Information technology needs to tell the world a better story — one that addresses human values rather than getting bogged down in “religious” debates about technology, says Microsoft NZ chief Kevin Ackhurst. Ackhurst was addressing a joint meeting of Women in Technology and the Computer Society last week on the theme “Using ICT to Build Digital Communities”.
A more consistent and unified story that rose above such debates could make the industry more attractive to the rising generation, he said. Positive human values such as community building and the diversity of viewpoints that the industry embraces need to be emphasised.
The exhibition of internal frictions that manifest as “philosophical and almost religious disputes” at the technological level, are not helping here. “As a consequence, we sometimes turn people away from the benefits that the technologies provide,” said Ackhurst.
If we could “maturely express, regardless of the approach we take, the fact that we’re all part of the same industry” — and emphasise its benefits, in terms of making connections between people and helping build communities of interest, we could do a better job of showing organisations the value of ICT, and get them to make more and better use of it, he said.
Ackhurst also spoke as the father of an 11-year-old son who is just beginning to think about careers, so he couched his arguments in terms of the pro and cons of his son pursuing a career in ICT.
An ICT career has a poor image, he said. It is seen as having unsocial working hours and as being a pursuit that interests a narrow and dwindling number of people, he said. Although he added that recently he’d been told computing courses enrolments at Auckland University of Technology had started to trend up again.
Also on a positive note, ICT involves creativity and its results permeate the whole of society. “There are complicated problems that can only be solved with the aid of computers,” said Ackhurst. And the ability to solve such problems of society should inspire pride and respect — if we can put this across to those outside the industry in a meaningful way.
ICT also stands out as an industry that is strong on corporate social responsibility. From collaborative development to increasing environmental awareness, and initiatives such as ‘Computers in Homes’, which brings IT to the less fortunate, “there are few areas where people don’t give back in some way”, said Ackhurst.
ICT is mind-expanding too, in that it encourages a diverse view of society by putting people in touch with those they might not otherwise encounter — examples here include the contacts made, and discussions sparked, from his own FaceBook entries, and those on other social networks, he said.
An audience member pointed out that such community building depended on “affordable connectivity and affordable software”, and the support of multiple languages. None of this had been produced by “traditional ICT companies” and most of what was available was free of charge, he said.
“I don’t believe anything is free,” Ackhurst replied. “You get what you pay for and even things that are represented as free are not really free.” However, he accepted that the industry needs to incorporate multiple languages, as well as a broader range of national outlooks.
Microsoft, he suggested, has moved on from having a purely US mindset. It now has a significant presence in India’s Bangalore, Israel and Norway, among other places. Ten years ago, the company would have put staff from these countries through an induction course to teach them to think Redmond-style. Now, a significant effort is made to localise products and to ensure working environments fit the culture of the country.
“I think we’re in the process of making that shift. I don’t think it’s an easy shift to make.”