how he managed to solve them, and went on to build a great team that are making great impact with initiative like Parking.SG or FormSG.
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If you enjoy the podcast, as much as I do consider become a patron too.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:02:59] Thank you so much for your kind words, Tony. I’m extremely happy to hear that you find this show very impactful to you, and would like to again express my gratitude for your support. And for those of you who have similar story like Tony, and would like to pledge your support and make contribution to the show, you can also do so through the patron page at techleadjournal.dev/patron. I’m currently running a goal on my patron page, and your support would tremendously helped me towards achieving it.
Our guest for today’s episode is Richard Koh. Richard is the CTO of Microsoft Singapore, who is responsible for engaging with key executive leaders across government, industry, and academia; bringing in the macro technology landscape, and helping customers leverage technology innovations for their digital transformation. Richard was part of the founding team for Microsoft’s flagship product, Office 365.
Our conversation started with some interesting observations on how organizations in Singapore are adapting to the COVID-19 impact, followed by his explanation on the unique CTO role that Microsoft has for specific country or region. Richard also shared his amazing journey building the Office 365, as part of the founding team, sharing some of his advices about the art of product management. We also touched on the cloud and digital transformation adoption, including some of his tips on how organizations should approach digital transformation in order to be successful. Last, Richard also shared about his passion on responsible tech and AI, and why it is important to have a discussion around them, including his contribution to the SGTech’s AI and HPC chapter.
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Henry Suryawirawan: Hi, Richard! Welcome to the Tech Lead Journal show. Very happy to have you here.
Richard Koh: [00:05:56] It’s a pleasure. Thank you, Henry. Really excited to be here.
Impact of COVID [00:05:59]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:05:59] So as a CTO of Microsoft Singapore, how has this pandemic been impacting you so far?
Richard Koh: [00:06:05] Yeah, it’s a very interesting times. First of all, I’d like to just give a shout out to all the frontline workers, especially the healthcare workers who have been taking care of us and by supporting them, we stay at home so that they can really focus on their jobs to take care of the public itself. And I think this is really unprecedented. There’s no organization with any kind of playbooks to be able to anticipate something as drastic as this. As we all go into lockdown, circuit breaker here in Singapore, restrictions and things like that, it’s been a really eye-opening experience. I think as our CEO said that, in the early months of this year, we literally saw 2 years worth of digital transformation efforts in 2 months. As organizations quickly go into the mode of how do I keep my business running, while having my workers and my office workers all working remotely. Also at the same time, assisting the public institutions over here in Singapore, in terms of helping to fight this, and contain the spread of the virus itself. It’s really eye-opening. It’s really humbling to see how many different organizations and volunteers came into the mix itself to really lean in and help in whatever small, little ways that they can. Same thing here for us at Microsoft, we’ve volunteered a lot of our… whether is it technical resources, as well as our software cloud services to assist organizations who are tasked to manage the spread of this virus as it happens in the early months. It’s been really impactful, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:07:41] Yeah, likewise, I think what you mentioned and Satya mentioned, “2 years of digital transformation sped up in 2 months”. That’s pretty unprecedented. Nobody can even imagine this situation. But also it proves that we are all adaptable to tough situations. And I’m sure that we can come out successful at the end of this.
Career Journey [00:07:56]
Henry Suryawirawan: Maybe let’s start by sharing your career journey. So what have been your major highlights or any turning points in your career?
Richard Koh: [00:08:03] Ah, okay. I think one of the major turning point was when I first installed this browser called Mosaic. So I’m marking my age by sharing that. But I remember when Marc Andreessen released it and then few of my friends back in Hewlett Packard, that’s where I first started my career, tested it and played with it, and it was like, “Wow, now we have a visual overlay on to the internet itself.” And that was like, “Man, this thing is just going to be huge.” So earlier on, I think probably one of the biggest thing that I did in my career was really making the move to Silicon Valley. Moving to the San Francisco Bay area in ‘99, through Hewlett Packard and embarking on that journey from being in R&D all the way to business development and product management. But it was exciting times, you lived through the dot-com boom and bust, and just being surrounded by so many intelligent people, doing all kinds of innovative, disruptive businesses and technologies. That has shaped really the way I think about all the endeavors, whether is it in the tech world or the business world. So that was one of those.
I think the second one was when I moved up to the Puget Sound area, the Seattle area to join Microsoft 2006. That was another major highlight in itself. Having the sheer luck to be part of the founding team of Office 365, it was just amazing being in that. It’s not even a front row seat of observing, but even right inside the arena itself, of really changing the business models of Microsoft right at the very beginning when we were embarking on this cloud journey itself. So those were the two.
