Leaders’ Insights: Aisling Curtis, Microsoft Ireland

12 Jan 2017

Aisling Curtis, Microsoft Ireland. Image: Microsoft

Aisling Curtis is the small and medium solutions and partners (SMSP) director at Microsoft Ireland.

Aisling Curtis believes in the future of digital transformation as a serious opportunity for growth. As the fourth industrial revolution continues to flourish, she aims to create a smooth transition for clients and partners to welcome new advances.

Curtis also believes in the importance of diversity in STEM sectors, stating that initiatives like coding workshops and computer science education should be introduced at primary level, to align with the burgeoning tech industry.

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m the commercial director for small and medium corporate business and partners in Microsoft Ireland. I see my role as creating the right environment for customers, partners and teams to be successful. I am a member of the leadership team in Microsoft Ireland, on the IMI council and part of the Upward movement (developing young female leaders).

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I focus my working life to have the greatest impact on the business I possibly can. This means I worry less about being in the office, but rather, ensure I am in the place where I can do the best for customers, partners, our team and the wider community. I focus on how I can help others have impact too.

I feel a great sense of freedom in how I do my role – easier of course when you can work anywhere, thanks to Office 365 and Skype for Business. These solutions keep me connected and productive wherever I am.

I also make sure I’m paying attention to where I get my energy from and ensure I have balance in my life. This means making sure I have time with my family, walking, horse riding – making time for all the passions in my life. It’s these simple things that are really important to me.

‘Take a longer-term perspective and work to a plan to achieve it, whilst all the time keeping your nerve’

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

I believe that the biggest challenge is, of course, an opportunity; how we maximise digital transformation opportunities for our customers and partners. If you look at companies like Airbnb and Uber, they did not exist six years ago and did not come from within the accommodation or transport sector, and now they are household names. It took Nike 14 years to reach sales of $100m through its retail network. Under Armour achieved the same in eight years.

Recently, the Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, TD, published a report on e-commerce in Ireland. The key insight for me is that Irish consumers now spend €850,000 per hour, which is up by 20pc from four years ago. Yet according to the IEDR, 80pc of Irish SMBs cannot process online transactions.

We are on a mission to educate and help our customers and our partners evolve to meet the demands of digital transformation. We work very closely with them to show that digital transformation is an all-encompassing opportunity to empower employees to be more productive, and to harness the power of social and customer data to make better decisions more quickly.

What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Digital transformation is our biggest opportunity. The government’s report on the macroeconomic impact of the internet showed that the digital economy contributed 6pc of gross domestic product (GDP), or the equivalent of €12.3bn. The report concluded that this would expand to €21.4bn, or 8pc of GDP, by 2020.

Some experts are calling digital transformation the fourth industrial revolution. We recently did some research in the UK that showed that most business leaders felt their existing business models would disappear in the next two years.

We want to show that digital transformation is not just about the technology alone. It is about fundamental change to business models and processes, and I feel Microsoft is almost uniquely placed to help organisations maximise on their evolution.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I started my career in financial services, gaining some work experience before going to university. I was always interested in technology, which led me to enjoy an exciting international career in telecommunications with both Irish and global opportunities; leading business, consumer, strategic and operational teams across emerging and mature markets.

My career in technology has also provided me with opportunities to mentor and be a mentee, and to sit on boards in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands and South Africa.

‘One of the main things I’ve gained, particularly as a female leader working in the technology industry, is the confidence to know when to take the next step’

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I think it was getting comfortable in a role. One of the main things I’ve gained, particularly as a female leader working in the technology industry, is the confidence to know when to take the next step. I have had great roles and great support over the years, but sometimes there is a risk of becoming complacent and plateauing. A good friend of mine said to me, ‘You need to know when to back yourself’ and he was right; it was the right moment when you don’t just feel, but know it’s the right next step to make.

I needed to progress and get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to do something that was more challenging, to be part of a company that was having real impact in the market, helping customers’ businesses transform, and at the same time, undergoing significant internal cultural transformation.

So, I think knowing when to ‘back yourself’ and make that leap for what you want is a critical lesson. Take a longer-term perspective and work to a plan to achieve it, whilst all the time keeping your nerve.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I believe it is my role to create a positive environment for my team to grow and develop, and to set the tone which helps achieve great results for our customers, while also supporting the wider community.

I spend time understanding the motivations and aspirations of team members, their values and how it relates to their behaviours; and ultimately helps them understand each other better so they can work effectively together.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

I would love to see more female representation in STEM. Microsoft recently produced a study that shows that girls in Ireland become interested in STEM subjects at age 11, with interest beginning to fall at age 15.  This highlights the importance of engaging girls in primary school.

I am very passionate about this, and initiatives like Hour of Code and CoderDojo offer great opportunities to get both girls and boys exposed to problem solving and critical thinking at an early age. It also shows them that coding is fun.

I welcome Minister Bruton’s announcement that computer science [will be] part of the school curriculum in secondary schools from 2019. However, as the research shows, we also need to see coding introduced in primary schools too.

The research found that:

  • 54pc of girls can imagine themselves pursuing a career in one of the STEM disciplines
  • 53pc of those polled believe there are encouraging role models out there for them
  • However, 30pc of Irish students don’t understand how STEM is relevant to their lives
  • Girls reject the idea that boys have a natural aptitude and superior skills in STEM, with 60pc of Irish girls disagreeing with the jibe, ‘I will never be as good in STEM subjects as boys’
  • 50pc of girls feel that there are encouraging role models out there
  • However, 44pc stated that when they picture a scientist, engineer or mathematician, they still picture a man first.

Encouragement and mentorship are key. The insights gained from this research can help educators, policymakers and companies like Microsoft understand the challenges young Irish women face when it comes to pursuing STEM subjects, and take practical steps to overcome them.

‘Initiatives like Hour of Code and CoderDojo offer great opportunities to get both girls and boys exposed to problem solving and critical thinking at an early age’

The research revealed six statistically important drivers which impact girls’ interest in STEM subjects, listed in order of importance:

  1. Dispelling gender stereotypes in STEM careers
  2. Gaining practical experiences and hands-on exercises in STEM subjects
  3. Peer approval
  4. Having a father who encourages them to pursue STEM
  5. Having teachers who encourage them to pursue STEM
  6. Feeling more confident that men and women are treated equally in STEM careers

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I usually have two books on the go at a time.

On the theme of digital transformation, I am reading Digital or Death by Dominic Mazzone. It takes a snappy, real-world approach with enough information and energy to get you inspired to innovate. If there was a book that could actually increase your drive and expand the creative part of your brain, this is the one.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is a simple idea by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, based on decades of research on achievement and success – a simple idea that makes all the difference. Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education and sports. If you can get past a lot of the sports examples that are a little generalised at the front, the principle that you can learn/do anything is very powerful and I think it can be very impactful for all our children to be aware of these principles. It changes the way you look at the world.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I would be lost without my phone and my Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I love being able to easily access my mail and my files, to be able to take my notes and then not have to worry about storage/security when I know everything is safe in the cloud, even my photos. I wouldn’t be without Skype for Business because it means I can be more balanced in how I do my job and lets me focus on what is important for my customers; being connected to them and my teams, rather than connected to the desk.