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TEDxFargo Preview: What Microsoft President Brad Smith Thinks About The Future Of Work In North Dakota

Brad Smith and Taya Spelhaug from Microsoft

Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography and special to Fargo INC!

By Nate Mickelberg and TEDxFargo team*
*This article was produced as a partnership between Fargo INC! and TEDxFargo.

The TEDxFargo team is crafting our community’s ninth TED event, which will be held at the end of this month on July 26 at the Fargo Civic Center. The day will be a chance for our community to share ideas and experiences as the team brings another world-class event to Fargo.

There will be local, national, and global thought leaders who will be sharing their ideas on the main stage to help solve challenges and create possibilities. The idea is to empower people to be solutions-oriented, believing that ideas can change the way the world works. So come listen to new ideas, find a topic you’re passionate about and then take action to enable those ideas. And ask yourself a simple question, “How will I go forth?”

Here, you can meet and get to know the 24 speakers a little better.

Brad Smith and Taya Spelhaug from Microsoft

Brad Smith, President, Microsoft and Taya Spelhaug, TechSpark Manager (North Dakota), Microsoft

TEDxFargo Talk Preview

Microsoft President Brad Smith will be speaking about how technology is changing the nature of work and jobs in North Dakota — not only the opportunities this creates but also the challenges and fundamental need for digital skills.

“(My talk) will go back to the importance of the technology gaps we’re seeing and the work that we’re excited about doing in North Dakota as part of TechSpark (see right) to address and help to close some of the technology gaps in the state,” Smith says. “Whenever we’re doing something with TechSpark in North Dakota, we’re doing it first and foremost for North Dakota, but we’re also thinking more broadly all the time. Anything we can do in North Dakota is also an opportunity to lead the rest of the country by taking a new step forward that others can learn from.”

Why was North Dakota chosen as one of the six TechSpark sites last year, and what were some of the criteria for choosing the other five?

Brad Smith: We were looking for communities where we felt we could partner deeply with people, communities that had a civic spirit, and communities that were doing interesting things or where there was the potential to do interesting things. We wanted communities that were different from each other because obviously if we chose six communities that all, more or less, were the same, we would learn less.

Frankly, (North Dakota) was the easiest choice of the six, in part because of Microsoft’s long-standing presence (in Fargo). We just have such a good relationship with the community. We were also excited about Doug Burgum’s election as governor. We had confidence that Doug, as governor, would bring a real focus on innovation that would focus on both changes in government and changes in technology. And since that’s a part of what TechSpark is about, that was something that was very attractive for us.


What Is Microsoft TechSpark?

TechSpark is a national civic program aimed at introducing digital initiatives designed to foster greater economic opportunity and job creation in six communities across the United States.

Microsoft’s focus with TechSpark is to do more work outside the country’s major metropolitan centers. By partnering closely with leaders and communities on the ground, they hope to learn more about regional challenges and how technology can help better contribute to local economic growth. The program was announced in Fargo in fall 2017.


What are some of the ways you plan to leverage Microsoft’s existing presence in Fargo to implement TechSpark programs and initiatives statewide?

Smith: I think our employee presence is such a huge resource, in terms of volunteerism and the like. When we think about Fargo, there are two or three dimensions that I think are really interesting. You can think about it as starting with our campus.

But there’s a second dimension, which is really reaching out across the state as a whole. I think North Dakota gives us an opportunity to really experiment with and learn how to connect with communities where there might be a very small high school, as a good example. That’s one of the really interesting characteristics of public education in North Dakota is the large number of small high schools. And we haven’t mastered, by any stretch of the imagination, how to bring computer science and coding education into schools of that size. So that’s a second thing I would point to.

“This … will exacerbate every other problem that people in America care about.”

The third thing I think is really interesting in North Dakota is the connection of the universities and the military. So between (North Dakota State University), (University of North Dakota), and the whole college system, if you think about where technology is going with drones, what drones mean for agriculture, and what drones mean for the Air Force, we have this unique combination of things we can pursue.

Our Fargo campus is kind of unique because it’s a microcosm of everything Microsoft does. We have software development; we have outside sales; we have inside sales; we have people who process the pay of Microsoft employees. It gives us a very diverse employee workforce from which to draw.

Let me turn to Taya to talk a little about how she’s thinking about how we create opportunities for our (Fargo) employees.