And then 2011, coming back to Singapore, that was another one. Did a whole bunch of different strategic projects as well as, I took a stint outside of Microsoft with Singtel over here in Singapore. Ran their cloud business for about 2.5 years, before returning into this role as Microsoft Singapore CTO. So, been doing this for the last 4+ years now. It’s really exciting. I think just being able to contribute to Singapore’s digital transformation journey itself has been very enriching.
Microsoft CTO [00:10:09]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:10:09] Thanks for sharing that. I realized Microsoft is probably one of the big companies who has a country or regional specific CTO. Maybe can you share a little bit, why is it so unique that Microsoft requires this position?
Richard Koh: [00:10:22] It’s a really great question. I think when you think of it, as a global technology company, we have always viewed our organization as having a very key responsibility in the different communities that we run our business. And I think having this role is a very solid recognition to the uniqueness that each country faces in its technology agenda and its macro digital transformation agenda itself. As we all hear from the last number of years around things like Industry 4.0 and the need to really harness the powers of technology to advance organizations, communities and even countries themselves. So this is unique in many sense. The role itself really lends its view on what’s really the country’s priorities when it thinks about its community, its citizens, its government services, its industries, for example. And here in Singapore, some of the priorities industry, how as a small country, we have to be able to operate and continuously renew ourselves to be able to keep providing jobs for the populations. For example, ensuring that everybody has a good livelihood and be fulfilled in whatever they do in different parts of the economies, whether is it in manufacturing, health care, government services, technology, startups. So businesses of all sizes, SMEs, middle-sized companies, all the way to the larger corporate MNCs that are operating here. So it’s really interesting. I think that’s always some of the challenges, if you will, to think about the different agenda across all the different countries. I’m sure you have lived and grew up in different countries as well. So you can see that, whether is it a different pace or different attitudes and lens towards technology. I think aggregating that unique lens and view helps to inform us as a company, what we should be doing to be able to serve our customers, our partners, and our communities and societies that we operate in.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:12:22] It’s pretty unique in that sense. So do you have the independence to make decisions at least within your country and region? What kind of R&D or directions? Or even like how do you want to strategize the business side of the Microsoft or Singapore at least?
Richard Koh: [00:12:35] Yeah. I think there’s a certain amount of that in terms of agency that we bring in from a viewpoint from a country perspective to the larger Microsoft organization itself. And like I mentioned earlier, this helps us to inform whether is it our product strategy to the way we think about government policies that happens in the country itself, to the way the country thinks about leveraging technology for the wellbeing of its citizens, for example. So there are definitely a certain amount of autonomy as well as agency that we can bring in into that lens, so that whether is it in research or the products engineering teams back in corporate that are building the products, they have a very good view of what the global needs looks like, and what are some of the local sensitivities would look like. And it’s kind of nice. I marry my previous corporate product experience, when I was based in Redmond. And then looking at rolling out a product for the whole world to now something that is very specific to a country. I think, that was a very nice, unique position that I was able to leverage throughout the last couple of years.
The Region Macro Trends [00:13:43]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:13:43] Cool. So maybe if you can share, what are some of the current macro trends around the region? What has Microsoft been focusing on? If you can share with the audience.
Richard Koh: [00:13:52] Yeah. I think when we think about, let’s say macro trends, or maybe I’ll just think about it from a technology trend perspective. Asia Pacific itself, it’s a very large area, huge in terms of the size of the population itself, but yet it also comprises of many different countries with many different cultures, and at different pace of technology adoptions as well. As we have many developing countries as well as some of the, I would say, medium size developed countries as well. I think there is no one macro trend that you can just point to and say, “This is it.” But I would say that this is a region that’s really exciting. Like many people would say, “Oh, this is really a region that is really mobile first.” Its population have experienced the internet through their mobile device first. And that experience itself lends a lot of insights into how technology companies should think about making their products relevant to the population itself. So mobile is definitely one of those. And I think when you think about intelligent technology as well as cloud technologies, for example itself, these are all very good opportunities for different countries to even leapfrog from where they are today into the future. Because they may not have that much legacy baggage or systems or whatever to deal with, and that’s always very fascinating to watch because it’s almost like they can just take advantage and say, “You know what? I don’t have to take the steps that some of the developed countries have done in the past before. I can straight away go into the next latest and greatest, and really bring the benefits of those technologies to my organizations or all my citizens, for that matter.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:15:36] I think it’s pretty interesting when you mentioned that Asia and this region can leapfrog whatever progress that the developed countries has done in the many years. And especially now we see the COVID, the pace of acceleration of technology, I think is pretty fast. Like what you mentioned earlier 2 years in 2 months. So I could foresee that more and more adoption and more and more technology playing a big part in our life and in our work every day.
