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March 25, 2009 6:26 PM

Q&A: Microsoft chief strategist Craig Mundie on global competition, government IT

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

Craig Mundie, Microsoft chief research and strategy officer, said Americans seeking to update their technology skills should look to the nation's community colleges for training.

Mundie took a break from the company's Government Leaders Forum -- Americas on Wednesday to talk with me about global competitiveness, the government IT spending environment, prospects for cloud computing in government IT portfolios and more.

Earlier in the day, Mundie talked to the gathering of Latin American governors and ministerial-level leaders about using technology to improve health care and education. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is scheduled to address the group, meeting in Leesburg, Va., on Thursday.

Here are edited excerpts from my talk with Mundie:

Q: You remarked on the idea that technology has been a great global leveler, contributing to developing nations' transition from industrial and agricultural economies to knowledge-based economies. What's available for people in this country who are facing layoffs now and want to compete on that global playing field that technology creates?

Mundie: "To some extent the globalization horse is out of the barn. And so I don't think any attempt to put it back in the barn is going to be very successful. In some sense, people have to recognize ... these technologies are available to everyone. Arguably, people in the United States have more uniform access to it yet than people in most other countries -- albeit not all. I think they have to recognize that there are many avenues open to them to gain access to technology, to gain training in the technology and to basically use it to change their lives and change their own marketability in our own society and economy, which is world's leading knowledge economy and hopefully will remain so.


"For that to happen we need a steady supply of trained people and frankly for people who may suddenly have time on their hands or find that there's a decline in their more traditional employment, they can, through community colleges in particular, I think, go and get some training quickly in some of these advanced technical skills.

"Many people who are coming out of high school and who don't necessarily want to go into four-year college program, but who want to be prepared to work in the technical community are finding that the community colleges in the United States have become the training ground for IT professionals."

Q: Are government leaders willing or even ability to invest in IT right now given huge government deficits and tight credit markets?

Mundie: [He expects leaders gathered at this conference to be] "looking at many of these IT investments relative to how quick their payback is. It's not that they aren't buying things, it's just that they want to ensure that, particularly from a cash-management point-of-view, that the capital expense has a rapid payback cycle. So a lot of Microsoft's focus since September has been on showing people which technologies tend to have the highest payback just from a financial analysis point of view, and yet help them solve problems that they've got.


"The themes of this conference are basically improvement in productivity, and health care and education. Every one of these countries is like the United States in that some of their largest total expenditures are in health and education, and [they are] not particularly happy with the outcomes and are looking for ways to improve that. So to the extent that technology could lower their costs, I think they're willing to make those investments, they just have to see it as having a fairly direct payback."

Q: How open are governments to cloud computing and software as a service models for government information and applications hosted in third-party datacenters, much like what Microsoft is working on with Windows Azure?

Mundie: "Many of these governments are saddled with incredible legacy data center expenses. They're just some of the world's largest enterprises and they accrue a lot of legacy, often custom systems that are hard for them to maintain and also then hard for them to replace.


"So the people I talk to in the United States and elsewhere are quite intrigued with the idea that some of these data center capabilities that we have in the cloud services, could in fact be a more economical host or provide the impetus for them to move off of their legacy data centers and line-of-business applications and put them in the cloud in the future.

"There is a persistent question with respect to the data security for some classes of government information and, at least at Microsoft, I think we're looking at creative ways that we can solve those problems. I'm fairly optimistic that we'll find a variety of solutions that balance the needs and risks that governments have regarding their data, which ranges from just privacy questions to national security questions, over time.

"It probably won't be that everybody just deploys everything on a standard Azure environment, but we may find that we can create some subsets of those things that would meet some of the stringent government requirements and yet still allow them to have compatibility with what we do in the general public cloud."

Q: I think everybody detects a much greater emphasis on technology and IT in the Obama Administration. Is that being reflected on other governments? Do people see the United States as taking a leadership role?

Mundie:"It's too early to tell. The guy [Vivek Kundra, Obama's pick as the first federal chief information officer] is only a few weeks into the job and I wouldn't tell you he's managed to transform the U.S. government yet in IT.


"We have a good relationship with Vivek at Microsoft from his time in the D.C. CIO office and some of the programs that he did there. It will be interesting to see how he can move to extend some of the learnings and programs that he had and try to find a way to do that at a scale that is much larger than just the D.C. government."

Q: When you think about the federal government and its many agencies and the legacy systems you talked about, is this one of the biggest IT challenges in the world to try to rationalize that some how?

Mundie: "I certainly would expect so. For Microsoft and I would expect almost any other tech company, in any country the government is usually the biggest customer and that's true for Microsoft. And so the U.S. government is probably the most heavily invested in information technology over the longest period of time, and as a result, they have a very large-scale and diverse challenge to try to deal with modernization and consolidation.


"The technology obviously continues to evolve quite rapidly, but the government, in many cases, is saddled with what systems, in one for or another, uniquely engineered for their requirements -- even if built on standardized platform technology. I think that that is a daunting challenge to try to move forward."

Q: How might the funding in the federal stimulus package for electronic medical records help Microsoft's existing health care efforts?

Mundie: "Between the Amalga work and the HealthVault, we're very focused on trying to get people's records into a digital form and then make them commonly available, not only to the institutions in health care, but to the patients themselves.


"So, we're clearly proponents of increasing investment in that area. I think it's a little too early to tell how the stimulus money per se will play out in that, but anything that tends to accelerate the efforts to get more doctors and their offices into electronic record keeping will be good for Microsoft in our aspirations, whether in the hospital, clinic or public environment, in just making more data available that we can put into harness there."


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