Taya Spelhaug

Microsoft TechSpark Manager Taya Spelhaug with a few of the 450 kids who attended the Kindred (North Dakota) “Hour of Code” event.

Taya Spelhaug: When you talk about having to recruit from outside (the state), one thing that helps people stay engaged and want to stay in our community is volunteering and making them feel at home. That’s one thing that we’re really trying to capitalize on. I think the people on our campus are hungry to volunteer in the community, especially for a purpose like computer science.

We had about 15 volunteers who went out to Kindred (North Dakota) to do an “Hour of Code” for 450 kids. That was fantastic to have that many volunteers mobilized. We’re also doing some great things training the trainers, so we can have more people who can go out to all these communities and small schools that Brad’s talking about. We also have an amazing STEM committee on campus that’s really looking at how we get more kids involved in STEM education.


Speaker Bio

Brad Smith is Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer. In his role, Smith is responsible for the company’s corporate, external, and legal affairs and oversees a team of more than 1,400 business, legal and corporate affairs professionals working in more than 50 countries. In this role, he leads the company’s work on a number of critical issues, including cybersecurity, digital privacy, public policy and government affairs, intellectual property, accessibility, philanthropy and environmental sustainability. As president, he has also spearheaded programs and initiatives aimed at increasing economic development and opportunity and ensuring that all of society benefits from technology’s advances.


What are some examples of local partnerships?

Spelhaug: We have a national partnership with 4-H. We have an amazing group that we call Changemakers, which (consists of) student leaders who are going out to different nonprofits. Right now, they’re working with CHARISM in the after-school program to do coding and some amazing, fun activities.

We’ll be doing a partnership with United Way. We’re investing in their workforce development initiative fairly heavily, which has a lot of great synergy with our career pathways pillar.

We’ve been working with NDSU on a STEM alliance. We’ve also worked with some robotics leagues in and around Fargo-Moorhead.

Jeremiah Project is another one that we’ve been investing in to help get their women technology when they’re going to school.

This is a significant investment from Microsoft as a company, financially and otherwise. Why is it so important, despite the less-than-immediate ROI?

Smith: It’s really interesting. We started down this path more than a year ago, and we felt it was important at the time. And I think today, we feel it’s even more important than it was when we started.

It’s easy for all of us who live in the United States to think about the various divisions in the country. We feel like it’s a divided nation in some ways. There are all kinds of ways to define those divisions. We talk about different political parties; we talk about urban and rural communities; we talk about gender; we talk about race; we talk about income.

But the deeper we’re getting into this, the more we’re finding there’s an important technology divide that’s really contributing to the other divides we face as a nation. We’ve become a nation of haves and have-nots when it comes to access to digital skill and something like broadband. And we feel that broadband really is the electricity of the 21st century.

North Dakota is a prime opportunity to think about how to bring digital skills to smaller schools and rural communities.

When you look at something like digital skills, what we’re seeing is that jobs increasingly have more and more digital content — not just computer science or coding jobs but whether you’re talking about agriculture or manufacturing or just about any line of work. We’re also finding that jobs that have more digital content pay more money than jobs that don’t. So we need to be asking ourselves: Who’s getting access to these digital skills? And what we’re finding is that the kids today in America who have access to coding and computer science are more urban, more male and more white than the country as a whole.

And we have to find a way to close this divide, if we’re going to take the kinds of steps the country needs to come back together. North Dakota, as I mentioned before, is a prime opportunity to think about how to bring these digital skills to smaller schools and rural communities. I think it’s also an important place for us to make sure we’re bringing digital skills to young women so that they’re benefitting as well. Right now, less than 25 percent of students nationally who are enrolling in computer science classes in high school are young women.

We then need to think about this not only from the perspective of what it means for schools and youth; we need to think about it throughout people’s lifetimes. Because if we look to the future and we see how artificial intelligence is going to continue to change work, we’re going to need to ensure that more and more people learn these new skills throughout their lifetime.

“I think almost everywhere you look in a place like Fargo, you can see something that’s going to be changed by artificial intelligence.”

When we think about what drones will do for the future of agriculture, it means there’s a new set of skills people who work on farms are going to want to master. And it’s not just the skills that go into how you operate a drone; that might be the easiest part. It’s: How do you make effective use of the data, the photographic imagery and the other information drones are producing? At a time when it’s easy for people in the tech sector to think about the West Coast or places like Boston and New York, we keenly appreciate, because of our long-standing presence in Fargo, what a dynamic place the Fargo-Moorhead community is.