Founding Office 365 [00:15:58]
Henry Suryawirawan: I’m very interested in your story in founding the Office 365. Maybe if we can go there, can you share a little bit what is your role there? And how the story actually started, coming up with this Office 365?
Richard Koh: [00:16:10] Oh, I’ll just give a little bit of that insight. Yeah, I was quote unquote, “drafted into that team”. In fact, maybe it’s not so well known right now, but the first instantiation of the name of Office 365 was actually called Business Productivity Online Services. That was when Microsoft naming convention had more descriptive names inside our products itself. I came from the quote unquote “telco world, network service providers world”. So, have that knowledge and understanding of running like big systems, what are all the requirements and delivering services to customers. This was a time when, if you remember in the mid or early 2000s, when you see the technology trajectory of processing power, storage, for example, as well as bandwidth increasing at a very rapid pace, and we were smashing Moore’s law left and right in all these technologies. And the questions started coming around to say, “Hey, what does that mean when it comes to software? How will software be consumed by customers, by consumers in the future?” And I think that was some of the early days of the thinking to say, “Oh, then software will be delivered online rather than through DVDs, for example.” I think not many of your listeners, or many some of your listeners still remember installing software through DVDs. But I don’t remember when was the last time we did that. We just downloaded an app and that was it and software just gets consumed online through a browser or through an app.
And I think that was really exciting when we started to really thinking about how the future of software will be like. And then, I was running Technical Product Management, so really around things like features, functions of the platforms. How do we think about the commercial aspects of it? Where do we place data centers around the world as well as all the legal compliance requirements around the world as well. We live on a very diverse planet. And many different countries have, I would say different levels of the way they think about technology and what are some of the legal and regulatory requirements around that, so we have to navigate through a lot of that when we started rolling out to the different countries. But, yeah, I was just incidentally drafted in, within like less than six months in joining Microsoft. And I always say, “This is my lucky draw and I just happened to be in the right place, right time.” And ended up with a very smart team of colleagues, who came from different parts of the organization to start this new business for Microsoft.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:18:46] So if I get it right also during that time, Microsoft Office is still around and it’s a thing that has tremendous growth. People install Office almost everywhere in the office and school, or even personal computers. So I could foresee that there are lots of probably challenges as well internally like, “Why do we build a different version of Office?” Not to mention that you probably need to rewrite most of the parts, because I don’t think the installable Office can easily translate to the web based Office 365. Maybe can you share a little bit of the challenges there?
Richard Koh: [00:19:15] Well, some of the challenges, I think, this is not something new. I think is a challenge that I would say, will confront or are already being confronted by many different organization. Technology, let’s say foundations, typically changes over time, and they have that impact of changing, potentially disrupting your existing business models. So for us, it was really about delivering software on DVDs, or doing installation in the traditional way. As you look at that, and you look into the future itself and you say, “Wow, the world is gonna look very different in the way technology is going to be consumed. If we don’t do something right now, and even though it’s in a very small way, and commit the organization and these people to really think about the future for the organization, then we’ll be in trouble.” And then, Microsoft will probably cease to be relevant to many organizations around the world. So we had to do that. I think part of it is survival, but part of it is also making sure that we can harness all the creativity from across the organization. We have a lot of smart people. I’ve worked with so many smart folks that cannot imagine I learned so much from them. But when they all came together and think about what that future looks like, and that started this journey of us transforming our business models from traditional software tools and platforms, being to something that’s on the cloud that lives online. And anybody literally with a laptop and a browser can access to it. It’s not something that just unique to Microsoft. I think it’s probably relevant to a lot of many different organizations out there as they think about their existing businesses - the existing cash cows - if you will, and then what’s going to be the future that’s going to look like. One of those classic book by Clay Christensen is The Innovator’s Dilemma. So that was quote, unquote the go to book that we go to, to think about how we need to transform the organization. And that if I may, I’ll just make another plug for a book. Don’t worry. I don’t get any licensing royalties on that. But there’s this book that a friend of mine recently pointed out to me and I read it cover to cover in a short matter of just a couple of weeks. It’s called Loonshots, not moonshots, but Loonshots. It’s really nice. It really talks about how organizations come together where some parts of it running the existing business and some parts of it innovating for the future. And really having the organization’s leadership committing to both, and be able to run all of that and then over time transform the organization themselves.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:21:42] I’ve seen that book. I think in some bookstores in Singapore. I haven’t read it, but I’ll shoot to check it out. Thanks for sharing that. I think one interesting part about what you mentioned disrupting the current business model, so I can foresee that there are multiple ways of how you run this. First of all, like you said create a separate team. One is like the legacy Microsoft Office and one is the Office 365. Do you run them as a separate team with its own goals and targets and business numbers and revenues and things like that? Or actually you are cooperating together in order to make them seamlessly integrated, and even supporting each other in terms of coming up with the bigger numbers, revenue?
