Interview with Chuck Edward, Head of Global Talent Acquisition at Microsoft

Chuck Edwards, Head of Global Talent Acquisition at Microsoft, discusses the importance of growth-oriented company culture in the technology sector.

BT (Mallory Williamson): Our magazine is really about adapting to change, and within the talent-search world, one of the biggest changes we’re seeing is automation. To what degree does Microsoft use automation in its hiring process, and is this something you predict will change further in the future? In your view, what are the perks of automated hiring, and what parts of picking the perfect employees require a human touch?

Chuck Edward: The tricky part [of AI] is that you allow for the right amount of objectivity, judgement, and ethics because AI is great at taking data and becoming predictive, but if your data isn’t clean, systematized, or predictable, there’s a lot of processes in which AI won’t be able to help anyone. This notion of “AI for good” also comes into play. Currently, the areas where we use it the most would be administrative processes and areas that we believe we can continue to simplify, but we don’t take it all the way to making hiring decisions. This is going to continue to evolve, and we’re going to continue to evaluate how automation will help our recruiting process, so we’ll experiment and decide where it will help.

BT: At Microsoft, is there a place for students with non-STEM academic training, but who are moved by Microsoft’s mission and by a desire to work with technology? If so, how might they contribute to the company’s larger goals?

CE: I like this question a lot because the question in and of itself is the answer. We’re looking for people that are excited by what technology can help with, to speak back to the mission of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. We’re leveraging technology to empower others, so we want employees and students who are intrigued by the possibilities of how to make others better and how technology enables that. As long as somebody has an aptitude to learn and problem solve and make others better with technology, we’re definitely interested in talking with them. They don’t need to be an expert in [technology], but they need to be very curious for what the possibilities are. Once you open it up to the discussion of people that are open to the possibilities and are curious, then our pool of candidates expands.

BT: What sorts of perspectives and backgrounds are critically underrepresented in the technology sector? How has Microsoft worked to ameliorate such deficits?

CE: For us, it’s that delicate balance between hiring people that know things and hiring people that are willing to learn. A big part of our culture is pivoting off of learners and not “know-ers.” If we become too focused on hiring people who only know specific technologies and only know current ways of doing things, it will limit us in the future. What might be underrepresented is having enough learners: people who are resilient, flexible, and continue to grow. We have to hire for future versatility rather than a current status quo.

Whenever you’re in the technology sector, obviously there are a lot of people who will go to the space of “Is your workforce diverse and inclusive enough?” or “Are you looking at the makeup of your workforce?” We’re looking at that very closely and making sure that our workforce matches our customer base and matches the people who use Microsoft.

BT: You’ve talked about the culture of learners and how Microsoft wants to expand its user base. During your time, have you seen large scale shifts in Microsoft’s company culture, and do you think the types of workers that Microsoft seeks, or seek Microsoft, have changed over the years?

CE: In the last five years, we’ve taken a cultural refresh approach to Microsoft. We’ve looked at the type of culture we require to achieve our mission. It turns out, the idea of a growth mindset is the strongest underpinning of our culture. It’s a mindset that’s okay with not knowing everything, and taking risks because there’s no judgement towards failure; we’re leaning on each other for support and risk-taking. Diversity and inclusion is another pillar of our culture, with specific emphasis on inclusion. We talk about customer obsession, truly wanting to dive in and understand our customers’ needs. We talk about One Microsoft: how do we align our products and services across our entire company, so our customers can have an end-to-end experience with a lot of connective tissue. If we do all of those things well, then we know we’ll make a difference. There’s a point I’d like to make upfront about how we’re hiring people that I didn’t mention earlier, and that’s the point of screening people in. You were asking questions about non-traditional profiles--what if I’m a person that’s not an expert in STEM? My answer is that we’re trying to screen people in for the possibilities, not screen them out just because they missed one or two boxes on our list. We’re trying to build a mantra, or energy, on looking at the different possibilities.

BT: As certain professions shift to being largely AI-driven, how can today’s college students best position themselves to succeed in a machine-dominated industry?