We appreciate how much potential there is to bring this technology to a place like North Dakota as a whole, and we appreciate what it will mean if we fail. It’s not just if we fail as one company, but if we fail as a society. This is going to be something that will exacerbate every other problem that people in America worry about. So we’re very passionate about what we believe we can keep learning, and it makes it more and more important for us to keep experimenting and then keep sharing with other parts of the country what we find is working in North Dakota.

Brad Smith from Microsoft and Governor Doug Burgum

Microsoft President Brad Smith (left) with North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (right) at the launch of Microsoft’s TechSpark initiative in fall 2017.

You brought up AI. We know it’s going to touch all aspects of our lives sooner than we think, but what do you see as some of the business-specific applications for it?

Smith: It’s a fascinating topic because I think AI is going to touch every profession and every area of business and the economy. It’s already starting to change healthcare in very substantial ways. In some ways, it’s having an impact more at the research level. AI is instrumental in the work that’s being done in immunotherapy, and it’s going to help us cure cancer. I think that’s increasingly clear.

AI is going to change how doctors and nurses practice medicine in hospitals and clinics; it’s going to change the work that is done to diagnose and treat patients. We’re all patients at various times, in terms of both accessing readily our healthcare records and relying on a combination of human beings, medical science, and artificial intelligence for advice and direction on what we do.

AI is starting to impact the practice of law. It’s going to impact especially, I think, the work that paralegals do, in terms of being able to go out and find data. One of the great breakthroughs we’ll probably see over the next decade is the ability of computers to read and comprehend.

And when you think about the ability of computers to read so much faster than humans, the ability to go out and do research and answer questions is actually a non-trivial piece of what is involved in the practice of law. When we think about finance and the accounting profession — not just people who work at large accounting firms but people who are in the financial part of any business — we’re going to see a combination of AI and blockchain absolutely transform a lot of financial work. A lot of what we rely on today for the maintenance of accounting ledgers is likely to be automated.

If you’re a business, you probably have people who drive goods or people to other places. And while it’s a little unclear at this stage how quickly we’ll see autonomous vehicles, we’re certainly already seeing AI become part of vehicles. Whether it’s helping a driver drive more safely by sounding an alert that someone is walking across the street or eventually automating more completely the driving of trucks or cars or farm machinery. That’s something that’s been evolving for a period of time.

I think almost everywhere you look in a place like Fargo, you can see something that’s going to be changed by artificial intelligence. I think, then, the question on everybody’s mind is: What’s that going to mean for me? What’s it going to mean for my job? What does it mean for what I do next? And from our perspective, while existing jobs are going to be impacted, new jobs are going to be created.

What’s going on in the tech world right now that most people aren’t paying attention to but should be?

Smith: I’d say two things.

One is on the positive side. Augmented reality is a force that’s going to continue to change how people use technology. You saw with Pokémon Go this whole notion of how augmented reality works — namely, superimposing something on an image of the real world. That, I think, is a snowball moving down a hill that is continuing to gain massive speed and that is going to impact more and more areas of work. And it impacts and incorporates and is based on AI, but it’s also distinct from it.

On the challenge side, I think cybersecurity is going to continue to grow in importance. It’s become an even bigger issue over the last year, and I think it’s something that’s a broad concern to just about every business, government, and nonprofit, or at least it should be. We in the tech sector need to continue to lead the way through our investments to strengthen security, but it’s ultimately something that every user of computing needs to pay attention to.

A European regulation, the General Data Protection Regulation, is having a worldwide impact and is changing how tech companies work around the world. I think it will ultimately have an impact on expectations for privacy in the United States.


What is Microsoft AI for Earth?

AI for Earth puts Microsoft’s cloud and AI tools in the hands of those working to solve global environmental challenges.

Through grants that provide access to cloud and AI tools, opportunities for education and training on AI, and investments in innovative, scalable solutions, AI for Earth works to advance sustainability across the globe. Learn more at Microsoft.com/En-US/AIForEarth.

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Written by Nate Mickelberg

Nate Mickelberg is the editor of Fargo INC! He holds his master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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