Richard Koh: [00:22:17] Great question. Because I think the reality when we go about executing something like that, is that, it’s practical and efficient to create a separate team first with literally different goals. The way the new team needs to think about the future for the organization itself, its products, and its strategy. But I think keeping that connection, keeping that conversation, keeping that collaboration with the existing teams are crucial as well. It’s interesting. These exact questions that you brought up, it’s all covered in that book, Loonshots as well. How to ensure that the conversations continue to take place so that the new team understands the challenges of, let’s say the current business itself, and also how to harness the new thinking and a new product strategy to solve some of these existing challenges with the current products, for example. So those are the kind of things that I would always encourage organizations, CXOs or technology leaders to always think about. It’s not to say you create two separate teams, or you just have two separate teams and they don’t talk to each other. In fact, that is often the failure that happens if they don’t talk to each other. They should be close, but yet, in some extent of it be managed separately. And over time, bring in, recruit the others who have been running the current products itself into the new businesses, into the new organization. So that as a larger organization, you have the ability to transition there. We kept that conversation going. I know I have fond and scary memories of all the debates that we have had with different teams. And through that, I think a lot of learning takes place. And that has helped us to really, over time transform the way we think about the software business.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:24:03] Wow. I can imagine during that time, different business departments maybe having their own agenda and thinking of how to collaborate.
The Art of Product Management [00:24:09]
Henry Suryawirawan: Let’s go back to your core role, which is a Technical Product Management. I’m sure you have an insurmountable of features lining up how to catch up with the existing Office. I know that you have a passion in, the art of product management as well. Maybe you can share with the audience here, who are into product management as well, how did you tackle such a big challenge of catching up with the existing legacy, and rebrand it into something that is more modern for people to adopt?
Richard Koh: [00:24:34] Well, that’s an interesting question. Product management is sometimes part science and part art. There is no step process. There is no “here’s the 10 procedures”. Here’s the book to read, or things like that. It really depends a lot on what you’re trying to create, and land in the hands of your customers and partners. When I think about product management, I really think about these are the set of people that really embodies the vision of the product itself. They are the ones that really carries the vision and really value proposition. I mean if you drill down to it. Yes, value proposition of it, design aspect and all of that. But I think it comes with the spirit of how are all this becoming better in terms of serving your customer’s needs. But at the same time, surprising them with capabilities that sometimes the customers may not know themselves as well. I think that’s when you have reached the realm of being able to surprise and delight the customers with some of these capabilities that you are bringing into the product. A lot of times, if you read the articles on the web, the product manager sometimes, they call him or her the CEO of the product. And yet he or she has nobody reporting to him. He or she has to go around and convince engineering to do this, and the planning people to do that, or text people do this. But I think it’s really an art in itself. That person really has to think like an engineer in his head, have a heart of a designer, really like feeling the product itself. And I think the last skill is really have the tounge of a diplomat. I learned this off from someone. I’m trying to recall that person’s name right now, but at the moment I cannot. Really, I think product managers play these kinds of roles at different times, depending on the teams and their stakeholders, as well as the colleagues that they work with.
Building Office 365 [00:26:26]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:26:26] Wow. Very, very insightful. During that time you spend from the beginning, from the founding team being established until the launch, how long did it take for you to go public? Okay, here’s Office 365. Everyone can try to explore and use.