We won’t become a machine-dominated industry without the need for human touch. You’re still going to need empathy, judgement, compassion— that won’t go away

CE: I’m going to call out curiosity again. Every student should seek the opportunity to understand the world around them, in different industries, technologies, populations, and customer bases. That’s the beauty of being in school--you’re in the mindset of learning already. Just be really expansive in where your curiosity takes you. All of the technology has to work within the construct of the context--what’s happening in the business models to workforces to societies. That, plus curiosity, helps you list out the world’s problems that people want to help with. I would just say that students should let their minds run free on exploration mode. With all that said and done, we won’t become a machine-dominated industry without the need for human touch. You’re still going to need empathy, judgement, compassion--that won’t go away. Have a broad learning approach so you’re very well-versed and versatile.

BT: Given the rise of automation that has taken place in the computing industry, reskilling is a large part of the future for companies like Microsoft. To what degree is reskilling possible, and when is it most and least practical?

CE: I think reskilling is not only possible, but critical. Given how exponential the change in technology can be, you could fall behind if you don’t upskill. Reskill is a term you’ll commonly hear; upskill is this idea of adding on to what you currently have on the base--it’s a little more positive. We all need to look at how we’re going to upskill. Companies that can upskill their workforces in critical mass will stay very relevant. AI is the best current example. We just released an announcement called Microsoft AI Business School, an online course, in which our executives open up a dialogue across industries and across the world on how to transform your business and processes to be more ready for AI. It’s a collective way of upskilling the workforce right now. It’s possible if you start by being very specific on what skills you need to upskill. The world is being broken down into a skills economy in which you can list all the skills that somebody has, all the skills that they need to get to, and you can look at the delta. If you can’t break it down to the specificity of what your business needs, it’s hard to know where to upskill. Step one is identifying critical skills and identifying the delta. Then, in a systematic way, provide the right culture in which people want to learn and pick up more skills, and in the end, you know you’ll get the ROI out from that.

If you can’t break it down to the specificity of what your business needs, it’s hard to know where to upskill

BT: What are the best qualities a young job applicant can have that don’t show up on a résumé? How, if at all, has this changed with time, and how might it continue to evolve?

CE: It’s a hard question because this is the tricky part. My answer would be, hopefully, there are a lot of ways that you can list your qualities on your resume. Nowadays, recruiters and companies are searching resumes based off keywords, search functionalities, and other tools. Words matter a lot; semantics matter a lot. I think the key is to have a very well-rounded resume. You’re trying to have leadership show up, how did you progress, how have you made others better, how have you created a followership, how have you collaborated, how are you involved in different activities. A well-rounded curious thinker who can lead and have others follow is important. If you add all those things up, you really start to stand out. And I’d say this advice is true regardless of where someone is in his or her career.

In terms of what has changed over time, it’s learning agility. Years ago, it was literally about all you knew, and you were trying to impress people with a long list of accomplishments on what you’ve done. Now it’s about the idea of how will you get things done, how you convey confidence, how you will continue to be a problem solver, to learn, and continue on the journey. It’s a little bit more nuanced, and you’re inviting others to see your progress versus you proving that you know everything. Learning agility is the biggest change that I’ve seen in the last several years.

BT: What advice would you give a college student today?

CE: Be comfortable being uncomfortable. The majority of your learning will come from your openness to taking risks, trying things that you’re not good at, giving yourself grace to admit you’re not good at it, but leaning into that because you will come out successfully on the other side. This will make you stronger. Whether you’re a year out, or 25 years out, you’re still going to be confronted with these uncomfortable moments. As soon as you learn to embrace that, that’s how you get better.

BT: What’s the best advice you received as you began your career?

CE: There are two things I remember from one of my early managers. One of these was related to what I said: being okay with being scared. Not being afraid of having butterflies in your stomach and leaning into being scared—she was encouraging me to do that, and I appreciated it. The other part is never being afraid to hire somebody who’s better than you. They’re going to make you better. I never forgot that.

BT: Is there anything you’d like to add?

CE: The energy around AI and machine learning is on everybody’s mind, but if there’s good news in that, it only can work if the human-enabled part of the world still works. In other words, it only matters if you have the right culture, the right judgment, the right assets, and machines for good and AI for good. The beauty of having the right culture is that AI will take you to the next place. At Microsoft, we talk about that: spend the right time on the people side of the business and then technology will enable it. It’s not in the reverse order.