Alumni Interviews – Howe Gu
At the Epicentre of How Technology Will Change the Future
Interview by Diana Kuprel
Howe Gu earned an Honours BSc at the University of Toronto with a double major in Human Biology and Economics and a minor in East Asian Studies, followed by an MBA at the University of British Columbia. After several years working for Deloitte and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he joined Microsoft as a Director of Global Digital Advisory Services. In Spring 2018, he shared his experiences with students as part of a career panel for the Department of Economics.
A&S: Explain what your new position at Microsoft entails.
HG: It’s a brand-new team. Our role is to help companies compete better in the marketplace by better leveraging both mature and disruptive technologies, such as cloud, AI, blockchain and Internet of Things. Canadian companies are generally risk averse, with conservative cultures. There is little incentive to evolve and innovate. They tend to wait until the big global companies have piloted and tested these technologies before they start exploring them for themselves. At the same time, technology companies like Microsoft are good at product development and innovation, but not necessarily at business solutions. As the speed of innovation and disruption accelerates, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how companies operate and innovate, as well as how tech companies support this change. The global digital team at Microsoft takes leading global trends, best practices and experiences, and combines them with Microsoft’s leading technical expertise to help our clients define a realistic road map to solve tomorrow’s business challenges. It’s effectively a bridge between technology and business.
A&S: Why are you so passionate about this space?
HG: Technology is the future—the single biggest contributor to how society will evolve going forward. Whether in the political, economic, social or environmental arena, technology has the ability to shape how we solve problems. How we choose to harness the capabilities of technology will determine the fate of humanity. We talk a lot about AI these days, with a split jury on whether it will be the downfall or renaissance of humankind. I believe it could go either way. Companies such as Microsoft need to work with government, educational institutions and business to take a responsible, ethical and forward-looking view on AI, to ensure it is used to enhance and enrich society. This is why I am excited about this space and about my role. I am at the epicenter of how technology will shape the future.
A&S: Is this the career you had in mind when you started university?
HG: No. My parents wanted me to become a doctor—that was the traditional path. But when I got to university, I had many opportunities to engage in multidisciplinary thinking, and that changed my path. Economics allowed me to think bigger. It allowed me to discover the complexity and vastness of how society operates, and how government, business and institutions work together to shape our lives. It opened my mind to a much bigger picture, and sparked a desire to pursue a career path that will allow me to have a broader societal impact.
A&S: You’ve done some lecturing in business schools. Which aspects of your university education helped prepare you for this?
HG: I’ve been a guest lecturer in China and in Canada on business strategy and global business operations. My economics background enables me to understand how economics impacts business decisions and vice versa. Being able to comprehend and draw linkages between macro and micro economics allows us to better understand why things are happening and how we can better prepare ourselves to succeed amidst turbulence and disruption.
A&S: You volunteer with a couple of organizations. What motivates you?
HG: The causes I’m passionate about are economic empowerment, sustainability and education. I came to Canada from China at the age of six—my dad, who is a doctor now in Vancouver, came to do research, and decided to stay in order to give me and my sister a better upbringing. I understand the challenges children face when there are socio-economic, language and/or cultural barriers. I volunteer with Daytrippers because I wanted to be part of an organization that addresses those challenges. We raise money to fund school trips for grade 1-8 students in lower-income, marginalized or remote areas, so that they too can have learning opportunities beyond the classroom and books.
A&S: You also volunteer in your capacity as a consultant.
HG: As an advisor to Endeavor, I guide project teams that provide pro bono consulting services to non-profit organizations, offering them critical professional services that they could not otherwise afford. These grassroots organizations often provide critical support and services to new immigrants and other marginalized communities, giving them opportunities to succeed and thrive in Canada. I focus on helping these organizations adapt to today’s digital world and better harness tools and technologies that can enhance their services. Technology can help non-profits and charities expand their community engagement and awareness, communications, internal operations, and both internal and external collaboration. Technology can be a powerful enabler for these organizations, freeing up resources to focus on their core mission and expand the breadth and depth of their impact.
A&S: What do we, as a society, need to be thinking about to capitalize on the digital space? What are the challenges facing society, and what do we need to consider in overcoming them?
HG: In order to capitalize on the potential benefit of digital tools and technology, we need to democratize access to technology, as well as the skills and expertise that are needed to drive continuous innovation. We often talk about the increasing wealth gap leading to social unrest, but I believe a much bigger challenge looms in our near future: the technology skill gap will have a direct impact on people’s access to opportunities, businesses’ competitiveness, and society’s ability to govern. Across the globe, we are seeing the impact of populist and protectionist ideology as states and nations fight to protect the jobs and livelihoods of those who feel marginalized in today’s digital world. They feel they do not have the skills and experience to compete for today’s jobs, and they are seeing jobs in traditional blue-collar (or even white-collar) industries disappear.
Yet the demand for jobs in such areas as cybersecurity, social media, cloud computing, AI, and so forth can hardly be satisfied. This requires governments, educational institutions and business to work together in bridging these skill gaps, especially as people are living longer and, in many countries, are forced to work beyond the traditional retirement age. In the workplace, especially in Canada, we are seeing the most diverse workforces ever—not only across gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion, but also generationally. With Gen Z entering the workforce in 2017, we now see up to five generations working side by side, each with differing values, expectations and readiness to work effectively in a digital age.
Cloud technology is now in full force, being adopted across all industry and government sectors. That brings a fundamentally different concept to change and change management—a concept that is native to Gen Z and late millennials, but foreign to Gen X and Baby Boomers. The ability to adapt to continuous change and harness new tools and technology for competitive advantage will be one of the most critical challenges for all employers. Beyond our Canadian borders, access to not only skills but technology itself will be critical to ensure global stability and balance. Just like ships and canons in the colonial era, steam engines and factories in the industrial era, digital technology—quantum computing is just around the corner—will determine a nation state’s position and role on the global stage. To ensure prosperity and social stability, we need to ensure modern technology is accessible. Advanced nation states must think about welfare not just in terms of basic staples such as food and clean water, but also how to help developing states continue to grow and develop in the digital era.
A&S: You coach and guide young people who are interested in doing consulting work. What should this new generation of students and graduates be thinking about in terms of future opportunities?
HG: The consulting industry is being disrupted just like any other industry. As technology takes centre stage as the single most important factor impacting government and business, we must help organizations understand not just how to tap into these opportunities but how to do so in an ethical and responsible way. For students, it is critical to take a broader and more global view of your role as a consultant. The more you’re able to understand how the world works and the interdependent linkages between different actors and institutions, the better you’re able to help organizations navigate the complexities of their environment. As much as my role focuses on digital transformation, I must also be keenly aware of geopolitical, economic and social trends that shape how businesses invest and how governments form their policies and regulations. I would say to students: travel more, take more elective courses in areas you know nothing about, identify mentors and draw on their experiences, try different internships in different fields, learn to code, and keep feeding your sense of curiosity!