Richard Koh: [00:26:39] Too long. No. I’m kidding. Let’s see, I would say we spent quite a fair bit of time on envisioning the future. Part of that was a good, maybe it was a year or so. Making sure that our vision is not skewed too far into the imaginary future where something is just not going to happen. But at the same time grounded in our observations of the technology foundation, like in processing, like in data center architectures, for example, the global Wide Area Network bandwidth, for example, and the way software development techniques and tools are evolving as well. I think over a span of about one and a half to two years when we first shipped the first instance of that in the US market, and then subsequently over to 20 countries, and then expanding that the following year, and learning along the way as we roll that out. So felt like a long time. But at the same time, it also felt like a short time, because we were running very fast in making sure that we can deliver what we commit to. But at the same time, really making sure that the product experience is what we envision it to be. We want to make sure that we don’t fall short of that. Otherwise, then we could end up delivering something that is just marginal improvement over what we have in our existing products. So it’s got to fundamentally change. And of course, it also changes the way our customers think about our products. How would they procure it? How would they use it? How would they get it upgraded? Things like that. Time-wise was about, yeah, I would say, two years or so. That was an exciting journey.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:28:16] So during that time, do you actually break down the team into separate sub areas? Like for example, Office 365 is not just one product. You have the foundation, obviously. How it integrates with each other, including the legacy applications. And you have Word. You have PowerPoint. You have Excel, for example. Do you break them up into sub-teams where everybody has their own iteration? Or you actually, like in the initial year, you sit down together and build the products together as a team?
Richard Koh: [00:28:42] Yeah. I think that question is interesting in the sense that, you mentioned about “Ho, how about we just break them into the teams, the different product features that we have in the old days?” So to speak. Generally we try not to, because I think that’s falling into the default of how we think about the products itself. And what we did, again uniquely was that, we think of it as a whole suite of collaboration and communication tools. So bringing that together, because when we break it down into our products, this is something that I really rail against. We are shipping our organization charts to our customers, which is not a good thing. We should be shipping a set of products and tools that they use, that really solve some of their pain points or really delights them. So a lot of times, it shouldn’t be constrained by our organization, but having that flexibility to say, “How do we change ourselves such that it makes sure that it helps to address what the customers and our partners needs are like.” So we didn’t do that, we just said, “Okay, maybe we need a team that is really thinking about the whole Office suite itself, all the different components underneath that.” But at the same time also things like, whether is it data centers, networking, licensing, our partners’ ecosystem, for example. So those are some of the early days of how we have organized ourselves to tackle that. And if we feel like some of that models is not really working well along the way, then we change it.
Importance of Cloud [00:30:06]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:30:06] Wow. I learn a lot from you on this product management. Obviously during that time it’s probably the early days of cloud. I’m sure also Microsoft started to explore around the cloud. And probably ended up as, like Azure, the cloud product from Microsoft. So can you probably share with us, what is the importance of cloud these days? And why do you think for some organizations who haven’t adopted it, why should they move to the cloud? Especially those who are highly regulated.
Richard Koh: [00:30:31] Those are very great question. I think as Microsoft evolves and moves into the cloud services, whether is it with Office 365, or whether is it with Azure or Dynamics 365, business application model workplace, and the Intelligent Cloud itself. I think, the fundamental challenge is that, it’s a massive shift for many organization when they think about their technology needs. In the past, it’s always been, “Hey, I’m able to procure software from the different technology vendors.” One of them being Microsoft. And I installed a software into a bunch of servers and shove them into this corner called the data center or called the server rooms, that serves the organization itself. And what is evolving to or what has evolved to is now there’s an ability for you to consume all these resources on a utility basis, just like your electricity and water. And that fundamental shifts has many different kinds of impact. Whether is it to the CFO, for example, the way he or she thinks about how it impacts the bottom line, from capital expenditure all the way to operational expenditure itself. There are also different skillsets that technology teams, IT teams within organizations that they have to adopt and change as well.
I’ll tell a little anecdotal story here. I have a friend who used to be the CIO of a company. And he had this several room in the office. And it was interesting, he says, “You know what, Richard, one day the air conditioning broke down. And my servers were melting.” And this was not too long ago. This was still fairly recent in that sense. And you just think about that. The CIO has to worry about the air conditioning equipment of that server room. The size, the applications and the services that he or she needed to provide to all the users and all the stakeholders in the company itself. Having a service provider like Microsoft be able to help with that, fundamentally changes the way he or she thinks about, technology transformation, adoption and things like that.
