The Irishman shaping the future of work

6 Jan 2011

Few people realise it is Irishman PJ Hough at the helm of the global $20bn Microsoft Office business.

Most people in the working world today could nearly chart their entire working life through the various versions of Microsoft Office that have existed since circa 1990. As a productivity tool, most of us rely on it to get through the working day; whether writing a Word document, doing accounts on Excel or making PowerPoint presentations, it’s part of the vernacular of business the world over.

But few people in Ireland are actually aware it is an Irishman living in Seattle who is a driving force behind the technology and who is spearheading its arrival into the cloud as Office 365, on Windows Phone 7 and enabling unified communications via Lync.

PJ Hough’s background

PJ Hough arrived in the US on a Donnelly Visa and has been working on Microsoft Office products since 1994. As a corporate vice-president of Microsoft he is responsible for the Microsoft Office system in terms of the planning, design, research, engineering and creation of Office.

Before leaving Irish shores to base himself at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters, Hough spent eight years at Digital Equipment Corporation in Ireland in a number of engineering and consulting roles.

Few also realise the pivotal role that Microsoft’s 1,200-strong Dublin workforce plays in building Office. The software giant’s European Development Centre in Sandyford has the mammoth task of localising and globalising Office for more than 500 million users worldwide. Last year, Microsoft opened a $1bn data centre in Dublin that will handle all of Microsoft’s EMEA cloud services, including Hotmail and Office 365.

Hough joined Microsoft at a pivotal time in the company’s development. “I joined the company at an exciting time before Windows 95 and Office 95 and I often think of that as a big turning point in the history of the PC and personal productivity. So the first version of Office that I fully worked on was Office 97 and I’ve worked on all the versions since then in various roles in the Office team.”

When Hough joined the Office team, the internet was still being called the ‘information superhighway’, and the computing world was all about the desktop PC. Laptops were only getting started and the notion of smartphones and tablet PCs, which we take for granted today, were the stuff of science fiction.

“If you go back to the original foundation of Microsoft, the vision was to put a PC on every desk. Our job was to put the computing power where people needed it and that was a very big aspiration at the time; if you think back, it seemed like a challenge to get a PC to every desk. We now have a PC on every desk and more than one in many homes, as well.

“As much as it is about software, Office is also a promise to the customer about the thing they need to be productive and it is available to them where they need it, when they need it and whatever form they need it in.

“That means we have to evolve the software to put it on your phone, put it in the cloud, put it in SharePoint, to help people collaborate and share.

“Gone are the days that any one of us considers ourselves productive when we’re working on our own in an isolated way on a PC. Productivity today is all about being connected, sharing, collaborating. Actually the amount of time it takes to produce high quality has gone down and the speed we have to do it has accelerated.”

Microsoft’s work today

While Microsoft has a job of work to do in catching up with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android smartphones – a collaboration with Nokia is rumoured – its Windows Phone 7 technology is raising eyebrows and all the more so because of its seamless integration with Office technology.

“My current Windows 7 Phone on all dimensions is more powerful than the hardware required to run Office 97 on the desktop – if you think about the storage capability, screen resolution, colour depth and even accounting for difference in instruction set, the processing power of that device exceeds what’s required to run Office 97.

“To me just that is a dramatic shift in the hardware platform. As part of that ecosystem we are constantly serving it and reacting to it as much as we are defining what we think is the future of productivity and SharePoint and Exchange connectivity, and Lync connectivity into the Office client. This includes the proliferation of clients across different platforms and devices, whether it’s the browser, the Macintosh, phone or the desktop PC itself.

“The second point is the nature of collaboration has changed and will continue to change.

“We see a couple of key trends. One of them is when I think back to the early time at Microsoft, and before that when I worked here in Ireland at Digital, the notion of producing great, high-quality documents before sharing them with anybody was the normal work practice – you kind of finished your work before sharing with anybody else.

“But more and more we are seeing customers willing to share partial ideas, to invite collaboration into the process, to have an IM beside a document, to video chat with someone while collaborating on a PowerPoint to do a budget review over a Lync conversation and have multiple people collaborating simultaneously. The more that changes, it actually creates a need for us to adapt the toolset and to think about how we map the capabilities of Office to the new work practices and new ways of getting work done.”

Companies’ structure may change

Hough foresees significant changes in the structure of companies and the relationship they have with other businesses. “There used to be a common infrastructure where everyone logged into the same email system or the same servers, but we now see the need to have more internet and cloud-facing technologies as people use that as the hub around which they integrate with partners, vendors and suppliers and other people in their environment.

“On many fronts the hardware is changing, the pattern of how people collaborate and share is changing and the nature of the enterprise is changing and all three of them require Office to have a point of view of how we are going to adapt the software to meet those needs and lead those activities in the next generation. They all have potential to yield productivity gains for all of us.”

I ask Hough about Office 365 – effectively Office products like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and SharePoint available over the internet – and new technologies like Lync that combine people’s ways of communicating – video conferencing, instant messaging and social networking – into the Office world. I put it to him that unified communications could lead to a significant step change in people’s working lives with the same impact that email had when it arrived in the Nineties workplace.

“One of the things we see is a shift in the use of technology by the younger generation, particularly around communicating relative to email versus more instant tools. You mention video but chat, voice and video all sit in the same, more casual interactive free form communication. Not that we think of email being completely structured, but it is more so than those other technologies.

“The jury is still out on whether there is a significant enough difference that will cause the new workforce entrants to pilot and pioneer their adoption.”

Working better and smarter

John McCormack of IT firm Hibernia Evros suggests there is a change occurring, driven primarily by the arrival of Office 365 and Lync. “The fact that through my email system I could listen to a voice mail without using my phone. I was able to work from home fully from a mobile phone, I had access to internet, emails, IP telephony – everything I need I can do from kitchen table through a small four-inch device. This liberates you to work better and smarter. Work is no longer a place you go, it’s a thing you do.”

Hough says the software development groups in Dublin are at the coalface of the future working world and are already hard at work on future versions of Office.

“They deliver the product in 100 languages around the world and build engineering capability in tools we use to support the operations and management of the Office business, not just from an engineering point of view but even as we think about 365 and data centres. It’s quite a comprehensive set of things.

“That portfolio of capabilities means there are many new things that will emerge as opportunities for Microsoft, and the team in Dublin is well positioned to take on new opportunities and challenges.

“Because of the array of talent here and the tenure of the team and the access to the talent pipe in Ireland, I think there’s a great opportunity for us to do great work and continue to be a big contributor to Microsoft,” Hough said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years