So at Microsoft, we call this the tech intensity. And what this is, is really about the rate of your technology adoption in an organization, multiply by the technology capability that you are building in your teams itself, and then operating that, in a trusted, secure paradigm. I think that’s really important for a lot of organizations to really embrace. And I think, a lot of times the challenge with adopting to the cloud, it’s not something that they can see and feel, like in the past where they can say, “Hey, this is my server room. I know where my service is. I know where the cables connect to.” And now, we have to trust a service provider to be able to run our application in this data centers, which sometimes we don’t even know where it is, and still be able to keep our business running. That’s a leap of faith, in some sense for a lot of CIOs or CTOs, for example. Over time, I think they’ve come to accept they’ve engaged with a lot of different service providers and say, “Okay, I understand how the technology work right now. I have many sneak peeks behind us, behind the curtains to see how these mega data centers are run, how the security is being handled. I can trust it. I can start really thinking about leveraging these platforms for my digital transformation.” Just recently I was speaking to a crowd of financial leaders, for example. And it’s interesting. I’ve given this talk and discussions over the years, and in the earlier years, it was quote unquote “Why cloud?” And now it’s, “Okay Richard, we get it. We are definitely going there. It’s going to the cloud. We just want to make sure that on an ongoing basis, there is a partnership and engagement around things like risk management, for example, security assurance, for example.” These are topical concerns and issues that the risks and assurance people within, let’s say the banking industry, that are concerned with. The technology itself, and the platforms, and the paradigm is largely embraced by a lot of organizations right now. And they are certainly leveraging that. And now the conversation has really shifted. So it’s interesting. I started my cloud journey back in what, 2006. Yup. Wow. It’s been 14 years already. That makes me an old guy in the cloud. But you can certainly see that conversation has shifted, and the adoption have shifted over the years. And especially in the last, I would say probably the last 5 years.
Digital Transformation Adoption [00:35:02]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:35:02] So, I mean like in those long years, I’m sure you have a lot of experiences, a lot of organizations trying to digitally transform, adopting cloud, and things like that. Could you probably either share what are some of the tips for successful digital transformation? Or maybe some misconceptions that people should avoid when adopting this digital transformation?
Richard Koh: [00:35:22] Ah, that’s a very good one. Maybe this is a personal one. Organizations should never set up a central digital transformation office. It should be owned by everybody in the organization itself. And I think that’s sometimes a challenge when I talk to key decision makers and CXOs in an organization. Sometimes they will feel like, “Oh, digital transformation! I’ll just set up an office for that. And they will take care of everything while we run the business.” I think when you think about such a fundamental shifts in terms of embracing technology into all aspects of an organization, it is not something that can be outsourced nor centralized in some digital transformation office, if you will. I wouldn’t say it’s the right thing to do. Because if an organization thinks about how they are, let’s say, transforming their products and services that they are serving their customers, that would require some set of change; or they are optimizing their operations in the backend, that’s also another set of stakeholders that needs to come into play; or they’re thinking about empowering their employees with the latest and greatest communication and collaboration tools, for example; or maybe new ways in terms of engaging with customers, especially in times like this during the COVID-19 pandemic. Customers who are very used to one form of engaging with customers, like maybe in a retail store, maybe in an office. Now we have to think about new ways of engaging customers virtually through an online forum, for example. These are all the concerns. These are all the digital transformation efforts that touches every part of the organization. So it’s not a CIO’s job. It’s the CEO’s job. Every company, every organization is becoming a technology company. And they are harnessing technology in the way they transform their products and services, and the way they empower their employees, optimize their operations, or engage with customers. So I think that’s really one of the key ways to think about how an organization really needs to think about digital transformation, and be able to permeate that through the organization itself. It’s not owned by a central office. It needs to be owned by everyone. But obviously the leadership needs to lead by example, and really drive that from the front.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:37:37] Interesting you said that. Because I just realized that so many organizations embarking this digital transformation journey, yet I see a lot of them setting up center of excellence. I don’t know what they call these days. All these center of excellence kind of team, seem to be there. What do you think are some of the common misconception why people are setting up that way? If it’s not totally helping, in terms of the whole transformation.
Richard Koh: [00:37:59] I think it’s probably a misconception that having a center of excellence within that organization itself would mean that the whole organization would be able to change. It’s interesting because in terms of organizational dynamics, that lends itself to an unintended consequence. Because if you are not part of that center of excellence, you would say, “Oh, it’s that center of excellence’s job.” And it’s very human nature to do that. And what happens is that they permeates through the organization, and somebody just easily points a finger onto the COE and say, “Oh, it’s those guys' job. It’s not my job.” That’s a potential for failure. I think when we think about digital technology adoption, it’s everybody’s job. Of course at very different levels. I think we hear stories about how non-technical people who have leveraged low code and no code type of platforms, and created applications for the organization. And when you think about that, the sense of ownership and the sense of serving their stakeholders, it’s so empowering that they say, “Oh, you know what? I can take this tool and be able to create, perhaps a new service or an app, to serve my customers or my internal stakeholders, for example. I don’t have to wait for IT or the CTO office to go figure out this for me.” But have a close working relationship. So , yes, I would certainly encourage all your listeners out there to not think about having just central offices or central digital transformation office, and really make it a tech intensity that is adopted across their whole organization itself. Because technology is not going to go away. In fact, it’s just going to go even more and more, as we adopt technology that intelligent, that can even anticipate our needs, and stuff like that. So I think it’s just a sign of our times, and it will continue to move forward in a direction.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:39:51] I just remember one anecdotal story. It’s my personal experience going to an organization. Just like what you said, they adopted center of excellence. So we went through different levels. And at a certain floor, when you open, wow, it’s so different, with a lot of lights, brightness and all that. I think that’s not a good thing as well. Because when people see it, and especially if you are from that team going out to that level, the other people will just see you, and probably creates this kind of a social friction, I would say. Like, this is that team. I’m the other team. Probably, political-wise, it’s not good to do so.
Richard Koh: [00:40:20] Yes, yes, yes. Unfortunately, yes. You are spot on. There are unintended consequences sometimes, of such arrangements. And whichever organizations, the leaders need to be very conscious of some of the unintended consequences that can happen.
Community Contributions and Other Interests [00:40:34]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:40:34] So, moving on to your other interests, probably what are the things that you are busy with or contributing in the community or any other passion that you’re doing outside of your role in Microsoft?
Richard Koh: [00:40:45] I think a big part of it, as you might know, I’m also the chairman of SGTech’s Artificial Intelligence and High-Performance Computing Chapter itself. So really leaning in, working with the community here of different organizations, to think about the adoption of AI, for example, in many different aspects of our lives, or in the organization itself. And I think really closely marrying to that, is this notion around responsible AI itself. As technology get more and more intelligent, I think it’s more and more important that we really think about not only what technology can do, but what it should do. And those are really important issues that we need to think of. Whether they have the same reliability. The privacy protects the security aspect of itself. Is it inclusive? Is it fair? The amount of transparency that algorithms have, for example. Or the accountability of all this software that is being run. I think those are very topical issues as well, as we think about the adoption of technology. And it’s interesting because this era, it’s also very cultural, and that speaks to the diversity of the planet. If I’m not wrong, there was this survey around the world that talks about whether was it an autonomous car or something that went rogue, and let’s say, “is it going to knock down the elderly lady or the baby?” And what’s the decision? And it’s very interesting that the result came up very split, depending on the culture, and where you were brought up. So there’s no real right answer. But certainly, conversations that we need to talk about, and certainly I’m really passionate about something like this as well.
The other aspect is really learning about technology. Technology just keeps going and going. It’s so fun, but at the same time, just keeping the pace, it’s really crazy. Let me tell another story again. When we went into this circuit breaker, and everybody is working from home, it was so interesting to see that my two boys, my two sons just went into it so easily, because they have been interacting with a lot of their friends in school online through games, for example. It’s so normal for them. Putting on a headset or having a microphone there, and talking and bantering about, while they are playing a game is so normal. I literally learned from them. What are the best mic to get? That’s really in some ways tech upskilling for me. I was like, “Oh, so this is how you interact with your friends while you’re playing the game, and don’t you get lag? Is a headset better or is a mic better?” I was just so impressed. And I think the skilling aspect of it, is not about just learning from experts. We can learn from our kids as well. They will be showing us in many ways, what the future could look like. Unfortunately, this pandemic have actually accelerated a lot of that. And yeah, they felt so comfortable going online, just interacting with their friends. They didn’t feel like they need to go back to school. I was getting worried a little bit. “Dad, this online learning stuff, it’s really fine.” I was like, “Oh, okay. Don’t you miss school? Face-to-face with your friends?” “Yeah, no worries. We see each other on a computer. We just talk.” So maybe, it’s sometimes what at Microsoft we term off as a growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. Sometimes, we have to confront our fixed mindset every day, and say, “Okay, we may have a fixed mindset around how this thing should work, or how that thing should be like.” And yet, when we encounter something else that looks different from us, we can either be curious about it, learn more about it, and perhaps even adopt it, or at least be curious about it. So I think that’s that growth mindset that we talk about quite a fair bit, and that willingness to learn. And I was like, yeah, sometimes my kids do stuff that I don’t even know of, so I better go learn from them. Sometimes they find a little bit weird and then they will say, “Dad, aren’t you like the CTO of Microsoft Singapore? Shouldn’t you know this stuff?”
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:44:33] Yeah. I was about to say that. Sometimes I can totally relate to that. It’s like a wake up call. We have been in the industry for many years, dealing with technology. We assume like we are the expert. And we know everything about tech. But yeah, there are other areas, especially with youngsters, their mode of using technology seems to be different. If you know about it, of course you know, like TikTok, and all these new up and coming trends, how they use technology sometimes it’s wow, I didn’t think about that before. So yeah, it’s pretty interesting anecdotes that you mentioned there about your kids.
Responsibility Tech [00:45:01]
Henry Suryawirawan: I also want to ask you about the responsibility tech, the whole umbrella of what you just mentioned. Is there any particular group that you support, like for people, if they are interested to know more about this concept, responsibility tech. Maybe you can share with the audience?
Richard Koh: [00:45:14] Ah, yes. So I would encourage all your listeners if they are keen to engage on some of this topic. Come join the SGTech, AI and HPC chapter. We welcome all organizations here in Singapore. Whether you are a technology company or you’re non-technology company, but really looking at using some of these intelligent technology in your digital transformation journey itself. What we’re doing within the chapter is creating the communities of different organizations, and having different conversations around responsible technology, responsible AI, for example. And also at the same time, engaging with some of the policymakers here in Singapore as well. So be it, whether is it the PDPC, the Personal Data Protection Commission, for example, or MAS, Monetary Authority of Singapore, who are looking at, what does that mean when the AI comes into financial services, for example. What are the impact? What are the kind of sensitive use case that we have to really think about. So yeah, this is certainly one space. So I’ll make a plug for SGTech. And we have a LinkedIn website. So look it up and come join us. Join the chapter and love to have everybody from different organization, different technology providers, as well as end user companies, to participate in this discussions.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:46:38] Thanks for sharing that. For those of you who have a deep interest in this area, make sure to check it out, and maybe join and see how you can contribute as well.
3 Tech Lead Wisdom [00:46:45]
Henry Suryawirawan: Richard, it’s been a pleasure. All this discussion. I have one last question, which I normally ask for every guest that I have in the show. Could you share us, maybe, if you have three technical leadership wisdom that you want to transfer to the audience here?
Richard Koh: [00:46:57] Ah, okay. Three is a lot. But here’s, here’s how I think about it. I remember sharing with my teams before. I think, it comes down to this. It’s… I can say, it’s three is the same, is people, people, people. At the end of the day, it’s not about: how well you know about the technology. If you are building an organizations and nurturing an organization, it’s the people that formed the organization itself. And at the same time, when you think about being able to do that, when you have great people, great people will create the great products. And then your great products will then bring in the profits. So people, products, profits, in that order. So I think that’s really the key thing. It’s really about the people that you bring in. It’s not only about just bringing in the smart people. But at the same time, nurturing them to have a growth mindset, for example, really, really embracing the changes that is taking place in the technology, and being curious for example about: why some things are evolving in this way, and why is that a different technology? How is that going to impact us? And being curious and learning about it. I think, when technology leaders invest in their people, and spending time to nurture them, whether is it their curiosity, their growth mindset, the rest will come naturally.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:48:18] Wow. Thank you for that. Yeah, it’s not three. But it can be three. Thank you again, Richard, for spending your time here, sharing your experience, your knowledge and your wisdom with everyone here. I really appreciate that. I do learn a lot, obviously, especially your journey in Office 365. And I’m sure it’s also part of your career that you cherish a lot, where you grow and learn from what you did there. Anyone wants to find you online, where can they reach you?
Richard Koh: [00:48:41] LinkedIn is the best platform to reach out to me. I do post a lot on LinkedIn. So, you can search it up, “Richard Koh Microsoft”. I’m sure you’ll find me on LinkedIn. I do share a lot of what Microsoft is doing and innovating around, and some of the key topical topics that we discuss, and do engage with the community online as well. Another place that I can engage is on Twitter. My handle is @richardkoh, just one word, simple as that. That will be another way that folks can reach out to me as well.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:49:12] Alright. Thanks Richard! I also hope to see you again in a future episode.
Richard Koh: [00:49:16] Likewise. And it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Henry. This has been fun.
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